Forward to next post: Warrior Princess by Mindy Budgor: outdoing The Onion
Those who love sausage and the scriptures shouldn’t watch either of them being made.
How shall I begin this?
There are three topics that one is not supposed to talk about in the wardroom: sex, politics, and religion. We’ve had recent threads about both sex and politics, so it’s time for religion. To that end, here we go.
Way back when, there was a popular show called Jesus of Nazareth. Unfortunately it was canceled by the network after just three seasons, leaving behind a small but very devoted fandom. The fandom spread. Some of the fans told and retold all the episodes of the show that they had seen. Others copied out samizdat versions of the tie-in novels. Yet others wrote original fanfic.
I pass lightly over the years, the times of persecutions, the Christians being thrown to the lions, the meetings by night in the catacombs (which is why, to this day, people entering instruction to convert to Christianity are called “catechumens” (actually this is a false etymology; the word comes from the Greek for “someone being instructed” but the other story is more fun)).
Back to the Bible: lots of Christian fic out there. By the time you got to a copy of a copy of a retelling of a conflation it was getting hard to figure out what had been an episode of the show and what was someone’s AU RPF.
The centuries passed. Much in this manner:
So, the fourth century rolls around. We have Constantine. Ever since the Battle of Milvian Bridge (against Maxentius, one of Constantine’s co-emperors), Constantine had been using Christian symbols. (He’d seen a vision of Christ the day before, who said “In this sign (In Hoc Signo, abbreviated IHS) shall you conquer,” and went with it.) Constantine began carrying either a cross or a Chi-Rho (accounts differ). Constantine beat Maxentius and became Emperor of the West.
Then came the Edict of Milan, where the Emperor Constantine and his co-emperor Licinius (The
Wicked Witch Emperor of the East), decided that Christianity was no longer illegal. The Church could come above ground. Hurrah!
But! Two heads can’t wear one crown. Constantine and Licinius got into a war against each other. We had the Battle of Adrianople. The Battle of Hellespont. Finally the Battle of Chrysopolis, and Constantine was sole Emperor. So, since Christ had delivered victory, Constantine said, “Okay, I’m a Christian now! By the way, what do you guys believe, anyway?”
To which the answer was, “Depends on who you ask. In which town. On what day.”
Constantine was a Roman emperor, and a military man. So he said, “Right. Figure it out and tell me. I’ll believe anything you say, but get it all in one sock.” He called NiceaCon One, and invited all the BNFs and SMOFs of the Christian world to have a business meeting and hammer it out.
So, all the bishops of the world went to Nicea. Depending on who you ask, there were either “more than two hundred” (Eusebius of Caesarea), or 318 (Athanasius of Alexandria). Athanasius may have been counting non-voting members since he himself was there as the secretary of Bishop Alexander of Alexandria.
Reportedly only five bishops from the Latin west attended, not including the Bishop of Rome (Pope Sylvester I — but he did send two priests as legates).
The big question was the Creed, or What Do We Believe, Anyway? (Other questions included “What Do We Do With the Christians Who Supported Licinius?”, “What Do We Do With Christians Who, Faced With Persecution, Said, ‘Sacrifice To Zeus? Hoo Boy Yeah! Me an’ Zeus, We’re Tight!’”, and “Can Guys Who Have Been Castrated Be Deacons?” But I’m going to skip all of those to get to the main event.)
In coming up with a creed, the biggest question was “What is the Nature of Christ?” One side, led by the pious and scholarly Arius, held that Jesus was the first and greatest of God’s creations (that is, essentially, Top Angel). The other side, championed by Athanasius, held that Jesus was actually Totally God Since Forever. Both sides had copies of old fanzines to support their views.
(When Constantine heard this he said, “Can’t you guys just get along? Why not agree to disagree like every other friggin’ philosopher since Plato was a pup, and get on with your lives?” to which both sides answered “No!!!!eleventy!!!” and thus Nicea.)
At the time Athanasius was best known for his blog, Athanasius Contra Mundum. (The top of every page was marked with a flashing icon labeled “Breaking!” while the bottom of each page said, “Must credit Athanasius!”)
Much of what we know about Nicea comes from Eusebius of Caesarea, who live-blogged the whole thing.
High points of the con included the day when Nicholas of Myra (yeah, that St. Nick; AKA Santa Claus) punched out (some say slapped) Arius. Nicholas was promptly hauled off, stripped of his episcopal rig, and thrown in jail for breach of the peace. St. Nick, though, had been imprisoned and tortured under Diocletian. This was a walk in the park for him. While he was sitting in jail that night, Jesus and Mary arrived to visit. Jesus said, “Nick! Why are you in the hoosegow?” To which Nicholas replied, “It’s for love of You, lord.” So, Jesus said, “This won’t do,” and gave Nicolas back his stuff and a prayerbook. Anyway that was Nicolas’s story and he stuck to it.)
Then there was the day when Eusebius of Nicomedia proposed his own Creed. Eusebius of Caesarea reported that it was “hooted” by the rest of the delegates, and only got seventeen votes. Eusebius of Nicomedia got all butthurt over this, and remained pissed off for the rest of his life. (As it happened, Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia had both been students of Lucian Martyr in Antioch. Anytime in Church history you see the words “of Antioch” stand by for things to be … odd.)
What with this and that the Council of Nicea eventually did come up with a creed, and it pretty-much followed Athanasius’s ideas, even though it included one word, homo-ousios, meaning “of the same substance,” that had occurred nowhere in Christian or Jewish religious writings up to that point.
When the council voted on a final creed, all but two signed on. (Speaking of signing on, the lists of who did sign exist, but having been copied and recopied variously number 218 or 220 bishops.) Eusebius of Caesarea, who had been an Arian up to then, became an enthusiastic Athanasian.
Some time after that, Constantine went to Eusebius of Caesarea and said, “Yo, Pamphili!” (Eusebius’ friends called him “Pamphili”), “You’ve got the biggest collection of fanzines in the world. How about you put together the teaching anthology?”
Eusebius of Caesarea said, “Right on it, boss!” and set to work. This was to be a bible (that is to say, “book”) containing all the same works in the same words in the same order for the fifty churches in Constantinople so that they could all quite literally be on the same page.
Earlier, Eusebius of Caesarea had written a history of the church (for which he was, centuries later, roundly smeared by Edward Gibbon). In that he’d included a list of Christian writings which he organized into Accepted, Disputed, and No Way. So he took his accepted list, removed the Arian books, the Gnostic books, and anything else that didn’t match the Nicene Creed, and filled up the gaps with Disputed books which, similarly, weren’t Arian, Gnostic, or otherwise unorthodox (orthodox = straight belief), and thus had his canon (canon=measuring stick).
So, how to organize them? Fortunately, Eusebius had a model to follow. So it’s time to drop back to the second century to look at the first Christian bible.
This was produced by Marcion of Pontus (sometimes called Marcion of Sinope), AKA The Pontic Rat. Marcion was the first to notice that Christians needed an orthodox canon. Marcion was also a strict literalist. So when it said in Genesis that God was walking in the Garden, and asked “Where’s Adam?” it meant that God had a physical body, and wasn’t omniscient. Therefore, the God of the Hebrews wasn’t the same as the Heavenly Father of Christ.
Marcion decided that only Paul was authentic, so his list of orthodox scriptures included only the Gospel of Luke (which he attributed to Paul) and ten letters of Paul. Since, according to Marcion, the Hebrew material was inauthentic, he removed all references to Hebrew scriptures from his bible, and, since he viewed Christ’s earthly body as purely symbolic, removed the Nativity story from Luke.
In one of the great examples of second-century fanwank, Tertullian of Carthage wrote five different books against Marcion, including in one of them the classic line, “Shame, shame, shame upon Marcion’s eraser!”
On another occasion, Marcion went all fanboy on Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, and said, “Do you know who I am?”
(A brief digression: Polycarp had been ordained by John the Apostle, knew Philip the Apostle and possibly other apostles; the Blessed Virgin Mary had lived in his diocese until her
death, dormition, assumption. Polycarp had been a strict Trinitarian from way back, and would eventually be martyred.)
Anyway, there’s Marcion saying, “Don’t you know me?” And Polycarp answered, “Yes, I know you! You’re the first-born of Satan!”
Right. Marcion’s bible had been deprecated, but the organizational format was there, and Eusebius used it; Gospels in front, then the other stuff. Every book that was in Marcion was also in Eusebius. So we can draw a straight line from Marcion to Eusebius of Caesarea.
Of Eusebius’ fifty bibles, none, two, or maybe four copies or partial copies survive. The exact table of contents is a matter of … some dispute. Which isn’t to say that sometime next week, in some castle on the Rhine, someone will find an old book propping up the back leg of a wardrobe that hasn’t been moved since the fifteenth century and there it’ll be, one of Eusebius of Caesarea’s original bibles that great-great-grandad brought back from the Fourth Crusade.
(Despite a later claim by St. Jerome that the Council of Nicea had come up with a list of orthodox books, no one else, including people who had been there, ever mentioned such a list.)
In a minute we’ll get to some of my favorite apocryphal (apocryphal = “secret” or “hidden,” as opposed to apocalyptic, that is “revealed”) works. But first the rest of the history of the canon.
Eusebius of Caesarea had his bible, promulgated all over Constantinople. Meanwhile, down in Alexandria, Athanasius had become the bishop. He continued to be a … controversial … figure. (He managed to get exiled five times by four different emperors.) But he also had an important job in the Church. Alexandria had the best astronomers so it was his job to determine the date of Easter every year, and let all the rest of the churches know. So every year Athanasius sent out a Paschal Letter naming the date of Easter. Since he was going to the expense of creating and sending these letters anyway, and since “Easter this year is on the 15th of March, pass it on” doesn’t take up a lot of room and he had an entire sheepskin to fill, Athanasius took the opportunity to let the world know what else he was thinking. And one year what he was thinking was what books should be in the Bible. So he listed them. Where Eusebius of Caesarea had eighteen books in the New Testament (and may or may not have included earlier Hebrew books as an Old Testament), Athanasius listed twenty-seven books. And he included an Old Testament. His criteria for selecting books for the Old Testament were these: Since he didn’t read Hebrew, they had to come from the Septuagint (a bunch of Hebrew religious writing that had been translated into Greek by seventy scholars, hence its name). The books he selected were those that either a) included the genealogy of Jesus, or b) contained prophecies that were fulfilled in the New Testament.
So when you hear someone say that the New Testament must be true because of all the prophecies from the Old Testament that are fulfilled in it, the answer is, “Well, yeah.”
Despite these (now three) bibles, there still wasn’t an official list. So later still, at Carthage-Con 3, end of the fourth century, the bishops came up with a final list. Folks who had already put together a bible based on Athanasius were all “Dude! We just spent a whole bunch of money getting those other books! Are we going to have to do it all over again?” and the answer was, “Nope, we’re just making it official.” Which is why Athanasius got to define scripture. (Also at the end of the fourth century: CONstantiople, where the Nicene Creed was expanded and finalized.)
Another digression: Arius hadn’t just dropped off the face of the earth after Arianism was declared a heresy. He went to live with his old pal Eusebius of Nicomedia and wrote endless letters setting forth his position, apparently believing, as is so common in on-line discourse today, that if he just explained it one more time everyone would agree with him. Eusebius of Nicomedia proved that he, himself, wasn’t an Arian by claiming that he was a bishop, while Arius was only a presbyter, so there was no way he was going to follow that guy. Eventually Eusebius of Nicomedia was the guy who baptized the Emperor Constantine. As for what happened to Arius, he was one day short of being fully reconciled into the Catholic Communion when, on his way to church up in Constantinople, he felt a bout of diarrhea coming on. He asked where he could go to move his bowels, and was pointed to one side of the forum. Once there, he shat out his dung, and his intestines, and his liver, and his spleen. Thus was God’s justice rendered on the wicked heretic.
Now, finally, the fun part.
Among the books that Eusebius of Caesarea was considering were the Apocalypse of Peter and the Apocalypse of John. He had to have an apocalypse, the end of the world, because he’d started with the Gospel of John at “In Principio.” Nice symmetrical bookending. But he had several Apocalypses in his Disputed list and none in his Accepted list. What to do?
He had many objections to the Apocalypse of John, starting with What Was He Smoking, and moving on to Too Many Contemporary Political References and I’m Not 100% Sure John Was The Guy Who Wrote This. Eusebius preferred the Apocalypse of Peter, where Jesus takes Peter on a long tour of Heaven and Hell. And after Christ explains all the tortures of the damned, according to category (quite Dantesque), Peter says, “Hey, Josh. You and me go way back, went fishing together, been out drinking, talking philosophy ‘til dawn, and the whole time You’ve been all peace and love and forgiveness and mercy. Isn’t this a little dark for You?” And Jesus replies, “Yeah, Pete. I know. I’ve got to have a hell because it’s a logical necessity, but I never liked the place. Let me tell you a secret, just between you and me: I’m not going to actually put anyone in here. I’m going to save everyone.”
So Eusebius of Caesarea thought about this and said to himself, “If everyone gets saved why will anyone bother believing in Christ and being good and doing good works and loving their neighbor?” so he went with the Apocalypse of John with the seven seals and the great beast and 666 and all that instead.
Speaking of tours of Heaven and Hell, there’s the Book of Enoch. This is in the Old Testament of the Ethiopian Church, but didn’t make it into Athanasius’s list. (Since Ethiopia didn’t belong to the Empire they didn’t care.) Enoch himself gets about one line in Genesis. But it’s in the Book of Enoch, all about his adventures after being taken up to Heaven by the angel Uriel and told the secret history, that we get the story of the Watcher Angels. Angels, as I’m sure everyone knows, get all turned on when they see human women’s hair and they go on and seduce and boink those women. The women then have children who turn out to be man-eating giants (don’t you hate when that happens?) Which is where the “giants in the earth” come from in Genesis (right before the story of the Flood). Didn’t make the cut because it doesn’t include the genealogy of Jesus or any New Testament prophecies but this story, the Book of Enoch, would have been known to Paul and he’d have no way of knowing that it would be left out of orthodox scripture a few centuries later; that’s why he admonishes women in church to cover their hair, because angels hang out around churches and you don’t want them to pull out the flowers and chocolates, do you?
But every woman praying or prophesying with her head not covered, disgraceth her head: for it is all one as if she were shaven. … Therefore ought the woman to have a power over her head, because of the angels.
1 Corinthians 11:5-10
Enoch inspired the 16th century con artist Edward Kelley, Dr. Dee’s running buddy, to come up with the Enochian Alphabet for communicating with angels. (What the angels said was “Edward Kelley should totally boink Mrs. Dee.” Dr. Dee was all, “Well, if the angels say so we don’t have a choice.” What Mrs. Dee thought of this I don’t know.)
Let’s see: other fun books. There’s
The Adventures of Superboy The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. This one didn’t even come close to making it into the bible. It consists of three sets of three miracles and three lessons, and has the child Jesus throwing one of His little friends off the roof of His house then raising him from the dead (among other astounding things).
The Adventures of Paul and Mary Sue Acts of Paul and Thecla, in which the beautiful and virtuous Thecla is more apostolic than the apostles. Everyone (including a long string of pagan Roman officials, lions, the weather, and God) loves her the minute they see her. Christ needed John the Baptist to baptize Him. Thecla baptizes herself. After escaping from many perils she returns from Alexandria to Rome by digging a tunnel under the Mediterranean.
Tertullian pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head, and said, “O for heaven’s sake, would you stop reading that thing in church?”
The Acts of Paul and Thecla was widely translated, and at least one real, historical martyr took Thecla as her inspiration to stay strong when facing her own death.
More seriously, there’s the Gospel of James. The Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) was clearly familiar with this book, since he used a big chunk of it in writing the Koran. The Blessed Virgin Mary is mentioned by name more often in the Koran than in the Bible (Miriam is a very popular Islamic girls’ name), and she is a perpetual virgin there. The Annunciation is in the Koran. Jesus gets a virgin birth in the Koran; it’s an article of faith among the Muslims.
I know you’re wondering how that worked, seeing as Jesus’s brothers and sisters are mentioned by name in the Gospels. According to some the Blessed Virgin didn’t stay a virgin, so get over it. According to others, the same word could be used for “cousin” as well as “brother,” so they were cousins. Totally cousins. But the Gospel of James has an ingenious explanation, which I really, really like.
Okay, so there’s this nice young lady named Mary. She’s “in trouble” (if you know what I mean) so the local honchos go to a duffer named Joseph, known for his piety and learning, has a good business, and say, “Hey, Joe. This kid, pretty girl, good family, is all pregnant and won’t tell anyone who the father is. Your wife is dead, your kids are grown, how about you prevent a scandal. Want to be a mensch and marry her?” And Joseph replies, “I don’t know if I’ll be able to do her any good. Like you said, I’m old and Viagra won’t be invented for another two millennia.” But Mary says, “I’m good with that!” So they get married. Thus Jesus’s brothers and sisters are really His half-brothers and sisters from Joseph’s first marriage, and Mary stays a virgin. Problem solved!
(James was one of Jesus’s (half) brothers, so he would have been in a position to know.)
So why didn’t this one get into the Bible? Because … it’s like this. When you’re writing Tom Swift novels Tom Swift has to be in every chapter. In the Gospel of James Jesus doesn’t show up for a long, long time. It starts, not with Mary, but with Mary’s parents. Then it gets around to the Immaculate Conception (that is, Mary herself is of miraculous birth so that she doesn’t have Original Sin (the Sin of Adam) on her soul. (The Immaculate Conception is one of the two times the Pope has claimed infallibility.) Since she didn’t have Original Sin, and she never sinned afterward (the nuns were fond of showing pictures of Little Girl Mary helping her mother sweep the house and wash the dishes), she would never die, since death is the punishment for Original Sin. Therefore Mary must have never died. But where is she? Answer: She was assumed, still living, into heaven. And the Assumption is the other time the Pope has asserted infallibility.
Joke Digression: Jesus is teaching, and the people bring before Him a woman caught in adultery and ask Him what to do with her (hoping to catch Him ignoring the Law). Instead He says, “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” Suddenly this big old boulder comes flying out of the back of the crowd. And Jesus says, “Mom! Stay out of this!”
Anyway, the Gospel of James doesn’t make it into the book because it would unbalance the anthology. But that doesn’t stop everyone from acting as if it were part of the Bible.
Next fun book: The Shepherd of Hermas. This may have made it into Eusebius of Caesarea’s bible; at least one surviving 4th century bible contains it. But Athanasius didn’t list it, so out it goes. But do we still believe it? Any time you see a little devil sitting on a person’s left shoulder whispering temptations into their ear, and a little angel sitting on their right shoulder, that’s out of the Shepherd of Hermas. (Note: The shoulder-angels and devils also made it into the Koran.)
I skip over a ton of other works: The Acts of Peter, where we have a magical duel with Simon Magus, the perils of preaching chastity, and the answer to the question “Quo vadis?” The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (Gnostic.) The
Very Secret Diary Gospel of Mark (which answers the question “Who was that young man wearing nothing but a linen cloak?”)
Which brings me around to my all-time favorite apocryphal Gospel: the Gospel of Nicodemus. Eusebius of Caesarea didn’t even mention it. Athanasius passed it right by. But as far as influence, you can’t beat it.
Nicodemus includes the Acts of Pilate, which is the report that Pilate sent back to Caesar in Rome (“You won’t believe the shit that just went down!”) It includes a great deal of detail found nowhere else on the Crucifixion. What kind of stuff? Well, the names of the two thieves crucified beside Jesus. They’re mentioned in the synoptic gospels but we get their names from the Gospel of Nicodemus: Gestus and Dismas (Greek for “Goofus” and “Gallant”). (Note: There is a St. Dismas Parish in Waukegan, Illinois.)
Six of the fourteen Stations of the Cross (which you will find in just about every Catholic church in the world) come out of the Gospel of Nicodemus (I live about a mile and a half from an outdoor drive-through Stations). These include Christ falling the first, second, and third time, Jesus meeting His mother, Jesus meeting the women of Jerusalem, and, most famously, meeting St. Veronica. That’s her first appearance. Veronica wipes the blood, mud, and spit from Jesus with her veil, which miraculously gets a picture of His face on it.
Even more important from the Gospel of Nicodemus, we get the Harrowing of Hell. Fanfic fills in gaps in the stories, and this one answers the question, “What was Jesus doing between His death and resurrection?” Answer: He went to Hell, and released all the virtuous dead. David, Moses, the prophets, and everyone else who would have been saved if only they’d have had the chance to hear about Christ. With Christ’s death salvation was now possible, and so they’re saved! (I’m not going to go into the ransom theory of redemption or the guaranty theory of redemption or the satisfaction theory of redemption or the recapitulation theory of redemption and whatnot. Just be aware that they exist.)
There probably isn’t a cathedral in Europe that didn’t at some point have a Harrowing of Hell stained glass window, sculpture, painting, or other representation.
So that’s Nicodemus, a minor character in the Gospel of John, who in his own book gives us St. Dismas, St. Veronica, the Stations of the Cross and the Harrowing of Hell.
Fun things, referring back to the Gospel of James: The Cherry Tree Carol (Sting)
Also, middle english mystery plays:
To my witnesse grete God I call,
Þat in mynde wroght neuere no mysse.
Whose is þe childe þou arte with-all?
Youres sir, and þe kyngis of blisse.
Ye, and hoo þan?
The Pewtereres and Foundours XIII. Joseph’s trouble about Mary
To my witness great God I call
That never in memory worked any evil
Whose child is it you’re having?
Yours, sir, and the King of Heaven’s.
Yeah, and whose else?