Baker Academic

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Jesus in apocryphal Gospels I: The Gospel of Philip

It is well known among those who know well that the so-called apocryphal gospels tend to polarize. Within a classification system of “orthodoxy and heresy”, they were traditionally marginalized in scholarship. New Testament scholars and church historians tended to repeat ancient polemics of the church fathers and heresiologists even unconsciously, claiming that these writings developed far away from the Jesus movement, that they include “alien Gnostic, philosophical elements”  and do not represent true Christianity. Recently, however, the pendulum has swung in the other direction. Now voices are raised that argue for the particular (historical) value of writings like the Gospel according to Thomas, Philip, or Mary: They are thought to store knowledge of the early Jesus movement that had been suppressed by the majority Church, as for example the initial significance of women in early Christianity and the role of Jesus as a timeless teacher of wisdom sayings.

Scholarship, it seems, has no relaxed attitude towards apocryphal Gospels. In my upcoming blog entries, I will outline some portrayals of Jesus drawn from this tradition. I start with the Gospel of Philip (GPhil), whose existence is well known to a broad public since Dan Brown’s famous book “The Da Vinci Code” from 2003. 

Dan Brown formed his provocative thesis that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene on the basis of the GPhil, which is dated between the 2nd and 4th century and survived only in a Coptic translation of an original Greek text in Nag Hammadi Codex II. The manuscript has some lacunae. One of the most famous damaged parts of early Christian manuscripts is, in fact, found in this text. On page 63.34, it reads:   “[The Soter] loved Mary Magdalene more than [all] the disciples and [used to] kiss her [often] on her… “ Instead of the term “lips” or “mouth”, there is a lacuna in the text, stimulating the fantasy of modern interpreters. The original term could also have been “forehead”. Thus, the passage where Jesus is said to often have kissed Mary on her lips, is actually based on a modern conjecture. Moreover, the Gospel of Philip argues for a spiritual, not a sexual procreation. “Kissing” could have been understood as a way to transmit spiritual power and to privilege individual disciples with special knowledge.

What I have mentioned so far has been much discussed and might be considered old hat. Less well known might be the fact that, according to the GPhil, Jesus had an earthly and a heavenly father. On page 55.23–36, it is said: the Lord [would] not [have] said, ‘My [Father who is in] heaven’, unless he had another father, but he would simply have said, ‘My Father.’ Here the author of the GPhil probably quotes the Gospel of Matthew and interprets it in a particular way. Jesus was conceived in the normal way and his earthly body was composed of mortal flesh and blood. Only later, he received an immortal, “spiritual body” at his baptism in the river Jordan: Jesus revealed [at the Jo]rdan the [fullness of the kingdom] of heaven. ... The Father of all things joined with the Virgin who came down, and a fire illuminated him. On that day he revealed the great bridal chamber. It was because of this that his body came into being.  (GPhil 70.34–71.8).
The unusual interpretation of Jesus’ baptism in 70.34–71.8 can be understood to suggest that Jesus experienced at his baptism a fundamental and far-reaching transformation. Thus the GPhil has transferred the motifs of the union of the Virgin and the “Father of the all things” and of bodily origins from the synoptic birth stories with their miraculous elements to the baptism account. The baptism of Jesus is depicted as his second and authentic birth, where Jesus receives a new body.

Against the background of the Gospels that later became canonical, these Christological features appear rather strange to modern readers. They reveal a completely different view on both the bodily, earthly life and a new, spiritual existence. Therefore, the GPhil should not be interpreted as a text that contains old, forgotten or even suppressed secrets of Jesus’ earthly life. This text is based on a conceptual world that varies widely from that of the Canonical Gospels. Assessing the text from the perspective of the four Gospels would do it no justice.

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