Abrahamica: Chapter Five


Mainstream Christianity stands apart from the other two major Abrahamic faiths through its claim that Jesus Christ is God the Son, who was Incarnated some two-thousand years ago. Most Christians affirm a triune God, consisting of three unified but distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

Throughout its history Christianity has weathered schisms and theological disputes that have engendered many distinct churches and denominations. Today, the chief branches are the Roman Catholic Church, headed by the pope in the Vatican; Eastern Orthodoxy; and the various Protestant denominations.

Starting from Galilee and Jerusalem, Christianity spread to the rest of Palestine, to Syria, Anatolia, and Egypt. Eventually it encompassed most of the Near East, becoming the state religion of Armenia in either 301 or 314; of Aksum (Ethiopia) in 325 or 328; of Georgia in 337; and then, most momentously, the state religion of the Roman Empire in 380. Having achieved dominance in Europe during the Middle Ages, Christianity spread throughout the world during the Age of Exploration, starting in 1492.

The first Christians were either ethnically Jewish or converts to Judaism. Jesus preached primarily to the Jewish people, and from them he chose his first disciples. Although the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) specifically applies to "all nations," an early difficulty arose concerning gentile (non-Jewish) converts. How Jewish must they become in order to turn Christian? Key issues were circumcision and adherence to the dietary laws (kashrut). While Judaizers (forming the ecclesia ex circumcisione) continued to honor these requirements, most pagans, especially the Greeks, found circumcision repulsive. Moreover, gentile converts regarded adherence to the dietary rules as unnecessary. As the church grew, the need to address the concerns of Christians who were not of Jewish origin became paramount.

Growing differences led to the separation of Christianity from the synagogue. In this way Christianity acquired an identity distinct from rabbinic Judaism. For its part, though, the Roman state was slow to grasp the distinction between the two.

In 313 the emperor Constantine the Great brought the sequence of periodic persecution of Christians to an end. Then in 325 he summoned the First Council of Nicaea to cement church unity. The result was the opposite of what was expected: failing to solve doctrinal problems, this gathering launched a period of vigorous contention regarding the official beliefs of the Church.

Most were convinced that their own solutions were correct. In fact fervent insistence on separating “true belief” (orthodoxy) from heresy is a hallmark of historical Christianity. To the bishops of the early Church fell the task of promulgating truth at they saw it, repudiating any deviation therefrom. As differing opinions continued to bubble to the surface among the laity--and even among some bishops--the task of defining orthodoxy became ever more urgent.

In this endeavor the appeal to Scripture was obligatory, even though consulting these texts did not necessarily yield uniform results. The Scriptural canon comprises the set of books Christians regard as divinely inspired. Though the Early Church adopted the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) in its Septuagint (Greek) version, the apostles did not posit a set of new scriptures. Only gradually did the canon of the New Testament crystalize.

A number of writings ascribed to the apostles circulated among the earliest Christian communities, not all of them finding a place in what became the New Testament. In the early second century, Justin Martyr mentions the "memoirs of the apostles," which Christians called "gospels" and which were regarded as standing on par with the Old Testament. A four-gospel canon (the Tetramorph) was in place by the time of Irenaeus of Lyon, about 160. By the early third century, Origen may have been using the same 27 books as in the modern New Testament, though disputes lingered over the canonicity of Hebrews, James, II Peter, II and III John, and Revelation.

In his Easter letter of 367, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, gave the earliest known complete list of the books that would form the New Testament canon. In 393 the North African Synod of Hippo approved the New Testament, as it stands today, together with the Septuagint books, a decision that was reaffirmed by Councils of Carthage. Leading church authorities, such as Augustine, pope Damasus, and Pope Innocent I endorsed these decisions. Thus, by the late fourth century the West had settled on the New Testament canon; the East followed not long after. Only with regard to the Book of Revelation did uncertainty persist in some quarters.

When bishops and councils spoke on such matters they asserted that they were not defining something new, claiming instead that were simply affirming what was always there. This tendency to minimize change is a characteristic feature of Christianity--as it is probably of all organized religions. For its part, however, scholarly investigation must frankly acknowledge change when it occurs.

The authority of the bishop (episcopus, "overseer") is a feature not anticipated by the earliest Christians.

The same is true of the institution of monasticism. Monasticism is a form of asceticism whereby one renounces worldly pursuits so as to concentrate solely on spiritual pursuits, especially by the virtues humility, poverty, and chastity. It began early in the Church as a cluster of similar traditions, modeled upon scriptural examples and ideals, and with roots in certain strands of Judaism (e.g., the Essenes).

From the outset there were two forms of monasticism. Eremetic monks, or hermits, live in solitude, whereas cenobitics dwell in communities, generally in a monastery under a rule (or code of practice), and are governed by an abbot. Organized monasticism began its spectacular rise in the Egyptian desert, spreading gradually to the rest of the Roman empire, and even beyond (as in Ireland and Scotland). Prior to the rise of the universities in the eleventh century, monasteries enjoyed a monopoly of Christian learning. They were also major centers of architecture and art, especially metalwork and manuscript illumination.

We turn now to some fundamental problems of Christian origins.


Contemporary biblical scholarship has established that there is no conclusive evidence that such worthies as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Moses, Aaron, and Joshua actually lived. They belong exclusively to the realm of myth.

So much for the historicity--or more accurately, the nonhistoricity--of the figures who populate the Pentateuch. Gradually, it seems (as we read on in the story and the generations roll by), the world of the Hebrew Bible becomes less mythical and more historical. But when does it do so? It is a startling fact that no real evidence has emerged for the existence of David and Solomon. To be sure, there is one doubtful inscription supposedly pertaining to the former, but the interpretation of the name David is disputed. Where are the commemorative steles and other monuments we would expect to find as evidence for a great Middle Eastern empire, as Solomon’s was reputed to be? What became of the polity’s archives? It is becoming increasingly evident that if David and Solomon ruled over anything it was a petty chieftainship, too minor to merit notice in the annals of the great kingdoms of the Middle East.

So there is abundant room for doubt. Why though should the Hebrew Bible be the exclusive target of this well-merited skepticism? The New Testament deserves close scrutiny in it own right.

The idea that Jesus never existed as a historical figure goes back more than 200 years. To the best of our knowledge, the first writer to argue this was the French savant Charles François Dupuis (1742-1809). Trained as a lawyer, Dupuis developed a passion for astronomy. Oddly enough, this interest informs his magnum opus Origine de tous les Cultes, ou la Réligion Universelle, which appeared in 12 volumes in Paris in 1795. In this vast work, the French scholar held that religious myths of all nations adhered to common principles, which derived from nature. Chapter Nine of this gargantuan work bears the title of “An explanation of the fable in which the Sun is worshiped under the name of Christ.”

Late in life, the American founder John Adams (1735-1826) obtained a full set of Dupuis’ work of synthesis. Reading it carefully, he became convinced of the nonhistoricity of Jesus by (a fact not mentioned, I believe, in the recent television series on the life of Adams). In this way, Adams was “one up” on his correspondent Thomas Jefferson, who had kept his belief in the real existence of Jesus as a wise teacher of moral truths.

Dupuis’s rejection of the historicity of Jesus resurfaced in the more popular work of his contemporary Constantin François Volney (1757-1820), entitled Les Ruines, ou méditation sur les révolutions des empires. Although this work appeared earlier than Dupuis’ (in 1791), Volney probably depended on his older colleague for his opinion about Jesus.

On a different basis, these doubts resurfaced in the work of the German theologian and philosopher Bruno Bauer (1809-1882). Starting in 1840, he began to publish a series of controversial works arguing that Jesus was a myth, a second-century fusion of Jewish, Greek, and Roman theology. Bauer’s arguments were based on his deconstructive analysis of the text of Mark, which by his time had come to be generally recognized as the earliest of the gospels.

Then the baton was taken up by the Dutch radical theologians, who denied the authenticity of the Pauline epistles. Most of these scholars retained some sense that there was an authentic core, however, exiguous, that could be retrieved about the historical Jesus. A few, such as Systra Hoekstra, Allard Pierson, and Samuel Adrian Naber went further, denying that the Gospels contained any authentic information. In their view we possessed no reliable information that would affirm the actual existence of Jesus.

From time to time these questionings of the historicity of Jesus have surfaced again, most recently in The Jesus Project, an outgrowth of the earlier Jesus Seminar.

First, a step back: what was the Jesus Seminar? The Jesus Seminar, founded in 1985 by the late Robert Funk of the University of Montana, was a serious enterprise, even though it met criticism on various grounds—its voting method (marbles), the grandstanding of some of its members, the public style of its meetings, not to mention its openly defiant stance regarding the claims of miracles in the Gospel (including the resurrection of Jesus). Except for the use of the voting marbles, none of this was new. No one should be especially startled by such features. By contrast, the deployment of additional sources, such as gnostic and apocryphal gospels, to create a fuller picture of the Jesus tradition and the focus on context were innovative. And yet, it is fair to say, the Jesus who emerged from these travails was very much diminished, so much so that few could muster any enthusiasm for the result.

As they neared the end of their labors in 2000, the Seminar members had pared the authentic sayings of Jesus down to 18 percent of those ascribed to him in the New Testament. From this minimalist kit they pictured him as a wandering teacher of wisdom who preached in riddles and parables about a God of love who preferred sinners to the wealthy, comfortable, and wise of the world. Gone, by and large, was the eschatological prophet who preached the end of the world and never expected to found a church—much less a seminar—in his name.

What the Jesus Seminar had tacitly affirmed--without exactly trumpeting the result-- is that over 80 percent of the utterances of “Jesus” had been fabricated by the Gospel writers. That is to say that, if we are to judge a man’s accomplishments by his purported sayings, the greater portion of the literary artifacts known as the Gospels is fictional.

If we are to judge by deeds and events, then what actions survived historical criticism? Not the virgin birth, or the Transfiguration, or the healing of the sick, or such purely magical feats such as Cana, or the multiplication of loaves and fishes. The Resurrection had quietly been dumped by theologians in the nineteenth century. In fact, by and large, the deeds—except, perhaps, the attack on the Temple (Mark 11:15–19)—had preceded the words to the dustbin years before: yet some scholars continued to insisted that the historical figure remained untouched. Only faith could explain this seeming invulnerability.

In January 2007 (convening at the University of California, Davis), the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER) asked the question that had hung fire for over two hundred years: Did Jesus exist? The CSER fellows, invited guests, present and former members of the Jesus Seminar, and a wide variety of interested parties attended three days of lectures and discussions on the subject—appropriately dubbed “Scripture and Skepticism.” The Jesus Project, as CSER has named the new effort, sought to achieve the first truly neutral approach to the question of Jesus’ historical existence. Such at least is their ambitious claim.

Reasonably enough, the Project members held that the history and culture of the times provide many significant clues about the character of figures similar to Jesus. They rejected the mixing of theological motives and historical inquiry as impermissible. They maintained that previous attempts to rule the question out of court constitute vestiges of a time when the churches controlled the boundaries of permissible inquiry into their sacred books. More crucially, perhaps, they regarded the question of the historical Jesus as a testable hypothesis; they were committed to no prior conclusions about the outcome of our inquiry.

The Jesus Project was to run for five years, with its first session scheduled for December 2007. Unlike the Seminar, the Project members did not vote with marbles, and would not expand membership elastically: the Project was to be limited to fifty scholars with credentials in biblical studies as well as in the allied disciplines of ancient history, mythography, archaeology, classical studies, anthropology, and social history.

Unfortunately, the project was halted in June 2009 when the convener, R. Joseph Hoffmann concluded that the project was not productive; accordingly, its funding was suspended. He had issues with the adherents to the Christ Myth Theory, who held that Jesus did not exist. These skeptics had asked to be allowed to set up a separate section of the project, which seemed to suggest that the matter, for them at least, was already settled in the negative. Hoffmann was also concerned that the media was sensationalizing the project, with the only newsworthy conclusion being that Jesus had not existed, a judgment that in his view most participants would not have accepted. He also argued that New Testament documents, particularly the gospels, were composed at a time when the line between natural and supernatural was not clearly drawn. Hoffmann thought that attempting further historical research was not realistic. "No quantum of material discovered since the 1940’s, in the absence of canonical material, would support the existence of an historical founder," he wrote. "No material regarded as canonical and no church doctrine built upon it in the history of the church would cause us to deny it. Whether the New Testament runs from Christ to Jesus or Jesus to Christ is not a question we can answer."

There remain, though, the findings of the predecessor endeavor, the Jesus Seminar. With the loss of over 80% of his body weight, the Jesus of the earlier endeavor is a very thin man indeed--but he hasn’t yet blown away. One who thinks otherwise is Robert M. Price in his The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition? (Prometheus Books, 2003). Price is an alumnus of the Jesus Seminar.

The author has sought to collect and analyze all the relevant information about Jesus--his birth, childhood, baptism, miracles, sayings, and so forth--primarily using the New Testament as we have it, but also employing some Gnostic source material. Unlike some of his predecessors, who have not benefited from seminary training, Price’s analysis is thoroughly grounded in the texts, and for this “warp-and-woof” approach he is to be commended. He has analyzed this data to understand what we know for certain about Jesus. Price concludes that this amounts to very little, if anything.

The writer utilizes three main critical criteria. The first is “whenever we can compare a more and a less extravagant version of the same claim or story, the more modest has the greater claim to authenticity.” Price gives the example of walking on water. In Mark only Jesus walks on water. In this the evangelist is followed by John. Yet Matthew adds Peter to the aqueous adventure. Since we know that Mark is the earliest of the surviving gospels, it seems likely that his version (followed by John’s) is correct; while Matthew’s is an embellishment. So far, so good. However, there may be other reasons for simplicity. Many medieval commentators thought that Mark was not the earliest gospel but the latest; that is, it was a kind of abridgment. On this account, for the reasons of brevity he may have preferred the short (Johannine) version to the Matthaean one.

Yet there is another reason for omissions which goes to the heart of the matter. In looking back over a past occurrence, such as the Easter Uprising of 1916 or the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, some observers like to assert that “X was not there,” even though he almost certainly was. The reason is personal dislike, or a disapproval of the tendency that X belonged to. Thus someone who held that Peter was getting too much power in the nascent church organization may have wanted to “cut him down to size” in this manner. In this particular instance I am inclined to accept Price’s reconstruction. But the methodological principle he adduces is not necessarily one that is universally valid.

From his work in the Jesus Seminar Price takes over the criterion of dissimilarity. That is, if Jesus says or does something that is unique to him (as far as we can tell), then it is likely to be authentic. If not, not. Is it really plausible, though, that the “real Jesus” was constantly innovating 24/7? In the course of my graduate education I been privileged to attend a number of dazzlingly brilliant lectures. There was not one professor, however, who did not occasionally utter some platitude, such as “silence is golden” or “the last mile’s the hardest.” The reason for this is not simple laziness. If one wants to attract a following, as Jesus is represented as wishing, one has to begin by building on what people know--or think they know. Someone who was original all the time might be a forerunner of André Breton and the Surrealists--but he could not lay the foundations for the religion that is currently the most populous on the planet.

Finally, Price offers parallels with other stories, especially those from classical antiquity. He cites Pythagoras, Plato, Alexander, and Apollonius of Tyana (among others) as individuals who are thought to have come into the world through some miraculous birth. The themes of the Incarnation and Nativity may indeed have been embellished by the Christian writers with such detail--but so what?

Here is a personal aside. The Jeffersonian concept of Jesus as a wise, but fallible teacher--a rabbi in the sense common in his time--but not a supernatural being still seems viable. Indeed this view, rather than the orthodox doctrine that the founder of Christianity was a member of some nonexistent “Holy Trinity” strikes me as the most plausible solution.

Continuing in the comparative vein, the story of Jesus counting 153 fishes and how this was part of the Pythagorean legend is a little known fact, and a good example of how Price uses this approach to deconstruct many of the New Testament's assertions regarding the life of Jesus. Still, there are times where Mr. Price seems to be stretching to find matching similarities. Indeed, there are limitations to this method. As a French scholar said in a different context: comparaison n’est pas raison.

It is hard to suppress the suspicion that Price has adopted a kind of kitchen-sink approach, throwing in anything that occurs to him. Thus he says that Jesus cannot have entered any synagogue in Galilee, because archaeologists have not found them there in this period. There are indeed many spectacular finds in Middle Eastern synagogue architecture during the Roman period, but it is clear that the record remains incomplete. For example, not a single synagogue has been excavated in Mesopotamia (Iraq); yet we know from the Babylonian Talmud that this country was a particularly flourishing center of Jewish life and scholarship during the period. On these grounds, an argument from silence (no known synagogues), are we to conclude that the Babylonian Talmud is a falsification?

Some sources that Price throws into the pot are dubious at best. For example, he cites a British occultist, G. R. S. Mead, writing a hundred years ago, as a source for the improbable claim that Jesus actually lived around 100 B.C.

Recent years have seen a groundswell of advocacy of the idea that Jesus is a myth, represented by such writers as Earl Doherty, Thomas Thompson and Frank Zindler. For information on these figures see Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York, 2012).  Professor Ehrman, a prolific New Testament scholar, argues that Jesus did actually exist.

There is one final consideration, to my mind the most significant of all. By modern standards, few figures from Greco-Roman antiquity are well documented. For most ancient philosophers, for example, we have (to all intents and purposes) only the data recorded by Diogenes Laertius. Yet few doubt that Heraclitus or Democritus actually lived. In her book Lives of the Greek Poets,"Mary Lefkowitz points out that "virtually all the material in the lives is fiction."

The information we have on the majority of the ancient Greek philosophers and poets is exiguous at best. That being so, why is the historicity of these figures not challenged? The reason is that there no motive for such doubt, even though they are less well attested than Jesus.

Occasionally, though, these figures can be zones of contestation. The Greek archaic poet Sappho has become an icon for modern feminists--a sort of Sappho Christa. Action produces reaction, and so some scholars have begun to doubt whether she existed. As has been noted, though, such challenges are rare for these figures.

A major problem with sorting out the facts, however uncertain they may be, concerning the life of Jesus stems from the situation that we have too many sources, not too few. In addition to the four canonical gospels, the texts of at least sixteen others are known. Other data stem from the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, not to mention such early writers as Marcion, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus of Lyon. The situation is closer to that of Socrates and Alexander, well attested but with numerous contradictions, than it is to that of Heraclitus and Anacreon, two somewhat mysterious figures. I am inclined to think that the argument that Jesus did not exist is ideologically motivated. It is based on special pleading--a one-sided presentation of the evidence that highlights every contradiction and dubious assertion, refusing to countenance any other evidence.

It is useful to recall the legal principle of neutrality of result. For example, legislation barring excessively high rates of interest should not be crafted so that the prohibition applies to some banks but not to others. Of course, there are disputed cases. Some would argue, I think correctly, that marriage should not be construed so as only to apply to opposite-sex instances ("traditional marriage"), but should cover same-sex ones as well. Others may disagree.

Still, it is a good plan to follow the principle of neutrality of outcomes. Yet that principle is conspicuously ignored by the Jesus-didn't-exist crowd, because they decline to apply their stringent criteria to analogous cases. Take, for example, the case of Jesus' older contemporary, Rabbi Hillel the Elder, after whom many Jewish student groups are named. He looks like a good candidate for erasure, because the evidence for his existence is considerably more skimpy than that for Jesus. Yet I know of no detailed argument for the nonhistoricity of Hillel. Nor is one needed.

When all is said and done, Jesus probably did actually exist - not the divine Jesus of the innovative “Holy Trinity,” but the relatively modest teacher admired by Thomas Jefferson. Still, it is sobering to remind oneself than in trying to understand a society that flourished 2000 years before our own, we are generally restricted to probabilities, not certainties.


The previous section concluded by rejecting the nonhistoricity of Jesus. Absolute skepticism is not warranted, even though it is true that we know far less about him than we would like to. Yet whether Jesus was real or merely legendary, it is clear that this individual was a Jew.

I can hear some irreverent reader exclaiming: “No sh-t, Sherlock. When did you get the first clue?” In recent memory, of course, there have been various forms of denial. Fortunately, the blond Aryan Jesus, propagated by the anti-Semite Houston Stewart Chamberlain and by implication in some Hollywood blockbusters, is no more. A more subtle version, still cherished in various Christian quarters, holds that Jesus’ critique of Judaism was so radical that to all intents and purposes he became an apostate, who departed from his ancestral faith. In other words Jesus, ceasing to be a Jew, was the first Christian. Most New Testament scholars today, however, believe that many features of organized Christianity as we know it reflect a process of transformation that took place only after Jesus’ death. The apostle Paul is usually regarded as the prime culprit in this enhancement, though this view probably overpersonalizes the process. As far as we can determine, several different grouplets in the Jesus movement, including some strongly influenced by the pagan environment, were involved in the rebranding of Jesus as a god.

What then is the evidence that Jesus was a Jew? In fact the four canonical gospels make this status perfectly clear. From his birth Jesus was raised a Jew. He was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2.21) and bore a common Jewish name, Yeshua, “he [God] saves” (Matthew 1.21). In fact, scholars have determined that Yeshua was the fifth most common male Jewish name of the time. Joseph was the second most common male name and Mary the most common among women. As the English scholar Jonathan Went notes: “this in itself is sufficient evidence to throw doubt on the recently found tomb of 'Jesus, Mary and Joseph,' as it is like finding the gravestone of Mr and Mrs John Smith!” The child Jesus was presented to the Lord in the Jerusalem temple (Luke 2.22; cf. Deuteronomy 18.4; Exodus 13.2,12,15) according to Mary's period of uncleanness (Leviticus 12.2-8). A sacrifice was offered for him, a pair of doves and 2 young pigeons, indicating that his family were not wealthy (Leviticus 12.2,6,8; Luke 2.22-24). Thus Jesus was raised according to the Law (Luke 2.39).

After this point, however, matters become murky, owing to the neglect of the “missing years” in the four canonical Gospels. Attempts to fill this gap in with the apocryphal gospels are unconvincing because of the late date of their origin . Jesus’ family, and indeed most of his associates, were what we would nowadays call “working class.” Jesus’ father was either a carpenter or (less likely) a stone-mason. It is therefore improbable that Jesus could have received an elite Jewish education, starting with the reading of the written Torah at the age of five. In fact, it is not certain that he could read Hebrew, though he probably had some proficiency in written Aramaic and perhaps some Greek. The citations he makes (or is said to have made) from the Hebrew Scriptures, which are not always quoted accurately, most likely derive from oral sources. This is what is meant, I think, by the information that by the age of twelve he was found in the temple precincts "both listening and asking questions" (Luke 2.46). The fact that the authorities there “were astonished at his understanding and answers" may reflect surprise that someone of his underprivileged background could show such aptitude.

These examples suffice to prove the point: yes, Jesus was indeed a Jew. To be sure, one must be wary of anachronism, imagining the visible Jesus on the model of some pious Hasidic resident of Brooklyn, with all of the distinctive clothing and hair style such a figure evokes. To be sure, modern Judaism in America is capacious and varied, with four major divisions: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist. Yet the historical Jesus does not map onto any of these. For his part, returning to earth Jesus would probably feel uncomfortable in any contemporary American synagogue--though surely even more so in one of our Christian churches.

The reality is that Jesus was a man of Jewish Galilee in the early Roman era, with all of the qualities and limitations that that status implies.

To be sure, there are significant contemporary scholars in Jesus studies who happen to be Jewish, including Paula Fredriksen, Joseph Klausner, Samuel Sandmel, my old schoolmate David H. Stern, and Geza Vermes.

The case of Geza Vermes is particularly interesting. He was born in Makó, Hungary, in 1924 to Jewish parents. When he was seven, all three were baptized as Roman Catholics. His mother and journalist father died in the Holocaust. After World War II, the young Vermes became a priest. He studied first in Budapest and then at the Collège St Albert and the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, where he read Near Eastern history and languages. In 1953 he obtained a doctorate in theology. He left the Catholic church in 1957, reasserting his Jewish identity. Vermes moved to Britain, and took up a teaching post at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. In 1965 he joined the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University, rising to become the first professor of Jewish Studies there before his retirement in 1991.

Vermes was one of the first scholars to examine the Dead Sea Scrolls after their discovery in 1947, and is the author of the standard translation into English. He has been one of the more influential scholars in urging the study of Jewish cultural and religious milieu in order to understand Jesus.

Jesus the Jew (1973) is the first of three books that Geza Vermes has published on the historical Jesus. He argues that Jesus was a Hasid, a type of charismatic miracle worker active in first-century Galilee.

This approach presents several problems. Vermes' claim that Jesus was a type of Galilean charismatic Jew rests on slim evidence. His two comparative examples are Honi the Circle Drawer (first century BCE) and Hanina ben Dosa (first century CE). While there are some similarities between Jesus and these two, Honi was not Galilean and Hanina's Galilean origin is far from certain. More problematically, Vermes relies on later traditions, some stemming from the Mishnah,compiled under rabbical auspices some two centuries after the death of Jesus, and others as late as the eighth or ninth centuries CE.

Moreover, Vermes employs an inconsistent methodology. He trawls through Mark's gospel to find evidence for a more primitive Jesus tradition consistent with his Hasid theory. Yet he ignores other Markan evidence that doesn't support it. Even in Mark's gospel we see Jesus forgiving sins, preaching the Kingdom, and predicting his death. His assertion that Jesus’ forgiving sins was not remarkable is hard to accept in light of the reactions reported in the gospels. All this puts Jesus in a different category than Honi and Hanina ben Dosa, Vermes’ two paragons.

In my view, the basic problem of Vermes’ reconstruction of Jesus’ Judaism is that it is anachronistic, because it relies too much on incipient rabbinical motifs that are two or more centuries later. Some of these accounts may have been assembled as an explicit challenge to Christianity. While Vermes’ later books attempt to address these problems, the results are inconclusive.

Post-Exilic and Hellenistic Judaism saw the rise of a new genre of religious writing: the apocalyptic tradition. These texts, generally of pseudonymous authorship, include the Apocalypse of Abraham, The Apocalypse of Elijah, 1, 2, and 3 Enoch, the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs and many others. One may consult the comprehensive set of translations edited by James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (2 vols., 1983).

The prophets of the Hebrew Bible concentrated on preaching repentance and righteousness so that the nation would escape judgment. By contrast, the message of the apocalyptic writers was one of patience and trust--for deliverance and reward were sure to come. The typical apocalyptic writer despairs of the present, directing his hopes absolutely to the future, to a new world standing in essential opposition to the present. The underlying dualistic principle may ultimately stem from Persian (Zoroastrian) sources, When Jesus speaks of the future coming of the Basileia or Kingdom he clearly has this apocalyptic perspective in mind. The natural corollary of such a belief is an uncompromising asceticism. One who would live to prosper in the next world must shun this. Visions are vouchsafed only to those who have added fasting to prayer.

In New Testament studies the apocalyptic or eschatological approach became dominant about a hundred years ago, through the work of Albert Schweitzer and others. While it is currently discounted by the members of the Jesus Seminar, clearly the apocalyptic strand, with its visions of Armageddon and the Last Judgment, was paramount for the early followers of Jesus.

A contrary view holds that Jesus’ critique was directly primarily to the iniquities of the present world, and that he was a Zealot, a kind of Jewish revolutionary. The Zealots were a religious-political faction, who thrived for a period of about 70 years or possibly more, in the first century CE. In their theology the Zealots were relatively close to the Pharisees, but their doctrines strongly focused on the necessities of violent actions against the enemies of Judaism. In their time they were a Jewish Defense League.

According to Luke 6:15, Simon, one of Jesus' disciples, was a Zealot. It was also in a climate of tension that their agitation and violence had aggravated that Jesus was executed. Was Jesus a subversive of this kind? A clue to the puzzle was his execution on a cross, a punishment the Roman authorities preferred for political rebels. Another indicator is the cleansing of the Temple depicted in Mark 11, a text that aligns with the Zealot ideology. A third indicator is that at least a few of the disciples carried weapons (Mark 14:47), either all the time or under certain dangerous circumstances.

Nonetheless, other evidence points away from this theory, for Jesus was not a “standard-issue” Jew, which Zealotry required. He did not teach strict adherence to the Law, and he associated with sinners and people outside the Law. The fact that Jesus may have been perceived as a Zealot does not mean that he actually was one.

There is another possible connection that is worth exploring. The Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) comprise almost 1,000 documents, discovered between 1947 and 1979 in eleven caves in and around the Wadi Qumran, on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. The texts include the only known surviving copies of Hebrew Scriptural documents made before 100 CE. There are also original treatises. Most scholars believe that this sacred library constituted the intellectual capital of an ascetic sect, the Essenes.

The general public first became aware of the importance of the scrolls as the result of a series of sensational articles by the literary critic Edmund Wilson in The New Yorker in1955. Wilson argued that the interpretation of these texts would drastically alter our knowledge of the origins of Christianity, forcing major revisions of Christian theology. Others went so far as to assert that Jesus was himself an Essene, living within the community’s precincts for much of his life. These claims are now seen to be overblown. (An interesting, perhaps arcane fact is that the idea that Jesus was an Essene was first advanced by a French Jewish scholar, Joseph Salvador, in 1828, long before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.)

After an initial flurry of publication, the release of the scroll texts came virtually to a halt. This hiatus fueled conspiracy theories that the unpublished texts contained explosive material that was being deliberately withheld. In the wake of the massive release of the original documents in 1991, these claims were shown to be unfounded.

As more sober voices prevailed, it became possible to offer a more plausible assessment of the relationship of the scrolls, if any, to Jesus of Nazareth. The case has been summed up by the Princeton scholar James H. Charlesworth (Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1991). Charlesworth enumerates 24 links. On closer examination, however, most of these turn out to be inconclusive. We learn that both Jesus and the Qumran Community believed in one God and appealed to the Scriptures as a repository of authority. Whoop-de-do! so have most Jews throughout the ages. Other motifs, such as the importance of water and the two-age theory, were common beliefs at the time. Moreover, as Charlesworth acknowledges, there are a number of significant differences between the isolated community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls and the public Jesus movement. In short, Jesus may have been influenced in some respects by the religious currents documented in the Dead Sea Scrolls, but if so, these were merely one of a number of significant sources. The evidence suggests that Jesus was not an Essene.

The late Morton Smith is best known for his purported discovery of the Secret Mark (discussed more fully below). In 1978 Smith published another controversial book, entitled Jesus the Magician. He argues that, among other roles, Jesus was a magician in the sense that the word was understood in the ancient world. In this capacity he functioned as a village medicine man, a kind of curadero, traveling through Galilee and healing people with folk remedies.

The monumental work of John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant (1993) seeks to depict Jesus in almost anthropological terms, as a product of his time and milieu. Crossan's erudition brings together otherwise disparate pieces of ancient history and literature, biblical and secular, to create a detailed and consistent portrait.

His method has elicited some criticisms. The two most significant sources for his attempt to reconstruct the "first layer" of the Jesus tradition are the "Sayings Gospel" Q and the extracanonical Gospel of Thomas. While many swear by it, it is uncertain, first, whether such a document as Q actually existed, and second (and much more controversially), whether different layers of its sedimentation can be reliably ascertained. Crossan eccentrically dates the Gospel of Thomas to the 50s CE (even before the canonical Mark, which he holds did not appear until the early 70s). Most scholars would agree with John Meier, who in the first volume of his A Marginal Jew series argues for the the later origin of Thomas, which he sees as dependent on the synoptic gospels.

John Dominic Crossan is often criticized for classifying Jesus as a sort of Jewish Cynic in the philosophical sense, Still, this view may be worth pondering. In his 1993 volume The Lost Gospel Burton L. Mack (a member of the Jesus Seminar) goes so far as assert that the earliest stratum of Q “enjoins a practical ethic of the times widely known as Cynic” *(p. 114). Mack further notes that “New Testament scholars have often remarked on the Cynic parallels to much of the material in Q1.” This ascription will strike many as improbable, as the world of the Cynics seems far from the rigors of the Hebrew prophetic tradition. Moreover, in common parlance the word cynic (with a lower-case c) has come to have an unsavory connotation of disengaged negativity. Yet this view is not historically accurate, for the ancient Cynics were popular philosophers who traveled about imparting the truths of Hellenic wisdom. If circumstances required it, they were capable of bluntness, of “speaking truth to power.” In these respects they were not unlike Jesus in his public life. It is uncertain, though, whether the parallel is more than an analogy.

The above account is by no means exhaustive. There are a number of variants of these views, and nowadays a proliferating set of popular accounts. Still, one is struck by the lack of consensus as to what the expression “Jesus the Jew” really means. Striving (as we must) to avoid anachronism, the picture of Jesus as a first-century Jew remains murky. In part this unclarity reflects the ongoing difficulty, despite the work of the Q scholars, of determining a plausible sequencing of the earliest Christian beliefs and practices.

When all is said and done, it is likely that Jesus was a kind of bricoleur or eclectic. He combined mainstream Jewish views with others that were oppositional. Some of these latter stemmed from heterodox Jewish sources (such as the apocalyptic literature), while other motifs were Greek in origin.

Postscript. I recently had occasion to go back to the 1965 book of Hugh Schonfield, The Passover Plot. Among other things, this book is an early contribution to the discussion of the Jewish Jesus. Despite the controversy it aroused--largely because of the author's speculative (Docetic) account of the Crucifixion--I find that this is an eminently fair-minded book. It is also highly readable--even charming, a rare quality in this supercharged field.

A Scottish scholar of Jewish origin, Schonfield emphasizes that he had no intention of denigrating Jesus, but rather of displaying his true greatness by stripping away the layers of later theological accretion. Notwithstanding his admiration for the Jesus of the Gospels, Schonfield remained a proud Jew. He certainly was not a "Jew for Jesus" as we now understand the term. Given his standpoint, his book is pioneering contribution to the nowadays wrongly-despised realm of Judaeo-Christian studies. Despite its age, I recommend The Passover Plot as a splendid example of how to accomplish this kind of thing.


Over the centuries the Virgin Mary has become a portentous figure in Christian ritual, art, music, and literature. In the perspective of Salvation History, she ranks as the Counter-Eve, the supremely good woman whose role it was to end the reign of woe unleashed by her predecessor, the First Mother. She is accounted as preeminent among the saints. As the Intercessor, Mary is the object of countless Christian prayers.

It comes, then, as something of a surprise to find that her role in the New Testament is relatively modest. Of course, she figures in the birth stories of Matthew (1-2) and Luke (1-2). While Mary is mentioned several times during the public ministry of Jesus, she remains largely in the background. According to the fourth Gospel, she appears at the foot of the Cross (John 19:25). She was in the Upper Room in Jerusalem to witness the emergence of the Christian community (Acts 1:40).

The Gospels assert both Mary’s maternity and virginity. The belief in the Virgin Birth ostensibly finds support in Isaiah (7:14): “behold, a virgin shall conceive.” Yet this familiar phrase does not reflect the wording of the Hebrew Bible, but stems from the Greek Septuagint version, where the word parthenos is used. The Greek word parthenos can mean either a young woman or a virgin; for this reason the word parthenos can be found in the Septuagint referring to someone who is not a virgin. For example, in Genesis 34:2-4, Shechem raped Dinah, the daughter of the patriarch Jacob, yet the Septuagint refers to her as a parthenos after she had been defiled. The Bible reports that after Shechem had violated her, his heart desired Dinah, and he loved the damsel (Septuagint: parthenos) and he spoke tenderly to the damsel (Septuagint: parthenos). Clearly, Dinah was not a virgin after having been raped, and yet she was designated a parthenos, the same word the Septuagint used to translate the Hebrew word alma in Isaiah 7:14.

Some modern scholars have surmised that the doctrine of Mary’s virginity has been imposed on the infancy narrative in order to give the appearance of fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy - at least in its Hellenic (Septuagint) version. In early times, however, only a few obscure sects, including the Psilanthropists and the Adoptionists, doubted the idea of the Virgin Birth. The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds affirm it. In 432 the Council of Ephesis defined the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God (Theotokos).

Comparative mythology suggests some interesting parallels. Legendary heroes and kings sometimes figure as offspring of gods. Both Egyptian pharaohs and Roman Emperors were accorded divine status, though the latter achieved divinization in Rome only after death.

Extra-biblical birth narratives typically involve sexual intercourse, sometimes involving rape or deceit, by a god in human or animal form—for example, the stories of Leda, Europa, or the birth of Hercules. Reputedly, the mother of Alexander the Great was impregnated by a snake. However bestial, these tales are about copulation. Yet an example of a story where the woman's physical virginity is explicitly maintained by the god who impregnates her by artificial insemination is found in the vast Hindu epic the Mahabharata. "The sun-god said: O beautiful Pṛthā, your meeting with the demigods cannot be fruitless. Therefore, let me place my seed in your womb so that you may bear a son. I shall arrange to keep your virginity intact, since you are still an unmarried girl." Zoroastrianism also holds that the end-of-time Saoshyant (“Savior”) will be miraculously conceived by a virgin who has swum in the lake where Zoroaster’s seed is preserved.

The birth narratives of Jesus are distinctive in that they speak of the Holy Spirit, not of male seed, as the active agent in his conception (Matthew 1:21; Luke 1:35). The historicity of this account may be doubted. As regards the actual circumstances of Mary’s impregnation, it is a truism that “no one knows.” For some, the bizarre nature of the posited event precludes its actually happening. Yet for the believing Christian it is precisely this implausibilty that assures the Virgin Birth its status as one of the supreme mysteries of the faith.

Over the centuries mainstream Christianity has come to cherish an exalted notion of the Mary the mother of Jesus. Some went even further. Collyridianism was an obscure early Christian sect whose adherents seem to have worshipped Mary as a goddess. According to our main source, Epiphanius of Salamis (writing about 375 CE), certain women in then largely-pagan Arabia combined indigenous beliefs with the worship of Mary, offering little cakes or bread rolls (Greek kollyris) to her.

In his book The Virgin, Geoffey Ashe proposes that the Collyridians constituted a separate Marian religion rivaling Christianity. Founded by first-generation followers of the Virgin Mary, some their doctrines were takenup by the Council of Ephesis in 432--a landmark in Mariology. Today, some women interested in feminist spirituality claim the Collyridians as precursors.

The Collyridians also figure in some recent discussions of the Qur’anic concept of the Christian Trinity. Certain verses in the Qur’an (5:73; 5:75; and 5:116) have been taken to imply that Muhammad believed that Christians considered Mary part of the Trinity. She would take the place of the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Trinity. Of course, this idea has never been part of mainstream Christian doctrine, but there has been some modern speculation that Muhammad might have confused heretical Collyridian beliefs with those of orthodox Christianity.

If Mary was a Virgin prior to her encounter with the angel Gabriel, and if the Virgin Birth was truly virginal, what was the sexual status of Mary afterwards. It would seem that her special role in the Incarnation had been fulfilled, and that she could go on to conceive and birth other children in the normal way. Indeed, the gospels refer to Jesus’ brothers and sisters.

Some early Christians--and many other believers after them--have maintained a belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary. This view, or something like it, surfaces in the Protoevangelion of James, a noncanonical gospel, probably dating to the latter part of the second century CE. The text recounts how a test confirms Mary’s virginity before birth. Then the absence of labor pains, and a midwife’s examination, demonstrate Mary’s virginity during birth. The work also asserts that Jesus' "brothers" and "sisters" are Joseph’s children from a marriage previous to his union with Mary. This text does not explicitly assert Mary's perpetual virginity after the birth of Jesus. But another book, The History of Joseph the Carpenter, presents Jesus as speaking, at the death of Joseph, of Mary as "my mother, virgin undefiled".

The idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary spread rapidly in the Near East, beginning in the third century. Today it is part of the teaching of Roman Catholicism, as well as Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, as expressed in their liturgies. Mary was ever-virgin (Greek ἀειπάρθενος, aeiparthenos) throughout her life, making Jesus her only biological offpring. This tradition of the perpetual virginity of Mary is one element in the well-established theology regarding the Theotokos, [Mary as] Mother of God.

From the fifth century to relatively modern times, little opposition to the doctrine arose in either East or West. Even Martin Luther maintained that Mary had no other children and did not have marital relations with Joseph. However, many subsequent Protestant authorities have thought otherwise, and so too do most unaffiliated students of the New Testament.


Recent scholarship has emphasized the importance of the so-called gnostic Gospel of Thomas, which some regard as a fifth such text, on a par with the canonical set of four.

The gospel is ascribed to the apostle Thomas, one of the twelve. What in fact do we know of this this Thomas? His full name was Didymus Judas Thomas. That is to say, Judas was his proper name, while the additions Didymus and Thomas (Te’omas) are descriptive adjuncts. Both mean “twin,” one in Greek and the other in Aramaic. This disciple then was a twin of someone. But of whom?

The apocryphal Acts of Thomas, apparently written in Syria in the third century, is the source of the legend that this disciple became a missionary in India. The text also asserts that Thomas was the brother of Jesus. Likwise, this claim appears in one of the gnostic Nag Hammadi documents.

For a long time, Catholics and others, eager to defend their notion of the perpetual virginity of Mary, have claimed that Jesus’ brothers were not truly uterine siblings, born of the womb of Mary, but cousins perhaps, or children of Joseph by another mother.

The New Testament texts do not offer support for these speculations. Instead, they speak directly of Jesus’ having brothers (and sisters as well, though they are not named). The fullest list of brothers (not necessarily exhaustive) is given in Matthew 13:55, where four are mentioned: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas. It is unlikely that the last is the disciple who betrayed Jesus, as he is never identified as Jesus’ brother. This person could be the Jude to whom an epistle is ascribed in the New Testament. Yet there is a real possibility that the last brother named in Matthew’s list is our Didymus Judas Thomas.

On this interpretation Jesus had a twin brother, also born of Mary. One child was divine, the other an ordinary human being. This seems bizarre, yet the situation is not without precedent--at least in classical mythology. One parallel concerns the supreme Greek hero Heracles (Hercules), who had a mortal twin named Iphicles. According to the story, Alcmene had conceived a child with her husband, Amphitryon. Then she attracted the amorous attentions of Zeus, who made love to her in human form--in the guise of her husband Amphitryon. As a result of these couplings two children grew in her womb, one the son of a mortal, the other the son of a god.

Let us review the facts as presented in the legend. First came the “normal” impregnation: male human to female human. Then there occurred the extraordinary fertilization of the woman with the sperm of a god. The result of the first act was the mortal Iphicles. Herakles, whose heroic stature approached but did not quite attain the status of a god, resulted from Alcmene’s second coupling.

In the case of Mary we would need to reverse the order. First she was impregnated by the Holy Spirit, while still a virgin. Not long thereafter, Joseph (or some other man) impregnated her with the child who was to become Didymus Judas Thomas, Jesus’ twin brother. As the Trinity could not become a quaternity, Thomas was denied divine status.

Recent scholarship has explored many fascinating bypaths of Early Christianity. To the best of my knowledge, though, Bart Ehrman (in his book Lost Christianities) is the only one to have discussed frankly this extraordinary possibility--that Jesus had a twin brother. However, he declines to explore the implications further.

Did Thomas acquire special knowledge of divine truths while still in the womb? Was it uncomfortable for him, having to share the cramped space with a divine being? Did Thomas receive any of the gifts of the magi? What was his role in Joseph’s carpentry shop? And so forth.

These questions may seem far-fetched. But the theological implications of this twinship, if it was the case, are enormous. They literally boggle the mind.


The modern critical approach to the biblical texts began some 150 years ago in Germany. Sometimes termed the Higher Criticism, this approach stresses that things are not what they seem. The Pentateuch, for example, was not written by Moses or dictated to him by Yahweh. Moreover, according to the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis, which further research has abundantly confirmed, that foundational text breaks down into four main streams, known by the initials J, E, D. and P. These do not correspond to the traditional ordering of the five books, but afford a glimpse into the stratigraphy, as it were, of the Pentateuch--the stages of its formation. Each stream is dominated by a particular theological concern.

Other scholars began to deploy a similar approach to the New Testament, especially the four canonical gospels. Since the publication of Johann Griesbach in 1776, it has come to be generally agreed that the Gospel of John stands apart. In fact, it has long been recognized that the the Gospel of John differs significantly from the other three canonical gospels in theme, content, time duration, order of events, and style. Some 1800 years ago, Clement of Alexandria famously summarized the unique character of the the Gospel of John by stating "John last of all, conscious that the 'bodily' facts had been set forth in those [earlier] Gospels ... composed a 'spiritual' Gospel."

Our focus here lies elsewhere, with the other three, ascribed to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Known as the synoptic gospels, these form a set. The synoptic gospels display an enormous range of parallels among them. About 80% of the verses in Mark have parallels in both Matthew and Luke. Since this material in common to all three gospels, it is sometimes known as the Triple Tradition. The Triple Tradition is largely narrative but contains some sayings material.

Once their kinship is granted, what of the relations among the three synoptics? During the Middle Ages, the relatively short Gospel of Mark was thought to be a summary or epitome of the others. In 1838, however, Christian Wilke established the priority of the Mark, now generally accepted as the earliest of the four.

Mark is the shortest of the gospels, suggesting that the longer gospels took Mark as a source, adding additional material to it (as opposed to Mark taking longer gospels but deleting substantial chunks of material). Mark's diction and grammar are less sophisticated than those found in Matthew and Luke. It would appear that Matthew and Luke improved Mark's wording (as opposed to Mark intentionally "dumbing down" more sophisticated language). Mark regularly included fragments in Aramaic (translating them into Greek), whereas Matthew and Luke do not.

Another finding is extremely important. Matthew and Luke share a large amount of material that is not found in Mark. In fact, more than 200 verses in the two later Synoptics are common to both. Technical analysis suggests that neither copied the other, so that the material derived from yet another fund of technical material.

This recognition has led to what is termed the “two-source” theory for Matthew and Luke; they came about through merging the Markan component with the other body of material. Nowadays, this other body of material is commonly termed Q (Q standing for the German word Quelle, “source”). It has also been shown to underly about a third of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.

It is possible to deduce that the Q document, in the form that Matthew and Luke had access to, was written in Greek. Were Matthew and Luke consulting a document that had been written in some other language (for example, Aramaic), it is unlikely that two independent renderings produced by Matthew and Luke would have the same wording.

Strictly speaking Q is not a gospel--that is, a narrative biography of Jesus--but a collection of sayings (or logia). Begining in the 1980s several scholars presented reconstructions of Q.

This burst of interest fostered increasingly more sophisticated literary and redactional reconstructions of Q, as seen the work of John S. Kloppenborg. Focussing on certain literary phenomena, Kloppenborg argued that Q was composed in three stages. The earliest stage featured a collection of wisdom sayings involving such issues as poverty and discipleship. This nucleus was expanded by including a layer of judgmental sayings directed against "this generation.” The final stage included the Temptation of Jesus.

Although Kloppenborg cautioned against assuming that the composition history of Q is the same as the history of the Jesus tradition (i.e. that the oldest layer of Q is necessarily the oldest and pure-layer Jesus tradition), some recent seekers of the Historical Jesus, including the members of the Jesus Seminar, have done just that. Basing their reconstructions primarily on the Gospel of Thomas and the oldest layer of Q, they propose that Jesus functioned as a wisdom sage, rather than a Jewish rabbi, One commentator, Bruce Griffin, characterizes the Kloppenborg hypothesis as follows: “This division of Q has received extensive support from some scholars specializing in Q. But it has received serious criticism from others, and outside the circle of Q specialists it has frequently been seen as evidence that some Q specialists have lost touch with essential scholarly rigor. The idea that we can reconstruct the history of a text which does not exist, and that must itself be reconstructed from Matthew and Luke, comes across as something other than cautious scholarship. But the most serious objection to the proposed revisions of Q is that any attempt to trace the history of revisions of Q undermines the credibility of the whole Q hypothesis itself. For despite the fact that we can identify numerous sayings that Matthew and Luke have in common, we cannot prove that these sayings come from a single unified source; Q may be nothing but a convenient term for a variety of sources shared by Matthew and Luke. Therefore any evidence of revision of Q counts as evidence for disunity in Q, and hence for a variety of sources used by Matthew and Luke. Conversely, any evidence for unity in Q - which must be established in order to see Q as a single document - counts as evidence against the proposed revisions. In order to hold to a threefold revision of Q, one must pull off an intellectual tight-rope act: one must imagine both that there is enough unity to establish a single document and that there is enough disunity to establish revisions. In the absence of any independent attestation of Q, it is an illusion to believe that scholars can walk this tightrope without falling off.”

Setting aside this controversy over the purported layering to be found in Q, the roster of motifs thought to have originated therein is striking. These include:

* The Beatitudes
* Love your enemies
* The Golden Rule
* Judge not, lest ye be judged
* The Test of a Good Person
* The Parable of the Wise and the Foolish Builders
* The Parable of the Lost Sheep
* The Parable of the Wedding Feast
* The Parable of the Talents
* The Parable of the Leaven
* The Parable of the blind leading the blind
* The Lord's Prayer
* Expounding of the Law
* The Birds of Heaven and The Lilies in the Field

As I write, a group of scholars is seeking to produce a definitive edition of Q under the auspices of the International Q Project and the Q Project of the Society of Biblical Literature. These scholars are working under the direction of James Robinson at the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at Claremont College in California. While awaiting their results, one may consult Burton L. Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins (1993) and Marcus J. Borg et al., eds. The Lost Gospel of Q: The Original Sayings of Jesus (1999).

Looking back over the history of research, it is evident that for a long time, the Q hypothesis was pursued simply as a solution to the synoptic problem; hence the major publications of Bultmann and Streeter (1921 and 1924 respectively).

The grounds for the recent interest in Q are quite different. Once the text is properly reconstructed, it will serve, it is held, to throw light on the beliefs and practices of the earliest followers of Jesus. For some time, now, the conventional wisdom has maintained that the apostle Paul altered and enlarged the message of the earliest followers of Jesus. Yet because some of the Pauline Epistles (at least four) are the earliest surviving documents we have, peering into the pre-Pauline stage has been hazardous and often subjective. If, however, we can rely on the Q to document this phase, the problem is solved--or at least very substantially addressed.

Notwithstanding the enthusiasm it has been eliciting of late, some problems remain with the Q claim, the hypothesis of the recovery of a “lost gospel.” For example, we now have the texts--in their physical embodiment--of at least sixteen “noncanonical” gospels (that is, those in addition to the traditional four). As far as I know, no tangible physical evidence, not even a few slivers of papyrus, has come to light of Q. All we have is material in other documents that is assumed reliably to have derived from Q. Thus the situation is not unlike some planet that is not actually observed, but assumed to exist because of its effect on other celestial bodies.

One possible solution to the intangibility issue is to hypothesize that the Q document was not written down as such, but circulated in oral form. Studies of various cultures have shown that such transmission can occur. However, because of the so-called “telephone effect” oral documents change with each retelling, no matter how careful the tellers are to preserve the wording. As found in Matthew, Luke, and Thomas, however, the texts are stable, suggesting access to a written archetype.

A second problem concerns the completeness, or incompleteness of the Q material, as it has been deduced from survivals in the gospels ascribed to Matthew, Luke, and Thomas. The idea that the 225 or so verses recovered in this way constitute an organic whole seems to be tacitly accepted without argument. In the light of this assumption it is assumed that the absence of certain motifs, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, shows that they were not held by the earliest followers of Jesus. Instead, they are mythical accretions, many stemming from the surrounding pagan world. But what if such motifs were found in other portions of Q, which have not happened to survive?

A further question involves the order of the contents of Q. As noted above, there is no overarching narrative structure. Instead, we have a series of atomic fragments, sometimes loosely related, but in many instances simply following one on another. Contemporary scholars assume that the order preferred by the author of Luke is the original one. Yet how can one be sure?

Recent work has shown that the Q problem poses two distinct issues. The first concerns its deployment in support of the two-source assumption, that is, Matthew and Luke as two products of the conflation of Mark and Q. Is is still not possible, though, that the Q material was originally generated by the author of Luke (and not borrowed)? Once established, this Lukan material could migrate into Matthew and Thomas. Or the current could go in a reverse direction, following an old view found in St. Augustine that gives priority to Matthew.

These intricate questions can be pursued in the specialist literature. When all is said and done, though, it seems that the two-source theory, confidently assumed by many New Testament scholars, is not quite nailed down. This is so, even after more than two hundred years of carefully argued analysis.


In the apocalyptic discourse of Matthew 24-25, Jesus describes in stark terms the forthcoming crisis, a testing time in which the present dispensation will pass away, to be replaced by a New Age. The key event will be the Savior’s own Second Coming (Parousia), when he will return in glory to judge the living and the dead and to establish his Kingdom (Basileia). Some thought that the Kingdom would last one thousand years, and this belief has, over time, periodically inspired charismatic movements that are part of a general trend called Millenarianism.

Yet there was a big problem with the scenario Jesus outlined, for he seems to have regarded the inception of these eschatological events as imminent. “Truly I tell you, this generation shall not pass away until all these things have taken place.” (Matthew 24:34). Note also Mark 1:15: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come in power.”

Of course these things did not take place on schedule; indeed--unless most of us have missed something very important--they still have not. Why did the Messiah tarry? The “delayed parousia” was a major problem for the early church, which needed to engineer a fundamental reorientation of its world view and priorities, building institutions for the long haul instead of just preparing for imminent catastrophe and transformation. Jesus’ predictions were falsified, but the Christian church needed to stay in business. Such at any rate, is the analysis advanced by Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer somewhat over a century ago.

Johannes Weiss (1863-1914) saw Jesus not just as a great ethical teacher--the common view when Weiss wrote--but as the proclaimer of a new era, the Kingdom of God. Jesus believed he stood at a critical juncture in history and expected the beginning of the Kingdom, which would be accomplished not through gradual ethical progress, but as "the breaking out of an overpowering storm of God which destroys and renews, . . . bringing in a lasting order of things" (Weiss: 5). Although at first Jesus did not think he would have to die to usher in the Kingdom, he eventually came to that realization, believing (as we have seen) that some persons in the generation then living would witness its coming.

Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) went beyond Weiss's emphasis on Jesus' proclamation of the imminent kingdom to contend that Jesus' entire life was dominated by the vision of this apocalyptic transformation. Confident that the realization of the Kingdom was so close it could almost be said to be present, Jesus sent out the disciples out to give the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" one final chance to repent (Matthew 10). On the basis of Matthew 10:23, where Jesus tells his disciples, "You will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes," Schweitzer concluded that Jesus had originally expected the end of the Age to occur before the disciples had concluded their preaching tour. When this transformation failed to occur, Jesus quietly concluded he had been mistaken. Now believing he himself must suffer the messianic woes that would constitute the birth pangs of the new dispensation, Jesus prepared to go to Jerusalem to die so as to usher in the Kingdom.


The foundation for the doctrine of the Trinity is commonly--though I think erroneously--detected in certain New Testament passages linking the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Two such passages are the so-called “Great Commission" of Matthew: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19); and Paul’s: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (2 Corinthians 13:14). A few other passages exhibit similar wording.

One of these is certainly spurious. The King James Version states, as 1 John 5:7, "For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one." Yet this Comma Johanneum, to use its technical designation, is now generally recognized as a parasitic addition to the Gospel text. Appearing in a few early Latin manuscripts, it is absent from the more authoritative Greek manuscripts--except for a few late examples, where the passage appears to have been back-translated from the Latin. Desiderius Erasmus, the editor of the Textus Receptus on which the King James Version was based, noticed that the passage was not found in any of the Greek manuscripts at his disposal. In the first edition of his Greek New Testament he took the principled step of refusing to include it, as he rightly suspected that it was a spurious intrusion. Later, he yielded to pressure to change his mind.

Erasmus was right in the first place. Not now considered to have been part of the original text, the Comma Johanneum has vanished from modern translations of the Bible, even from the revision of the Vulgate that ranks as the official Latin text of the Roman Catholic Church.

With more than their usual dexterity, medieval theologians even affected to detect “prefigurations” of the Holy Trinity in the Hebrew Bible. One example of this exegetical strong-arming is the so-called “Old Testament Trinity” of the three strangers who visited Abraham (Genesis 18) . Artists have often chosen to employ this subject to illustrate the doctrine, which is otherwise hard to visualize. (In my opinion, it is even harder to conceive in the mind, but that has not been the view of countless credulous Christians, who believe what they are told.)

Returning to the New Testament, what we find there is simply a rhetorical formula of “Father/Son/Holy Spirit.” A moment’s reflection will show that one can habitually connect three things verbally without implying that they share a common essence. For example, the expression “Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe” refers to the fact that these three disparate towns were linked by a railroad. (Imagine, if you will, purchasing a vacation plan for Santa Fe, only to have the travel agent disclose that one has been redirected to Topeka: "after all, they're the same place.") In fact the familiar railroad nomenclature advances no claim of organic similarity, not to speak of the bizarre notion that the communities are somehow the same: “triune” as it were. Yet we are asked to believe something much grander than that on the basis of a few fragments of New Testament rhetoric.

Thinking in threes has enjoyed currency in many cultures. Ancient Egyptian religion honored several sets of three deities, including the triad of Osiris (husband), Isis (wife), and Horus (son); local triads like the Theban triad of Amun, Mut and Khonsu; as well as the Memphite triad of Ptah, Sekhmet and Nefertem, These divine triads show family relationships, but not identity. The Egyptians also held that there were three seasons in the year, not four. For its part, later Chinese civilization honored three great systems of thought: Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism.

The approach is also common in folklore (three wishes, three guesses, three little pigs, three bears, three billy goats gruff, and so forth). In medieval Europe, sorcerers would reputedly sacrifice three black animals when attempting to conjure up demons. On the other hand, a three-colored cat was a protective spirit. In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606–07) there are three witches, and their spell begins, “Thrice the brindled cat hath mewed,” reflecting this bit of folklore. Even today, common parlance distinguishes among the animal, vegetable, and mineral realms.

This being said, the number three seems to have enjoyed particular prominence in Greek thought. For example, the Greek language has three genders. By contrast, Hebrew (like the Romance languages) has only two. Three was an important number for the Pythagoreans. Plato regarded three as being symbolic of the triangle, the simplest spatial shape, and considered the world to have been built from triangles. There were three major tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Later Greek thought conceived of the soul as having three parts.

This profusion, contrasting with the relative unimportance of the number three in Hebrew thought, suggests that the concept of the Holy Trinity is of Hellenic origin. And indeed most of the Christian theologians who addressed this issue had a Greek education and wrote in that language. Significantly, the Greek word "Trias," which these writers employed for the Holy Trinity, does not occur in this sense in the New Testament. All this evidence suggests that the concept, like the word, was an alien intruder.

If the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is a Greek intrusion into the original Semitic base of earliest Christianity, when did it first penetrate.? It is impossible to say for sure. Some scholars claim to have found adumbrations of the doctrine of the Trinity in writers of the sub-Apostolic age. An early, though typically problematic example of this claim occurs in the Church father Ignatius (d. CE 107), who exhorts the Magnesians to "prosper . . . in the Son, and in the Father, and in the Spirit." As we have noted, though, such triadic formulae are scarcely conclusive. In his letter to the Ephesians, Ignatius maintains that "our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the appointment of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the Holy Ghost." Here Jesus is thought of as God, but the Holy Spirit seems a mere agent acting at the behest of God the Father. Ignatius does not say that the Spirit was "consubstantial, coequal, and coeternal" with the other two, as later orthodoxy claimed. This text presumes no explicit Trinitarian doctrine of the equality of all three.

One thing, however, is clear. Crucial shifts in thinking began at a time when everyone who had known Jesus personally was dead. No one would have been alive to contradict the changes.

What did Ignatius really have in mind? He seems to be professing bitheism (sometimes termed "binitarianism"), a belief in two equally powerful gods with complementary or antonymous properties. In contrast to ditheism, which implies rivalry and opposition (as between Good and Evil), bitheism posits two divine figures acting in perfect harmony. (A curious sidelight appears in the Marcionites, an early Christian sect which held that the Old and New Testaments were the work of two opposing gods: both were First Principles, but of different religions.)

Setting aside later elaborations, one must take Ignatius' bitheistic concept on its own terms. Doctrinal development might have stopped right there, and the Christian mainstream might have become Ignatian. Bitheism affirms the divinity of Christ, who is coequal with the Father. That is all that the doctrine of the Incarnation really requires.

Methodologically, the key point is this: one must resolutely abandon the common assumption (fetish, really) of the Holy Trinity as the starting point. Instead, we must understand the doctrine as a point of arrival, not necessarily an inevitable one. The reader must look elsewhere for further details of this gradual process (Carpenter, 2005). By the way, popular writers like Dan Brown are mistaken in suggesting that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity just popped up, as it were out of nowhere, at the Council of Nicaea. Such major changes in consciousness do not occur suddenly.

At all events, the doctrine of the Trinity does come into clearer focus as a result of the deliberations of the Council of Nicea, convened by the emperor Constantine in 325. The Council adopted a term for the relationship between the Son and the Father that stood from then on as the hallmark of orthodoxy; it declared that the Son is "of the same substance" (ὁμοούσιος) as the Father. This notion was further developed into the formula "three persons, one substance." In a paradox that has proved enduring, the answer to the question "What is God?" indicates the one-ness of the divine nature, while the answer to the question "Who is God?" indicates the three-ness of "Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Or so it seems.

Athanasius, a participant in the Council of Nicaea, stated that the bishops were compelled to use this terminology, which is not found in Scripture, because the Biblical phrases that they would have preferred were appropriated by the Arians, who doubted that Christ enjoyed the same status as God the Father. They therefore glommed onto the non-scriptural term homoousios (“of one substance”) in order--so they believed--to safeguard the essential relation of the Son to the Father that had been denied by Arius.

The Holy Spirit was now definitively in the picture, though Council of Nicaea said little about it. The doctrine of the divinity and personality of the Holy Spirit was developed by Athanasius (ca. 293-373) in the last decades of his life. He both defended and refined the Nicene formula. By the end of the fourth century, under the leadership of Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus (the Cappadocian Fathers), the doctrine had reached substantially its current form. In ancient times it was challenged by the Arians and others, while the Socinians, founders of Unitarianism, began a more sustained attack in the sixteenth century.

My conclusion is that there is no certain evidence that the writers of the New Testament documents adhered to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. In all likelihood this innovation seeped into post-Apostolic Christianity from Greek sources. Through sheer legerdemain, it was read back into the canonical texts. This tempting, but dubious exegetical technique foreshadowed the later efforts by the rabbis to impose their own fancies on the Hebrew Bible, as we have seen in the previous Chapter.


The Trinitarians could avail themselves of a further line of defense. In modern times, Roman Catholic apologists have maintained that Christian doctrine has two sources: text and tradition. The doctrine of the Trinity stems from the second source. I note parenthetically that it is a little hard to understand why such an important belief as the Trinity would not have been boldly proclaimed in the New Testament itself. Instead, we must rely on later witnesses, trusting (not too wisely, it turns out) that they have faithfully transmitted the original teaching. That is the fatal flaw, for this claim blithely ignores a key feature of oral tradition. That is the fact that, consciously or unconsciously, each participant in the chain tends to alter the formulation of what has been heard. Some of these changes are slight, while others are substantial.

This point can easily be grasped by recalling the parlor game known as “telephone.” A group of people form a line, and the person at the start whispers a phrase into the ear of his or her neighbor, who does the same, and so on. By the time the message has reached the end of the line it is completely distorted.

Oh, but this objection does not apply in the case of Early Christian doctrines, say the apologists. The messages have a truly faithful guarantor in the form of the Catholic Church. One of the sterling characteristics of that institution is that it is unchanging--the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. At this point, most would be compelled to say, we have broached, if not actually entered the realm of fantasy.

The idea of Church Unchanging is particularly problematic during the first three centuries, when periodic Roman persecutions and the dissensions that the winning side sought to stigmatize as "heresies" wracked the emergent Christian congregations. Viewed in a different perspective, what now seems “heresy” could easily be deemed “orthodoxy,” and vice versa.

Some mischief stems from the translation, standard in English-language Bibles, of the Greek noun ekklesia as “church,” instead of “assembly” or “congregation." In modern English the word church has several meanings, including: 1) a building for public Christian worship; 2) the world body of Christian believers; Christendom; 3) a Christian denomination; 4) a Christian congregation; 5) organized religion in general, as distinguished from the state. As is always the case with language, there has been much semantic evolution, a fact that the choice of words tends to mask. While the words stay the same, the reality they seek to describe changes.

The Greek word “ekklesia” appears in 115 places in the received text of the New Testament. Almost invariably the English translations render it as “church,” instead of assembly, which would be more accurate. In classical Greek city states the ekklesia was a public assembly of citizens summoned by the crier; the group functioned as a legislative body. In the koine Greek of the New Testament the term refers to a groups of persons assembled together for a particular purpose. The meaning was never confined to a religious meeting or group.

The word church which appears in our English bibles derives from the Greek “kyriakon,” not “ekklesia.” The Greek word kyriakon is not found in the New Testament. Its English counterpart "church" came into common use only in the sixteenth century.

This brief summary suffices to indicate the philological background. Let us now turn to the history of institutions. Reading the book of Acts and the Epistles ascribed to Paul, it is clear that the “churches” established in various parts of the Roman empire must be understood in sense no. 4 above; that is, they are congregations, and not limbs of some highly disciplined superorganism of the sort that Roman Catholicism represents today. This particularism is shown by the expression “seven churches [ekklesiai] in Asia.” The term easily leant itself to plural usage because that was the concrete situation.

In the light of these observations it is difficult to support the conclusion, common in Roman Catholic apologetic circles of yore, that Jesus founded THE CHURCH, an institution that is, to all intents and purposes, identical to the Roman Catholic Church today. In view of its unchanging adherence to primordial Christian doctrines (so we are told) we can rely with the utmost confidence on the Vatican as the faithful custodian of those doctrines--including the formerly unwritten body known as “tradition.”

These claims are vulnerable on a number of grounds. Even retaining (as convenience suggests) the conventional rendering of ekklesia as “church,” it is crystal clear that that institution was quite different prior to 313, when Constantine intervenes, to what came after. In fact the two are opposed by almost 180 degrees.

This change may be illustrated by the shift of meaning of another term. As the etymology suggests, “episkopoi” (“bishops”) were originally simply overseers or straw bosses. They possessed none of the trappings of magisterium they were later to acquire under the aegis of Constantine and his successors.

With the ecumenical council of Nicaea in 325 everything changed, and three patriarchates, in effect, were confirmed to stand at the pinnacle of the hierarchy. One must be careful not to retroject Nicene norms back onto the previous era.

As far as I can see, Adolph von Harnack’s fundamental contrast between Urchristentum (comprising the Apostolic and Subapostolic eras; and the age of the Martyrs), on the one hand, and Early Catholicism, on the other, remains valid. Only the transition to the latter created the Christian Church as we know it. This was a slow, often literally agonizing process that reached its term only with Constantine.

I turn now to the matter of texts. Between ca. 160 CE and ca. 220 a grass-roots consensus gradually emerged in several centers as to what the “New Testament” should look like. We have evidence of this complicated process from, e.g., Irenaeus of Lyons, the Muratorian Canon, and Origen of Caesarea.

In no case that I know of did people of this kind actually concoct scriptures. They merely sorted out what they found.

So one cannot seriously maintain that the Church was prior to the the New Testament, which it created. One might as well say that the Synagogue created the Hebrew Bible. Of course, rabbis associated with synagogues (plural) MAY have established some sort of canon at Jamnia ca. 90. But that is a far cry from their being progenitors of those documents. Even the most radical Minimalists do not make such a claim.

The actual origins of the texts remain obscure. It is unlikely, for example, that any of the Four Gospels was actually written by the “evangelist” whose name it now bears. One thing is sure, though. Since there was no such thing as THE CHURCH in those days, it could not have been the progenitor of these texts. We must reiterate another point. Never having existed, this phantom institution would not have been in a position to conserve a uniform body of “tradition” which it later "infallibly" drew upon.

The texts are the only evidence we have, and Roman Catholic efforts to trace such such patent fabrications as Purgatory and the Immaculate Conception to some primordial oral tradition must be regarded as rubbish, pure and simple. That conclusion is, I would think, a no-brainer.

The same goes, I believe, for that perennial hobgobblin known as "Holy Trinity." If we wish to understand Christian origins we must set it aside.


We commonly hear that “Jesus said nothing about homosexuality.” It is true that the four gospels record Jesus as making no statement focusing explicitly on homosexual behavior or rendered a judgment in favor of either the Jewish or the Hellenic attitude toward it. Yet the omission of this particular area of sexual morality does not mean that he had no moral judgment on such matters. His statements on adultery and divorce (Matthew 5:27-32) and on that which "defileth the man: . .. adulteries, fornications... lasciviousness" (Mark 7:20-23) imply no weakening or abrogation of the code of sexual morality recognized by both Palestinian and Hellenistic Jewry. One might even conclude that Jesus was more rigorous in his moralism than his Judaic predecessors, for he seems to have insisted on what he regarded as an even higher standard of morality. It is not just overt acts, but even thoughts and intentions that must be banished from consciousness.

This being said, Warren Johansson (in the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, 1990, and elsewhere) has pointed to some neglected evidence from Matthew 5:22, where the mysterious word racha appears. Johansson surmises that this may be a vulgar loan word (from Hebrew rakh) in Hellenistic Greek signifying the passive-effeminate homosexual whom both Jew and Gentile held in contempt. The import of the passage would then be that not simply physical aggression and violence, but even verbal insults directed at the masculinity of the addressee are forbidden by the higher morality of the new faith. In other words, the passage forbids fag-baiting.

Outside of the gospels, there are explicit references to the morality of homosexual acts in Romans 1:26-27,1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and I Timothy 1:9-10. The first is often mistakenly understood as the sole reference to lesbianism in the Bible, but is in all likelihood a reinterpretation of the sin of the "daugh­ters of men" who had intercourse with the "sons of God" (= fallen angels) in Genesis 6:1-2,4, as echoed in the noncanonical Testament of Naphtali 3:5, an intertestamental writing. The opening statement that "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven" (Romans 1:18) suggests that the whole passage is an allusion the Deluge and the destruction of Sodom, in both of which Paul sees retribution for violations of the natural order.

The passage in I Corinthians 6:9-10 assumes the Ten Commandments as its model. Those who depart from the proper path will find themselves excluded from the Kingdom of God. The words malakoi, "effeminate," and arsenokoitai, "abusers of themselves with mankind," signify the passive and active partners in male homosexual relations respectively, rephrasing the explicit condemnation of both in Leviticus 20:13, which Philo Judaeus and Flavius Josephus alike show to have been generally upheld in the Judaism of the first century CE. The reference in Timothy parallels the one in Corinthians, with a similar catalogue of evil-doers who are deserving of ostracism and punishment.

For Evangelical opponents of homosexuality, this set of three short texts is conclusive. They sometimes designate them, almost gleefully, as the “clobber passages.” Gay and lesbian interpreters have labored to diminish their force. In my view these interventions have not been successful.

An intriguing episode is the story of the Centurion's servant in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10. Donald Mader and others have argued that this implies a pederastic relationship, since the servant "who was dear [entimos] unto him" may have been both a valet and a bed partner. The "beloved disciple" in the Gospel of John alone is sometimes, usually not in a pious vein, asserted to have been a youth for whom Jesus' love was tantamount to a Greek pederastic attachment of the mentor to his protege. This is commonly referred to the Apostle John, but the beloved disciple may have been Lazarus or someone else.

Discussed elsewhere in these pages is an eighteenth-century manuscript discovered and published by Morton Smith that includes a passage that refers to the "young man having a linen cloth cast about his naked body," amplifying Mark 14:51-52, with the innuendo that Jesus had an homoerotic relationship with this otherwise mysterious disciple as well.

These observations are of continuing interest. Yet most commentators, whether gay-friendly or not, have focused on the three texts from Romans, Corinthians, and Timothy noted above. For several decades progay scholars such as Canon D.S. Bailey and John Boswell have been laboring to erase the antihomosexual connotations of the scriptural passages noted above. If there contentions were correct, we would expect that the Patristic Writers, commonly called "fathers of the church," would take a benign or at least neutral view of same-sex conduct. However, that is not the case at all, for none of the fathers wrote positively about same-sex preferences or same-sex acts--quite the reverse. In retrospect, their role in the history of same-sex love was to appropriate, accentuate, and help perpetuate currents of hostility to homoeroticism in existing thought. As such, they lent their voices to strengthen the prohibitions of Leviticus and Paul. They went beyond borrowing and accentuation, revealing themselves to be enthusiastic inventors.

Writing in the first decade of the fourth century, Lactantius (ca. 240-ca. 320) offered a standard Christian explanation of why same-sex acts are unnatural. "When God invented the plan of the two sexes, he endowed the bodies of men and women with a vehement carnal desire for each other. In the pleasurable union of the two sexes, a child is conceived, our mortality is overcome, and the race of living beings saved from extinction. The satisfaction of sexual desire is natural when it serves this purpose. But there are also men, inspired by the devil, who actually join themselves to other males (mares maribus) and practice abominable intercourse against nature and against the institute of God. Such men abuse their own sex. Yet among themselves, they regard these practices as peccadilloes and almost honorable."

The emerging Christian sexual ethic owed a great debt to a Greek philosophical doctrine known as procreationism. As Eugene Rice has emphasized, the idea may be traced to Pythagoras of Samos (ca 570-480 BCE), who emphasized sexual restraint and moderation. At Croton, a Greek colony in southern Italy, Pythagoras is reputed to have persuaded the men of the city to give up their concubines and adhere to strict monogamy.

Pythagoras’ followers in the Hellenistic period made plainer the procreationist core of the Pythagorean sexual ethic: "The first postulate," wrote Ocellus in On the Nature of the Universe, "is that sexual intercourse should never occur for pleasure, but only for the procreation of children."

A stricter version of the doctrine explicitly prohibited every sexual act committed outside of marriage, including "all unnatural connections, especially those attended with wanton insolence [e.g., pederasty]," thus linking the idea of what is natural in sex to a normative demand for procreation as its end.

Both Jews and Christians accepted the procreationist mandate. "What are our laws about marriage?" asked Josephus (ca 37-ca 100 CE), historian of the Jews: "The Law [of Moses] allows no other union of the sexes but that which nature has appointed, of a man with his wife and this for the procreation of children only. And it abhors the intercourse of male with male, and if anyone do that, death is the punishment." Clement of Alexandria (ca 150-ca 215) offers an early Christian instance of the same doctrine. He insisted that marriage is a legal transaction between a man and a woman that exists for the sole purpose of procreating legitimate children in a reverent, disciplined act of will, not of desire. "To indulge in intercourse without intending children is to outrage nature, which we should take as our instructor."

In appropriating these precepts of moderation, Jewish and Christian apologists enveloped an essentially secular ethic of temperance and self-control in a divinely ordained envelope. These behavioral restrictions must be strictly observed because God wills it so.

During the fourth century St. John Chrysostom held that homosexual acts are worse than murder and so degrading that they constitute a kind of punishment in itself, and that enjoyment of such acts actually makes them worse, "for suppose I were to see a person running naked, with his body all besmeared with mire, and yet not covering himself, but exulting in it, I should not rejoice with him, but should rather bewail that he did not even perceive that he was doing shamefully."

In addition the fathers discerned a connection between adultery and pederasty. The Constitution of the Apostles is a collection of ecclesiastical law compiled in the late fourth century incorporating earlier material. This text expands the sixth commandment in this way: "Do not commit adultery: for you divide one flesh into two: For . . . husband and wife are one by nature, concord, union, affection, life, and habit, and separated only by sex and number. Do not abuse boys (oude paidophthoréseis): for this vice is against nature and had its beginning in Sodom, a city consumed by fire sent down from Heaven. Let such a man be cursed and the whole people say: So be it, so be it."

As the late Eugene Rice of Columbia University has pointed out, one innovation of the early Fathers of the church was to take the crucial step of labeling pederasty itself an abuse. So Greek Christians learned to say "boy abuse" (paidophthoria) instead of "boy love" (paiderastia), "abuser of boys" (paidophthoros) instead of "lover of boys" (paederastés, paidophilos), and "to abuse boys" (paidophthoreo) rather than to love them (paidophilein). The interpretation of the story of Sodom remains controversial. Because the citizens of the city were charged with so many vices it it hard to make out that same-lust was the offense that triggered their destruction. Still, by the time of Philo Judaeus the homoerotic aspects had become salient in Jewish circles. Early Christian writers ratified this view. By the end of the fourth century, the Latin fathers had decisively fixed in the mind of the West the links between male-male sex, the lewdness of Sodom, God's anger, and the city's incendiary punishment.

The male inhabitants of Sodom wrote St. Augustine (354-430), "burned with unspeakable lust for one another." Their offense was "abusive intercourse with males" (stuprum in masculos), and God punished them by raining fire from heaven on their sinful heads, a foretaste of the divine punishment to come. The crimes of the Sodomites are against nature (contra naturam) and must be everywhere and always hated and punished. The relationship we ought to have with God is violated when the nature of which He is the author is polluted by perverted desire.

Augustine's follower, the historian Orosius, held that the crime of the Sodomites was precisely their choice of male sexual partners. Sodom and Gomorrah were rich, entailing a chain of consequences. From abundance sprang luxury, and from luxury, sexual depravity, "males with males working shame" (cf. Romans 1:27). Mastered by overpowering lust, the citizens of Sodom were indifferent to any consideration of place (public or private), condition (free or slave, rich or poor), or age (adolescent or adult).

The acceptance of the antihomoerotic connotations of the Sodom story spawned a new lexicon of disparagement in the Latin West, corresponding in meaning and intent with the paidophthoros family in the Greek East. With the sexual meaning that clings to the terms even today, the noun “sodomite” (sodomita), the adjective "sodomitical" (sodomiticus), the verbal phrase "to fornicate in the manner of a Sodomite" (more sodomitico) began to circulate in late antiquity. Their frequent attestation in the sixth century signaled the beginning of a new and ominous era in the history of antihomosexual invective.


Morton Smith ((1915-1991) was a professor of ancient history at Columbia University, where he specialized in Biblical scholarship. In all likelihood he was a closeted homosexual, a status that contributed to his (somewhat gingerly) preoccupation with the subject.

He is now best known for his discovery of a text in the Mar Saba monastery in Palestine, and his controversial interpretation of it. The manuscript in question was fairly small, consisting of three pages of Greek manuscript bound in as end-papers to another book, an edition of the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch. Morton Smith photographed the three handwritten pages, returning the volume to its original place in the library. Subsequently, the pages in question have disappeared. Before this happened, they were photographed in color (with clear evidences of tears on one side of the pages).

What are the contents of those pages? Ostensibly, the document was a previously unknown letter written by the early church father Clement of Alexandria. Moreover, it was a secret letter to his disciple Theodore. The letter congratulates Theodore on trouncing the gnostic Carpocratians, who were citing a libertine version of the Gospel of Mark. The bulk of the letter is spent conceding that there is indeed a "secret Gospel of Mark," but Clement's version of Mark is not the text the Carpocratians favored. Most interestingly, the letter quotes "Secret Mark" to the effect that Jesus had a practice of initiating his male followers into the "mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven." Yet Clement insists that "Secret Mark" does not include the verbiage "naked male with naked male."

In 1973 Morton Smith published his findings in two different books. One was a rigorously constructed academic volume from Harvard University Press entitled Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark, while the second was a popular account entitled The Secret Gospel.

These two publications were a sensation in the scholarly world, though not always in the way Smith intended. While the attacks have recently been renewed, they are not new. In 1975 Quentin Quesnell published a lengthy article in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, claiming that Smith had forged the document, and then photographed his alleged forgery. Smith issued a furious rebuttal, but the debate never progressed beyond these extremes. The unresolved questions lingered.

Morton Smith reported that he found the manuscript in the Mar Saba monastery in 1958, photographed it carefully, and then left the book where he found it. When asked where the original manuscript was, he replied, "On the third floor of the library, where I found it." Four scholars located the manuscript there and saw it.

Then the chief monk became involved, and transferred the book to the Patriarchal Library in Jerusalem. Supposedly, this was part of a project to move all the Mar Saba books to safer keeping. At some point, the librarian at the Patriarchal Library removed the text pages from the end-papers of the book where Smith had found them, and had more photographs taken. Bizarrely, the current stance of the Greek Orthodox Church is that they “cannot find it."

As of early 2008 there are at least three books in print addressing the allegations of forgery: Scott G. Brown's Mark's Other Gospel, Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2005; Stephen C. Carlson's The Gospel Hoax, Baylor University Press, 2005; and Peter Jeffery's The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled, Yale University Press, 2006.

Two preliminary points must be made. First, some resistance to Smith’s discovery and his interpretation of it stems from traditionalists who cannot abide the possibility of Jesus being a libertine. This consideration tells one more about the psychology of the writer than the facts--in so far as they are knowable. At the opposite extreme are those, gay and otherwise, who are seeking to find just this kind of “libertine” in the person of the founder of Christianity. Again, the arguments redound on the arguer.

There are, of course, more objective arguments. Only a few of these will be touched on here.

What are the contributions of the three current authors? First, the case for the defense has been presented by Scott G. Brown, a Canadian scholar.

1) Brown wrote the first doctoral dissertation on the “secret” Gospel of Mark (University of Toronto, 1999). He teaches courses on Christian origins in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto.

In his book Mark's Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith's Controversial Discovery, Brown concludes that forty-five years of investigation, much of it cursory, have yielded five mutually exclusive paradigms, abundant confusion, and rumors of forgery. Strangely, one of the few things upon which most investigators agree is that the letter's own explanation of the origin and purpose of this longer gospel need not be taken seriously.

For his own part, Brown seeks to demonstrate that the gospel excerpts not only sound like Mark, but also employ Mark's distinctive literary techniques, deepening this gospel’s theology and elucidating puzzling aspects of its narrative.

More specifically, Brown's holds that Secret Mark was part of a longer version of the gospel of Mark, written by the same author, but for advanced readers who might be seeking a gnostic understanding of the first version. Longer Mark elaborates themes of discipleship and Christology already in place, especially elements neglected in the shorter version--the one we know--such as the mystery of the kingdom of God (Mk 4:11) and the appearance and flight of the young man in Gethsemane (14:51-52). Brown goes so far as to suggest that Secret Mark is an actual parable of the kingdom: "As an enacted parable of the kingdom, the raising of the young man...illustrates the paradox that one must undergo death in order to defeat it. The private explanation of this parable [where the young man spends the night with Jesus] expounds this insight by using baptismal imagery of death and rebirth [naked under the linen]... Baptism imagery is used here to interpret the salvific dimension of the young man's rising according to the analogy of dying (drowning in water) and rising again, though the baptism by which the transformation is attained is not the rite itself, but a metaphorical immersion in literal suffering and death." (p 206)

Brown’s work is the product of a resourceful defender of his hero, and the book deserves to be read alongside Smith’s original. However, he seems blind to clues that might suggest forgery, including some alleged instances of humor on Smith’s part.

2) Stephen C. Carlson is an independent scholar who maintains several web sites, including one on the synoptic gospels. Carlson, who had read Brown’s book, takes issue with four or five sentences in Brown's book and dismisses the rest of it with a footnote.

Carlson detects tell-tale slips, or perhaps sly jokes, inserted by Smith to permit the truth to emerge, if only the reader is diligent enough. These have been summarized by one reviewer as follows -- The author of Secret Mark seems to have read James Hunter's 1940 novel, The Mystery of Mar Saba. We owe our knowledge of this connection to Philip Jenkins, who first made this connection in 2001. The novel concerns about a forgery at the Mar Saba library, exactly where Smith "discovered" Clement's letter. Furthermore, as Carlson notes, both Secret Mark and the novel's fictional discovery reinterpret a resurrection account from the gospels in naturalistic terms. -- The letter to Theodore sounds hyper-Clementine, as if someone went out of his way to mimic Clement. (This point was argued at length by Andrew Criddle in 1995). -- The letter goes out of its way to authenticate Secret Mark, identifying the author Clement, who in turn vouches for Secret Mark's authenticity; and his full citation of Secret Mark is unnecessary and gratuitous for the concerns he is supposedly addressing. (These points were made by Robert Murgia in 1976). -- Shortly before his discovery of Secret Mark, Smith published a paper in which he connected both Clement of Alexandria and "the mystery of the kingdom of God" (in Mk 4:11) to sexual immorality (in T. Hagigah 2:1). Carlson seems to be the first to have observed this. -- Smith planted three sly hints, revealing himself as the author of Clement's letter: (1) M. Madiotes -- the "bald swindler". (2) Morton Salt -- the company which invented the kind of salt presupposed in Clement's letter. (3) Jesus' gay affair -- with the young man later seen in Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested, thus evoking the cultural milieu of America in the 1950s, where police were cracking down on gay men meeting in public parks and gardens.

Identifying these last disclosures constitutes the bulk of this book. Taken in conjunction with the rest of the evidence, they do seem substantially to weaken Smith’s case.

Other points, such as handwriting analysis, would appear to be moot.

3) The third book is by Peter Jeffery, a musicologist who teaches at Princeton University. Like Carlson, Jeffery reaches conclusions damaging to Morton Smith’s credibility.

Jeffery also detects slips, or deliberate insertions, that imply modern authorship. In his view the three features of Secret Mark's initiation rite--resurrection symbolism, a period of teaching followed by a night vigil, and the wearing of a white cloth--reflect the Anglican Paschal liturgy prior to the liturgical renewal movement of the 1960s. Moreover, Clement and the Alexandrian church maintained a theology of baptism based not on the easter event of Jesus' resurrection, but on the epiphany event of Jesus' baptism by John. Secret Mark should thus have Epiphany motifs (such as creation, the heavens opening with light, the descent of the Holy Spirit and fire, the seal of priestly and messianic anointings) rather than Easter motifs (i.e. Pauline associations between baptism and resurrection).

More generally, Jeffery holds that homoeroticism found in Secret Mark makes no sense in an ancient context. It seems anachronistic. Secret Mark was evidently written by a modern person who assumed that ancient homosexuality would have followed Plato's model of an older teacher with a young disciple, but who did not fully understand how the roles played out.

Strikingly, Jeffery finds that Clement's letter is riddled with allusions to Oscar Wilde's nineteenth-century play, Salome. In the play Salome does the "dance of the seven veils," which is echoed by Smith's Clement, who evokes "the truth hidden by seven veils.”

Jeffery notes Smith's brief career as an Anglican priest, citing his harsh judgments on homosexuals in a 1949 article, quite severe by Anglican standards at the time. It would seem that Smith was going through his own sexual crisis, a crisis that caused him to leave the priesthood a year later. Interestingly, in the same 1949 article, Smith alluded to a nineteenth-century debate between Catholics and Protestants over whether Clement of Alexandria believed that lying was justified if it served the causes of the church.

As one reviewer noted, Jeffery expresses sorrow and contempt. Smith "became what he opposed: a hypocritical Clement who condoned lying for the sake of a fundamentalist sexology"; "a man in great personal pain," who didn't even understand himself despite pretensions to a superior gnosticism; a bitter academic, whose hoax stands as "the most grandiose and reticulated 'F--- You' ever perpetuated in the long and vituperative history of scholarship.” Maybe so, but whether Smith wrote his hoax more as a playful experiment or an angry act of revenge remains unclear.

The result of the vote then is two against one, Carlson and Jeffery against Brown. However, such crude score keeping does not tell the whole story, for Brown’s defense is a meticulous one.

Recently, the philosopher Bernard McGinn has sought to create a School of Mysterians, those who acknowledge that some puzzles can never be solved. Ho hum, one might say, didn’t the ancient Skeptics hold that view? And, of course, Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness principle cut the ground out from under--in advance--any ambitions to create a Final Theory of the universe.

It has been thirty-four years since Morton Smith published his two books. Today, we seem no closer than every to knowing the truth about those fascinating pages. We may simply have to leave the matter at that.


The previous section noted that in 1973 Professor Morton Smith, a distinguished biblical scholar, published two books analyzing a remarkable text he claimed to have discovered at Mar Saba, a Greek Orthodox monastery in the Judean wilderness. Ostensibly, the document contains a missing portion of the Gospel of Mark, which orthodox editors had excluded because of its anomalous character.

After meeting a woman of Bethany Jesus reluctantly agrees to visit the garden where the woman’s brother was entombed. “And approaching, Jesus rolled the stone from the door of the tomb, and going in immediately to where the young man was, he stretched out his hand and raised him, taking hold of his hand. But the young man, having looked upon him, loved him and began to entreat him to be with him. And going out from the tomb they went into the house of the young man; for he was rich. And after six days Jesus commanded him; and when it was evening the young man came to him wearing a linen sheet about his naked body, and he remained with him that night; for Jesus was teaching him the mystery of the kingdom of God. Then arising, he returned from there to the other side of the Jordan.”

Marshaling elaborate textual arguments, Morton Smith maintained that the text was an authentic portion of the gospel of Mark, one that had been censored from the version we know. The text contains Jesus’ original initiation rite. This tradition, he further argued, continued to be honored in antiquity by the Carpocratian sect, while the Orthodox rejected it.

Since the implication of homosexual conduct is inescapable, it would seem that Jesus was gay, and promoted this behavior among his disciples. Jesus never married, so that he was, in effect, a Kinsey Six—a person whose sexual practice was only with his own gender. I doubt, though, that Smith would have gone that far. And we do not know for certain whether Jesus married or not.

The find has been accepted by a number of scholars, while others continue to doubt its authenticity. My own sense is that it is a forgery, whether by Smith or someone else.


Scholars have long recognized that the four “canonical” gospels ascribed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John are not the only ones we have. This hallowed quartet represents a mere selection from a much larger body of available gospels and memoirs of the life of Jesus. No one knows--or can ever know given the losses of fragile papyrus--how many members of this special company once existed. Yet today at least sixteen noncanonicals are extant. The texts of most of these can be read in translation, as for example in the book edited by J. K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford University Press, 1993). In fact scholars have been pouring over these texts for the better part of two centuries.

During the 1970s a leather-bound Coptic papyrus was discovered near Beni Masah in Egypt. The codex comprises four parts: the Letter of Peter to Philip, already known from the Nag Hammadi Library; the First Apocalypse of James, also known from the Nag Hammadi Library; the first few pages of a work related to, but not the same as, the Nag Hammadi work Allogenes; and the Gospel of Judas. About a third of the codex is currently illegible. Since the other three texts were previously known, interest has focused on the last, the Gospel of Judas. Purportedly, this document was not written by Judas himself, but rather by Gnostic followers of Jesus.

After many vicissitudes, this intriguing relic came into the possession of the National Geographic Society, which sponsored a 2006 translation of the Coptic text (a translation that has proved defective in some respects). The Gospel is an esoteric account of an arrangement between Jesus and Judas, who in this telling are Gnostic enlightened beings, with Jesus asking Judas to turn him in to the Romans in order to allow Jesus finish his appointed task from God.

As has been noted, currently the text is extant in only one manuscript, a late-third or fourth-century Coptic compilation sometimes known as the Codex Tchacos, which surfaced in the 1970s, after languishing some sixteen centuries in the desert of Egypt. (Rumors that another version resides in the Vatican Library have not been substantiated.) The existing manuscript has been dated "between the third and fourth century," according to Timothy Jull, a radiocarbon-dating expert at the University of Arizona's physics centre. That means, of course, that the present text was written some 250 years after the death of Jesus. It is generally assumed that it is the Coptic rendering of a Greek original, but there is no way of determining the date of that.

Some scholars detect a possible clue to the origin of the Greek original in a reference to a “Gospel of Judas” by the early Christian writer Irenaeus of Lyons, who, in arguing against Gnosticism about 180 CE, called the text a "fictitious history" (Refutation of Gnosticism, 1:31). Still, it is not certain that the text Irenaeus mentioned is in fact the same text as the Coptic “Gospel of Judas,” which in its present form must be at least a century later. Thus there remains no solid evidence for an early Greek-language prototype.

Unlike the four canonical gospels, which employ narrative accounts of the last year of life of Jesus (in the case of John, three years) and of his birth (in the case of Luke and Matthew), the Gospel of Judas takes the form of dialogues between Jesus and Judas, and Jesus and the twelve disciples, without embedding these in any narrative framework or working them into any overt philosophical or rhetorical context. Such "dialogue gospels" were popular during the early decades of Christianity, and indeed the four canonical gospels are the only surviving gospels in narrative form. The New Testament apocrypha contain several examples of the dialogue form, an example being the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.

Poorly treated after its exhumation, today the Codex Tchacos lies shattered into over a thousand pieces, with many sections missing. For some passages, there are only scattered words; for others, many lines. According to Rodolphe Kasser, the codex originally contained 31 pages, with writing on front and back; when it came to the market in 1999, only 13 pages remained. It is thought that individual pages had been removed and sold.

According to the canonical Gospels of the New Testament, Judas betrayed Jesus to Jerusalem's Temple authorities, who handed Jesus over to the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate for crucifixion. Yet he Gospel of Judas portrays Judas in a very different light, for the newly recovered text seems to present Judas's act not as betrayal, but rather as an act of obedience to the instructions of Jesus. It seems that Jesus required an agent to set in motion a course of events which he had planned. In that way Judas acted as a catalyst. The action of Judas, then, constituted a critical juncture, triggering a series of pre-orchestrated events.

This depiction chimes in with a notion current in some forms of Gnosticism, that is, that the human body is a kind of prison of the spirit. In this view Judas served Christ by helping to release Christ's spirit from its corporeal bondage. The action of Judas allowed him to do that which he could not do directly. The Gospel of Judas does not claim that the other disciples knew Gnostic teachings. In fact, the text implies that Judas was the only one of Jesus’ followers fully to understand the Gnostic teachings: "Knowing that Judas was reflecting upon something that was exalted, Jesus said to him: Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the Kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal. For someone else will replace you, in order that the twelve disciples may again come to completion with their God."

Moreover, the Gospel of Judas shows Jesus in various instances criticizing the other disciples for their ignorance and their followers of immorality.

When they tell Jesus about a vision, he points out its true meaning as follows: "Those you have seen receiving the offerings at the altar—that is who you are. That is the God you serve, and you are those twelve men you have seen. The cattle you saw brought for sacrifice are the many people you lead astray before that altar. (. ..) will stand and make use of my name in this way, and generations of the pious will remain loyal to Him."

The early conclusions stemming from the find have not gone unchallenged. April D. DeConick, a professor of Biblical studies at Rice University, has emerged as a major critic of the translation sponsored by the National Geographic Society. She maintains that this version is faulty in many substantial respects. Based on a corrected translation, Judas was actually a demon, truly betraying Jesus, rather than following his orders.

Having retranslating the text, DeConick published The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says (2007, 2009) to assert that Judas was not a daimon in the Greek sense, but that "the universally accepted word for “spirit” is “pneuma ”--in Gnostic literature “daimon” is always taken to mean “demon”, as she wrote in The New York Times, December 1, 2007. "Judas is not set apart 'for' the holy generation, as the National Geographic translation says." Instead, DeConick asserted, "he is separated 'from' it." A negative that was dropped from a crucial sentence, an error National Geographic admits, changes the import.. "Were they genuine errors or was something more deliberate going on?" DeConick asked in the Op-Ed page of the Times.

In the first edition of her book, DeConick challenged the idea that the Gospel of Judas presented the traditionally infamous disciple in a favorable light, as the scholars who published the edition sponsored by the National Geographic maintained. DeConick has concluded that the recently recovered gospel was, in fact, “an ancient Gnostic parody.” The publisher’s website quotes her as saying: “I didn’t find the sublime Judas, at least not in Coptic. What I found were a series of English translation choices made by the National Geographic team, choices that permitted a different Judas to emerge in the English translation than in the Coptic original. Judas was not only not sublime, he was far more demonic than any Judas I know in any other piece of early Christian literature, Gnostic or otherwise.”

For the second edition, DeConick reports in a personal post: “I revised this book substantially, including two new chapters - one on Judas and astrology (my paper from the Codex Judas Congress) and another on Judas and ancient magic (I cover the magic gem that I think is related to the ideology put forth in the Gospel of Judas). I also have a new preface, covering what has been happening with the Gospel of Judas since its initial release, and I added a section on Thomasine church in the chapter on early Christianity.”

In short, DeConick has clearly established herself as one of the leading proponents of the “Judas as villain” position. The matter is still disputed, but it is no longer possible simply to maintain the hero view--especially since it seems to be based in part on mistranslation and wishful thinking. Thus the purported heroization of Judas seems to have ground to a halt.

Another issue concerns salvation. The first commentators held that the Gospel of Judas teaches that access to the Kingdom will be widely available. Later consideration, however, shows that this boon will be accorded only to a select few.

Stung by these criticisms the National Geographic editors have seen fit to issue a second edition of their version. This text corrects some, but not all the errors.

In an insightful piece, “Betrayal,” just published in The New Yorker (August 3, 2007), Joan Acocella asks why this battered papyrus book should have generated so much excitement. She sees the interest as reflecting a concern about the persistence of evangelical and fundamentalist views. I would go somewhat further. For some time now a group of dissident Christian intellectuals, with Elaine Pagels at their head, has been seeking to construct a kind of Christianity II from the surviving body of material that did not make it into the New Testament. This new (or they would say old) version of Christianity would be tolerant, pluralistic, proerotic, and feminist (perhaps even progay).

A good example of this selectivity is the purported feminism of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. At the end of this text, however, it says that a woman must become a man in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Another instance comes from the Gospel of Judas itself, where Jesus denounces the priests of the Temple for the sins of murder and homosexuality (“lying with males").

In a nutshell, the problem with this hopeful project is that it is a modern fabrication, not a convincing reconstruction of a lost ancient faith. Granted that the orthodox view embodied in the now-canonical Christian scriptures is the result of a process of selection, why would a different selection enjoy any authority? There could be many such creations. The fact that the current amalgam is modern-friendly would seem to count against it, since one of the enduring characteristics of ancient documents is that they are, in many respects, profoundly alien from our own way of thinking.

My sense is that the Gospel of Judas has proved something of a dead end. Still, the figure of Judas continues to fascinate. As Acocella points out, one reason is that he became a focus for Christian anti-Semitism. Acocella also notes a new book by the feminist scholar Susan Gubar, which attempts to trace the evolution of the Judas figure in Western culture. Apparently, Judas: A Biography offers some interesting observations about works of art.

Not having read Gubar's book, I cannot say whether her survey includes the following scabrous episode from a late medieval Jewish work, the Toledot Jesu. According to this account, the miracle-working powers of Jesus derive from his having stolen the Name of God from the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus goes to Galilee, where he brings clay birds to life and makes a millstone float. Jesus is thus a sorcerer. Nefariously, Judas Iscariot learns the Divine Name as well, and so Jesus and Judas fly through the sky engaged in aerial combat. As the winner, Judas sodomizes Jesus, whereupon both fall to the ground. The now-powerless Jesus is arrested and put to death by being hung upon a carob tree, and then buried.

The past yields many curious sidelights. A passage from Gubar’s book reveals the far shores onto which this kind of speculation can lead, even in these latter days: “A male Eve, Judas—rejecting or accepting, promoting or curtailing Jesus’ potency—inhabits a decidedly queer place in the Western imaginary. To the extent that Judas stands for the poser or passer—a person who is not what he seems to be—he reflects anxieties about all sorts of banned or ostracized groups, not just Jews. An apostle in an all-male circle, associated with anality and with the disclosure of secrets, Judas retains his masculinity. . . . At other times and in diverse contexts, though, Judas represents a range of quite various and variously stigmatized populations—criminals, heretics, foreigners, Africans, dissidents, the disabled, the suicidal, the insane, the incurably ill, the agnostic. Members of these groups, too, have been faulted for posing or passing as (alien) insiders. Potentially convertible, all such outcasts might be thought to be using camouflaging techniques to infiltrate, hide out, assimilate, and thereby turn a treacherous trick.


A seemingly inescapable feature of December of each year is the rerun of the myth that the observance of Christmas is nothing more than a continuation of the rowdy Roman rites of the Saturnalia. Many otherwise judicious writers endorse this specious derivation. As we shall see, the argument for it does not hold up.

The reasons for yielding to the Saturnalia temptation are several. One is a legitimate wish to learn why the birthday of Christ should have come to be celebrated on December 25. After all, the New Testament gives no indication of when Christ was born, and Early Christian writers opt for various dates, reflecting the fact that different customs prevailed in different parts of the Empire. In addition to this natural curiosity, however, some advocates of the Saturnalia theory seem to want to “stick it to Christians” by uncovering the somewhat sordid origins of one of their major festivals.

What then was the Saturnalia? Saturnalia was the festival by which the Romans the commemorated the dedication of the temple of the god Saturn, a somewhat ambiguous figure who has given us the adjective “saturnine.” Originally celebrated for a day, on December 17, it grew it to week-long extravaganza, ending on the 23rd. Efforts to shorten the length of these festivities were unsuccessful. The emperor Augustus tried to reduce it to three days, and Caligula to five. If the available reports are to be believed, Saturnalia was marked by tomfoolery and reversal of social roles, in which slaves and masters switched places. Temporarily, slaves were exempt from punishment, and treated their masters with a pretense of disrespect. The slaves celebrated a banquet served by the masters. Yet the reversal of the social order was superficial, for the slaves had to do the work of actually preparing the banquet. Saturnalia was, or appeared to be, what sociologists call a “zone of licence.” Yet the license was confined within carefully defined boundaries: it reversed the social order without subverting it.

What can we conclude from the time of the festival’s observance, December 17 to 23? First, by advancing into December, it came to encompass the Winter Solstice. We customarily mark that event (after which the days become longer) on December 21. However, an astronomer of my acquaintance indicates that actual observation is somewhat less precise, and can range from December 20 to 23.

Note that even its expanded form, Saturnalia, ending on the 23rd, did not overlap Christmas as we currently observe it. Nor does that Christian festival fall within the range of dates for the Winter Solstice.

The real parallel is this. The observance on the 25th of December corresponds to the Roman feast of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. The exchanging of gifts was originally associated with January 6, Epiphany, when the visit of the Three Magi was commemorated; hence the traditional “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Of course no one knows even the season when Jesus was born, or the precise year. Various preferences for the day of the Nativity were found in different areas of the Roman empire. About 200 CE Clement of Alexandria that a group in Egypt celebrated the nativity on Paschon 25, corresponding to January 6, now observed as Epiphany, or Three King’s Day. Tertullian (d. 220) does not mention Christmas as a feast day in the church of Roman Africa. In his “Chronographia,” a compilation issued in 221, Sextus Julius Africanus suggested that Jesus was conceived on the Spring Equinox. The Equinox was March 25 on the Roman calendar, so this implied a birth in December. “De Pascha Computus,” a calendar of feasts produced in 243, gives March 28 as the date of the Nativity. Others rejected the whole principle. In 245 the theologian Origen of Alexandria stated that, "only sinners (like Pharaoh and Herod" celebrated their birthdays. In 303 the Christian writer Arnobius ridiculed the idea of celebrating the birthdays of gods, suggesting that for some Christmas was not yet a feast at this time.

In view of this diversity, the success of December 25 was not preordained in any obvious way. Yet its coincidence with the Sol Invictus observance was probably the decisive factor, because of the concept of Christ as the "sun of righteousness" prophesied in Malachi 4:2. Indeed, in the eighteenth century, some secular scholars proposed that Christ himself had never lived, but was simply a personification of the solar principle. In the broadest sense, this connection goes back to Egypt of the Pharaohs. Not only was the sun worshipped there under various guises, Re or Ra, Re-Horakhte, Amun-Re, but the first monotheist, Akhenaten, devised the first form of monotheism based on the sun as supreme deity (the Aten).

To be sure, once the custom became established, many Christian writers accepted as a matter of course that Christmas was the actual date on which Jesus was born. However, in the early eighteenth century, some scholars began proposing alternative explanations. Isaac Newton seems to have been the first to argue, incorrectly, that the date of Christmas was selected to correspond with the winter solstice, However, in 1743 the German Protestant Paul Ernst Jablonski reached the correct solution: Christmas was placed on December 25 to correspond with the Roman solar holiday Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, and therefore represented a Christian purloining of a pagan custom.

The historical record indicates that in 274 CE, during the time of troubles in the Roman Empire, Aurelian stipulated December 25 as the date of the celebration of "Birth of the Unconquered Sun." Aurelian's empire seemed near collapse. As politicians so often find, when practical measures fail propaganda fills the gap. Accordingly, his festival proclaimed imperial and pagan rejuvenation. As we have noted, December 25 falls AFTER the range assigned to the Winter Solstice itself. Instead, it marks the confirmation of the period in which daylight begins to lengthen.

Recently, William Tighe, a Church historian at Pennsylvania's Muhlenberg College, has proposed a different theory. Tighe acknowledges that the first hard evidence of Christmas occurring on December 25 is not found until 336 CE and that the date only became a fixed festival in Constantinople in 379.

However, a reference occurs in the "Chronicle" written by Hippolytus of Rome three decades before Aurelian launched his festival. Hippolytus held that Jesus' birth "took place eight days before the kalends of January," that is, December 25. However, Aurelian did not make up his observance out of whole cloth. In fact, the title Sol Invictus embraced several established solar deities, allowing them to be honored collectively. These include Elah-Gabal, a Syrian sun god; the older Greek deities Helios and Apollo, and Mithras, a soldiers’ god of Persian origin. In his own way the eccentric emperor Elagabalus (218–222), who was a priest of Elah-Gabal, observed the festival. Aurelian merely confirmed it as an empire-wide holiday.

Tighe’s citation of Hippolytus seems a slender reed on which to hang a revisionist theory, as there is every reason to believe that December 25 would be significant for sun worshippers, but not, in the first instance, for Christians. As we have noted, sun worship had prevailed for millennia in the ancient Mediterranean. Consequently, the origins of Christmas illustrate one of the major sources of religion: reverence for cosmic forces, in this case the sun.


[This section originally appeared in different form in the Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 36, No. 1 (1998), pp. 114-126.]

Bernadette J. Brooten is Kraft-Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies at Brandeis University. A key passage in Paul's Epistle to the Romans (1:18-32) has for a number of years served as a touchstone for her research. Yet the design of her book radiates far beyond the bounds of conventional scriptural exegesis. Her work throws light on the understanding of ancient lesbianism, the status of women in Roman times, and attitudes toward same-sex love in general.

In fact, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (University of Chicago Press, 1996. 412 pp.) ranks as one of the most important books ever to appear on ancient Mediterranean sexuality. Working with almost superhuman diligence, Professor Brooten has laid bare a surprising wealth of information on lesbian behavior in areas where evidence was previously thought to be scant. Her monograph has important implications for male homosexuality as well. Moreover, despite the subtitle, the very substantial first part of the book (pp. 29-189) deals with attitudes and practice in the Hellenistic and early Romans worlds.

Unlike some who would appear to be seeking to redress the misogyny of our culture by downplaying its instances, Brooten does not shrink from dealing with unpleasant matters. She records the disdain and condemnation of ancient writers, both pagan and Christian, for female-female relations. Fearlessly, she challenges earlier authorities, such as John Boswell and Michel Foucault, whose writings now pass in some quarters as virtually canonical.

Not only does Brooten command the modern scholarly literature, she is at home with original documents written in at least four of the older tongues: Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic. While she scrupulously cites the latest secondary literature and the original sources, her erudition is carefully disciplined. The extensive reference notes appear at the bottom of the page where they belong, enabling scholars to check every significant point. Only in a few instances, dealing with controversies in the contemporary conceptualization of same-sex behavior, do the notes seem overlong.

Brooten provides a wealth of material on the condition, status, and behavior of women in Roman and Early Christian times: In this realm there is no substitute for reading her book. The scope of the following remarks is more modest: the bearing of her findings for sexual orientation in general, including that of men.

After first reviewing the familiar texts from Greek and Latin elite authors, including Lucian, Plautus, Ovid, and Martial, Brooten turns to four categories of evidence that have been neglected. The harvest is surprising.

The first area of her original studies is magical spells from Egypt commissioned by the love-sick to elicit compliance from a desired partner. While these have been collected for almost a century from papyri, scholars have been slow to assess the significance of the nonheterosexual ones. Three have so far been published that seek to bind a woman sexually to another woman. The language of these spells is direct, sometimes even violent, affording us a glimpse of the feelings of ordinary people.

The second realm is the astrological literature. The ancients believed that the stars could determine many aspects of the personality, including sexual orientation. While the effects could be quite complex, they show that there could be lifelong sexual orientations, involving several types of male homosexual and lesbian attraction. In the view of these writers such inclinations were not mere preferences to be adopted or discarded at will, but they were even cosmically ordained. Such views posed a problem for some ancient writers who thought that such attractions were "against nature" (para physin). Here, Brooten's findings significantly contradict those of Foucault and his followers who believe that the concept of sexual orientation came into existence only in the nineteenth century.

The third category is the medical. Some handbooks in this field held that same sex behavior, especially that of the female, could be a disease. Again Foucault and his associates are mistaken in their claim that "medicalization" of same-sex behavior took place only in the nineteenth century.

Finally there is the sphere of dream interpretation, especially as seen in the treatise by Artemidorus. Although here the yield is sparser, Brooten makes interesting contrasts between the views of the ancients and modern dream interpretation belonging to the schools of Freud and Jung.

In agreement with most other scholars in the field of ancient Mediterranean sexuality, Brooten sees sexual relations as governed by normative asymmetry in which one partner (the "active" inserter) is superior, the other (the "passive" receptive) inferior. This principle combines with an androcentric one in which the male is superior to the female. In this view no stigma necessarily attaches to male homosexuality because the penetrator maintains the principle of superiority; moreover the male partners, as adolescents or slaves, may be fulfilling the appropriate role as inferior. In this light, however, female-female relations are always suspect, because in accordance with the asymmetry principle one partner should be inferior, the other superior. But women are never supposed to be superior.

This set of principles leads her to conclude that among pagans of the early Roman period, which are her focus in the first part of the book, lesbian relations were reproved. For this she finds considerable evidence. "Monstrous, lawless, licentious, unnatural, and shameful — with these terms male authors throughout the Roman Empire expressed their disgust for sexual love between women" (p. 29). If these principles prevailed during this period, however, they must have appeared earlier, in classical Greece, for example. Why did dislike of lesbian behavior apparently increase in the concluding centuries of the pre-Christian era?

"Brooten provides a wealth of material on the condition, status, and behavior of women in Roman and Early Christian times. Our way of reading is not necessarily the way ancient authors and their audiences would interpret ... Romans 1:26-27. Roman society strongly disapproved of lesbianism, while remaining relatively tolerant of male homosexuality. The scriptural tradition took an opposite approach."

We now turn to the passage from Paul's Epistle to the Romans, which Brooten addresses only after her assemblage of the highly significant background materials reviewed above. The core of the Roman's passage is the following (1:26-27) in the rendering supplied by Brooten which, in my judgment, follows the Greek closely: "[a] For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. [b] Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural. [c] And in the same way [homoios] also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameful acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error." [punctuation slightly altered]

It is clear that [a] represents the topical sentence. Instances illustrative of the general principle so stated, two of them, follow. As the second example [c] is more explicit than the first [b], and as modern interpreters are likely to perceive lesbian behavior as the almost inevitable counterpart of male homosexual behavior, it is difficult to resist the impulse to read the content of [c] back into [b] which is then interpreted as a condemnation of lesbianism. We tend to see lesbianism and male homosexuality as paired — as does Brooten in this instance. However, elsewhere she produces evidence that ancient writers were capable of pairing male homosexuality with female promiscuity, including prostitution.

Thus our way of reading is not necessarily the way ancient authors and their audiences would interpret the sequence of argument in Roman 1:26-27. For one thing, given the general androcentrism of the era, why would Paul mention women first? Possibly, there is another reason for the order, that this is a temporal sequence: first the women transgressed in some way, and then later the men.

More direct light is afforded on this passage in a short section of the Testament of Naphtali, belonging to a category of ancient writings that Brooten, exceptionally, did not exploit sufficiently. This text belongs to the so-called Intertestamental writings, a body of texts originating in Jewish circles during the period of the Second Temple (ca. 500 B.C.E to 70 C.E,). The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs were probably written in the period 150-100 B.C.E. and thus available to Paul. The writer is elaborating on a text in First Enoch, another Intertestamental writing, which has to do with the Watchers, the sons of God who mated with human women in the time before the flood. In Hellenistic Judaism they were increasingly identified with the fallen angels and their offspring with demons, the source of evil.

"Sun, moon, and stars do not alter their order. The gentiles, because they have wandered astray and forsook the Lord, have changed the order. ... But you, my children, shall not be like that. ... [D]o not become like Sodom which departed from the order of nature. Likewise the Watchers departed from nature's order" [Testament of Naphtali, 3; ed. J.H. Charlesworth, p. 812].

Several assertions anticipate the animadversions of the Romans passage. First is the central idea of the order of nature, against which we transgress at our peril. The notion of nature is wholly Greek and is foreign to the Old Testament. While the Greek word physis does occur in 3 and 4 Maccabees and in the Book of Wisdom, these text were originally written in Greek and are not currently accepted as part of the canon of the Hebrew Bible. Accordingly, the idea of nature as a cosmic norm is part of the Greek heritage that insinuated itself into Jewish thought during the Hellenistic period. Violations of nature, of course, need not be sexual. However, in a late work, The Laws, the philosopher Plato specifically stigmatized both male and female homosexuality as "against nature" — para physin, the same expression used in Paul's text. In effect, works of Hellenistic Jewish provenance, such as the Testament of Naphtali, "predigested" the Greek material for the use of interpreters like Paul.

Elsewhere in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs we learn that women scheme treacherously to entice men. Because of this proclivity they seduced the Watchers (equivalent to the Nephilim of Genesis 6), who were induced to mate with them before the Flood. Ever since the birth of the Giants from these unions, the earth has been visited by two types of spirits: the spirits of truth and the spirits of error. In this view, the tendency of women to seductiveness caused disaster at a particular point of human history; it continues to this day. Hence the need to call attention to the capacity of women for misdeeds.

Although both the Sodomites and the Watchers were guilty of various errors, the pairing of them in this passage reflects types of sexual activity which would violate the order of nature. The sodomites sought forcible homosexual relations with angels who were the guests of Lot, while the Watchers actually mated with the daughters of men, producing the Giants. Note that in this passage the express "likewise," homoios, links two different sexual transgressions, one (in our terms) homosexual, the other heterosexual. What they have in common is that they risk God's wrath.

In discussing the work of another scholar, James Miller, Brooten briefly mentions the role of the Watchers in the Testament of Naphtali. As she aptly remarks, "[i]ntercourse between the Watchers, who were sons of God, and human women transgressed the order of nature by crossing the boundary between the human and the divine" (note to p. 249). However, she does not seem to see how well this notion fits with Paul's condemnation in Romans 1:26. In fact if one adopts the Watcher interpretation, Paul's offers a spectrum of sexual misdeeds, from those with partners that are too different, extraterrestrial, to acts with partners that are not different enough, same-sex persons, Sexual orthodoxy requires that which is in between: male-female relations.

To return to the Romans passage, in the interpretation offered here, Paul refers first to the historical misdeeds of human women in offering themselves to the extraterrestrial beings. These acts would have been a kind of upwardly mobile counterpart of bestiality since they involve sexual behavior that crosses species lines. Then a modern instance of challenge to the natural order is offered, that of male homosexuality. Of course, it could be objected that this interpretation is only probably, but then the same is true of Brooten's. At the very least, one must conclude, despite Brooten's impressive gathering of materials, that Paul — as distinct from some later interpreters — did not certainly have lesbian activity in mind in Romans 1:26.

Even if Brooten's interpretation is accepted, this would remain, as she acknowledges, the only possible mention of lesbian sexuality in the entire body of scriptures. Mainstream biblical criticism generally agrees that male homosexuality is reproved in a number of passages (Genesis 19; Leviticus 18 and 20; Romans 1:27; and I Corinthians 6:9 — to cite only the most salient ones). While it is true that some modern homosexuals and homosexual-friendly writers, including Canon Bailey and John Boswell, have sought to mitigate the force of a number of these passages, Brooten — in my view soundly — seems to accept them.

It is true that much of the later interpretation of the Romans passage is doubly homophobic. As Brooten correctly remarks, "whether or not Western people have ever heard of Paul's Letter to the Romans, it affects their lives" (p. 196). Thus, in the present writer's view, the Romans passage, though not originally lesbiphobic, became so, because of the understandable tendency to take the particulars of verse 27 and apply them retrospectively to the preceding verse, which is less clear.

Unfortunately, this expansive interpretation was destined long to flourish; as such, it has been one of our afflictions. But if we look backward toward the complex of ideas that dominated the Hellenistic Judaism in which Paul was trained, we see something different. Man-crazy women, who are even willing to sleep with extraterrestrial beings, parallel man-crazy men, who wish to sleep with other members of their own sex.

Stated briefly, the picture that emerges is this. Roman society strongly disapproved of lesbianism, while remaining relatively tolerant of male homosexuality. The scriptural tradition, certainly of the Old Testament and probably that of the New Testament as well, ignores lesbianism while severely castigating male homosexuality. In expanding its hegemony over a once-pagan Mediterranean environment, Early Christian and medieval tradition imposed a Jewish tradition of strongly disapproving of male homosexuals, while adopting, possibly from Roman sources, a less salient, but still significant disapproval of lesbian conduct.

Since the Protestant Reformation, Christians have been advised to look at Scripture without regard to later commentaries and accretions. If my conclusions are correct regarding the exclusion of lesbian conduct from the sphere of condemnation, a striking asymmetry emerges. To take only the most salient passages (Lev. 18:22, and 20:13; Romans, 1:26-27; and I Cor. 6:9), the Bible condemns male same-sex behavior. Nowhere does it unequivocally forbid lesbian relations. Those who regard the Bible as a coherent guide to ethics and behavior (and not simply a disparate collection of remarkable ancient documents) must explain this inconsistency.


In Christianity a relic is a portion of the body of a saint or some item of clothing and the like that has been in intimate contact with the holy person. By extension the concept extends to earth, oil, and water from holy places. For many believers, relics are held to have an almost magical efficacy, capable of warding off danger and contributing to the general well-being of those who come in contact with them.

Analogous practices have been found in Buddhism, Islam, and other religions. Nowhere, however, has the cult of relics been so pervasive as in early Christian and medieval times.

Jewish prototypes are scanty. However, one of the earliest texts that purports to show the efficacy of relics is found in 2 Kings 13:20-21: “Elisha died and was buried. Now Moabite raiders used to enter the country every spring. Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man's body into Elisha's tomb. When the body touched Elisha's bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet.” (NIV)

The underlying claim is that God can perform miracles through the bodies of his servants, or objects associated with them. An early Christian attestation is the veneration of relics recorded in the Martydom of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (written ca.150–160 CE) . After the martyrdom Christians "took up his bones which are more valuable than refined gold and laid them in a suitable place where, the Lord willing, ...we may gather together in gladness and celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom."

From its inception, the cult of the relics was criticized by purists who regarded it as pagan. In a dispute with St Jerome, Vigilantius condemned the veneration of all inanimate objects such as the bodies of saints. Jerome responded by saying that the relics themselves were not worshipped but were an aid to the veneration of martyrs of undoubted holiness whose lives were a model to later generations.

Despite continuing uneasiness on the part of Christian intellectuals, relics enjoyed vast popularity among the faithful. Beginning in the early centuries of the church tales of miracles and other marvels were attributed to relics. These tales appear in books of hagiography, such as the Golden Legend of Jacobus of Voragine and the works of Caesar of Heisterbach.

By definition, it would seem, there are no bodily relics of Jesus, who ascended whole into Heaven. Well, not quite. He left behind his foreskin, of which several fragments are said to be preserved in European churches.

Among the external relics controversially attributed to Jesus is the Shroud of Turin, said to be the burial shroud of the Savior. In reality it probably dates from the fourteenth century. Pieces of the True Cross were one of the most highly sought-after relics.

In modern terms the saints might be termed radioactive, though presumably in a good way. In rare cases they could speak to the worshipper, demanding, for example, that they be housed in a more imposing shrine. Some relics functioned as palladia, protecting cities from being conquered, or so it was thought.

In due course the traffic in relics became big business. Unscrupulous individuals took to stealing them from relic-rich countries, such as Italy, and selling them in places where there were relatively few saints. Famous relics had an enormous monetary value, and could be pawned if there was a need for ready cash. They were often housed in lavish containers called reliquaries, which can be admired in museums today.

The pilgrim saw the purchase of a relic as a means of bringing the essence of the shrine back with him or her upon returning home. Instead of having to travel hundreds of miles to become near to a venerated personage, one could venerate the relics of the saint within his or her own home.

Beginning in the sixteenth century, the Reformers severely criticized the cult of relics as superstition. In some instances they arranged bonfires of them, challenging the holy items to intervene so as to avert their threatened combustion. Needless to say, they failed to do so.

Nonetheless, relics continue to play a part in the Roman Catholic church. For valid consecration, an altar is supposed to contain a relic. The examination of the relics is an important step in the glorification (canonization) of new saints. In some cases, one of the signs of sanctification is the condition of the relics of the saint. Some saints’ bodies will be found to be incorrupt, meaning that their remains do not decay under conditions when they normally would. Sometimes even when the flesh does decay the bones themselves will manifest signs of sanctity. They may be honey-colored or give off a sweet aroma. Some relics will exude myrrh. The absence of such manifestations is not necessarily a sign that the person is not a Saint.

Some superstitions, it seems, will always be with us.

Distrust of images goes back to the Hebrew Bible.  Here is the text of the Second Commandment. “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, of that is in the water under the earth.” (NRSV; the texts in Exodus 20:4 and Deuteronomy 5:8 are identical). The word here rendered idol is probably more familiar in the King James rendering “graven image.” In Hebrew the word is “pesel,” derived from “pasal,” to hew, hew into shape. This certainly implies that the banned objects are three-dimensional, opening the way for the exception, honored in various times and place, allowed for flat images. These might indeed be “kosher.”

The ban was not observed consistently. A prominent instance is the cherubim. Two sculptural cherubim overlaid with gold with outstretched wings were placed facing one another on the cover of the Ark in the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:18-20). In addition, figures of cherubim were embroidered on the veil and the curtains of the Tabernacle (Exodus 26:1, 31). In Solomon's Temple the two gilded cherubim were not attached to the Ark, as in the Tabernacle, but took their place as freestanding figures each 10 cubits high in front of the Ark (I Kings 6:27-8).

The record of Christian figural art is extensive and, it is fair to say, glorious. Yet the earliest Christians seem to have hung back. No datable art is known before at least 200 CE--corresponding more or less in time to the inception of the synagogue material just discussed.

The first substantial body of Christian monumental art is found in the catacombs of Rome. These underground cemeteries are adorned with paintings representing holy figures. the earliest probably date from around 220 CE.

The adoption of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine and his successors fostered the building of numerous imposing churches and religious structures. Some surviving examples, such as Santa Maria Maggiore (Rome), Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, and San Vitale (all in Ravenna, Italy) retain remarkable figural mosaic cycles.

Another important theme was the emergence of the icon, usually in the form of a relatively small portable panel painting. What was the nature of the early icons? These survive only in territories beyond the reach of the imperial writ. The monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai (founded by Justinian) has the largest cache, 36 examples. About 30 come from Egypt, while the city of Rome supplies a select quartet of Marian icons. In fact this body of icons (all made before 726) constitute the foundation of all later European panel painting, including (e.g.) Giotto's Ognissanti Madonna, Duccio's Maesta', and the Ghent Altarpiece of the brother's Van Eyck.

As the research of Ernst Kitzinger has shown, the later sixth century, a time of growing insecurity, saw an increase in magical associations surrounding icons. The faithful were (it was charged) worshiping the icon rather than the holy figures depicted therein. Icons were held to be able to save cities and armies, and to protect individuals (they were readily portable). Some examples were to be held to be acheiropoetai, not made by human hands. The apprehensions these superstitions caused contributed to the rise of iconoclasm in the following century.

Byzantine iconoclasm--image smashing--occurred two periods in history when Emperors, backed by imperially-appointed leaders and councils of the Christian church, imposed a ban on religious images. The "First Iconoclasm", as it is sometimes called, lasted between about 730 and 787, when a change on the throne reversed the ban. The "Second Iconoclasm" was between 814 and 842.

The two serious outbreaks of iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire during the eighth and ninth centuries were unusual in that the use of images was the main issue in the dispute, rather than a by-product of wider concerns. While the actions of the iconoclasts resulted in the destruction of countless works of art, it is undeniable that the intensity of the conflict attests that both sides took art very seriously.The rise of the Protestant Reformation in Western Europe reopened the image question. Some territories that became Protestant stopped producing religious art. A few took more drastic action. A second great outburst of iconoclasm occurred in the 1560s in the Low Countries, stoked by Calvinist rigorism. Thus the only truly major works that survive by Hieronymus Bosch did so because they were secure in Catholic Spain and Portugal.

Apart from isolated outbreaks of vandalism, iconoclasm disappeared in Western Europe after that time. However, Stalin's Russia, officially atheistic, saw the destruction of many religious buildings and works of art. After 1989 a number of churches, prominent symbols of Orthodoxy, were rebuilt.


For centuries many in the serving clergy of Catholicism have had common-law wives, commandments to celibacy notwithstanding. For their part, Protestantism and Eastern orthodoxy have always permitted married clergy. Today, of course, there are and probably always have been homosexual Catholic priests, monks, and nuns.

The main site, or so one would expect, for genital same-sex conduct in religious institutions would be monasteries and nunneries. Conditions in Egypt, where monasteries began, were particularly rigorous, involving drastic reductions of food and sleep--and of course no sex. Nonetheless, accounts of the lives of the desert fathers indicate that the capacity for erotic response had been muted but not eliminated. The tribulations of St. Anthony include a hallucination in which he is tempted by a seductive black boy.

The first monastic Rule, a set of regulations governing the monks’ behavior, is credited to St. Pachomius (292-343). Several provisions indicate the need to guard against relations deemed improper among the monks. For example, “No one will be allowed to shower or anoint a brother without being told to do that; don’t let anyone talk to their brother in darkness; do not let any brother sleep with another brother on the same door mat; and let no one hold another’s hand.”

Saint Basil of Caesarea, the fourth-century Church Father who wrote the most influential Rule of the monks of the East, made the following stipulation: “The cleric or monk who molests youths or boys or is caught kissing or committing some turpitude, let him be whipped in public, deprived of his crown [tonsure] and, after having his head shaved, let his face be covered with spittle; and [let him be] bound in iron chains, condemned to six months in prison, reduced to eating rye bread once a day in the evening three times per week. After these six months living in a separate cell under the custody of a wise elder with great spiritual experience, let him be subjected to prayers, vigils and manual work, always under the guard of two spiritual brothers, without being allowed to have any relationship . . . with young people."

These cautions were recycled in the various monastic Rules of Western Europe. The famous Plan of St. Gall from the ninth century shows how beds must be arranged to avoid any occasion for sin, especially with young novices. Such provisions were often unavailing. In a capitulary of 802, Charlemagne remarks: “a most pernicious rumor has come to our ears that many in the monasteries have already been detected in abomination and uncleanness. . . . Some of the monks are understood to be sodomites.”

However, there are indications that the prohibitions were often breeched. Our best evidence for this come from the penitentials, confessional manuals whose origins can be traced as far back as the sixth century, and which were in common use until the twelfth century. The purpose of the penitentials was to aid the spiritual guide by providing descriptions of various sins and prescribing appropriate penances. Many of the manuals go far beyond mere lists of sins and penances, containing introductions and conclusions for the instruction of the confessor that remind him of his role as spiritual healer and urge him to appreciate the subjective mentality of the patient. (P. J. Payer, 1984).

Evidence of the felt need for repression indicates, of course, that the activity was going on. We have little evidence from the side of those who were practicing the behavior and presumably enjoying it. There is, however, a poignant poem from the ninth century, “O admirabile Veneris Ydolum,” in which a cleric laments the loss of a beautiful lad who has been taken from him. (Curtius, 1953, p. 114). In the eleventh and twelfth century clerical gay poetry becomes more common. From Marbod, Bishop of Rennes (d. 1123), for example, we have a poem about a boy “whose face was so lovely he could easily have been a girl, whose hair fell in waves against his ivory neck, whose forehead was white as snow and his eyes black as pitch, whose soft cheeks were full of delicious sweetness . . . [He possesses] an exterior formed in measure to match his mind.” The last observation shows that the admiration was not purely physical. (Stehliing, 1984).

Much of this literature, however, records “particular friendships,” sentimental pair-bonding between monks that was not necessarily genitally expressed. The Cistercian abbot St. Aelred of Rievaulx (ca. 1110-1167) is the author of a treatise on spiritual friendship that has become celebrated among modern gay men. Aelred’s writings on friendship distinguished three kinds: carnal, worldly, and spiritual friendship. Carnal friendship, of course, he rejects as a mutual harmony in vice. His comments, however, indicate that was familiar with the practice of it. Sometimes prompted by monetary considerations, worldly friendship is governed by the principle of utility.

It is spiritual kinship, Aelred holds. is the truest friendship. It is grounded in Christ and, like chastity, is a gift of God's grace. The Cistertian makes it clear that he is not speaking merely theoretically. He regularly cultivated spiritual friendships with the younger monks of Rievaulx Abbey. For example, Aelred was about twenty-four when an attractive youth named Simon entered the monastery. About fourteen years of age, Simon was frail and remarkably beautiful. Aelred called Simon "my gentlest friend," "my beloved brother," and "the one-in-heart with me." When the boy died young, the older man was broken-hearted.

Medieval monastic history, then, offers a record of two forces, samesex lust and love, on the one hand, and the continuing efforts to repress these behaviors. During the late Middle Ages, the homoerotic subculture of the monasteries, so flourishing in the time of Aelred seems to have declined. We have evidence of this from the process of suppression of the monasteries under Henry VIII in England.

The background is as follows. Having failed to receive his desired annulment from the Pope, Henry had himself declared Supreme Head of the Church in England in February 1531. Some orders, such as the London Carthusians and the Observant Friars; their houses were confiscated. Henry then moved to a more thoroughgoing suppression of the monasteries. In 1534 Thomas Cromwell was authorized to set up a commission to “visit” all the monasteries. The commissioners were instructed to ascertain the quality of religious life being maintained in religious houses; to assess the prevalence of “superstitious” religious observances such as the veneration of relics: and to gather evidence of moral laxity, especially of a sexual nature. In fact, monastic life, both in terms of numbers and rigor of religious observance, had been in decline for some time. Yet the reports proved somewhat less than satisfactory from Henry’s point of view. Despite strenuous efforts relatively few cases of sodomy were found, though a fair amount of masturbation. Nonetheless, Henry’s ministers proceeded with the suppression.

At all events, by the mid-sixteenth century the great days of the monasteries were long over. Protestant reformers and monarchs greedy to confiscate their wealth, found them easy targets for their charges of idleness, superstition, and vice, including fornication, masturbation, and sodomy. For the most part abbeys and nunneries survived only in Catholic and Orthodox countries. Even in Catholic Europe, the consequences of the French Revolution brought them under attack by secularists. Many of the houses were pillaged and brought under the power of the state. Similar results occurred in the Soviet Union after 1917.

Nonetheless, the link between religious mysticism and eroticism was inadvertently brought out in the vivid imagery of the Spanish mystics St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) and St. Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582). In an unusual, sensational case (1619-23), the lesbian sister Benedetta Carlini of Pescia, near Florence, created a complex visionary world of magic in which she enveloped her lovers. La Religieuse, a posthumously published novel by Denis Diderot (1713-1784), portrays graphically, even melodramatically, the distress of a nun at the hands of a lesbian prioress.

After the end of the Old Regime this work was followed by a large class of exposé literature created by the anti-clerical movement at the close of the nineteenth century, and designed to flay the Catholic church as a redoubt of hypocrisy and depravity. This trend inspired Hitler’s 1937 attack on the Catholic church.

This history, which has only been sketched here, provides a background to the current sexual-abuse scandals in the Catholic church. This is a complex matter, so that it may be helpful to focus on one particular order.

The Congregation of Christian Brothers is a world-wide Catholic order with a special concern for the evangelization and education of youth. Their first school was opened in Waterford, Ireland, in 1802. In more recent years they have been tainted with quite a different reputation. The sexual abuse scandal in the Congregation of Christian Brothers ranks as a major chapter in the series of Catholic sex-abuse cases in various Western jurisdictions.

At Mount Cashel Orphanage in Newfoundland, maintained by the Christian Brothers, more than 300 former pupils have alleged physical and sexual abuse. When allegations began to surface in the late 1980s, the government, police, and local church leaders conspired in an unsuccessful cover-up. Eventually the allegations led to the formation of a royal commission (the Hughes Inquiry); further investigations followed into allegations at other institutions across Canada. In January 1993 the Christian Brothers reached a financial settlement totaling $23 million with 700 former students who alleged abuse.

During the latter part of the twentieth century, Christian brothers schools in Ireland were noted for brutal and frequent resort corporal punishment. Sexual abuse was rife. At one institution a number of Brothers were repeatedly cited for “embracing and fondling” boys. Rapes occurred. Yet the accused Brothers were invariably excused, lightly admonished or, typically, moved to other institutions where they were free to continue abusing children for decades.

The order resisted any efforts to bring the truth to light. In 2004 the order successfully sued the Irish Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse to prevent the publication of the names of any members, dead or alive, who would otherwise have been named in the Commission's report. In its Report, finally issued in May 2009, the Commission found that thousands of Irish children at Christian Brothers institutions were abused. The commissioners concluded that more allegations had been made against the Irish Christian Brothers than against all other male religious orders combined.

In Australia, there were allegations that during the 1970s sexual abuses were rampant at the junior campus of St Patricks College and St Alipius Primary School (now closed) in Ballarat in the state of Victoria. Three Brothers were convicted of sex crimes. Two others were later transferred to another campus, where they continued to offend. This misbehavior was particularly prevalent where English children who had been forcibly shipped of to Australia came under the control of the Christian Brothers.


Following in the footsteps of its Jewish predecessor, Christianity developed a whole range of homophobic motifs. One of the strangest goes back to the thirteenth century, when an Italian prelate Jacobus of Voragine (ca. 1230-1298) compiled a book of edifying Christian stories called the Legenda Aurea (the Golden Legend). Section 6 is entitled “The Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to the Flesh.” There we encounter the following extraordinary claim: “[a]nd even the sodomites gave witness by being exterminated wherever they were in the world on that night, as Jerome says ‘a light rose over them so bright that all who practiced this vice were wiped out; and Christ did this in order that no such uncleanness might be found in the nature he had assumed.’ For as Augustine says, God, seeing that a vice contrary to nature was rife in human nature, hesitated to become incarnate.” (W. G. Ryan, trans., 1993, p. 41).

No such passage has been found in the authentic writings of Jerome or Augustine, though the claim could have appeared in some texts that are simply ascribed to those early Christian writers. In all likelihood, however, the notion arose in the high Middle Ages, perhaps by some scholastic thinker whom Jacobus purloined.

At all events, this murderous legend enjoyed considerable popularity in Christian Europe during the Middle Ages. For example, the Flores Temporum a chronicle of the world’s history compiled by a Swabian Franciscan, Hermannus Gigas, records several portents foretelling the coming of Christ, such as the appearance of a spring of olive oil in Rome, the death of all sodomites, and the rising of three suns in the East which merge into one.

The motif recurs in the fifteenth-century Caxton translation of the Golden Legend. “And it happed this nyght, that all the sodomytes that dyde synne ayenst nature were deed and extynct, for god hated so moche this synne, that he myght not suffre that nature humayne whiche he had taken, were delywerd to so grete shame. Wherof saint Austin saith, that it lackyd but lyttl, that god would not become man for that synne.”

The notion of the death of the Sodomites on the first Christmas Eve began to fade in the early eighteenth century--but has not yet disappeared entirely. As recently as 2004 a Greek Orthodox priest pronounced that homosexual conduct was very dangerous. The proof was that the sodomites had to die on Christmas Eve for the Incarnation to take place.


In modern times, the Church of England (Anglican) ranks as the first protestant denomination to have fostered a serious and sustained reexamination of the status of homosexuality within the church. The worldwide Anglican communion has followed suit, though with mixed results. Similar efforts have taken place in most other mainstream protestant denominations. As with the Anglicans, the disputes have been often heated and the results inconclusive. By and large official circles within the Catholic and Orthodox churches have not encouraged this discussion, though some lay people in these communions have done so.

As has been suggested, it is best to begin with the Church of England, and the worldwide Anglican Communion allied with it. At the outset it is well to recall the work of Derrick Sherwin Bailey (1910-1984), a British theologian and historian, who served as Canon Residentiary of Wells Cathedral from 1962 onwards. After World War II Bailey joined a small group of Anglican clergymen and physicians to study homosexuality. Their findings were published in a 1954 Report entitled "The Problem of Homosexuality" produced for the Church of England Moral Welfare Council by the Church Information Board.

As part of this task Bailey completed a separate historical study, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (London: Longmans, 1955). Although this monograph has been criticized for tending to exculpate the Christian church from blame in the persecution and defamation of homosexuals, it ranks as a landmark in the history of the subject, combining scrutiny of the Biblical evidence with a survey account of subsequent history. Bailey's book drew attention to a number of neglected subjects, including the intertestamental literature, the legislation of the Christian emperors, the penitentials, and the link between heresy and sodomy.

While it is contestable, the author's interpretation of Genesis 19, where he treats the Sodom story as essentially nonsexual--an instance of violation of hospitality--has served as a benchmark for later efforts. Following Bailey’s example, gay-friendly exegetes have been proceeding with their own plans for detoxifying the notorious “clobber passages” that condemn, or appear to condemn, same-sex conduct in the Bible. The results of this enterprise are summed up in a large tome entitled The Queer Bible Commentary.

Opinion on the success of this effort has been divided, with many gay and lesbian Christians hailing the results--and even claiming, improbably, that the Bible is a gay-friendly book--while mainstream Christian opinion has not generally been accommodating. Even if we accept the maximum claims of the detoxifiers, one must recognize that the venom of the most egregious texts, such as the prohibitions in Leviticus 18 and 20 and the “unnatural” allegation in Romans 1:26-27, has not been drawn. That poison remain obstinately in place.

At the time, however, the work of Bailey and his colleagues had a salutary impact on social policy. Their work prepared the way for the progressive Wolfenden Report (1957), which was followed a decade later by Parliament's decriminalization of homosexual conduct between consenting adults in England and Wales.

These developments were for a time a source of hope, not only in Britain and in English-speaking countries in general, but also within the world-wide Anglican communion. Yet in recent years Anglicanism has witnessed a backlash that has cast earlier progress in doubt.

The thirteenth Lambeth Conference in England 1998 approved, by a vote of 526 to 70, a resolution stating that homosexual acts are "incompatible with Scripture," There was also some soothing language about the need to combat irrational fear of homosexuality, and an admonition to listen to the experience of homosexual persons. The Lambeth Conference is not an executive which imposes doctrine or discipline but a forum for the exchange of views. Still, the sting of the assertion that Scripture could not be reconciled with approval of homosexual behavior was patent.

In 2003 the Church of England announced the appointment of Jeffrey John, a priest living in a celibate domestic partnership with another man, as the Suffragan Bishop of Reading. Many Anglican traditionalists reacted strongly and John eventually succumbed to pressure from the Archbishop of Canterbury (who had initially supported the appointment) and others to withdraw before he had been formally elected. John was later appointed as the Dean of St Albans instead. A number of Anglican provinces took a positive stand on the ordination of gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions.

In 2003, amid a climate of controversy, the Episcopal Church in the USA consecrated Gene Robinson, a gay man, as the Bishop of New Hampshire.

Responding to these developments, many provinces, primarily from sub-Saharan Africa but also some in Asia, America and Australia—representing about half of the 80 million practicing Anglicans worldwide—declared a state of impaired communion with their counterparts. Minority groups in Western provinces, dismayed by what they consider unscriptural actions by the Churches of England, Canada, Australia, and in the United States, have withdrawn their affiliation and realigned themselves with African provinces such as the Churches of Uganda and Rwanda.

In 2006 the Anglican Church of Nigeria issued a statement affirming "our commitment to the total rejection of the evil of homosexuality which is a perversion of human dignity" and encouraging the National Assembly to ratify a Bill prohibiting the legality of homosexuality.

While the controversy is continuing, it would seem that the lines are drawn. The leading circles of advanced industrial countries maintain their support for a more progressive policy regarding homosexuality--though with some notable holdouts. What is termed the “global South” of the Anglican churches (corresponding to what is generally called the Third World) has generally been lining up against any change of the traditional policies regarding same-sex behavior. In fact, some spokespeople wish to heighten the restrictions. Regrettably, this opposition is spilling over into secular legislation, as seen now in Uganda.

Modern Judaism shows similar conflicts, though debate has been less vehement. Summarizing the American context in broad terms, Reform Judaism is generally open to change with regard to same-sex love, and a number of ordained gay and lesbian rabbis now lead congregations. Orthodox Judaism is generally opposed, while Conservative Judaism seeks to chart a middle course. Unfortunately Reform Judaism does not have much influence outside North America.

While there are a number of Muslim gay and lesbian organizations and spokespeople, very little progress has been made in official Islamic circles, where the ulema (consensus of scholars) remains adamantly opposed.

The following negative conclusion seems inescapable. The prohibition of same-sex conduct found in all three Abrahamic faiths will be hard to change, very hard. As I have noted in other contexts, though, these are not our only choices in the religion field. One might recommend Buddhism where there is no deeply rooted homophobic tradition,

Of course, the "clobber passages" in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur'an are relatively few--as we keep hearing. However, they are part and parcel with a fundamental concern in all three religions. That concern--which amounts to a group neurosis, in my view--is to establish clear boundaries of what is acceptable, indeed required in the realm of the family and sexual behavior vs. that which is taboo (to'ebah, abomination, haram).

All societies, even the most rudimentary ones, are concerned with the family in some way or other, for the reason that is essential to keep the male connected with the female after offspring are born. That in itself says nothing about the permissibility of same-sex behavior as such. In India it is a common pattern for a gay man to get married, sire children, and then have male lovers.

Because of the way in which the prohibition has been integrated into the larger parameters of the sexual ethic in all three Abrahamic faiths, uprooting it has proved problematic.


The recent visit of Benedict XVI to these shores served in no way to disguise the fact that the Catholic church in America has been losing ground for decades. Long ago the Legion of Decency and its sisters in Comstockery lost their ability to deter the faithful from attending certain movies. As for the Index of Prohibited Books, does it even exist? If it does, it would best serve as a list of good reading along the lines of the Chicago Great Books.

Most significantly a large segment of American Catholics have become protestants to all intents and purposes. They no longer pay attention to the hierarchy when it comes to such matters as contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. The recent attempts by some clerical neanderthals to deny communion to John Kerry because of his independence on these issues were widely derided.

And one mustn’t forget the clerical pederasty scandals. The problem was not simply the abuse itself but the coverup by the church authorities. My own view is that these hypocrites should be prosecuted under the RICO statute.

Things were very different in the fifties when it almost seemed as if the country was turning Catholic. Today it is hard to imagine the appeal of this trend, seemingly a kind of last-ditch attempt to stop modernity in its tracks. By the beginning of the 1950s it was clear that a prolonged conflict with the Communist powers (the Cold War) would be inescapable. Many saw the Marxist ideology, in some respects comparable to a religion, as a great source of strength for the other side. How could we respond? The usual answer was democracy, but this seemed too diffuse, and anyway the Communist states claimed to be “peoples democracies.” For some, only a return to Christianity could arm us sufficiently to wage this war of ideas. And it must be maximum strength Christianity, that is Catholicism. Too be sure, anti-Catholicism lingered in some parts of the country, especially in the South. If one could see beyond this, it appeared that Neo-Thomism, the official philosophy of the Roman church, offered a coherent world view--in fact the only form of Christianity that could stand up to godless Marxism. Among the neo-Thomists Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson had a significant following among the intellectuals, while Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen purveyed Catholicism for the masses in the new medium of television.

The roots of the modern Catholic revival go back to Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. At that point Europe’s resurgent traditionalists seized the opportunity to restore the alliance of throne and altar.

There were significant cultural consequences, seen above all in the cult of the Middle Ages. The Gothic Revival generated buildings throughout Europe, and not just churches, as the parliament buildings in London and Budapest attest. Writers like Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo, Walter Scott and Alfred Lord Tennyson profited from the new enthusiasm for the Middle Ages. Thinkers in various parts of Europe championed a revival of Scholasticism. To all intents and purpose, by the end of the century Thomas Aquinas had become the official philosopher of the Catholic church.

These indications were not exclusively Catholic, since in Germany and England some protestants joined in. However, the center of gravity lay in the Catholic church. Accordingly, when Pius IX issued his antimodernist Syllabus of Errors in 1864 a new tone set in. This led to what has been termed the Reactionary Revolution of the late nineteenth century in which writers like Léon Bloy and Joris-Karl Huysmans openly espoused anti-modernism.

Gradually, this first Catholic revival ran out of steam, although Charles Maurras (a proto-fascist) and Jacques Maritain (a political liberal) gave it some new impetus in France in the 1920s.

After World War II a new trend emerged. The five years of the domination of the European continent by National Socialism (1940-45) had left a void. Many felt that this void could only be filled by a revival of the human spirit, specifically in the form of Catholicism. It was no accident that the three politicians who emerged to craft a new Europe--Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gaspari, and Robert Schuman--were all believing Catholics. In the cultural realm the new trend shed its reactionary tradiionalism, as the chapels of Ronchamp and Vence showed. Le Corbusier and Henri Matisse, the creators of these impressive structures, were not believing Catholics, but that fact only underscored the power of the new orientation. In music Olivier Messiaen created an impressive, if eclectic modernism with mystical overtones. In the English-speaking world the novelists Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh explored Catholic themes. Among the intellectuals, T. S. Eliot and Arnold J. Toynbee exercised a vast sway. The last two were nominally Protestants, but they went a long way in the direction of embracing the Roman faith.

As I have noted, the Catholic revival after 1945 was intended to replace the despair and spiritual emptiness left in the wake of Nazism with real content. It also served as a bulwark against Communism. It was this aspect that struck a chord in America, where many felt that we needed a “strong” ideology to oppose the enemy. As the so-called loss of China in 1949 showed, Communism was on the march, massively so.

In Cold War America the importance of Catholicism was demonstrated by an impressive roster of converts, including Mortimer Adler, editor of the Great Books series; the playwright Claire Booth Luce; the musician Dave Brubeck; Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement; the mathematician John von Neumann; the novelist Walker Percy; and John Wayne, the actor.

During the ‘fifties the prestige of Catholicism was pervasive enough to become seductive, even among those who ought to have known better. Of course, there were personal factors as well. My own circumstances were somewhat unusual. As members of a far-left sect, my parents were atheists and they raised me to be one too. Except for the occasion of my grandmother’s funeral, I was never taken to a house of worship. When I finally read the Bible at the age of twenty I had the usual reaction of such late-comers: “What a lot of quotations.”

During my teen-age atheist phase I sent for some literature from an old-line organization founded by Colonel Ingersoll. Going through this packet of material, I was struck by how impoverished the arguments were. The simplistic mantras of the atheist propagandists seemed simply to reflect the dogmatism of Christian apologists in a kind of mirror reversal. Another thing that struck me was the fact that so many intelligent people could be believers. I remember reading Dante’s Divine Comedy and thinking, “wow this guy is so smart, surely he must have written the book as a satire.” Christianity with its cathedrals and sung masses (not to mention old Dante) has been immensely fertile culturally; atheism has not been. It is an arid creed. The writings of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are sometimes eloquent and sometimes persuasive. But reading them has not altered my view that there is not much to this stuff.

Still, these conclusions were not enough to induce positive belief. Not very originally, perhaps, I came up with the following formulation. There is no certainty that Christianity is true. By the same token, there is no certainty that it is false. We can therefore accept Christianity in a tentative way, because it COULD be true.

So I found my way to a respect, at the very least, for Christianity. In college I majored in art history where a knowledge of the Bible narrative and of the saints is essential for understanding many works of art.

But why Catholicism? I think my idea was that if you are drawn to a particular ideology, you should adopt the full-strength version. I may have been unconsciously influenced by my parents’ who scorned “wishy washy” social democracy which they held could not compare in rigor with true Marxism. Rigor, that was the thing. Similarly, many who have taken up psychiatry insist on the Freudian version, rather than some watered down “humanistic” nostrum.

Some of my Christian friends were reading Kierkegaard. I tried a little of it, but found that the Danish thinker usually worked best for those who were already protestants. I did not want to become a protestant. Had I discovered the penetrating texts of Karl Barth at that time, I suppose protestant neo-Orthodoxy might have won me over. Sometimes I think that Barth, unlike puny Maritain and Gilson, had the answer to everything. Sorry Sam and Christopher. At all events, that was a road not taken.

Despite my view about the superiority of the Roman church, I never converted. And that is just as well, because later would have come, almost certainly, the complex process of “divorce.” I did influence my best friend Chuck M. to convert, though doubtless he did this of his own volition. One of our friends, a scientist, became a monk.

Did my hesitation to convert reflect the fact that formal adoption of the religion would get in the way of my being a practicing homosexual? I don’t think so, for this was a kind of cognitive dissonance I didn’t confront. Religion I saw as mainly an intellectual affair, a matter of the head. Sexuality was a matter of the heart.

At all events, I took evasive action. For me matters took an aesthetic turn, and I became a specialist in medieval art. Together with many others, I detected formal similarities between medieval and modern art, in that both tended to disregard the naturalism of the Renaissance tradition. In this way my medievalism, I believed, transcended historical nostalgia.

The Catholic decline is very obvious in France. Sixty years ago, the intellectual and cultural life of French Catholicism was rich, as such names as Mauriac, Bernanos, Claudel, Marcel, Maritain, Gilson, Daniélou, and de Lubac remind us. Today, it is hard to think of a single French writer or thinker of their stature who is Catholic.

The decline is also evident in much of the rest of Europe. Recently the NY Times reported that the whole of Ireland ordained just nine priests last year, with only one ordination in the archdiocese of Dublin. The Church's future, such as it will be, seems clearly to belong to the Third World. This relocation, as it were, will in all likelihood cause even further alienation in the advanced, Western world. Perhaps China, where religion is reviving, will achieve a synthesis of a sort. Maybe the the Jesuits who sought to evangelize the country beginning in the sixteenth century will finally get their due. Or perhaps not.

Be that as it may, what was the main reason for the decline of Catholicism in America since its brief high-water mark in the ‘fifties? To some extent it reflects the process of cultural fading. In a society perpetually questing for something new, Catholicism came to seem old hat. To be sure, with the vernacular mass and other reforms the religion took on a new face in the wake of Vatican II. But not enough to compete effectively with other trends of the era.

The principal reason, I believe, for the retreat of Catholicism in North America lay in a momentous change in American culture that undergirded the shift from the ‘fifties to the ‘sixties. Put in its most basic terms, this was the change from the culture of conformity to the culture of expressivity. Only to a limited extent could Catholicism address the fever for “doing one’s own thing.” It decidedly did not endorse the idea of “different strokes for different folks.” While not strictly incompatible, Catholicism was not really in synch with the Counter-culture. It was done in by the availability of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Such at least was the experience of Jack Kerouac, who abandoned Catholicism for home-brew Buddhism. Few would endorse the song lyrics “Shakespeare’s a hack; we read Kerouac.” All the same, the author of On the Road beats Jacques Maritain every time.


The elevation of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to the papacy (as Benedict XVI) elicited a muted, but still growing sense of apprehension in Western Europe and North America. Gays have particular reason for concern. It was Ratzinger, as prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who issued the 1986 document characterizing homosexuality as an "intrinsic moral evil." Women’s ordination came to seem very unlikely, though there may be some expansion of the role of married priests, who in fact already exist within the Church. In my view the most serious disappointment will be the continuing attempt to ban contraception (a ban most American Catholics wisely ignore). The Roman Catholic church is opposed to abortion, yet by seeking to block access to birth control the institution makes more abortions inevitable.

Let us look at the matter in a somewhat different light. Twentieth-century theology has been dominated by a serious of penetrating, tireless writers whose native language is German. The names of Rudolf Bultmann, Karl Barth, and Jürgen Moltmann come immediately to mind. These are all Protestants.

Yet they have Roman Catholic counterparts in Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Rahner, and Hans Küng. Küng in particular has served as a bridge to Karl Barth, who although a Reform theologian has been particularly influential in Catholic circles. It is oversimple to label Barth as neo-orthodox, as is sometimes done, but there is no doubt that he set an example of uncompromising rigor that has been hostile to ecclesiastical liberalism.

What do these figures, von Balthasar, Rahner, and Küng, have in common? First, they show a combination of erudition in many languages and unceasing productivity. Theologically they reject what might be termed the dead hand of Thomism (for so long the "official" system of thought in the RC Church) in favor of resourcing, that is, a return to previously neglected patristic sources such as Origen and Clement of Alexandria. These scholars are familiar with the flood of new and newly discovered documents from the ancient Near East. In addition there is an affinity with modern existential thought, as seen in the work of Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers. They seem to share a predilection for playing Mozart on the piano.

The group is not monolithic. When, in his role as theological watchdog, Ratzinger found that Küng had strayed from the reservation, he disciplined him. Despite their conflict, however, Küng has just opined that his old adversary should be given a chance.

While some celebrate his theological acumen, it is probably fair to say that Joseph Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI, did not quite attain the stature of the leading members of the German-speaking group. It is perhaps in that sense that he is humble. Yet the new pontiff was still able to access the deep learning and analytical sharpness that is the common storehouse of the group.

Despite criticism in Western Europe and North America, Ratzinger’s elevation made a good deal of sense at the time. His views with regard to the “silent apostasy” that has produced so many empty churches in Europe were forthright. Instead of trying to ignore this erosion, as was mostly the case with his predecessor, Benedict XVI was prepared to shrink the Church in those prosperous but demographically declining countries. For the foreseeable future there would be no attempt at reevangelization among the errant flocks. Instead, the center of gravity of the Church must settle even more decisively in the Third World, where an increasing proportion of Catholics live and where Benedict’s theological conservatism was welcome. His emphasis on the perennial teachings of the Church would be reassuring to those in this camp. And indeed many have concluded that the accommodation to the modern world, so much commended by secular intellectuals, has been counterproductive, as people shun the "enlightened" denominations of liberal Protestantism in favor of denominations of stricter observance.

Much has changed since 1968, that tumultuous year which ostensibly marked an epochal change. It did help to produce Liberation Theology. In retrospect Ratzinger’s reservations about that ephemeral movement seem prescient.

But, but, but—readers will say. Is there really any future in Benedict’s obstinate rejection of modernism and relativism? This intransigence would seem to recall Pius IX with his Syllabus of Errors—or even King Canute’s legendary attempt to turn back the waves.

It is a dismaying thought, but the twenty-first century--globalization and all--may not turn out to be an unalloyed triumph for modernism, at least in the social realm. Even among non-Christian faiths, fundamentalism and traditionalism are on the march. I take no pleasure in this prospect, but it needs to be faced. 


The heading does not refer to current events, but to a little known episode that occurred when Joseph Ratzinger was nine years old.

In July 1933 the Vatican (represented by Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII) signed a Concordat with the Nazi government. Distrust persisted, however, as Catholics reacted to the neo-pagan aspects of the regime, while Hitler disliked the political side of Catholicism (the Center Party) as an independent power center, and potential site of resistance to his regime. Catholics objected to Nazi euthanasia, on right-to-life grounds. Matters came to a head early in 1936 with the "Immorality" Trials, in which hundreds of priests, monks, lay brothers, and nuns were accused of "perverted and immoral lifestyles," code words for homosexuality and pedophilia. Parents were urged to withdraw their children from Catholic schools lest they be molested.

For a long time I thought these charges were just trumped up. To be sure, the Nazis engaged in some entrapment and other chicanery. However, as recent experience in Massachusetts and other states has shown, there may have been something to the accusations.

At any rate this background probably explains the anti-Nazi views of Ratzinger's father, who resented the attack on the Church. The memory may linger today in the son. It could help to account for the pope's evident ambivalence on the matter of priestly pedophilia. In 1997 Cardinal Ratzinger received credible evidence concerning pedophile behavior on the part of a Mexican youth leader, Father Marcial Maciel. John Paul II, it appears, wouldn't hear of investigating such a fine priest. So the matter was quashed. Now, however, Benedict XVI is reopening the case.

A historical irony is that the original base of Nazism was in south Germany and Austria. The Beer Hall Putsch was in Bavaria. But Catholic opposition initially prevented Hitler's triumph. It was only after Protestant north Germany went over to him that he was able to become chancellor in January 1933. Hitler had reason to resent Catholics.

Towards the end of 2009 evidence began to surface that Cardinal Rat had been negligent in his treatment of pedophile priests. This story has not yet been concluded.


Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) is the first encyclical written by Pope Benedict XVI. Comprising almost 16,000 words, it was promulgated on January 25, 2006 in Latin and in several translations, including English. Reportedly, Benedict wrote the first half in German, his native tongue. The second half stems from an unfinished text left by his predecessor, John Paul II. The encyclical is thus a collaboration, though final responsibility rests with the present pontiff. The Latin title of the encyclical is a quotation from the First Letter of St. John, 4:16, translated from the original Greek "ho theos agape estin." In most contemporary English translations the expression reads "God is love." The exposition pivots on the concepts of eros (possessive, often sexual, love), agape (unconditional, self-sacrificing love), logos (the word), and their relationship with the teachings of Jesus.

In view of the severe reputation attaching to the prepontifical Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, some were surprised that his first encyclical should focus on such a positive, apparently worldly theme, including a positive role for sexual expression. The emphasis is still on sex within marriage, and only within marriage. The novelty—a departure I think from Augustinian thinking—is that carnal sex can be approved in that situation, providing it serves as a bridge to spiritual love. In addition, there is a kind of cosmic dimension, as love, understood as agape, is supposed to inhere in Christ and in this way radiate throughout the world. While indications of mellowing are indeed welcoming, one should not be too carried away. There is no indication that the pope looks with any favor on sexual love conducted outside the marriage context, and then of course it must follow guidelines supplied by the Church.

The topic of love has been much discussed since the ancient Greeks (and even before), without much progress towards a final definition. Some would throw up their hands and say that this is a hopelessly confused concept. In Ulysses James Joyce hesitated, then decided not to utter the word. But too many sensitive individuals have seen it as richly interconnected and indeed central to human existence.

Clearly the pope thinks that love is more than a four-letter word.

Benedict’s encyclical is liberally sprinkled with scriptural references, but in fact depends crucially on two non-Catholic, heretical sources. The first stems from the Lutheran bishop of Lund, Anders Nygren (1890-1978). In his book known in English as Eros and Agape (Swedish original 1930), Nygren sought to ground in the New Testament a fundamental contrast between eros and agape. Eros is the more carnal, "biological" form of love, agape is its spiritual sublimation. While Benedict purloins Nygren’s two key terms, the opinion that eros is inherently good departs from Nygren’s view that agape is the only truly Christian kind of love, and that eros is an expression of the individual's selfish desires, turning us away from God.

In fact the New Testament does not use the contrast of eros and agape to state such a fundamental conceptual contrast. As Benedict concedes, the word eros occurs nowhere in the New Testament. Koine Greek had in fact replaced eros with agape--the meaning is essentially the same--as part of normal linguistic evolution, much in the way that in everyday English "to cry" has supplanted "to weep" (though the meaning of the latter is still recognized). By the same token one could evolve a sophisticated contrast between crying and weeping, but it is not inherent in the use of the words. Note that Dante managed perfectly well with "amore" alone. (Yes, as the song goes, "it's amore.")

Discarding Nygren's misleading philology, one may still argue that there is a difference between lust and spiritual love, however phrased. The former may enjoy some aura of toleration if it is recognized that it may lead to the latter. This formulation, however, takes us in an even more dangerous direction as it stems from Plato. And Plato famously believed that it was erotic attraction to boys that constituted the first step on this ladder of progression to beatitude.

This approach reflects the myth Plato ascribes to Aristophanes in the Symposium, to wit, that the primal ancestors of human beings were originally three types of double-beings, one male-male, the second female-female, and the third male-female. After the gods separated us, we eternally long to return to our mate, male (like ourselves in the first case), female (like ourselves in the second), and finally of the opposite sex (in the third case). Among other things this myth is (I believe) the origin of the expression "better half." A variant of it may have survived in the Genesis expression "they became one flesh." Plato's myth is almost certainly of Middle Eastern origin.

Theologically Ratzinger attached himself to a movement called "resourcement," with its center in France. Theologians like Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou sought to return to Origen and the other Greek patristic thinkers, and above all to St. Augustine. Part of this landscape was a shadowy figure known as Plato Christianus, a Christianized Plato.

Two other surprising sources may be briefly noted. In considering eros, Benedict refers to a line from Vergil's Eclogues, X, 69, "Omnia vincit amor, et nos cedamus amori" ("Love conquers all, let us also yield to love"). This is an odd borrowing, since the second poem in Vergil’s cycle extols the passionate homosexual love of the shepherd Corydon. The pontiff also duly notes (though without approval) the opinion of Friedrich Nietzsche that Christianity has poisoned eros, turning it into a vice.

As this brief analysis shows, the encyclical is a composite reflecting various sources. Perhaps this is true of most intellectual creations of this kind. Still, in the light of the text’s heterogeneity, it is hard to see it as simply an unalloyed reflection of abiding truths as preserved in Scripture and maintained, without alteration, by Holy Church.


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Schwartz, Regina. The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Schweitzer, Albert. The Quest of the Historical Jesus. New edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001 [following the revised German edition of 1913].
Scroggs, Robin. The New Testament and Homosexuality. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.

Segal, Alan F. Life after Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion. New York: Doubleday, 2004.

Smith, Morton. Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973.

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Sora, Steven. Treasures from Heaven: Relics From Noah's Ark to the Shroud of Turin. New York: Wiley, 2005.

 Stehling, Thomas, trans., Medieval Poems of Male Love and Friendship. New York: Garland, 1984.

Thompson, Thomas L. The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past. London. 1999.

Torrance, Thomas F. The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988.

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Walker, D. P. The Decline of Hell: Seventeenth-Century Discussions of Eternal Torment. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964.

Warnke, Martin, ed. Bildersturm: Die Zerstörung des Kunstwerks. Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1973.

Webb, Diana. Medieval European Pilgrimage, C. 700 - C. 1500. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Weiss, Johannes. Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom of God. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1985.

Wright, Robert. The Evolution of God. New York: Little, Brown, 2009.

Yuval, Israel Jacob. Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006 (English translation of Hebrew original of 2000).

[Abrahamica] [Contents] [Introduction] [Chapter 1] [Chapter 2] [Chapter 3] [Chapter 4] [Chapter 5] [Chapter 6] [Bibliography]