Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Reordering the NT, post Thomas, ACIM, DU

Especially since the appearance on the market of The Disappearance of the Universe, by Gary R. Renard, (affectionately known as "DU") a precedent has been set to take a fresh look at the traditions concerning Jesus. It has been gradually recognized that the sayings Gospels such as the Gospel of Thomas (GoT) are indeed the oldest form of Gospel, often with the least amount of corruption. Theology has been struggling to come to grips with this ever since, and so are many reading groups on the gospel according to Thomas.
(Note, clicking on the title of this article will connect you to a site listing the NT Apocrypha, http://www.comparative-religion.com/christianity/apocrypha/)

Having followed some on-line discussions in particular it is clear how much people struggle with the Thomas material, in particular if they come from a Christian background. Once people begin to surmise the non-dualistic teachings reflected in this material, however, it starts to make sense, and allow a fairly coherent understanding. What is not yet clearly understood is the upshot of all this, namely the unequivocal conclusion that Jesus was not a Christian. Nor did he teach any of the major tenets of Christianity, those that led to its breaking off from Judaism and becoming a separate religion onto itself.

DU is an exploration of the Thomas connection in light of ACIM, and it shows the inner consistency of the teaching between ACIM and GoT. In the process it sets an important precedent for scholarship in this area, namely it establishes the connection between ACIM and GoT on the basis of the consistency of content, not form. This includes pointing out that once we understand the teachings, it is easy which sayings in Thomas are original, and which are somehow compromised, be it they are corrupted, or just plain additions from a different origin. Biblical scholarship has been stymied by attempting to deal with spiritual teachings on the basis of form, because of the naturally Newtonian orientation of the scholarly tradition, which rests solidly on the assumption of the primacy of material facts, dates, times, places etc. As students of A Course in Miracles, however; we necessarily see spirit as the source and the world as the effect, and we therefore must recognize the limits of this form of scholarship. And it becomes evident that traditional Biblical scholarship may be able to do some groundwork, which is useful, although it can never do justice to the material unless one knows and understands the teaching framework that Jesus represents, which involves the experience of learning to follow him in one's life, not mere book learning or learned reflection. Hence the disparaging remarks about the "scribes and Pharisees" etc. in the Gospel stories. They are the ones who elevate form over content, the effect of which is to kill the spirit, reflecting the fact that their faithfulness is to the ego's thought system instead of to the Holy Spirit.

In as much as GoT does not contain all those theological tenets that made Christianity what it is (vicarious salvation, physical second coming, Eucharist, emphasis on the crucifixion and the body, etc.) the connection GoT - ACIM further serves to "out" the contradictory thought system of Paul, which did make Christianity what it is. In the way the Course addresses and reinterprets all of the key theological concepts in Christianity, it practices very specifically what it preaches, namely to question every value that we hold, in the process holding up Christian theology as the teaching example of how the ego system works.

Others have analyzed carefully how Paul's distortions came about, the most conclusive presentation being Hyam Maccoby's Paul and the Invention of Christianity, which is a breath of fresh air in this area. The line of interpretation of Jesus which Paul founded was to become dominant, and was an important example of how the ego sets out to reinterpret Jesus and give him a role in the dream, not least to surreptitiously give meaning to the dream with the expectation of the second coming, which in and of itself is rendered meaningless (and harmless to the ego) by dint of its reinterpretation as a (future!) physical event: the ego's purpose in the first place, i.e. to reaffirm the separation at all cost. In other words, this bit of theology spiritualizes the dream, which was Paul's real mission.

The deeper we get into all of this, the more it seems desirable to disassemble and reassemble our NT in this light. The order of the books as it has come down puts Matthew first, to establish the theological tenets of the "New Covenant," establishing Christian teachings as somehow validated by the Jewish tradition, but also superior to it, superseding it. Next comes Mark, which should have really been first since it is the oldest of the canonical Gospels, and the least adulterated by Pauline influence. Luke and Acts were originally one book, with the clear objective of validating Paul's ministry, and his interpretations as well as the "Acts" which led to Christianity's becoming what it became. John is a different kettle of fish altogether, written from a much more spiritual standpoint, and much later, grappling with the concept of Jesus in a way that does not always easily harmonize with the synoptics.

Obviously once we realize that the distinction of "canonical" versus "apocryphal" was determined only by who the winners were in the battle for recognition amongst early Christians, we might now be tempted to go back and attempt a new ordering of the NT material. I could suggest the following as at least a first attempt:

Thomas, Mark, Matthew, Luke & Acts, John, Acts of Thomas, Andrew, and John, The Gospels of Peter, Philip, and Mary, Dialogue of the Savior, The Narrative of Joseph of Arimathea, The Pauline Corpus, Revelation. Next to that, our Old Testament should also definitely include the Apocrypha, as indeed a few Bible editions do today. This is only a "quick and dirty" first attempt. While there are several wonderful collections in the market place today which attempt to supplement the missing (suppressed) materials, the ones that stand out are Willis Barnstone's The Other Bible, James Robinson's The Nag Hammadi Library, Bart D. Ehrman's Lost Scriptures, but most particularly the lovely and well organized editions of Marvin Meyer, starting with his edition of the Gospel of Thomas (this edition is favored by Gary Renard), and his collections The Gospels of Mary, and The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus. For those readers who are attracted to these materials, the best guidance is to respect the obvious historical contexts, which can be very helpful, but to follow one's inner guidance to separate truth from fiction. Having a foundation in the teachings of ACIM, it becomes indeed obvious very quickly how to separate the chaff from the wheat.

Finally on the strength of the argument of inner consistency we might include the Valentinian Gospel of Truth, and in the appendix we might be tempted to include Henry J. van Dyke's "The Fourth Wise Man," as well as at least some of Selma Lagerlöf's collection of "Christ Legends." Both of these last two are part of a living tradition that straddled the ages.

The reason to include Paul at all is because we cannot deny the fact that he had a great influence, not to mention he is the prime example of how the ego system reinterprets Jesus. Therefore he is an important teacher, as much as are all the other apostles, demonstrating for us the vagaries of their own attempts to come to grips with the meaning of Jesus in their lives. In that regard their successes and failures are helpful to us all in the many moments when we are tempted to repeat their mistakes. The spirit of it is, like Ken Wapnick has said about the practice of ACIM, that the point of being a good Course student is to be a lousy Course student but forgive yourself for it. What the apostles modeled for us, is ourselves in our attempts to follow Jesus, complete with falling down and getting up again. Their greates value to us as teachers comes from allowing us to see ourselves in them and forgiving them, and ourselves through them.

As an alternative to the above, we might propose a beginners' Gospel, consisting of the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mark, and I might recommend with it the modern rendering of Mark by Regina Dawn Akers as a parallel study text. This trio would allow us to form a profound and fresh understanding of Jesus.

If we survey these materials in the right spirit, what comes across to us more and more is the very consistency of Jesus' teachings across time and space, as well as his presence in different forms at different times. Somehow it makes his presence more present to realize that he is and always was outside the time/space hologram, as our Internal Teacher, helping us to find our way back home.

Copyright (c) 2005, Rogier F. van Vlissingen. All rights reserved.
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