In Lent of 2009 I decided I’d start reading the Bible from beginning to end for a third time. I’d tried that a couple of times in the past, never having got past Genesis, or once the very beginning of Exodus. This time, I vowed, I’d do it. I began reading it. Two and a half years later, I’m still at it. At least I’ve finished through the end of Joshua, and I am confident that I will indeed finish the whole Good Book again eventually.
Alas, it is now almost seven years since I wrote that post, and over nine years since I began re-reading the Bible, and I just ran out of steam. I have, however, started back, in a bit of a roundabout way.
This past Easter (2018) my wife, after eighteen years of marriage and twenty-one years together, entered the Catholic Church. This was a cause of celebration in our family. During Lent, she began using a Catholic app on her phone to read the Douay-Rheims version of the Bible. For Easter I bought her a hardcopy, as well as getting the Kindle version for her Kindle Fire. Since we use a common Amazon account, I put the Kindle version on my Fire, too. I have no idea why she decided to read that particular translation. However, since I now had it on my Fire also, I decided that I’d just jump in and start reading it, too. It wouldn’t be bad to be rereading the Bible (again); and by reading the specific version my wife was reading, I’d be better equipped to answer any questions she had.
The title of this post is a slight alteration of the title of this excellent book, a translation of the Ad Monachos of Evagrius Ponticus. I am not here applying it to Evagrius or his works, but to myself. I mentioned back here that I was an Arian–or perhaps, better, “quasi-Arian” or “little-u unitarian”–in my younger days. I said that a detailed unpacking of my beliefs and how they developed was for another time. That time is now.
I grew up in a small town in Appalachia, part of the Bible Belt and hotbed of Fundamentalism, and (paradoxically) one of the most unchurched regions of the country. I was raised in a sort of generic, culturally Protestant way, without anyone in the family formally belonging to any church. Both my parents had been baptized before I was born, though I don’t know the details. During my life, though, neither was a formal member of any church, nor a regular attender. I was sent to Sunday school at a Methodist church from about the age of four until about seven; and at a Baptist church between the ages of about eight or nine and thirteen. During this latter period, I was usually sent to vacation Bible school in the summers, at the Baptist church (and once or twice, I think, at a second Methodist church). Every once in awhile, my mother would go to church services (this was at the Methodist church–she never attended the Baptist one, as far as I remember) and drag me with her. “Drag” was the operative word.
I was always extremely reluctant to go to church, and never did so voluntarily. I don’t know exactly why. I do remember I that I associated church with fear. I don’t clearly remember any hellfire and damnation sermons, though there may have been some. Mom and Dad certainly never used threats of hell, as some parents did. I remember thinking that being in an actual church involved a commitment I was unwilling to make. I recall one time Mom dragged me to church, and the hymn being sung was, “I have decided to follow Jesus/ No turning back, no turning back.” I mouthed the second line without singing it. I wasn’t going to sign up for that! I remember another time in Sunday school at the Baptist church, there was a visiting preacher, a black Baptist (there were very few black people where I grew up, so for us this was exotic). The one thing I remember about him is that at one point he said, “When you say I’m going to follow God and get my life together tomorrow, that old devil just laughs and laughs!” Those words haunted me for years.
A few days ago I was sitting in a Wal-Mart, waiting to get a tire replaced on my car. I had my Kindle Fire with me so I’d have something to read. Recently I posted here about The Gospel of Thomas. Since I had the ebook version of The Gnostic Bible on my Fire, I decided to open it up and reread The Gospel of Thomas. I got to the first page and stopped. I remembered that I’d started to read this particular translation before, and stopped; and I remembered why I’d stopped. The introduction to Thomas says,
The translation gives the Semitic forms of Semitic names, in order to highlight the Jewish identity of Jesus and his students and the Jewish context of the life of the historical Jesus. For example, the name Yeshua is used for Jesus; the other names are identified in the notes.
Thus, the first line of the translation reads, “These are the hidden sayings that the living Yeshua spoke and Yehuda Toma the twin recorded.” “Yehuda Toma” is the Aramaic for Judas Thomas–the disciple known as “Thomas”, literally “twin”, in the canonical gospels, and referred to also as Judas or Judah here and in other non-canonical sources. This irritates the crap out of me, and the rest of this post will unpack the whys of this irritation.
“Lost” or “forbidden” scriptures are a big thing these days, and have been for some time. They have certainly played their role in pop culture, in works ranging from The Da Vinci Code and its sequels to horror/suspense movies like Stigmata, to name just a couple. The Gospel of Judas caused a worldwide sensation when it was translated and published in 2005. Walk into any large bookstore and you’ll see Elaine Pagels’s classic, The Gnostic Gospels (which arguably started the craze), various publications of the Nag Hammadi scriptures, both individually and as a group, collections such as The Gnostic Bible, and so on. Of all the various “lost”, “forbidden”, and “Gnostic” scriptures, probably the most famous is The Gospel of Thomas.
The Gospel of Thomas, though short, is a mysterious and intriguing document. Unlike the canonical gospels of the New Testament, and even some of the other heterodox gospels, The Gospel of Thomas has no narrative. Instead, it consists of one hundred fourteen logia–sayings–of Christ, addressed mainly to the disciples. Like the Gospels of Mark and John, Thomas lacks birth stories of Jesus. Unlike all four canonical gospels, Thomas also lacks any account of the crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, as well as the apocalyptic themes associated with Jesus in the canonical gospels. About half the logia are parallel to or at least similar to sayings of Jesus in the canonical gospels. The rest are of unclear origin.
Now let the heavens be joyful,
Let earth her song begin;
Let the round world keep triumph,
And all that is therein;
Invisible and visible,
Their notes let all things blend,
For Christ the Lord is risen
Our joy that hath no end.
–Saint John of Damascus, in The Congregational Hymn Book: Psalms and Hymns for Divine Worship (1881), p. 219; courtesy of Wikiquote.
Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,
exult, let Angel ministers of God exult,
let the trumpet of salvation
sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!
Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of the earth be glad,
knowing an end to gloom and darkness.
Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice,
arrayed with the lightning of his glory,
let this holy building shake with joy,
filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.
(Therefore, dearest friends,
standing in the awesome glory of this holy light,
invoke with me, I ask you,
the mercy of God almighty,
that he, who has been pleased to number me,
though unworthy, among the Levites,
may pour into me his light unshadowed,
that I may sing this candle’s perfect praises.)
(V. The Lord be with you.
R. And with your spirit.)
V. Lift up your hearts.
R. We lift them up to the Lord.
V. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
R. It is right and just.
It is truly right and just, with ardent love of mind and heart
and with devoted service of our voice,
to acclaim our God invisible, the almighty Father,
and Jesus Christ, our Lord, his Son, his Only Begotten.
Who for our sake paid Adam’s debt to the eternal Father,
and, pouring out his own dear Blood,
wiped clean the record of our ancient sinfulness.
These, then, are the feasts of Passover,
in which is slain the Lamb, the one true Lamb,
whose Blood anoints the doorposts of believers.
This is the night,
when once you led our forebears, Israel’s children,
from slavery in Egypt
and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.
This is the night
that with a pillar of fire
banished the darkness of sin.
This is the night
that even now, throughout the world,
sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices
and from the gloom of sin,
leading them to grace
and joining them to his holy ones.
This is the night,
when Christ broke the prison-bars of death
and rose victorious from the underworld.
Our birth would have been no gain,
had we not been redeemed.
O wonder of your humble care for us!
O love, O charity beyond all telling,
to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!
O truly necessary sin of Adam,
destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!
O happy fault
that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!
O truly blessed night,
worthy alone to know the time and hour
when Christ rose from the underworld!
This is the night
of which it is written:
The night shall be as bright as day,
dazzling is the night for me,
and full of gladness.
The sanctifying power of this night
dispels wickedness, washes faults away,
restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners,
drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.
On this, your night of grace, O holy Father,
accept this candle, a solemn offering,
the work of bees and of your servants’ hands,
an evening sacrifice of praise,
this gift from your most holy Church.
But now we know the praises of this pillar,
which glowing fire ignites for God’s honor,
a fire into many flames divided,
yet never dimmed by sharing of its light,
for it is fed by melting wax,
drawn out by mother bees
to build a torch so precious.
O truly blessed night,
when things of heaven are wed to those of earth,
and divine to the human.
Therefore, O Lord,
we pray you that this candle,
hallowed to the honor of your name,
may persevere undimmed,
to overcome the darkness of this night.
Receive it as a pleasing fragrance,
and let it mingle with the lights of heaven.
May this flame be found still burning
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets,
Christ your Son,
who, coming back from death’s domain,
has shed his peaceful light on humanity,
and lives and reigns for ever and ever.