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Gospels of Judas

A correspondent points out what should be obvious. This so-called “news” (about the Gospel of Judas) should hardly be “exploding myths,” especially for tenured professors at Princeton. As Dr. Pagels herself points out, Irenaeus duly recorded the document in the late second century. And many, many Fathers were eager to note the wild diversity of heresy. A short list of those who published exhaustive catalogs of the polymorphous perversity of the Gnostics: Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Ephiphanius, and John of Damascus. All of their works have been in print, in English, in multiple translations, since the end of the nineteenth century. And they’re all online, too.

Maybe the Gospel of Judas is different, though, in that it really does take the matter to the omega point, overturning everything once and for all. The Orwellian summary might be: Judas is Peter. As freedom is slavery, and war is peace.

How far out of the mainstream these nuts were is clear from the first lines of the document, where Jesus laughs out loud at the Apostles as they said Mass. This is certainly not the Church of Ignatius, Polycarp, and Irenaeus. Nor is it the Church of the Abitina martyrs, who said, “We cannot live without the Mass.”

This is not your Fathers’ oldsmobile. The Gnostics were trying to distance themselves from historic Christianity, and they did it by mocking the one unmistakable sign of the Great Church: the Eucharist. We should wish them, once again, all the success they enjoyed the first time around.

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Judas Priests!

Only the New York Times and National Geographic could be surprised — or distracted from 1970s sitcom reruns — by the publication of yet another Gnostic gospel. Isn’t it obvious yet why these things never caught on in their own day? They’re prolix, pretentious, elitist, and, unlike orthodox Christianity, genuinely misogynist and sexually repressive. They multiply angelic presences and wars among deities. And their “Jesus” weaves hither and yon in his wise utterances, ranging in tone from the fortune cookie to the acid trip.

And yet people who get apoplectic over the literal sense of Genesis 1-3 warmly welcome the Gnostic creation story, which claims to reveal the names of numerous archons to whom cosmic governance was delegated by the creepy creator. I mean, read the texts — this was Pokemon for second-century grownups.

Today’s rant is occasioned by the coverage of National Geographic’s publication of the Gnostic Gospel of Judas. The text has been lost for the better part of two millennia. But it presents nothing new or exciting. It’s the apocryphal same-old same-old.

As I read the text, I wondered if it was all a hoax, penned by my favorite satirist Chris Bailey. He, after all, has a track record of parodying the Gnostics. Then the New York Times reported with the usual breathlessness about how these documents “are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion and demonstrating how diverse — and fascinating — the early Christian movement really was.” That priceless quote comes from Princeton’s Elaine Pagels, who has turned the Gnostic gospels into a cottage industry.

Did anyone ever really think that ancient Christianity was monolithic? Could anyone think that, after reading Aphrahat side by side with Tertullian, Gregory of Nyssa, and Melito of Sardis? Can anyone think that about any age of Christianity? I say this as a former newspaper journalist who regularly had to run from Tridentine Masses to Charismatic conferences before covering the local centering-prayer group.

The only people who believe in a drab, dull, monolithic Christianity are modern secularists, who uniformly think of themselves as diverse and interesting. What they believe about early Christianity is fantasy. What they know about modern Christianity is laughably wrongheaded. In the words, again, of Chris Bailey, it’s “Pat Robertson dressed as a nun with a ruler in his hand.”

There was, of course, a kind of diversity in ancient heresy. But this came mostly because every man was his own pope (and I do mean man; Mary Magdalene was exalted among the Gnostics, but only after their “Jesus” turned her into a male!). They couldn’t keep a church together because someone was always getting a new and more “interesting” revelation.

Yet even the Gnostics attest to the existence of a Great Church — a catholic and orthodox Church that was not uniform, but was indeed universal. Their documents everywhere attest to their sense of rebellion, their sense that they were outsiders. Gnosticism failed not because of oppression, but because it lacked credibility — and, actually, any other interesting quality.

Oh, and here’s another surprise: Judas, in his newly rediscovered “gospel,” says he wasn’t really guilty! Still, even this is not news, since it was translated, in the 1960s, into powerful poetry by Eric Burdon and the Animals, and later interpreted profoundly by Joe Cocker: “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. O Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.” O Lord, indeed.

The Gospel of Judas will be buzz for its fifteen minutes of fame, but we shouldn’t be fazed. The lure here is the same as the lure of The Da Vinci Code and other neo-Gnostic hashes. Their message is simple: “You’ve been lied to; you’ve been duped by the establishment. Now here’s a scientist to lead you to truth.

“Pay no attention to the Pokemon archons along the way, and the anti-woman doctrines, and the horror of sex. We’re taking care of those. This is all scientific. Really.”

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Radio Reminder

Tonight’s the night — or, on the West Coast, today’s the day — Bob Lockwood reviews my book The Mass of the Early Christians on Catholic Answers Book Club. You can see tiny shots of the book cover, plus Bob’s mug, right here. You can read more details on the book and see a bigger (ancient-screen-saver-sized) photo of the cover, sans Bob, by clicking here. For a screen-saver-sized shot of Bob, see here. Please note that I did NOT file the Bob Lockwood screen-saver among the images of late antiquity. (We Boomers aren’t there — yet.) Bob, by the way, has written the handbook on evangelizing Baby Boomers. If your kid or your parents (or your neighbors or co-workers) fall into that category, buy Bob’s book!

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Catch the Passion

I was pleased to receive several emails in response to the post on John Henry Newman. I’d mentioned that Newman’s enduring appeal for people like me is his ability to tell a story. He explains the role Athanasius played in the development of Christian doctrine, and he does it not by weaving a chain of quotations, but by writing an international thriller on the Alexandrian’s action-packed life. And he does the same for lots of others: Ambrose, Basil, Gregory, Augustine…

So one Newman fan asked me: Who’s doing that kind of writing today? Who’s teaching the doctrine of the Fathers in an intellectually serious way, by telling stories drawn from the real histories of Christianity’s earliest saints and scholars?

A short answer: David Scott is. His most recent book, The Catholic Passion: Rediscovering the Power and Beauty of the Faith, provides a beautiful retrieval of the Fathers’ understanding of Catholic faith. Scott takes the words of the Fathers and applies them to our lives. Some people teach patristics by re-packaging the theology of antiquity; Scott, like Newman before him, does it by telling riveting tales. And The Catholic Passion is NOT just a roundup of the usual suspects. Yes, we meet celebrities like Augustine, Ignatius, Justin, and Origen, but we also meet Origen’s father Leonides. We meet Didymus the Blind, Synesius of Cyrene, and Romanos the Melodist. Chapters run the range of Catholic doctrine. And every sentence is the purest of poetry.

It’s complete, scriptural, and readable enough to serve as an adult catechism. I think it’s the perfect text for RCIA or parish adult-education groups. Get to know David by visiting him here.

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A Compliment, I Think!

Got this from a devout visitor to the site:

“I love it! if Hunter S. Thompson had a soul and was a really inspired scholar of the Fathers of the Church, this is what he would write.”

I can’t help but imagine the old guy in the ruins of an Egyptian monastery, dipping hallucinogenic locusts in wild honey and reading Origen aloud to the snakes. Fear and Trembling on the Pilgrim Trail.

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The Fathers and the Bible

“It is impossible to write of any particular spirituality in the early Church, because there was really only one. These men and women lived from the Bible, God’s Word, so that they experienced the study of the Bible, and meditation on every word of the Holy Scripture, as a kind of communion.”
— Fr. Joseph Lienhard, “The Spiritual Tradition of the Patristic Period,” in Feb. 2003 Magnificat

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For True Addicts: A Daily Fix of the Fathers.

When my son wants to describe a fanatic, he’ll usually end his description with: “…you know, the twitching, drooling type.”

Well, if you’re the twitching, drooling type when it comes to the Fathers, you should probably subscribe (for free) to Daily Gospel. The site’s name is self-explanatory. It gives you the Church’s Gospel of the Day, which is parceled out by the revised lectionary.

But, in the words of the Seussian Doctor: that is not all, oh no, that is not all.

The Daily Gospel also comes with a daily commentary; and the daily commentary is usually taken from the Church Fathers. Today might be a bad day to make this announcement, since today’s commentary comes from a modern council. But tomorrow’s comes from Ambrose, and it rocks.

You can read both Gospel and commentary online or subscribe and receive them by email.

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If the Patristics Movement were a body, John Henry Newman would be the adrenal gland — the source of its energy and drive. Or maybe he would be the pituitary, since he personally accounts for much of its early growth.

With the works of Newman (who was then an Anglican), patrology made the transition from an academic hobbyhorse to a popular fascination. He knew how to tell a story, and his stories delivered his doctrinal and ascetical points rather painlessly. I’m thinking here particularly of his early books The Church of the Fathers and The Arians of the Fourth Century — and, of course, his novel Callista: A Tale of the Third Century.

Newman’s Fathers are real men, sometimes difficult, enduring heartbreak, quarreling with one another. He doesn’t sugar-coat Jerome or Cyril, for example; they don’t hold the glaze very well anyway. His telling of the up-and-down friendship of Basil and Gregory (in The Church of the Fathers) really tugs at the heartstrings, even as it expands the Christian mind.

All this is a prelude to my expression of gratitude to Father Drew Morgan (like Newman, an Oratorian) for the work of his National Institute for Newman Studies. Based in Pittsburgh, the Institute hosts an enormous Newman research library, publishes a fine journal, and promotes the work of scholars. (I encourage you to donate to the cause. Your money will be put to good use.) The Institute also hosts one of the cleanest, best-kept, and most easily searchable databases on the Web — The Newman Reader — which holds all the collected works of Newman, plus the major biographies. Thus, with just a few keystrokes, you can round up everything Newman ever had to say about Athanasius, Ambrose, Augustine, Anthony … And he did have plenty to say.

Visit the Institute’s websites today. Visit the library if you’re ever in Pittsburgh. And pray for their good work. When God blesses Father Drew Morgan, He blesses all of us who love the Fathers.

I’ll end with a quote from St. Francis de Sales, which I pulled from a letter of Newman indexed at The Newman Reader: “The ancient Fathers … spoke from the heart to the heart, like good fathers to their children.”

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No Cure for Jet Lag, But a Consolation, Yes

I just had the privilege of traveling overseas in the company of my renowned, esteemed, and brilliant colleague, Rob Corzine. We shared a hotel room, a penance Rob bore with a smile as his Lenten cross. When my snoring didn’t keep him awake, my uncontrollable laughter did. I had made the delightful mistake of taking Evelyn Waugh’s novel Helena with me, to keep me sane through the inevitable insomnia.

The book is out in a new edition, as part of Loyola Press’s lovely Loyola Classics series (edited by Amy Welborn), which was recently praised by no less a critic than Terry Teachout in no less a paper than the Wall Street Journal. People often ask me the best way to enter imaginatively into the world of the Fathers. I can’t think of a more enjoyable way than reading this novel. It’s well researched, artfully evocative, and full of fun nudges and winks at us latter-day observers.

Inside you’ll meet Constantine, the emperor and Eastern saint. You’ll meet his mum, St. Helena, the proto-archeologist who unearthed the true cross. You’ll meet Pope St. Sylvester, who is an endearing chap. And they’ll all make you laugh — either with them or at them.

My hat’s off to Waugh for bringing these characters so vividly alive. Few authors could make a fourth-century saint so approachable, humorous, and even sexy. He manages to pull this last one off in the most chaste way. Take my word. This book’s a miracle of hilarity and warmth.

The new edition has a nice introduction by George Weigel and good biographical material on Waugh, who has split my sides more times than it’s healthy to remember.

I’ve listed some other good patristic fiction here (scroll way down the page). All of it’s good, in different ways and for different purposes. Waugh’s Helena, though, is in a class by herself.

Rob Corzine, alas, couldn’t sleep through my jet-lagged laughter. But he got the last laugh. He started the book as soon as I finished it.

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How to Get Bombaxed in Berkeley

Meticulously and at God’s pace, Kevin Edgecomb of Berkeley, CA, is building Bombaxo, a remarkable online library of original research. He’s assembled a small but growing collection of ancient Church Orders, the liturgical and disciplinary manuals of the early Christians. You’ll find complete versions of Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition and the inimitable Didascalia Apostolorum. These last two links will drop you into the Mass as it was celebrated in the third and fourth centuries, and possibly even earlier.

Though Kevin’s using the established English translations, they’re not available elsewhere on the Web (or at least they weren’t when I first found them at Bombaxo). And, anyway, Kevin never rests with a received translation. He updates critically, based on the best recent research.

Kevin’s an Orthodox layman with a truly catholic range of interests. One of his most fascinating pages is a collection of ancient lectionaries, giving us a look at which biblical readings have matched which feast days, down through the ages — and all through the Christian world. His patristic lectionaries are culled from the works of Augustine and Ambrose, as well as the literary relics of the lesser-known ancient churches — the Armenian, Georgian, and Syriac. The word “bombaxo” is apparently an expletive in classical Greek. But I’ll bet only Oxford-trained Web filters will block it.

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What about the Kids?

People occasionally ask if there are any good books on the Fathers for kids. I usually respond with a blank stare. If you know of any, please tell me, so I’ll look somewhat sentient next time.

The only book I’ve been able to recommend is St. Jude: A Friend in Hard Times, by my son and webmaster, Michael Aquilina III. It’s not exactly about a Church Father; it’s about an apostle. But he put to use some good patristic research — citing Eusebius as well as the obscure Labubna of Edessa. It’s sumptuously illustrated, as beautiful as an illuminated manuscript. And it has a foreword from the illustrious Scott Hahn. Can you tell I’m proud of the kid?

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Take the Spice Route South from Alexandria

And then go east, young patrologist. (By “young” I mean younger than, say, Polycarp at the time of his martyrdom. We readers of the Fathers keep our years well.) Christians in India are producing great studies and translations of the Fathers. What’s more, their books are affordable, even after air mail. The problem, for those of us in the States, is that Indian titles are almost impossible to track down. Most of them don’t appear on Amazon or any of the usual suspects. I found a good clearinghouse at Merging Currents. Their prices are great; the books usually arrive in less than two weeks; and the books themselves are marvelous. For example: there’s a fairly new edition of Aphrahat available in English. And I loved this study of the Syriac Fathers on the Holy Spirit. To me, all this is big news. Much of the Indian work focuses on the Syriac Fathers. The old patristic manuals often divided the Fathers into “Greek” and “Latin.” If that’s all you know, find out what you’ve been missing. (The only caveat about Merging Currents is that you have to do the sorting yourself. It’s a huge assemblage of everything religious and Indian, which makes for quite a curry.)