Jesus fought wars and was a revolutionary, according to one author and researcher into the life of the Historical Jesus. Other 20th Century scholars decided he was a philosopher, rabbi, healer and even a magician.
But ultimately, the Historical Jesus is an enigma, according to a Princeton University professor and author who spoke on the Gnostic gospel of Thomas to an audience of Virginia Episcopalians March 13-14.
“Our sources are not answering questions about the historical Jesus,” Elaine Pagels asserted to a capacity audience of mostly retirement-age clergy and laity.
Pagels’ offered two presentations at Episcopal Church of the Holy Cross in Dunn Loring, Virginia on Thursday, March 13 and Friday, March 14. The Thursday evening presentation was entitled “The Many Faces of Jesus,” and looked at five 20th century views of the Historical Jesus. The Friday lecture on the Gnostic gospel of Thomas, intended for clergy, was co-sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.
The lectures follow a 2013 adult education series at Holy Cross when Jesus Seminar co-founder Dominic Crossan spoke to clergy and laity.
An Unknowable Jesus?
The Princeton University professor outlined five views of the historic Jesus: as teacher/philosopher, rabbi, magician, miracle worker/healer and a revolutionary against Rome.
“We have to fill it [Jesus’ life] in with historic imagination,” Pagels quoted German Theologian Albert Schweitzer.
Pagels explained the teacher/philosopher view of Jesus as the “liberal social critic” advocated by Crossan. The view of Jesus as a charismatic rabbi was credited to British-Hungarian scholar Géza Vermes. Jesus as magician was linked to Columbia University professor Morton Smith, while author Stevan L. Davies suggested Jesus had shaman-like powers and asserted that many accounts in the Gospels suggest psychosomatic healings brought about by Jesus’ power of suggestion. Lastly, Anglican Clergyman S. G. F. Brandon was credited for his 1967 book Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Political Factor in Primitive Christianity and for articulating the view of Jesus as political revolutionary.
Pagels noted that, more recently, Muslim author Reza Aslan put forth a similar view to Brandon in his own book, Zealot, and suggested that Aslan’s work was essentially a repackaged version of Brandon’s similarly-titled volume. Aslan, Vermes and Schweitzer all eventually departed Christianity.
Pagels contended that the gospel of Thomas was intended for those already familiar with a public account of Jesus’ life. Paired with John’s gospel, which the Princeton academic asserted was written in the same tradition, Thomas was written so that readers would have a “new, deeper meaning” “to be read complementarily” with John’s message of salvation.
Pagels speculated that Jesus was “probably illiterate” but memorized scripture the way Jewish boys memorize the Torah. It was “very likely” he quoted them all the time.
The Earliest Teaching of Jesus?
Speaking to two dozen area clergy on Friday morning, Pagels assessed that Thomas shares a common tradition with the synoptic gospels and the gospel of John. The author may have had access to Q, a speculated source material for the synoptic gospels.
Introducing the history of Thomas, Pagels explained that in the year 367 the Archbishop of Alexandria, Egypt effectively banned the book alongside other extra-canonical volumes, relaying to monks “these books will lead you astray.”
A series of 51 books were removed from an Egyptian monastery, hidden in jars and placed in burial caves, where they were discovered in the 1940s. The volumes were ultimately made available in the 1970s, Thomas among them.
Pagels noted that Gnostics typically considered a “gloomy view of the world” and adhered to a “bizarre mythology,” but Thomas, in contrast, “is a simple list.”
“Whoever put John and Thomas together shared the same teaching tradition,” Pagels concluded.
Noting that Crossan and the Jesus Seminar assigned Thomas as the earliest teaching of Jesus, Pagels instead suggested that it was a “third stage” work combining both early elements with later traditions.
Thomas, Pagels interpreted, tells how the early Christian movement was put together and how it was trusted.
“The gospel of Thomas is a theological interpretation of Genesis,” Pagels offered, speculating that the image of God is not human form, but “divine light.”
“According to the gospel of Thomas, Jesus is the divine energy through which all things come,” Pagels explained, summarizing Thomas’ message as a light within, but hidden.
This contrast with the gospel of John was very clear, Pagels noted, in which Jesus is God’s only begotten son.
In seeking to explain the name of the book, Pagels charged that the name “Thomas” was not intended to be interpreted literally, but as Jesus’ “spiritual twin” – with Jesus as brother and family member.
Quoting from Thomas verse 13, Pagels read: “Jesus said, ‘I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended.’ And he took him, and withdrew, and spoke three saying to him. When Jesus came back to his companions, they asked him, ‘what did Jesus say to you?’ Thomas said to them, ‘If I tell you even one of the saying he spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me. Then fire will come forth from the rocks and devour you.’”
Pagels also quoted Thomas verse 108, “Jesus said ‘Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me; I myself shall become that person, and the mysteries will be revealed to him.’”
Positing what message Jesus would have communicated solely to Thomas, Pagels pointed to scholars of oral tradition who determined it could be “secret teaching” for those able to receive it. Noting that some monastics withheld certain knowledge until the age of 35, the Princeton scholar relayed the possibility of Jesus’ message to Thomas “that you have access to divine light as Jesus did.”
Concluding her presentation, Pagels also read from the end of Thomas, which she acknowledged many would find jarring.
Verse 114 reads: “Simon Peter said to them, ‘Make Mary leave us, for females are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said, ‘Look, I shall guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.’”
Pagels noted that some scholars speculated the verse might have been added later to the text, citing a tone inconsistent with many of the book’s earlier sayings.