Saturday, October 14, 2006

From Thomas to Jefferson, and on to The Five Gospels

Under the title of this essay the reader will find a link to the Jefferson Bible, which is now available on the web in its entirety, including some of the introductory materials. So far my favorite edition of the Jefferson Bible is the one from Beacon Press in 1989, which has an introduction by Forrest Church and an afterword by Jaroslav Pelikan. It is a pleasant edition, and fairly serviceable, but it also has some annoying inconsistencies.

To wit, in the introduction Forrest Church adduces some of the crucial correspondence in which Jefferson provided an accounting for his purpose and his method in the compilation. However, where Jeffersons purpose was clearly an attempt to hear the teachings of Jesus amidst the din of the teachings about him by Paul and those who followed, it was inevitable that he should dismiss the writings of Paul from consideration, as he did the entire Old Testament, as well as most of the rest of the New. Pelikan in his afterword addresses Jefferson's frame of mind in this regard in the context of the Enlightenment, and quotes from a choice passage about Paul in Jefferson's April 13th 1820 letter to William Short, which in the original reads as follows:

... I separate, therefore, the gold from the dross; restore to Him the former, and leave the latter to the stupidity of some, and roguery of others of His disciples. Of this band of dupes and impostors, Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus. These palpable interpolations and falsifications of His doctrines, led me to try to sift them apart. I found the work obvious and easy, and that His past composed the most beautiful morsel of morality which has been given to us by man. The syllabus is therefore of His doctrines, not all of mine. I read them as I do those of other ancient and modern moralists, with a mixture of approbation and dissent...

Regrettably, while Church does include part of this very letter in the introduction, he truncates it after "... and roguery of others of His disciples," without even indicating with an ellipsis that something was left off, and so, when you try to find the letter Pelikan quotes in the afterword, you will be at a loss for this very relevant material, unless you did as I did and turn to the Internet. Pelikan meanwhile disappoints us a bit by his seeming upset at the daring of the third US President in his editing, which seems unwarranted, since Jefferson's honest purpose was to hear the words of the teacher, without the distortions of later commentators and editors that seemed obvious to him. Other than that, this is a nice edition.

The important point of Jefferson's work and results is first and foremost that anyone who wanted to try to understand Jesus could have done what Jefferson did, and dismissed the theological and interpretive framing of the stories, focusing on the words themselves, and following their own intuition as to the consistency of his teachings. It is very lovely to see how Jefferson even notes that he does not necessarily agree with all of what he thinks Jesus said, but simply focuses on trying to hear the consistency of the material, and leaves off anything that appears spurious. And by doing so he ends up with an edition which now, two hundred years later, and with the benefit of hindsight we should call truly remarkable. One way of looking at just how remarkable it was, is to realize the very high level of correspondence with the Thomas Gospel, which would not be discovered until almost a hundred and fifty years later. And yet we now see that the Thomas Gospel has a higher level than authenticity than the canonical materials, thus indirectly vindicating Jefferson's attempt at least in large part.

Thomas Jefferson in his editing certainly did not fall for the temptation which The Jesus Seminar points out in the introduction to its publication The Five Gospels, which is a remarkable attempt to bring together in one volume the canonical gospels and Thomas, in a very lively new translation, relatively free of theological prejudice. In the introduction on what they call the seven pillars of critical Bible scholarship, they end with warning us for a temptation they describe as follows: "Beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you." (The Five Gospels, p. 5) As students of A Course In Miracles, we might see this admonition as a wonderful corollary to the various teachings in the Course which urge us to come up to Jesus' level in lieu of pulling Jesus down to our level. Christian theology has always busied itself with pulling Jesus down into the world, and explaining him in those terms, the path of spiritual growth does the opposite by listening to Jesus and letting him pull us up to his level. One specific passage in the Course stands out in this regard, in Lesson 80, Let me recognize my problems have been solved, and it goes as follows:

If you are willing to recognize your problems, you will recognize that you have no problems. 2 Your one central problem has been answered, and you have no other. 3 Therefore, you must be at peace. 4 Salvation thus depends on recognizing this one problem, and understanding that it has been solved. 5 One problem, one solution. 6 Salvation is accomplished. 7 Freedom from conflict has been given you. 8 Accept that fact, and you are ready to take your rightful place in God's plan for salvation.
Your only problem has been solved! 2 Repeat this over and over to yourself today, with gratitude and conviction. 3 You have recognized your only problem, opening the way for the Holy Spirit to give you God's answer. 4 You have laid deception aside, and seen the light of truth. 5 You have accepted salvation for yourself by bringing the problem to the answer. 6 And you can recognize the answer, because the problem has been identified.
unquote (ACIM:W-80.1-2)

Or to put it in more philosophical terms, the world's theologies are always dualistic, since they directly or indirectly make the world real, preferably explicitly by blaming God for creating it. Jesus on the other hand teaches pure non-dualism, and his teaching of forgiveness, which we now have in much greater depth in the form of A Course In Miracles, teaches us the way out.
Yet even today compromise of the Course's teachings with various attempts to still make the world real is as widespread as it was in the early days of emergent Christianity.

Meanwhile, to return to our consideration of the traditional textual material, since The Jesus Seminar did put Mark up front - an editorial revision of the New Testament which was long overdue - they might as well have put Thomas ahead of that. This is not mere form. Our reading of Mark most of all would change forever if we should read the Thomas Gospel first. The minimal Pauline varnish present in Mark, such as verbiage about the symbolism of the Eucharist, would soon chip away, and we might see a significant shift in our view of Jesus, in which the Markan account preserves a freshness that is increasingly edited out in the later Gospels.

In summary, The Five Gospels is a remarkable book indeed, and truly perhaps the best source available today to access the historical documents about Jesus. And aside from the undeniable fact of the influence of the King James Bible on the English language, and therefore a certain need to stay conversant with it if only for the sake of literary references, such as those in the Course, this might be my favorite Bible edition, right next to the little gem that is the Jefferson Bible.

Copyright, © 2006 Rogier F. van Vlissingen. All rights reserved.