Sunday, April 7, 2013
A New New Testament
Hidden away on the back pages of many newspapers this past month was a story about a new book entitled A New New Testament by Robert Tausig. Tausig and a team of scholars compiled a ten ancient religious gospels and epistles written in the early days of Christianity that offer an alternative perspective than the one found in the Bible. Reading these texts, says Tausig, will give you a fuller idea of the religious milieu in which Christianity was founded. These texts, which the church ultimately decided should not be part of the New Testament, have names like “The Gospel of Thomas,” and “The Acts of Paul and Thecla.”
The publication of A New New Testament is controversial with some Christians because of the implicit suggestion that the New Testament is incomplete. I don’t think that is what Tausig and his scholars are really saying. These additional ten texts do, however, shed a lot of light on the competing movements and opinions that existed in and around the early church. So they make for interesting reading.
These texts—and there are many, many more that might have been chosen—are often called gnostic gospels. Gnosticism wasn’t the same as Christianity, but was heavily influenced by it. What I find most interesting about Gnosticism is not how it is similar to Christianity, but how it was different. It is a difference that illuminates.
Gnostics were very spiritual people. In fact, they were pretty sure that all things spiritual were really great, especially compared to all things material—including human bodies. Gnostics thought that the body’s feelings and passions prevented people from thinking holy, spiritual thoughts. In fact, many Gnostics described their bodies as prisons in which their spiritual selves were locked up. And what their spiritual selves, their souls, really wanted was freedom from the body so that they could be reunited with the great big spirit in the sky.
It is hard for us to imagine life this way. As long as we’re healthy, we love our bodies, exercise them, diet, dress them up, romp in bed with them, play in them—and we think this is all great! But the ancient world was a place without aspirin or antibiotics, a place where life was often short, brutish, attended by poverty and hardship. Life in bodies was often hard and people longed for something better. They thought they might find it in spiritual release. Gnosticism promised people the secret wisdom (“gnosis” is the ancient Greek word for wisdom) that would help their souls escape the horrors of life in the body for real life in the spirit realm.
Gnosticism was too complex and diverse a religious movement to easily generalize about it. But much of the wisdom that they were focused on had to do with religious rules and regulations, habits and disciplines that focused on beating the body and its passions into submission, so that the body wouldn’t get in the way of the true spiritual self.
This means Gnostics were usually ascetic. They emphasized eating less, having less sex, meditation rather than exercise and worship and rituals rather than working and partying. In their places of worship they heard sermons about the secret passwords and rituals their spirits would need, once their bodies died, to join the great big spirit in the sky.
The New Testament warns against gnostic spirituality. Perhaps the best known such passage is in Colossians 2, where Paul warns Christians not to “let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths.” He tells Christians not to submit to such “self-abasement,” or to people who say, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch.” Paul says such regulations as well as severe treatment of the body might have the appearance of wisdom—there is the Greek word “gnosis,”—but they are of no real value for Christians.
Why does Paul reject this kind of religion? Well because neither he, nor Christians in general, believe that life in the flesh means exile for the soul.
Ultimately the message of Christianity is that the body and its appetites are God-given gifts to be nurtured and enjoyed. According to the creation myth, God created Adam and Eve naked and not ashamed. Bodies are good! The Old Testament “Song of Songs” is a celebration of a good romp in bed with your beloved and enjoying this bodily pleasure as a divine gift. The story of Easter is that Jesus’ body was resurrected because a spirit without a body is missing something. And Paul taught that we are saved by grace rather than by secret wisdom about how to beat the body into submission.
I would say any religion that tries to make a good bottle of wine or beautiful painted nails or a feast with friends inherently evil is merely a gnostic-like misunderstanding of Christianity. Everything—Paul means all material things, in another tirade against Gnosticism from First Timothy—“everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving.”
Religion that promotes a set of rules and regulations that always says “No!” to the body in order to promote one’s spiritual side isn’t what the Bible is about. True spiritual life is always life in the body. So long as we use our life in the body to love our neighbors, to pursue justice and mercy and the good for others that Jesus sought to demonstrate in his bodily life, we ought to enjoy our bodies as a divine gift.
So, by all means, pick up a copy A New New Testament or some other gnostic gospels. And allow yourself to be fascinated by how Christianity offers a very different perspective on the relation of body and soul.