This article (below) says people are obsessed with apocrypha lately — mostly thanks to Dan Brown’s book. But, the author claims, we haven’t really learned anything new or “secret” about Christianity. It’s still the greatest story ever told — or sold. I don’t agree. I think the apocrypha and the other gospels have shown us earth-shattering material about our Christian goddesses for one thing. We know about Sophia, Mary the Mother and Mary the Magdalene (the “Great”). Most of you reading this were probably into alternative Christianity way before Dan Brown’s book. DaVinci Code just let the rest of the world know what our little niche had been “obsessing” over for years. Right? This article is also about that hidden family of Jesus’, and says the documentary dude claims Jesus had THREE sisters, not two. There are also the four brothers named in the Gospels. Here’s the article……
Details may change, but it’s still the greatest story ever told
UK Sunday Times
Our current obsession with apocrypha is not really turning up much that’s new or secret, says Peter Stanford.
It is billed as “the conspiracy that Dan Brown missed”, and the shadow of The Da Vinci Code certainly hangs heavy over Channel 4’s Christmas documentary The Secret Family of Jesus. Ever since Brown’s book became a publishing sensation, with its “revelation”, based on allegedly secret gospels, that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had spawned a dynasty, there has been an unholy rush to repackage the racier end of biblical scholarship for a popular and curious audience.
So the Channel 4 show, fronted by Robert Beckford, an unorthodox theologian with dreadlocks, is just the latest attempt to turn on its head the basic Christian narrative by reference to various texts, written soon after Jesus’s death and telling of his life, that did not make it into the Authorised Version. Earlier this month, the BBC broadcast The Lost Gospels, with the trendy Anglican vicar Pete Owen-Jones, a cross between Indiana Jones and Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, hitchhiking round Egypt and the Holy Land to examine ancient accounts sidelined by the official church for centuries. Rageh Omaar has been on BBC4 with The Dead Sea Scrolls, airing conspiracy theories that the church has sought to cover up anything that contradicts its story of Christ’s life and times.
Meanwhile, Hollywood’s new take on events in Bethlehem 2006 years ago, The Nativity Story, owes something to the prominence given in the extra-canonical texts to John the Baptist as more Jesus’s equal than his warm-up act. And the latest novel by the distinguished New Zealand writer CK Stead, My Name Was Judas, draws on the recently rediscovered Gospel of Judas to provide an alternative account of the build-up to the betrayer’s kiss.
What underpins all these accounts — as it did Brown’s pioneering thriller — is the revelation that Christianity has played fast and loose with the details of its founder’s message and life. We now learn that popes, bishops and priests, supposedly models of propriety and holiness, have been making it up as they go along. They have carried out, in the process, one of the biggest cons in history by expunging all other accounts of Jesus’s ministry than the ones that reinforce their own prejudices.
These parallel narratives, collectively known as the Apocrypha or Gnostic gospels, were, history tells us, destroyed by order of the church fathers in Rome in about the 4th century. But, since the end of the 19th century, they have started to turn up again, often unearthed by archeologists working in the Middle East. The most spectacular find came in 1945, at Nag Hammadi, in upper Egypt, where a shepherd dug up a sealed jar containing ancient papyrus scrolls of gospels by Mary Magdalene, Thomas (previously simply the doubting apostle in the Good Book) and Philip.
Using those and more recent archeological finds, The Secret Family of Jesus rearranges the seats at the family table in Nazareth. John the Baptist is up there at the head of the table, shoulder to shoulder with his cousin, Jesus. There are two other brothers, Jude and James, the latter destined to run Jesus’s church in Jerusalem after the Crucifixion as a home from home for disgruntled Jews before Saints Peter and Paul disinherited him and moved God’s business address on earth to Rome. And, inevitably, because of the legacy of Brown, there’s Mary Magdalene, the daughter-in-law the Vatican prefers to shun, rather as the royals try to pretend Fergie doesn’t exist.
One site that Beckford visits in The Secret Family of Jesus is the ruins of the ancient city of Magdala, once a community of 40,000 people, but today shut away, he alleges, “by the church”, behind fences and locked gates, in case anything incriminating is found in the rubble. Beckford notes that, just down the road, the remnants of Capernaum, supposedly the home of St Peter, are now a popular pilgrimage destination. The official cover-up, he suggests, continues to this day.
Well, yes and no. The Roman Catholic Church, in particular, is certainly no great fan of women. It has, indeed, shown an almost pathological urge, over the centuries, to paint Mary Magdalene as a second Eve, an example to women of how not to behave, especially when set against the manifold feminine virtues of the Virgin Mary. Christ’s mother, by contrast, features little in the Apocrypha. She was no doubt too busy at home, looking after her other children — for, as Beckford points out, even some “official” Gospel texts in the Good Book make reference to her four other sons and three daughters.
Of course, this wave of feverish speculation around the alternative gospels has its drawbacks. First, many of the revelations plucked from them over the past couple of years are essentially old hat, because scholars have been picking over the texts for 100 years now. When David Jenkins, the erstwhile Bishop of Durham, caused headlines back in 1984 by questioning the literal truth of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of Jesus, it was pointed out that he was only saying publicly what had been discussed in the common rooms of theological colleges for decades, some of it influenced by the Gnostic gospels, which often make no mention of Jesus rising from the dead.
What has changed in the past two decades is that, thanks to the efforts of Brown and others, the evidence on which such academic speculation was based has now been shared in its entirety with a lay, secular and often skeptical audience. The information itself isn’t new. It is just the presentation.
Second, the shock value of these new perspectives depends heavily on the notion that (a) they are more reliable than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and (b) the four Evangelists present a single, unified, unambiguous version of Jesus’s life and teachings. Or, at the very least, that that is how the churches have presented them. There are no grounds for assuming that the alternative narratives are any more or less true than the Gospels we have. They are simply different in some respects (there are huge overlaps, seldom commented on). Indeed, if one were to judge past church leaders benignly, one might conclude that they chose the texts they did for inclusion in the New Testament, not because of some devilish plot to twist Jesus’s memory to their own advantage, but rather because they believed the writings they selected to be more authentic than the ones they discarded.
Then there is the small matter that the four “official” Gospels in the New Testament endlessly contradict one another. They raise enough questions to keep us going for a very long time, and can scarcely, therefore, be dismissed as the productions of a team of ecclesiastical spin doctors. Since it’s Christmas, let’s take the example of the Nativity. Mark and John don’t mention it at all. Matthew, for his part, doesn’t go into much detail, preferring to spend almost a whole chapter linking Joseph to the Old Testament figures of David and Abraham. That is in line with a practice, seen often in the New Testament, of embellishing Jesus’s life with details that show him as linked to the prophecies and prophets of the Old. There’s no census, no stable and no shepherds in Matthew. In fact, the traditional infant-school play would be mercifully short if based on his telling. Luke, by contrast, includes them all. But the three kings are only in Matthew. And one of Christianity’s favourite ideas — namely, that Joseph was an old man, not really up to wanting to sleep with his young wife, happy for her to be consorting with the Holy Spirit, and with grown-up kids of his own (hence the reference elsewhere in the “official” Gospels to Mary’s other children) — is nowhere to be found at all. It gets an airing only in the Apocryphal Gospel of James, precisely the sort of document the church is said to be so anxious to suppress. So, the alternative versions really have the capacity to set pulses racing only if the Gospels in the New Testament are labelled as gospel truth. The church certainly used to label them as such. When I was growing up Catholic in the 1970s, children were strongly dissuaded from reading the Bible. We needed, we were told, a priest to interpret it for us. Just in case we came across awkward elements such as Mary’s other children. But the reality today, as even a Jesuit professor from the Vatican’s Bible Institute admits on screen in The Secret Family of Jesus, is that the church long ago ceased to claim that every word and detail in the New Testament is sacrosanct. If you want to dispute almost any item of church teaching or dogma, you can find plenty of evidence in the Gospels we already have in the Bible to back you up. Christianity, for instance, is infamously uptight about sex, but Jesus utters scarcely a word about it in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.
This is not to say that the Apocrypha are not fascinating, tantalising and useful for building a more accurate picture about the circumstances and the factions that surrounded Jesus and the movement that turned his memory into a global force. But we need to be more precise about what they are and what they aren’t. What irks about Beckford’s presentation, therefore, is the underlying claim that, because more gospels have suddenly turned up, we can bin the ones we’ve already got. That is as manipulative of the truth as the early church fathers. Or even Dan Brown.