Book Review: Pathetic plight of Christian scholars from Asia – N.S. Rajaram

Dr. N.S. RajaramTheology is the distinctive contribution and concern of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In Christianity it has been taken to such stratospheric heights that for an outsider at least it is hard to see what it is that keeps it afloat. In the currently fashionable interfaith dialogues, Christian scholars often begin by telling Hindus that theology is to Christianity what Vedanta is to Hinduism. Nothing could be further from the truth though gullible Hindu intellectuals are easily flattered by the comparison.” — Dr. N.S. Rajaram

Prof. R.S. SugirtharajahR.S. Sugirtharajah is a Sri Lankan Christian scholar who until recently was professor of Biblical Hermeneutics at the University of Birmingham in England. This probably makes him a hermeneutician—something like a beautician perhaps or better still a politician. For those unused to hair-splitting exercises of Biblical hermeneutics, exegeses and exegetes, it is easier to think of him as a theologian engaged in analysing interpretations of the Bible with reference to history and philosophy.

Theology is the distinctive contribution and concern of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In Christianity it has been taken to such stratospheric heights that for an outsider at least it is hard to see what it is that keeps it afloat. In the currently fashionable interfaith dialogues, Christian scholars often begin by telling Hindus that theology is to Christianity what Vedanta is to Hinduism. Nothing could be further from the truth though gullible Hindu intellectuals are easily flattered by the comparison.

Vedanta is an open-ended exploration of the meaning of the universe and our existence that acknowledges only the universal truth contained in the Vedas. Theology on the other hand is a closed system which is bounded by the text of the Bible and the dogmas of Christianity. All the resources of logic and sophistry are used to justify Christianity as the only truth. One challenges theology at one’s peril as Galileo and Giordano Bruno found out. The freedom of Vedanta often brings it close to metaphysics which explains why great physicists like Opperheimer, Heisenberg, Schroedinger, David Bohm and others were drawn to it. Theology may be hermeneutics, but it certainly has no metaphysics.

The Bible and AsiaThis background is necessary to understand what the author is trying to achieve in his sad little book. As he correctly points out Christianity is Asiatic in origin, more specifically West Asian, but “its influence in Europe and the Americas has received far more attention than its complex career in the East.” Even in India it has a longer history than in Europe beginning in the fourth century or later with the arrival of the merchant Thomas of Cana— not the mythical St. Thomas who supposedly came to Kerala in 58 AD when neither Christianity nor the Christian Bible existed. Fortunately the author is a serious scholar and does not peddle this nonsense.

Add to this the fact, which the author does not stress, the decline of Christianity in the West amounting almost to a collapse in Europe, forcing the churches to recruit Asians to fill its emptying seminaries, churches and hospitals. These could not exist without massive infusion from countries like India and the Philippines. For all practical purposes Christianity today is a third world religion. The Catholic Church at least has recognized this in electing the Argentine Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the latest Pope.

For all this Christian institutions have failed to treat Asian theologians as equals. They may be useful and even indispensable but as the author points out they are repeatedly told “only the West matters,” meaning they should toe the line set by their Western masters. By ‘Western’ they don’t mean African-American, Hispanic or anyone else but white European and American. This is racism in all but name though they dare not display such attitudes towards outsiders—to individuals and groups outside Christianity. In interfaith dialogues they make a great show of the ‘equality’ of the churches.

Dancing Jesus in the New Indian Community Bible.This is a carry-over from colonial days during which Asian and African converts and missionaries wholeheartedly cooperated with the ruling Christian powers. They are being repaid for this loyalty with contempt and ingratitude. As the author observes, in pre-colonial days the Bible was receptive to Asian sources like the Upanishads and the Lao Tzu, but European colonization of Asia and Africa changed all that:

“With the emergence of modern colonialism the Bible was introduced as an artifact of modernity in the form of the King James Bible, the ‘national Bible’ of the English people. In this incarnation, the Bible became a very European book, lost all its oriental traits, and became less Asiatic. … The imported ‘white man’s book’ was seen as a strange instrument, an entrapment to lure them away from their own traditions.” As a result, an Asian reading of the Bible is always a contrived one and not as natural as a Hindu reading of the Bhagavad Gita or a Buddhist reading of the Dhammapada.”

As a result, all that Asian servants of Christianity have earned for their decades of loyalty is life in a limbo with no independent identity except as courtiers and camp followers in an essentially colonial, even racist institution in the post-colonial world. It is to these lost souls that Bible and Asia is addressed. And this is what makes it particularly sad reading.

The author’s advice to his fellow Asian theologians is to reclaim Christianity for Asians by going back to its Hindu and Buddhist sources. Curiously he makes no mention of Gnostic sources that had at least as great an influence on the growth of Christianity as Hindu and Buddhist thought. Perhaps as an Asiatic the author finds Gnosticism to be alien while finding Hindu and Buddhist thought more congenial. Perhaps he believes other Asian Christians will share the same feeling.

Prof. Michael WitzelHow sound is his advice to claim Christianity as their own by invoking their ancestral Asian sources? Here is a pointer. For at least a century, Western Indologists have been telling Indians, Hindus in particular how to read and interpret their history and tradition by creating interpretations based on the Aryan invasion bringing Vedic ideas from Europe. When Hindu scholars contested this by pointing out contradictions from the Sarasvati River to the Harappan archaeology, Western scholars fought a fierce academic and propaganda battle until they could no longer sustain them against mounting evidence.

Will such people yield control of their Bible to Asians? Based on personal experience with scholars like Michael Witzel of Harvard it is a pipe dream. When logic and evidence failed they resorted to personal attacks. Theologians will be no better, perhaps worse.

Here is a more practical option. Instead of using Hindu and Buddhist scripture to gain control of Biblical theology, make the Gita, the Upanishads and the Dhammapada your own. There will be no opposition for they belong to everyone. Who in this day and age needs theology and dogma anyway? Why be satisfied as someone else’s courtiers and camp followers when you have the matchless philosophic treasures of your own—which you gave up in return for small gains and false promises? Why beg when you can be the owners of the richest philosophical treasures the world has ever known?

» Dr. N.S. Rajaram is a scientist, historian and contributing editor to  Folks Magazine.

Did Jesus have a wife? – Tom Holland

Karen King with 4th century Coptic papyrus

Jesus & Mary Magdalene: Husband & wife?“Some Christians, for instance, claimed that the human body, and sexuality with it, was irredeemably corrupt, while there were others who saw in the language of marriage and intercourse a metaphor for salvation. So it was, in a notorious verse from another long-lost gospel recently rediscovered in Egypt, the Gospel of Philip, that Jesus was described as kissing Mary Magdalene on the mouth.” – Tom Holland

Our sources for the ancient past are often the merest shreds and patches, and peculiarly challenging is to trace the evolution of religions. Invariably, the process by which one particular orthodoxy succeeded in establishing itself as definitive was a complex and protracted one. Then, once cemented as canonical, back stories for it would come to be written, from which any lingering sense that the religion might once have been an inchoate swirl of competing doctrines and beliefs was effectively purged. The consequence is that histories told by believers about the early centuries of their own faith tend to serve as monuments to the obliteration as well as to the preservation of the past.

Hence the excitement this week surrounding the discovery of a tiny fragment of papyrus on which, for the first time in any ancient Christian manuscript, Jesus is recorded as speaking of “my wife”. Although the provenance of this startling find is mysterious, its ultimate place of origin – presuming that it is not, as some scholars suspect, a forgery – can only have been Egypt.

This is not merely because the language of the fragment is Coptic. In Egypt, preserved in the dry and shifting sands of abandoned municipal tips, scraps of text that otherwise would have remained unknown have regularly been exhumed. Most are the equivalent of an emptied filing cabinet: bills, receipts, and the like. Occasionally more precious finds have been made: lost masterpieces of classical literature and – most revelatory of all, perhaps – heretical gospels.

AthanasiusThat these gospels had come to be defined as heretical in the first place was due to the triumph in the fourth century AD of a particular brand of state-sponsored Christianity. In 367, four decades after the formulation of the Nicaean Creed under emperor Constantine, a famously authoritarian bishop of Alexandria named Athanasius wrote to the churches under his jurisdiction. In these letters, he prescribed the 27 books that henceforward were to be considered to constitute a “New Testament”. Simultaneously, Athanasius said that all gospels not included in his canon were no longer, on any account, to be read. Among these, presumably, was the one of which the tiniest fragment has just been brought to light: the one christened by Karen King, the Harvard professor responsible for publishing it, the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.

It is certainly telling that the fragment has been dated to the fourth century: the very moment when all save the four canonical gospels of today’s New Testament were starting to be suppressed in Egypt. Even more tantalisingly, though, the original dialogue between Jesus and his disciples that it records has been dated by Professor King to the second half of the second century. That takes us back to a period when the spectrum of Christian opinion – hairesis, in Greek – was, by the later standards of post-Nicaean Christianity, bewilderingly wide. There were some Christians, for instance, who claimed that the human body, and sexuality with it, was irredeemably corrupt, while there were others who saw in the language of marriage and intercourse a metaphor for salvation. So it was, in a notorious verse from another long-lost gospel recently rediscovered in Egypt, the Gospel of Philip, that Jesus was described as kissing Mary Magdalene on the mouth. The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, it would seem, was written as a contribution to the same debate: a debate which, in due course, Christians would come to forget had ever raged.

Jesus's Wife PapyrusWhat the fragment does not do is shed any light on the marital status of the historical Jesus – let alone whether he truly had a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene. Written almost two centuries after Jesus’s birth, and at an immense ideological remove from the circumstances of his life, the notion is grist, perhaps, for Da Vinci Code fans – but not for real-life Harvard professors. What it does give us, though, is a glimpse into an otherwise occluded moment in the evolution of Christianity, and a reminder of how effectively religions have been able to manufacture for themselves, in defiance of messy reality, a streamlined and authorised past. – The Guardian, 19 Sept. 2012 

Ishwar Sharan IconEnd Note: Of course, we do not know if such a man as Jesus ever lived. The best Christian scholars have not been able to give us any proofs. And the history of the compilation of the Bible is now so well known that the Bible’s contents cannot be taken as factual. So whether Jesus had a wife — or two according to Biblical exegete and theologist Barbara Thiering – is really neither here nor there. He is described in pious tales as a rabbi and in Jewish society from ancient times till today, there is no such thing as an unmarried rabbi. But the evidence produced for Jesus’s wife — first or second we do not know — is not yet proved, and the scholars involved are feminists who may have a bone to pick with a misogynistic Church. Their perhaps unreal papyrus piece is timely evidence when there is a push to put ladies in the Roman pulpit. And there is the other angle: if Jesus had a  real wife, then he must have been a real husband too. So a failing Christian Church in a  Europe that has gone beyond belief gets an historical boon: a real historical Jesus and — never mind true believers! — a real historical wife too. As least she is historical and not hysterical. Socrates, the greater man altogether and the one we should follow, had to suffer a hysterical wife (who was also historical without need of a papyrus certificate). – Editor

See also:

Feast of St. Thomas: Fr. Francis continues to perpetuate a history fraud on the Indian people – Ishwar Sharan

Thomas & Hindu assassin

Ishwar SharanThe story of St. Thomas’s Indian sojourn exists only in the Acts of Thomas. This long religious romance was probably  written by the Syrian Gnostic poet Bardesanes about 210 CE at Edessa, Syria. Bardesanes was familiar with India and had met and discussed Indian philosophy with Buddhist monks travelling west to Alexandria. It was therefore quite natural for him to place his moral fable about Judas Thomas in India, a land from which all kinds of religious ideas emanated.” – Ishwar Sharan

Mar ThomaThe Deccan Chronicle in Chennai carried on 2 July 2012 a “mystic mantra” column called “Feast of Thomas” by Fr. Francis Gonsalves, the principle of the the Jesuit-run Vidyajyoti Theological College in New Delhi. The feast for St. Thomas is celebrated on July 3rd every year in India. Fr. Francis knows better than this writer that the story of St. Thomas in India is untrue. He also knows that prestigious Jesuit schools in Europe would never refer to the Thomas in India story without first qualifying it as a unverified Gnostic moral fable. But Fr. Francis whose ancestors were Christian converts in Goa—by force or fraud we do not know—is an Indian Jesuit under a communal compulsion to deceive his congregation and support their fanciful apostolic aspirations for India.  And there is also the politics of which his religious order is more than famous–or should we say infamous. Fr. Francis has a candidate for the Indian presidency in the person of a deracinated tribal convert called Purno Sangma. Therefore Fr. Francis must continue to perpetrate the St. Thomas in India lie as he is aware that Thomas has already claimed India for Christ and that claim may soon be realized in the person of Purno Sangma. So Fr. Francis wrote:

Francis GonsalvesI’m often asked by the people here in India and abroad, “When did Christianity come to India?” “Indian Christianity is about 2,000 years old,” I reply, adding, “Ever since St Thomas, one of Jesus’ beloved disciples, came to India.” Thus, we have the so called “St Thomas Christians” — mainly from Kerala — whose ancestors received Jesus’ “Gospel” soon after his resurrection. On July 3, Christians will celebrate the feast of Saint Thomas.

The Gospel of John records three utterances of St Thomas that give glimpses of his character. First, when Jesus desires to go to Bethany, bordering Jerusalem, the disciples try to prevent him from going since he was almost stoned there for claiming kinship with God. Thomas, however, sticks by Jesus, and says, “Let’s also go that we may die with him” (John 11:16). This shows Thomas’ courage and his commitment to Jesus.

Second, when Jesus announces his imminent death and assures his disciples that he’ll prepare a place for them, he adds, “You know the way to the place where I’m going.” Thomas answers candidly, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5). This prompts Jesus to reply, “I am the way.”

Thomas’ third utterance gives not only him, but also gifts us the appellation “doubting Thomas”. Being no pushover, Thomas asks for “proof” before he believes the unprecedented news of Jesus rising from the dead. But, on meeting the Risen Christ, he exclaims: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). These words are etched in gold over the tomb of St Thomas at the San Thome Cathedral, Chennai: a magnificent 16th-century Gothic church visited by innumerable pilgrims.

Having lived in Chennai, I cherish unforgettable moments at monuments built in memory of Apostle Thomas. I remember that morning of Sunday, December 26, 2004, when I was presiding over morning worship at San Thome Cathedral and the mighty ocean came crashing down upon Marina beach, leaving us distraught at the destruction wrought by the tsunami.

Two other churches in Chennai commemorate the Apostle: one built in 1523 atop “Saint Thomas Mount” near the airport, and, another big, circular one constructed in 1972 on “Little Mount”. The former contains the “Bleeding Cross”, believed to have been sculpted on stone by St Thomas, while the latter rests beside the cave where the Apostle prayed.

Saints are not the exclusive property of one religion. St Thomas teaches us all three things: (a) to be courageous and committed to a cause; (b) to be candid and to clarify things when in doubt; and (c) to be critical of things outside human experience; yet, also to believe in God who forever remains “The Beyond” while inspiring us to exclaim, “My Lord, my God!” in the everyday ordinariness of life.Deccan Chronicle, Chennai, 2 June 2012

There is no historical evidence to support the legend that St. Thomas, called Judas Thomas in the Acts of Thomas, ever came to India. And when we say there is no historical evidence in Western literature, we say emphatically that there is no evidence for St. Thomas or Indian Christianity in ancient Tamil literature either. Even up to the tenth century and Raja Raja Chola’s time, Tamil literature has no record of Christians or Christianity being present in the land.

The story of Thomas’s Indian sojourn exists only in the Acts of Thomas. This long religious romance was probably  written by the Syrian Gnostic poet Bardesanes about 210 CE at Edessa, Syria. Bardesanes was familiar with India and had met and discussed Indian philosophy with Buddhist monks travelling west to Alexandria. It was therefore quite natural for him to place his moral fable in India, a land from which all kinds of religious ideas emanated.

Bardesanes (154–222)Bardesanes story is centred on the the moral imperative that all Christians must lead a chaste and celibate life. In the story he has Judas Thomas, who is presented as a look-alike twin brother of Jesus, persuade a newly married royal couple not to consummate their marriage. This angers the Parthian king of the desert land where Thomas is present and he has to flee for his life to another part of the country. Here he comes into contact with another Parthian king called Gundaphorus—possibly a first century king of  Gandhara i.e. North-West Pakistan—and promises to build him a palace. Thomas cheats the king of his money but succeeds in converting him to Christianity. He then leaves Gundaphorus and concerns himself with a talking donkey and a dragon who claims to be Satan. Thomas slays the dragon but because of his interest in converting the women and girls of the area to Christianity and alienating them from family life, is called before a third Parthian king called Mazdai—Mazdai being a Zoroastrian name not a Hindu name—and ordered to leave the country. When Thomas ignores the king’s warning and converts the queen and her son, the king in exasperation at the apostle’s evil deeds orders him executed. He is then speared to death by soldiers on a royal acropolis and the body immediately taken away to Edessa.

Marco PoloThomas remained in the Parthian royal acropolis in all records until Marco Polo put his tomb on the seashore in an unnamed little town in South India. Marco, who never came to India, was repeating the stories told to him by Muslim and Syrian Christian merchants he met in Constantinople.

This is how St. Thomas got to South India. The Portuguese who knew Marco’s book Il Milione decided quite arbitrarily that Mylapore was the unnamed little town Marco was referring to—and Mylapore also had a good harbour and a great temple that could be turned into an apostle’s tomb. As they say, the rest is history—and a falsified history at that!

Though Bardesanes represents Judas Thomas as a second Christ, he does not represent him as a good man. What we gather from the story in the Acts, and what Fr. Francis and his Church neglect to tell the faithful, is that

  • Jesus was a slave trader who sold Thomas to Abbanes for thirty pieces of silver;
  • Thomas was an antisocial character who lied to his royal employer and stole money from him;
  • Thomas ill-treated women and enslaved them;
  • Thomas practised black magic and was executed for disobeying the king’s order to stop and leave the country;
  • Thomas was Jesus’s twin brother, implying that the four canonical Gospels are unreliable sources which have concealed a crucial fact, viz. that Jesus was not God’s Only Begotten Son. In fact, Jesus and Thomas were God’s twin-born sons. In other words, accepting the Thomas legend as history is equivalent to exploding the doctrinal foundation of Christianity.

San Thome CathedralEnough said about St. Thomas.

About San Thome Cathedral which houses his fake tomb—the real tomb for St. Thomas is at Ortona, Italy—it has been established by reputed Jesuit and Indian archaeologists that the church stands on the ruins of the original Kapaleeswara Shiva Temple destroyed by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. So do the churches at Little Mount and Big Mount stand on ruined Murugan and Shiva temples respectively. The “Bleeding Cross” Fr. Francis refers to and which is kept in the Portuguese church on Big Mount, has these words carved around the edge of it in Pahlavi script: “My lord Christ, have mercy upon Afras, son of Chaharbukht the Syrian, who cut this.” The cross is dated by experts to the eighth or ninth century.

Apostle Thomas was a Jew and the Roman cross would have been an abhorrent symbol to him. Certainly he did not bring a cross—or a Bible for that matter—to India. Christians did not use the Roman cross as an religious symbol until the third century or later. They used a fish sign with the Greek word ΙΧΘΥC (ikhthus meaning “fish”)—and acronym for JESUS—inscribed in its body to identify themselves and their cult. Curiously Indian Christianity has never referenced or employed a fish symbol in its religious culture. This is because the cross was brought to India by Syrian Christian refugees after the fourth century.

Arun ShourieWe wish to assure Fr. Francis and the Christian congregations that he has deceived, that Hindus are not going to demand the return of temple property the Church has forcefully taken from them over the centuries. But we do feel an apology for past crimes is in order and that some restraint is observed when perpetuating the communally-charged St. Thomas tale among the faithful—especially as Thomas’s persecution and death are falsely attributed to a Hindu king and his Brahmin priests. Arun Shourie has stated that the apology should include the following items:

  • an honest accounting of the calumnies which the Church has heaped on India and Hinduism; informing Indian Christians and non-Christians about the findings of Bible scholarship [including the St. Thomas legend];
  • informing them about the impact of scientific progress on Church doctrine;
  • acceptance that reality is multi-layered and that there are many ways of perceiving it;
  • bringing the zeal for conversion in line with the recent declarations that salvation is possible through other religions as well.

Archbishop ChinnappaBesides this apology, we feel the Archbishop of Madras-Mylapore may donate a piece of the vast estate Bishop’s House stands on for a memorial to the courageous Hindus who resisted the Portuguese when they with the help of Franciscan, Dominican and Jesuit priests were destroying the Kapaleeswara Shiva Temple by the sea.

The Archbishop of Madras-Mylapore, who may be an honest man unlike his predecessors, also must stop perpetuating the claim that Tiruvalluvar was a disciple of Thomas and a Christian convert. Anybody who has read the Tirukurral can see that this claim is a malicious falsehood.

The St. Thomas legend is part of Indian history and Indian history must be told according to the known facts, not according to the fabricated anti-national theories of Indian Jesuits and Marxist historians. Even Pope Benedict has denied that St. Thomas came to South India—never mind that his editors changed his statement the next day to include South India because Kerala’s bishops had threatened secession or worse if the Church did not support their dearly held tale of origins.

Pope Benedict XVIDr. Koenraad Elst, educated in Europe’s most prestigious Catholic university in Leuven, Belgium, writes in his foreword to The Myth of Saint Thomas and the Mylapore Shiva Temple: “It is clear enough that many Christians including the Pope have long given up the belief in Thomas’s Indian exploits, or—like the Church Fathers—never believed in them in the first place. In contrast with European Christians today, Indian Christians live in a 17th century bubble, as if they are too puerile to stand in the daylight of solid historical fact. They remain in a twilight of legend and lies, at the command of ambitious “medieval” bishops who mislead them with the St. Thomas in India fable for purely selfish reasons.”

What a sad observation on Indian Christians who have access to the best education and health care in the country. And what an shrewd observation on Indian bishops who are probably the most wealthy and politically astute caste in India today.

Thomas tomb at Ortona

Thomas tomb Mylapore

The Gospel of Judas: New light on Christian origins – N.S. Rajaram

Dr. N.S. RajaramWhy are these momentous findings of Christian historical scholarship little discussed in India when the media is willing to give space to discredited Jesus lived in India stories and proven fakes like the Shroud of Turin? Is it because the English-language media is dominated by a convent-educated elite that doesn’t want to report controversial findings? Or do Indian churches and their leaders still see themselves as serving colonial masters and have no tradition of critical Biblical scholarship?” - Dr. N.S. Rajaram

Judas IscariotThere has been a revolution in Biblical scholarship beginning with the discovery of the Gnostic Gospels at Nag Hammadi in Egypt and the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran in Israel, both in the years following the Second World War. But Church leaders in India have kept their followers in ignorance of all this while continuing to peddle discredited stories like the St Thomas Myth and other pre-enlightenment falsehoods like accusing the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus. The reasons for this are twofold: (1) the abysmal state of Biblical scholarship in India; and (2) the low opinion of Indian Christians among Western scholars — a holdover from the colonial era. Many of them still see Indian Christians as second class Christians who blindly follow whatever they are told and incapable of appreciating scholarly research. Here is an example of what Biblical scholarship has exposed.

For nearly two thousand years, Judas Iscariot has been reviled as the archetypical betrayer for which the Jews have been made to pay a terrible price. A recently discovered ancient text known as the Gospel of Judas gives a radically different picture: Judas, far from being a traitor was Jesus’s closest disciple to whom, and to whom alone, Jesus entrusted the most important task needed to fulfil his mission on earth — to die for the sins of mankind. In handing Jesus over to the Romans, Judas was doing exactly what his master ordered him to do. Without it, and the crucifixion that followed, there would be no Christianity.

Elaine PagelsThis is the dramatic, not to say shocking message of the Gospel of Judas, one of the forty-odd gospels that were in circulation during the first four centuries of Christianity. This is described in fascinating detail in Reading Judas by Elaine Pagels and Karen King, two of the world’s greatest biblical scholars. It is accessible to the general reader though one is helped by some familiarity with recent biblical discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Manuscripts.

Karen  KingI will discuss the Dead Sea Scrolls (known in scholarly circles as the Qumran texts) in a later article, but here we shall be looking at one of the more remarkable of the Nag Hammadi finds, the Gospel of Judas. The story of its discovery is no less dramatic than what it has to say — though not quite so dramatic as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls also. Here it is in brief.

Nag Hammadi (meaning ‘geese grazing grounds’) is a small town in Egypt located on the west bank of the Nile about 80 kilometers north-west of Luxor. It was established by Mahmoud Pasha Hammadi, who was a member of the Hammadi family in Sohag, Egypt. Mahmoud Pasha Hammadi created Nag Hammadi for the indigenous people from Sohag who were forced to abandon their homeland by the British occupation. In recognition of this, the new town was given the name Hammadi.

Gospel of JudasIn December 1945, some local farmers discovered a sealed earthenware jar containing thirteen leather-bound papyrus manuscripts, along with loose pages torn from another book. One of the books was burnt as fuel by their mother who obviously did not know their value. The writings in these texts, known as codices, date back to the 2nd century AD. The contents of the Coptic-bound codices were written in Coptic, though the works were probably all translations from Greek. The Nag Hammadi codices contain the only complete copy of the Gospel of Thomas as well as a copy of the Gospel of Judas.

The Gospel of Judas was acquired by the Maecenas Foundation of Geneva, Switzerland where they now reside. The president of the Maecenas Foundation, Mario Roberty, suggested the possibility that the Maecenas Foundation had acquired not the only extant copy of the Gospel, but rather the only “known” copy. Roberty went on to make the suggestion that the Vatican probably had another copy locked away. As he put it:

Mario Roberty“In those days the Church decided for political reasons to include the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in the Bible. The other gospels were banned. It is highly logical that the Catholic Church would have kept a copy of the forbidden gospels. Sadly, the Vatican does not want to clarify further. Their policy has been the same for years. No further comment.”

Roberty provided no evidence to suggest that the Vatican does, in fact, possess any additional copy. But there is a problem — the Vatican’s secrecy about its holdings. While the contents of one part of the Vatican library have been catalogued and have long been available to researchers and scholars, the remainder of the library, however, has no public catalogue. Vatican says that researchers may view any work within, but they must first name the text they require. This is impossible for those who do not know what is contained by the secret library! The Gospel of Judas may well be one of them, but we don’t know. So it had to be pieced together by Biblical scholars from fragments found at Nag Hammadi.

Judas is radically different from the gospels in the New Testament we are familiar with. The standardization of the New Testament with its four canonical gospels that we know today — of Mark, Luke, Matthew and John — took place in the fourth century. This, as scholars including Pagels and King point out had the effect of lowering the message from a spiritual to a material plane with the story of Jesus’s body escaping from the grave with a resurrected body. To a non-believer or a scientifically informed person, this supposed miracle seems absurd. But it remains the foundation of Christian belief.

St. ThomasThe Gospel of Judas, along with its companion Gospel of Thomas belongs to the category of early Christian texts knows as Gnostic. (Thomas was Jesus’s twin brother [according to the Acts of Thomas], so who was the Only Son of God?) The word ‘Gnostic’ is derived from the Greek gnosis — cognate to the Sanskrit ‘gnana’ (or jnana) — meaning spiritual knowledge. According to Lost Christianities by Bart Ehrman there were “Christians who… believed in one God. But there were others who insisted there were two. Some said there were thirty. Others said there were 365.”

A remarkable feature about the Gnostic Gospels is that they seem to have borrowed heavily from Hindu and Buddhist practices. This is easy to understand considering that Persia was then under the Arsacids or the Parthians. They served as the link between the Indian and the Roman worlds. This is now a major area of research, but not in India.

John Marco AllegroTo give an idea of how diverse early Christianity was, some said that Jesus never died, while some others claimed he was never born meaning Jesus was a fictional character. This is the view also of several modern scholars who have studied the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially Robert Eisenman and John Allegro. John Allegro, a very famous Biblical scholar wrote: “I would suggest that many incidents [in the Gospels] are merely projections into Jesus’s own history of what was expected of the Messiah.” In other words, Jesus was a fictional character created to project some religious ideas. (We will have occasion to look at Allegro and his work relating to the Dead Sea Scrolls in a future article.)

Allegro was persecuted and hounded out by Church authorities for expressing such views. It was no different nearly two thousand years ago. The key figure in suppressing texts which “encourage believers to seek God within themselves with no mention of churches, let alone clergy” was Irenaeus, a Syrian theologian who was the bishop of Lyon. He is particularly harsh on Judas with his claim of having received secret knowledge (gnosis) as the favored disciple of Jesus. It was the claim also of Mary Magdalene in her Gospel. Yes, there is a Gospel of Mary Magdalene also. It was discovered as far back as 1896, but have Christians in India been told about it?

St. Irenaeus of LyonIrenaeus’s program was to suppress diversity and impose total uniformity of belief and practices. As Pagels observes “the teachings Irenaeus labelled as ‘orthodox’ tend to be those that helped him and other bishops consolidate scattered groups of Jesus’s followers into what he and other bishops envisioned as a single, united organization they called the ‘catholic (universal) church.’ The diverse range … they denounced as ‘heresy’… could be antithetical to the consolidation of the church under the bishops’ authority.”

One can see that the overriding concern of the early Church fathers was exercising political control over the followers. Irenaeus’s program was taken a major step forward in the fourth century by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria. He fixed the New Testament substantially in the form we have it today by selecting four gospels out of more than forty then known, and assigning them to Mark, Luke, Matthew and John.

St. AthanasiusAthanasius’s theological consolidation of Christianity was paralleled by political consolidation. At the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, persuaded Emperor Constantine to extend protection to this version of Christianity or Nicene Christianity. Armed with this power, it was a relatively easy matter for Eusebius, Athanasius and others to suppress the Gnostics and other competing versions of Christianity. Church dominance became complete when Theodosius in 391 AD declared Nicene Christianity the only legitimate religion in the Roman Empire.

Why are these momentous findings little discussed in India when the media is willing to give space to discredited Jesus lived in India stories and proven fakes like the Shroud of Turin? Is it because the English-language media is dominated by a convent-educated elite that doesn’t want to report controversial findings? Or do Indian churches and their leaders still see themselves as serving colonial masters and have no tradition of critical Biblical scholarship? By doing so they have yielded the space to politico-religious entrepreneurs like John Dayal and outright charlatans like Valson Thampu (principal of St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi). Fortunately, Biblical scholars in the West, like Pagels, King, Allegro, Eisenman and a host of others have not allowed their beliefs to come in the way of truth even though most of them belong to the Christian faith. – Folks Magazine, 27 June 2012

» N.S. Rajaram is the author of The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Crisis of Christianity.

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