Know What Is In Your Sight
Friday, January 31, 2014
THE BIRTH OF
(Part 2 of 3)
Francis William Bessler
BEYOND BELIEF & AGORA
Before I continue, let me take a moment to recommend some reading and some watching - a book and a movie. The book is BEYOND BELIEF by a wonderful scholar of Christian history by the name of Elaine Pagels, certainly one of my favorite authors and just a little younger than me. Elaine was born on Feb. 13th, 1943. I was born on Dec. 3rd, 1941. Elaine has helped me to look at history with a different pair of glasses. Unlike me, who is more a speculative philosopher than a scholar, Elaine is what I am not - a scholar.
From the inside flap of her book, BEYOND BELIEF, published in 2003: Elaine Pagels earned a B.A. in history and an M.A. in classical studies at Stanford, and holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University. She is the author of Adam, Eve, and the Serpent; The Origin of Satan; and The Gnostic Gospels, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award. She is currently the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, and she lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with her husband and children.
Though I am fond of three books I have by Elaine Pagels, namely: THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS (1979), BEYOND BELIEF (2003), and REVELATIONS (2012), - BEYOND BELIEF is my favorite of hers and is also one of my favorite books of all time. I read it quite often - though each time I read it, it seems like I am reading it for the first time. I think that is because Elaine is a scholar and has an in depth knowledge of what she writes about.
BEYOND BELIEF is a fantastic book that reviews the history of the early Christian Church - including the subject of this essay - The Birth of the BIBLE. Elaine reviews that history like no other that I have read - and has helped me considerably in forming my own views about life and truth in general. Elaine still considers herself to be traditionally Christian - in spite of her misgivings about it as offered in her writings. On the other hand, I have long realized that I am not traditionally Christian any more - though, of course, I once was - as I have admitted in many of my writings. BEYOND BELIEF also deals with my favorite gospel - THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS. Again, I highly recommend it - and am so very proud to do so.
Now, for the movie I want to recommend. It is called AGORA - a 2 hr. movie, available on DVD, produced, I believe, in 2008, but only released in 2010. It was produced, I think, in various locations in Europe and Africa by Spanish producers. What a movie! I do not recall it being featured in theatres at all, but if you want to look at what may have happened in Alexandria, Egypt in the 4th Century after THE BIBLE was born and Christianity became a “favored” religion, this is a movie to see. It stars Rachel Weisz as a pagan philosopher librarian by the name of Hypatia who is caught up with newly liberated Christians taking over the Alexandrian library known as the Agora - and literally destroying any vintage of previous paganism - and literally murdering Jews and Pagans in the process - all in the name of Jesus, of course. It is truly amazing what people do in the name of Jesus, who preached kindness to all, not revenge when it suits one’s arrogance.
I realize that the film maker, Alejandro Amenabar, probably took some liberties in making this film, but it seems to fit what I have read about the destruction of a great historical library in Alexandria, Egypt in the 4th Century - after Christians were liberated to join the governing class - or classes - of the Roman Empire. Rather than take any time to detail the movie, I encourage anyone who cares about history and justice to watch it on their own - and take from it what you will.
Brawling Among Pagans
As a kid, I looked at “those pagans” of history as just plain ignorant. Of course, as a traditional Christian in my youth, I believed what I was taught - that we “Christians” and we “Jews” were much better than “those pagans” of the past. I heard about those Romans acting like “their gods” were to be adored; and I thought that I was so much better than they were. I did not worship “many gods.” I worshipped One God; and so it was and is with most of my fellow Christians. They do not think they should be classed among “those pagans” of the past because they are of an entirely different cut of humanity.
But when I review what happened in the 4th Century when THE BIBLE was born, I see things completely differently now. Now I realize that if I had been around in the 4th Century, I probably would have been one of “those pagans.” The main difference would have been that I would have worshipped “one god” and the rest of the Roman Empire would have attended to “many gods.” Reduce many to one, however, and you are still left with a “pagan god” - in referencing the “god of the Jews and Christians.”
In truth, how are Christians and Jews and Pagans different when all three worship a god outside themselves? How is it any different to worship the Jewish god, Jehovah, than it is to worship any of those other pagan gods? All of the gods of the past have required that their subjects adore them - and sacrifice in their names - including the god, Jehovah. As I see it now, worshipping a god outside of me is “being pagan.”
In a way, I think the great conflict of the 4th Century was a debate on whether Christianity should continue with paganism - and its practices of idolatry and sacrifice - or branch out to a “more reasonable” belief in truly ONE GOD. Pagans believed in adoring many gods, but those gods were “outside” of them. Jews believed in “one god,” but that god was also “outside” of them. In my way of thinking now, the true ONE GOD cannot be subject to being “outside” of anyone. The true ONE GOD is Infinite and Must be present in All.
Looking back at that long forgotten and totally pivotal 4th Century, I think humanity was growing to begin to accept the wrongs of the past - or was growing to realize that the past had been wrong - in terms of belief in an “outside” god; but many within Christianity were not ready for such a realization and they fought to preserve the past. Stalwart books like THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS and THE GOSPEL OF MARY MAGDALENE were a beginning. I do believe they contained some error simply because they were written by human beings subject to erroneous perception, but there was much that was - and is - wise in them too. Perhaps they were far ahead of their time - and maybe our time too. Why? Because they dared to try and define life as it probably is - an expression of a God Within.
But that was heresy to many Christians of the 4th Century - and even to this day. Many of the bishops of the days of Constantine did not want to accept that maybe they had been wrong - and that maybe they were basically the same as all other pagans.
Why did Pagan Emperor Constantine see Christianity as a religion to be tolerated - and even to be sponsored and supported? Why? Because he was smart enough to see that both his Roman Paganism and Christianity followed the same practices. Both worshipped gods outside of themselves. So, how were they different? It was just that the Christians had this god they named Jesus Christ and the Romans had their gods, among which was one called Caesar. The main difference between Caesar and Jesus Christ, according to one like Constantine, was that they began at different times. That’s all. Both were gods that had once lived as real human beings. The Christians worshipped their god, Jesus Christ, and the Romans worshipped their gods, among which was Caesar - of Julius Caesar fame - who had lived some 50 years or so before Jesus Christ.
The Jews were a bit more difficult, however, because their god, Jehovah, had never lived before as a human being. The Jews demanded that their god not be sculpted and be given a face; but all of the other gods had a face - and many had images sculpted to represent them. I think that at least partly what set the Jews apart from all the other pagans, is that their god - for the lack of a sculpted statue in its image - could not be “torn down” as all the other pagan gods could be. Perhaps the Jews were a league ahead of other pagans in demanding that no image be made of Jehovah. No image - no way to destroy a representation of Jehovah; but what gives Jehovah away as just one of the many “pagan gods” is the practice of sacrifice - a practice of offering something or someone to a god outside yourself in order to appease that god; and such an offering could very well include oneself. All the pagan gods required sacrifice. That was an essential aspect of their being worshipped; and in that, the Jews - and subsequent Christians - were no different. Jehovah still “requires” sacrifice; and sacrifice is the mainstay of all pagan religions.
Know What Is In Your Sight!
Gospel wise, what was the heresy - or at least, one heresy - that angered many of the “authoritarian” Christian bishops of the 4th Century? Why were they so opposed to gospels like THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS?
As it see it now, it was because THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS challenged the notion that we should believe without seeing. In one - or more - of the embraced gospels of THE BIBLE, it is stated that Jesus offered that “Blessed are those who believe, though they have not seen.” In fact, that is probably why John took such pains to call Thomas a “doubting Thomas.” He was trying to put down the whole notion - that the Jesus of Thomas embraced - that we should insist on evidence in order to believe what is claimed.
In Elaine Pagels’ opinion, THE GOSPEL OF JOHN was probably written after THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS to try and refute what Thomas had written; and that does make a lot of sense to me. Unlike the previous gospel writers, Mark, Matthew, and Luke - John went through a lot of trouble to specifically denounce Thomas. It is very likely that if Thomas had never written his gospel, John would not have bothered with one of his own.
Personally, I think it goes much deeper than that. I think that all of the gospels embraced in THE BIBLE were written after THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS. I get that feeling because THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS only offers “Jesus said” statements and does not try to offer a narrative about Jesus. In my opinion - though Elaine Pagels may disagree - a “primitive” gospel is more than likely the “first” to be written. Writers tend to expand on what is primitive rather than writers tend to reduce from what is exaggerated. Since THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS is by far the most “primitive” of all the gospels, it was probably written first - not last - as so many scholars believe.
From Mark through John, it seems as if they were starting with some statement that is found in THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS - and framing and/or refuting that statement the way they wanted - beginning with the notion of faith without knowledge. As I see it now, that is probably the starting point of Thomas - and it is the beginning of it being refuted as well.
“Blessed are those who believe though they have not seen” is the standard of all the gospels but Thomas. “Know what is in thy sight - and believe accordingly” is the starting point of THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS. Which way was right? Which way is right? What do you think? Which way would you follow?
In June of 325 A.D., almost 1700 years ago, the bishops assembled in Nicaea, Turkey, chose the “Blessed are those who believe though they have not seen” gospels - and banned perhaps the most authentic gospel of all - THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS; but I think that decision was in alignment with the idea of Jehovah. Being Jews - much more than was Thomas, who was probably more Greek than Jew, if Jew at all, - Jehovah was probably prime in the minds of gospel writers, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. Accordingly, Thomas may not have had to “fit” Jesus in with Jehovah - whereas the others had to fit Jesus in with Jehovah just to stay faithful with their faith. Thus, to counter Thomas who may not have been concerned with Jewish scripture or prophecy, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John felt they had to write stories about Jesus to fit him in with Jewish scripture. Thus, in Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, stories had to be written - and probably mostly fabricated - “so that scripture could be fulfilled.”
For example, Matthew may have had “fulfilling scripture” in mind when he wrote the story of the conception and birth of Jesus. Scripture - Jewish scripture - was likely the main focus of his attention when he wrote his story. It was foretold that the Jewish Messiah would be born of a virgin in a town called Bethlehem. Thus Matthew wrote his story to “fulfill the scripture.” I mean it could have happened that way. Since the Jewish Messiah was supposed to be born of a virgin in Bethlehem, so be it. According to the scriptures it was done.
But was Jesus really born of a virgin - and born in Bethlehem? Maybe, maybe not. Who knows? None of us were there. So how can we know? From a philosopher’s point of view, however, or at least from “this philosopher’s” point of view, one should ask, Why? Why should Jesus have been born of a virgin? What does that really imply?
I think it implies that Matthew saw natural conception and natural birth as somehow not acceptable for a holy one. If Jesus was indeed holy, then he could not have been born in a natural way; but from my point of view, I see natural conception and natural birth as fantastic and miraculous - and from my point of view, I would think that anyone who is truly holy would not want to bypass such a beautiful entrance into the world. If Jesus was “perfect” as Matthew might claim, why in the world would he choose to bypass a natural entrance? Not seeing why he would want to bypass a natural beginning, I would conclude that it is very unlikely that a “perfect one” would choose to be born of a virgin. Accordingly, I would dismiss the story of Jesus being born from a virgin - even if he was born in Bethlehem. Just because something is written does not mean it had to have happened; and if it did not have to happen, it probably didn’t.
Now skip to the end of the life of Jesus. Matthew - and the others - claim that Jesus was crucified. Alright, that is reasonable. Lots of people were crucified. So there is no reason to object to that happening to Jesus. It is also claimed that Jesus rose from the dead in full body form after he was crucified. Why would he do that? From “this philosopher’s” point of view, death is wonderful as the end of a wonderful natural life. We all die. So why would one of us act like death is not how it is supposed to be and bypass whatever happens with any soul after they die - or after one’s body dies?
You see, I see death as a natural wonder and lovely ending; but if I were to see death in some other light, then I might think that “death should be overridden” - and thus I should be able to “triumph over death.” If Jesus was perfect, as is claimed, and I should view death as perhaps a consequence of sin, then I would have to have Jesus triumphing over death by being born again - in full body form.
But did Jesus really rise from the dead? From my “philosophical viewpoint,” I would say it would prove nothing to do so. So, why do so? Then ponder what they claimed happened after he rose from the dead - and it makes no sense - to a philosopher like me.
Alright, say that Jesus rose from the dead in full body form. If he did that to “prove” he had some kind of “power over death,” why would he “ascend into heaven” without walking about the public and testifying that he had “triumphed over death”? I mean it makes no sense that Jesus would have risen from the dead just to appear to a few of his close friends - and then just vanish into the air - in a matter of a few days, not a few years. Why in the world would he do that? Wouldn’t it have been much more realistic and sensible to stick around as a risen human being to prove that he had the power he claimed he had? Why go through the trouble of dying just to be resurrected - if no one knew about it?
But someone did know about it - you might argue. Some of his friends were allowed to meet him and talk with him and sup with him before he “ascended into heaven.” Again, I would ask why Jesus would not have bothered to appear to some of the main citizens of Jerusalem - like maybe a rabbi in the Jewish temple? That would have been very sensible - in this philosopher’s opinion. Why would he have not done that if had really been a “Jewish Messiah”? After all, if he came for the sake of the Jews, why did he not stick around and break bread with some of them - regular Jews, that is?
And if Jesus came to save us all, as traditional Christians claim, why did he not appear to other than his friends? Consider how impressive it would have been to one like Pontius Pilate who had sentenced Jesus to death if Jesus would have paid a call on Pontius Pilate after he rose from the dead? Why not? It really makes no sense that if Jesus really did rise from the dead that he would not have presented proof of his resurrection to the world at large.
But he did not stick around. Did he? I guess the Jews did not need a messiah after all - and Jesus decided to return to where he had come from - heaven. So off he went, waving to Peter and John and some of the others as he left, telling them to take over his duties as a Jewish Messiah and get on with baptizing all they could in his name. Sorry, but that makes no sense to me. Accordingly, I would have to conclude that it probably did not happen the way Mark through John claimed it did.
What did the Apostles, Thomas and Mary, have to say about the end of Jesus? Thomas did not say anything - probably because he wrote his gospel while Jesus was still alive and would not have had it in mind to comment about his passing. Mary Magdalene commented a little about it, but not much. She said that after Jesus said the last things he said, he “left them.” That’s all. No mention of where he went or how he went. Just a curt little saying - he “left them.”
Personally, I think it is somewhat reasonable to believe that Jesus “appeared” to some of his friends after his death, but probably only in “apparition” form - not in an actual body. There have been reports of people appearing after death in “apparition” form. So it is reasonable to assume that Jesus may have done that; but only temporarily. Temporary seems to be the extent of appearing after death; and anyone who does appear after death can only do so for a little time. Perhaps they have no power as souls to “stick around” for long, but maybe they can “stick around” for a short time - and then have to “disappear” for lack of power to keep appearing.
I am reminded of a story that actually happened - or it is claimed it happened. In the early ‘70s, a big commercial airliner went down in the Everglades of Florida. A flight engineer, by the name of Dom Comolli - or something close to that - was one of the many fatalities. After his death, he appeared to many - briefly - but he appeared, and even spoke once. The “Ghost of Flight 401” felt responsible for the crash and was volunteering to supervise so that no other flights for that particular airline would suffer the same fate.
By the way, a movie was produced in the ‘80s called THE GHOST OF FLIGHT 401 that starred Ernest Borgnine as Dom Comolli that somewhat documents this story. If interested, you might try to track it down. More than likely, it is available in DVD format, but that is only a guess.
Be that as it may, though we do not understand how, I think we do survive death - or our souls survive death of body - and now and then, we can manifest ourselves in some paranormal form - or pseudo physical form. Some would call such a phenomenon an “apparition”; and that is quite possibly what happened with Jesus after his death. He may have appeared in an apparition, giving those who saw him an impression that he had “returned from the dead.”
In the case of the early ‘70s, Dom Comolli appeared to others of his airline, warning them of some faulty part that might lead to another crash, but not for long. Perhaps a soul can manifest itself in apparition form only for some limited period of time - and then it can no longer muster the energy to appear. Perhaps that which happened to Dom Comolli also happened to Jesus.
If so, that would explain why some thought they saw Jesus in some “resurrected form”; but only for some brief period of time; but again, appearing in apparition form has its limitations; or so it seems. If Jesus did appear to some of his friends after his death, however, like Dom Comolli appeared to some of his friends after his death, that might explain why Jesus could not stay around any more than Dom Comolli could stay around; and that would also explain why it seemed that when Jesus disappeared, it appeared that he was “disappearing into heaven.” It is something to consider, I think.
Anyway, from my philosophical point of view, rising from the dead would only mean something significant if one considers death as somehow unfortunate - that is, death in itself. But if one considers death as only part of a “perfect process of life and death,” then one would have no reason to consider it necessary or even useful to overcome death in some superficial way.
Personally I see death as only a transition from one life to another. All die. So why act like death is something that is like a punishment for sin - as many do. I do not die because I have sinned. I die because that is the natural way. Sin has nothing at all to do with it. I think it was Paul of Tarsus who proclaimed that “death is the wages of sin” - as if the virtuous should not have to die; but from my philosophical point of view, that is a preposterous notion. Even Jesus died. So how can anyone claim with any degree of integrity that we die because we sin. Did Jesus sin? Personally, I don’ t think so.
Of course, those who believe that sin is what causes us to have to die argue that Jesus did not sin, but he gave his life for those of us who have sinned. But why would that be? Why would someone who has not sinned have to die anyway because the rest of us have sinned? From a “philosophical point of view” - or my philosophical point of view - that would argue that virtue means nothing at all; and I certainly do not agree with that. Do you?
If we all have to die because some of us have sinned, then it is not sin that leads to death. Is it? But just look around! A squirrel is not guilty of sin. Is it? Why, then, should it have to die if death is the consequence of sin? An eagle is not guilty of sin. Is it? Why, then, should it have to die if death is the consequence of sin? A simple sunflower is not guilty of sin. Is it? Why, then, should it have to die if it has not sinned?
I think people need to think through the claims of others a lot more than they do. If something does not make sense, then admit it makes no sense; and do not follow after those who make no sense in their claims. At least, it makes sense not to do so. Right?
In conclusion, however, in essence, Thomas - or the Jesus of Thomas - was a huge challenge to the idea that some can rule others by virtue of delegated authority from an unseen God - or god. Jehovah did not want to be seen - as those who tried to rule as delegated authorities in his name claimed - and claim. Why? Because if he could not be seen, neither could he be refuted. Thus, the decision by whomever dreamed up Jehovah, keep Jehovah out of sight and without an image. Keep him hidden so that from behind the scenes, he could rule - or more correctly, others could rule in his name. The ultimate strategy: Keep them in the dark so they cannot see nothing is there.
Well, that is the way I see it now. Each of us must choose for ourselves in the end, however, and that is as it should be. Which camp of Jesus do you want to believe - and be a part of - if you want to be a part of any camp of Jesus at all?
It is truly a wonderful world in which we live - full of majesty and “without sin” - without separation from an Infinite God. We may not have all the answers about the details of it, but we can “know” that it is good simply by looking at it and being astonished at the mystery and grandeur and gallantry of it all; and then we can and should include ourselves within that mystery - and KNOW IT ALL.
And that is the way it works too. Know What Is In Your Sight - And You Will Know All. Why? Because everything that is simply continues all that was; and knowing what is, you will also KNOW WHAT WILL BE.
Or so I Believe Now!
Let me leave you with Verse 5 of my favorite gospel - THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS; but stay tuned, if you wish, for Part 3 of THE BIRTH OF THE BIBLE.
Jesus said: Know what is in thy sight, and what is hidden from thee will be revealed to thee. For there is nothing hidden that will not be manifest.
P.S. As mentioned earlier, I believe THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS was the first gospel written because it is the most primitive of all gospels - and subsequent gospel writers probably took from THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS and used sayings from that gospel while creating worlds of their own. The final statement of the above quote is an example, but I will offer another example in Part 3 of this work.
But take the quote “For there is nothing hidden that will not be manifest” from the verse above and compare with other gospels and note how it is used in those gospels. In the verse as offered above, it should be clear that Jesus is offering that “knowing what is in your sight” is a prelim for knowing what is unseen. If you know what is in your sight - in terms of worth - then you will also know what is not in your sight - again, in terms of worth - because what is unknown is only the same as what is known. In other words, that which is hidden is actually “manifested” in or by that which is. So know that which is and you will also know that which is not - or perhaps hidden from you.
Now compare that sense of the statement “For there is nothing hidden that will not be manifest” with how it is used in other gospels. In THE GOSPEL OF LUKE, Chapter 8, for example, the same statement is used to imply that no one can hide the truth at some judgment time. Luke offers in Chapter 8, Verse 17: For nothing is secret that will not be made manifest; neither anything hid that shall not be known. In other words, watch what you do because nothing that you do will be hidden at judgment time. It will all “come out in the end.” So, don’t pretend you can hide anything you do. At least that is the sense I get from the statement as used in Luke, but that is not how it is used in Thomas. Is it?
Now, let’s complete this three part series on THE BIRTH OF THE BIBLE.