I continue to break from my normal tradition of reflecting on Scriptures in the canon, by continuing some reflections on reading the Gospel of Mary, a non-canonical text discovered among the Nag Hammadi scrolls in the late 19th century.
One of the clear things we see from this text is that Jesus is remembered in a very different way by the community surrounding the Gospel of Mary than the mainstream church. Their descriptions of what Jesus says to Mary in his resurrection appearance are very different from the simple proclamation that He is alive we see in the canonical Gospels. His words as remembered her sound to me more like an Eastern philosopher than a Jewish rabbi, and seem far removed from both what we hear in the canonical Gospels and what historians tell us the historical Jesus was like.
One thing this very different picture of Jesus reminds me is how wrong my own early education about the church was. Growing up and on studying the Bible as a young Christian, I always got the impression that there was one, single image that was correct for who Jesus was and one single message that was the true Christian message to be followed. Yet here we see a very different image of Jesus than the Scripture gives us – Jesus as mystic philosopher, not Jesus rabbi and teacher.
The last few years, reading on the history of early Christianity has debunked this idea of only one solitary approach to Jesus having existed. One book about this I’d recommend is Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities. Though Ehrman at some points seems to have a bit of an axe to grind against traditional Christianity, what Ehrman recounts is a pretty clear record in history that even in the earliest days there was not one picture of Jesus but many, with many different interpretations of his life and work. Only a few of these visions seemed to last the test of time, but all centers on honoring Jesus.
Growing up reading books like this non-Scriptural Gospel were discouraged by the churches I attended. I think there was fear that, if there is only one “right” picture of Jesus and version of the Gospel story, reading other stories will lead you astray. Yet really studying the Scriptures we have suggest even our own Bible has more than one picture of Jesus.
Our four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – all paint a slightly different picture of Jesus. In Mark, there is no mention of a virgin birth or special childhood for Jesus. Jesus begins to act as Son of God only at his baptism. And “Act” is the key description of his sonship in Mark. In this Gospel Jesus acts rather than speaks. Also he keeps his identity secret. In the earliest and most faithful copies of this Gospel, there is also no resurrection scene as such. It just describes Jesus’ female disciples as finding the tomb empty and an enigmatic man who tells them Jesus is not there. Instead he tells them they will find Jesus by becoming active like he did by going on to Galilee, where Jesus has gone ahead of them.
In John, likewise, there is no mention of special childhood for Jesus or virgin birth. Again, Jesus begins to live and act as God’s Son only at his baptism, suggesting nothing unique occurred in his childhood. Yet here Jesus is clearly described as God personally taking on human existence, tabernacling in a human life as a flesh and blood man while in Mark Jesus is presented almost exclusively in terms of a human being, with little reference to divine origin at all. In Mark, Jesus is depicted as a man alive with God’s presence, and active with God’s work, with no hint of Jesus as God as men with men to dwell except for actions like healing the sick and forgiving sins which he clearly does on God’s behalf. In John, Jesus does not keep his identity as God come to save as secret, but clearly describes himself in language reserved in Jewish culture for God alone. Unlike in Mark, John has many rich and detailed descriptions of encountered with Jesus risen from the dead in bodily form.
In Matthew Jesus is depicted as having been born of a virgin, in fulfillment of ancient Biblical prophecies. Jesus is depicted as a second Moses, reinterpreting God’s message given through the torah on a mountain in the Sermon on the Mount for Jesus’ disciples. Here emphasis is given to Jesus’ relationship to his stepfather (as opposed to his mother) and to his male disciples. Also Jesus is described as revealing his true identity, not keeping it secret as in Mark, but unlike in John only doing so to his core group of disciples. Jesus also is described here as founding the church and giving instructions as to how the church will function. Jesus’ resurrection is described in terms which more resemble Mark’s description but include also an actual appearance of the risen Jesus in which, again, the mission of the church is reiterated. So Jesus is depicted less as Divine Savior or an “action Jackson” man on mission for God, but more as a New Moses founding a new incarnation of Israel in the church with a new interpretation of God’s law (the Sermon rather than the 10 commandments) given on a new mountain.
In Luke Jesus also has a special childhood and is depicted as being born of a Virgin, yet it emphasizes more the call of Mary. Focused on a Gentile audience, the churches connected to the ministry of St. Paul which are the focus of the book of Acts, Luke emphasizes Jesus’ relationship to those most harmed by the abuses of the Roman imperial system — placing in center stage Jesus’ relationship with women, the poor, the working class, children, and other oppressed groups. Though it follows much of Mark and Matthew’s storyline, the real launching place for Jesus’ ministry is Luke 4, where Jesus summarizes the focus of his ministry on Isaiah’ promise of one anointed by the Spirit to free captives, end oppression, heal the sick, open blind eyes, and bring forgiveness. Jesus is pictured here as Christ the Liberator of the oppressed and his teachings are remembered in a way that emphasizes their liberating impact on the oppressed. Like Matthew and John, it includes some vivid accounts of experiencing a bodily Jesus after the resurrection, emphasizing how those appearances center on the life of the community as it engages in gathering, fellowship, consideration of Scripture, and breaking bread. It focuses on the church as a people liberated and gathered by Jesus, whose worship allows them to encounter this liberating Jesus afresh in ways that send them out as people of liberation.
Each of the New Testament writers, too, have slightly different portrayals of Christ. St. Paul and those who write in his name focus in the New Testament less on the life and teachings of Jesus than the other Gospels and more on Christ’s death, resurrection, and role as Cosmic mediator who reconciles all things. There is no clear reference to Jesus’ virgin birth and the references to the resurrection can be understood as much in St. Paul as a continuation of existence for Jesus spiritually after death in a new form as they can be a literal raising of Jesus’ physical bodies; scholars interpret St. Paul both ways. And the pictures of Jesus in the Johannine epistles, the Petrine epistles, the letters of James and Jude, all depict a slightly different image of Jesus and the Christian life. Perhaps the most unique is the vision of Jesus as warring judge, slain lamb, and lion of Judah we see depicted in the letter to the seven churches of Asia Minor we call “Revelation”.
So one of the lessons I learn by reading these early Christian Gospels which did not become Scripture is that even my own Bible does not give one unified once-and-for-all picture of Jesus as I was one led to believe. It reminds me that what I have are many witnesses to the life, teachings, death, resurrection, and ongoing life and work of the risen Savior. It is like the way in which at a family reunion or Christmas dinner, various family members will each share their own accounts of key family events. Each person tells their perspective, which has different details emphasized and remembered, often in different order, all based on what joys, pains, and life lessons the experience bore. It is not that one account among the dozen at the family table is right and all others wrong. It is rather the event itself that is life-giving, or heart-wrenching, and each story enriches our understanding of that event.
The many different stories show us there are many ways to approach and know Christ. The ones we have in Scripture are the ones found to be most life-giving and faithful, most helpful to Christians through the ages. The ones outside of Scripture can be heard in the way in which we hear the testimony of another believer in our church or community – as yet another imperfect voice sharing of their experience of Jesus. Their diversity can be viewed as an asset, not a threat. There are as many voices and versions of the Gospel story as there are people who have been touched by it. The fact even that the Bible does not just present one answer to this question but many complementary ones suggests you and I don’t have to have our relationship with God or understanding of faith fit into a cookie cutter model that has been handed down to us. Rather we can grow, question, search and find for ourselves the way we relate to and follow after Jesus. This is not a solitary journey, but one we do in community, but can only be as fully life-giving as intended if we allow both ourselves and others to relate to, understand, and express their relationship with Jesus in their own way.
For me, that is a lesson worth learning and being reminded. I am thankful reading this non-canonical Gospel reminded me of this lesson.