Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Zombie Jesus Day

And another Easter has passed us by, or as we celebrate it in our house, Zombie Jesus Day. We had our annual dinner to celebrate, and 13 people feasted on Lamb and Ham and a wonderful assortment of veggies. And, as is my custom, I did my annual Zombie Jesus Day reading from a heretical gospel.

It’s the third year in a row that we’ve done this. The first two years I read from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Secret Gospel of Mark. The Infancy Gospel is a favorite of mine, as it narrates the life of Jesus as an omnipotent little boy, who kills his friends when they piss him off, until he is tutored by a wise Rabbi. The plot closely follows that of the famous Twilight Zone episode, ‘It’s a Good Life:’

‘…The son of Annas the scribe was standing there with Jesus. Taking a branch from a willow tree, he dispersed the waters which Jesus had gathered. When Jesus saw what had happened, he became angry and said to him, "You godless, brainless moron, what did the ponds and waters do to you? Watch this now: you are going to dry up like a tree and you will never produce leaves or roots or fruit." And immediately, this child withered up completely. Then, Jesus departed and returned to Joseph's house. The parents of the one who had been withered up, however, wailed for their young child as they took his remains away. Then, they went to Joseph and accused him, "You are responsible for the child who did this."…’

The Secret Gospel of Mark is a famous fragment of an ‘alternative’ version of Mark, preserved in quotes from a letter written by Clement of Alexandria in the second century, and discovered in 1958. This alternate version, supposedly containing secret teachings of Jesus, became notorious in the late 1960’s and 1970’s when it was first published, because of the homoerotic overtones of the passages:

‘…And they come into Bethany. And a certain woman whose brother had died was there. And, coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and says to him, 'Son of David, have mercy on me.' But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus, being angered, went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightway a great cry was heard from the tomb. And going near, Jesus rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb. And straightaway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb, they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do, and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the Kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan…’

This year in honor of the latest news coming from Albany, I read from the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. It’s a more traditional Gnostic text, and is organized like others, such as the Gospel of Judas, where a single favored disciple is given secret teachings by Jesus and then proceeds to tell them to everyone after Jesus ascends to heaven. In the case of the Gospel of Mary, it is Mary who has been given the teachings, but they are initially rejected by the other disciples, as she is a woman.

The first six pages of the Gospel are missing; the best copy we have is a version in Coptic from the fifth century, but it is thought that the Gospel was originally written in Greek in the middle of the second century, a hundred years after the death of Jesus. The gospel starts with Jesus, post resurrection, preaching to the assembled disciples and finishing up a speech on Gnostic theology, about how we are divorced from reality, and that ultimately we will be ‘resolved again into our own roots.’ Jesus then departs, after giving the instructions to go out and preach to the world. But the Disciples are confused and worried, after the bad reception Jesus had just received, having been killed and all that. Mary then gets up and begins speaking, rallying them, and giving the secret messages that Jesus told her. Unfortunately that is where another 4 pages of text are missing.

When the text picks up, Mary is in full Gnostic mode, going on and on about the crazed numerology that is part and parcel of Early Christian Gnosticism:

‘…The first form is darkness, the second desire, the third ignorance, the fourth is the excitement of death, the fifth is the kingdom of the flesh, the sixth is the foolish wisdom of flesh, the seventh is the wrathful wisdom. These are the seven powers of wrath. They asked the soul, whence do you come slayer of men, or where are you going, conqueror of space? The soul answered and said, what binds me has been slain, and what turns me about has been overcome, and my desire has been ended, and ignorance has died…’

This is a very standard Gnostic Text, all about a very complex organization of beings that are behind our wrongly perceived reality. When Mary finishes speaking we have one final Chapter in the Gospel:

‘…When Mary had said this, she fell silent, since it was to this point that the Savior had spoken with her. But Andrew answered and said to the brethren, Say what you wish to say about what she has said. I at least do not believe that the Savior said this. For certainly these teachings are strange ideas.

Peter answered and spoke concerning these same things. He questioned them about the Savior: Did He really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did He prefer her to us?

Then Mary wept and said to Peter, My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I have thought this up myself in my heart, or that I am lying about the Savior?

Levi answered and said to Peter, Peter you have always been hot tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why He loved her more than us. Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect Man, and separate as He commanded us and preach the gospel, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Savior said.

And when they heard this they began to go forth to proclaim and to preach…’

What I like about this Gospel is not the crazed Gnostic teaching, which I can never make heads or tales of and doesn’t interest me much, but the role of Mary as a female teacher in an otherwise male room of disciples. For despite the pushback she receives, she is ultimately received as the most important teacher in the room, in spite of her gender. And this reflects a lot of what happened in the early Christian churches. The contemporary patriarchal structure of the Church has not always been that way, and many texts from the first few centuries reflect the different and changing roles of women. You can read this in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 11 (which has been badly translated for millennia) and also it is easy to see in the Gospels of Mark and, especially, John.

There is a lot of evidence that many early Christian churches were led by women, and also that early Christology transcended gender roles. As well, one can also see a constant pressure, as the church matured and gradually became the official religion of an empire, to make the church more hierarchical and more patriarchal. Next year I may read from the Odes of Solomon, another early Christian text from the second century, featuring a gender-bending Christ who’s gender shifts from ‘he’ to ‘she’ in the middle of a speech, and who as a ‘he’ has breasts that feeds the generation (Ode 19):

‘…A cup of milk was offered to me, and I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord's kindness. The Son is the cup, and the Father is He who was milked; and the Holy Spirit is She who milked Him; because His breasts were full, and it was undesirable that His milk should be ineffectually released. The Holy Spirit opened Her bosom, and mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father. Then She gave the mixture to the generation without their knowing, and those who have received it are in the perfection of the right hand…’