Through the centuries, those who want to speculate have always shown a fascination for the apocryphal gospels; author Jeet Thayil is the latest to join the list

How is it that a man who lived 2000-plus years ago continues to bother people? They insist that he was just a man, not God-incarnate; not the Saviour of the world, but Jesus keeps on bothering people from age to age.

About 600 years after Jesus, Islam’s prophet Mohammad felt the need to say something about Jesus. Though he didn’t believe Jesus was God’s Son on earth, he described Jesus as kalimatin min Allah—“a Word from God”.

The Ahmadiyya movement was founded in 1889. Ahmadi Muslims believe that Jesus survived the cross, revived in the tomb, escaped to Kashmir and died in old age whilst seeking the Lost Tribes of Israel. Jesus’ remains are believed to be entombed in Kashmir under the name Yuz Asaf. And unbelievers, including nominal Christians uncomfortable with the lordship of Jesus, eagerly keep on lapping up this sort of stuff.

In India, Ramakrishna and Vivekanand could not leave Jesus alone. They felt that they had to show that they understood him. New Age gurus, such as Deepak Chopra, also joined the bandwagon.

And now there is a new kid on the block. I haven’t read his book, Names of the Women, but I am basing my assessment on published interviews and reviews. Jeet Thayil is the book’s author. Grandson of devout believers, Thayil himself, at best, can only be described as a cultural Christian. He hails from the so-called Syrian Christian community of Kerala. People of this community claim to be the descendants of the first converts of the Apostle Thomas who is credited with bringing the Christian faith to India.

Kerala’s Syrian Christians are proud of their roots, especially because they think that their ancestors, who converted, were all Brahmins. That is, they are caste-conscious and there is absolutely nothing Christian about that.

Thayil admits that his work is based not on the “traditional gospels” but the apocryphal ones such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary and the Acts of Pilate.

Names of the Women is a work of fiction but Thayil has taken a position on matters regarding the historical Jesus. He was asked whether “the ossification of marginalised narratives through the lens of those in power is an ongoing method of suppression particularly in today’s digitally driven world where privileged access to certain spaces prevents true representation?” His answer was, “It’s always been a method of suppression and it always will be, whatever kind of world we live in, digital or analogue. The marginalized are always left out of the story because the story is usually told by majoritarian storytellers, and in the case of the New Testament, the majority was the men who came to own the Gospels. The Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary should be considered equally important but they do not have the authority of the four traditional gospels. I believe this is because in the so-called apocryphal gospels the marginalized, and by this I mean women and a female way of looking, are not excluded but at the centre.”

Thayil argues that the apocryphal gospels were rejected by majoritarian views. Hogwash! That is now a standard argument of those who appeal to these apocryphal gospels. The impression given is that those in the minority were outvoted.

Thayil argues that the apocryphal gospels were rejected by majoritarian views. Hogwash! … The impression given is that those in the minority were outvoted

Criteria of Authenticity

That is not how the faith community decided which of the prevalent writings would be regarded as having authenticity and legitimacy. For a writing to be included in the canon of Scripture:

  • It had to be early, close to the time of the Lord Jesus’ incarnation
  • It had to be authored by an apostle, or by a companion of an apostle
  • It had to be consistent with orthodox faith as handed down by the oral tradition that predated all written documents
  • It had to be already accepted widely in the Church (i.e. by the common people)

It was not at all a case of the majority or the winning party choosing what would be included in the Bible. It was simply a question of faith as held by ordinary folk rather than those who claimed to have secret knowledge making them special as was the case of Gnostics (the group behind the apocryphal gospels and other writings). The Gnostics were a heretic group. They denied that Jesus was fully God. Their theories were based on Greek philosophy. Believers, apostles and commoners, were alike in rejecting the false teaching.

Lost the Vote?

Some years ago when the Gospel of Judas surfaced, the Hindustan Times republished articles that appeared in the New York Times. One was under the title ‘Gospel of Judas highlights Church’s early splits’ and quoted Bart Ehrman, Religious Studies professor at the University of North Carolina: “In the struggle among Christian groups to win converts only one emerged victorious. It declared itself orthodox and all others heretics.”

This conclusion can be arrived at only by assuming that the Early Church conducted its business meetings in just the same way as modern churches. Most modern church constitutions include a rule about how the constitution may be amended. While the bylaws can be amended by simple majority (51%), amending the constitution would require two-thirds majority. The constitution of a group is what defines it: the constitution describes its identity, its reasons for existing, and its aims and purposes. Modern church constitutions include the church’s doctrines in the part that requires two-thirds majority for amendment. This does mean that doctrines cannot be amended easily, but it still does allow amendment. To believers it is shocking to even imagine that there are churches that claim Jesus as Lord and yet allow the amendment of doctrines handed down by the revelation of God.

Final Analysis

The scholars supporting the Gnostic gospels as though they tell us something about Jesus Christ are liberal theologians. They are not believers. They don’t believe that the Bible is God’s Revealed Word, that God is Creator, that Jesus was God-incarnate, that Jesus was virgin-born, that He performed miracles, that He died for all to be saved from their sins, that He rose from the dead and that He will come again as Lord.

Aldous Huxley, known mostly for his well-written novels, also wrote philosophical stuff. Here is a quote from one of his philosophical works, the book Ends and Means (1937):

For myself, as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom; we objected to the political and economic system because it was unjust. The supporters of these systems claimed that in some way they embodied the meaning (a Christian meaning, they insisted) of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and at the same time justifying ourselves in our political and erotic revolt: we could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever.

The rule of majority is not the law by which the Early Church determined doctrinal issues or decided how belief and practice would be worked out

Huxley said that people who embraced the philosophy of meaninglessness did so because they rejected morality. Similarly, Liberal Christians who deny God and Christ have a reason. The ethic of Christ is just not acceptable to them and they are therefore eager to debunk Christ and live without feeling inhibited by the person and teachings of the Lord Jesus. They deliberately reject Jesus because they do not want to follow his ethic.

Gnosticism didn’t die because it was outvoted but because there really was no divine spark in Gnostics. They had no divine power to sustain them. They were on the path of self-realisation, not that of serving God by bringing salvation to all humans. On the other hand, the Christian faith lived on because Jesus is alive, and His Holy Spirit empowered Christians, not for self-realisation and selfishness, but for charitable works. In every country around the world, the main caregivers, and often the only caregivers, in the fields of education, health care and social work and development, are the people of Jesus Christ. That is the difference between Christianity and Gnosticism, and as long as that difference remains, the Christian faith will always triumph, no matter how many more parchments of Gnostic gospels are discovered.

Unanimous Decision Making

The rule of majority is not the law by which the Early Church determined doctrinal issues or decided how belief and practice would be worked out. Acts chapter 15 gives a rather complete account of how the Early Church did it. A study of the chapter will reveal:

  • No vote was taken
  • A unanimous conclusion was arrived at after discussions
  • Those who had the “majority” when the council began its session, didn’t win.

No doubt, later councils were not always as peaceful as that first one. But the point is that it wasn’t a matter of merely counting the votes. Instead, it was always a matter of checking to see if a preacher or teacher or local church or group of churches fitted in with what was “handed down” (1 Cor 15:3–4; 2 Tim 2:2).

The gospel existed first in the oral tradition that was formed as the apostles preached the message of Christ Jesus. Later on, the apostles wrote letters to the churches (2 Thess 2:15). The apostles’ preaching and their letters constituted a body of apostolic teaching that was the benchmark against which all subsequent writings (including the gospels) were verified.

The apocryphal gospels do not depict Jesus as God-incarnate, whereas the faith of the Church was that Jesus was fully divine and fully human. The apocryphal gospels show Jesus only as the best human being who attained divinity by allowing the divine spark in him to come into its fullness.

Many of the other gospels speculate on the “gap” years in the life story of Jesus. They speculate on what his boyhood was like and end up making him into a monster because he is shown exercising magical powers against those who displeased him.

On the other hand, in the authentic gospels preserved in the New Testament, Jesus is not shown having any magical powers. He did perform miracles, but only for three years of His life when He was engaged in His work of spreading His gospel. The rest of His life was spent in ordinariness bearing out the doctrine that Jesus was God-incarnate, not a god in disguise who would suddenly exercise His powers to destroy those who opposed Him. He used His divine power only to heal and uplift people. He refused to be a performer of magic as when King Herod wanted Him to put on a show (Lk 23:8).

The other gospels didn’t have a Jewish connection as much as a Gnostic one. Gnostics were not Jewish, but had their roots in Greek thought. The word “Gnostic” comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge”. Gnostics claimed that they had special knowledge that made them the Enlightened, the Knowing Ones. They believed that creation was flawed and the work of an inferior god (a demiurge, the Logos), and that all had a divine spark within them that could connect to the Supreme Being. They believed that Jesus was only the Logos, but had attained salvation through knowing oneness with the Supreme Being (“I and the Father are one”—John 10:30). If he could attain it, all we had to do was follow in his steps and realize ourselves.

We can see the similarity to Hinduism’s advaitic philosophy, where the supreme Brahma needs a personal god (Ishvara) to stand in-between, to create the sansar (world). The atma (soul) finds moksha (salvation) only through the realisation that all is maya (illusion) since Brahma is the only reality. The atma must come to the self-realisation ahm-Brahm (I am Brahma).

The Church’s Faith

What is not true is that the Church’s deliberations were under Emperor Constantine’s direction. How could it be? The Church that had not denied its Lord during the height of fierce persecution during the reign of Diocletian, could not have caved in and done the bidding of an emperor just because he was favourable toward it.

From the beginning the Church was a movement of people who believed that Jesus was God-incarnate, died in place of all humanity, rose from the dead and will one day come back to reign as King of kings and Lord of all. The Church held those tenets of the faith at dear cost. Many had died refusing to recant these beliefs (1 Corinthians 15:30–32).

Thayil said, “I reread the New Testament looking for the women in the story, and I noticed how the book was informed by their absence, or by the appearance of a woman in cameo, even if she performs a crucial role, for example the widow who puts her two mites on Christ’s blanket, or the woman who is to be stoned for adultery. They are central to the story but they disappear in the space of a single stanza. I wanted to know more about them. What made them do what they did?”

First, let me point to Thayil portraying Jesus as a street performer, who puts down something to collect money from those who watch him. In the traditional gospels the widow who puts in her two mites does it in the Temple treasury (Mk 12:41–44; Lk 21:1–4), not on a blanket Jesus spread out.

Thayil argues that women have been sidelined in the traditional gospels because there are no details after a passing reference to an unknown woman being healed, or another one being forgiven. This is a nonsensical argument because there are no details about the blind and crippled men either, who were healed by Jesus. Nor are there any details about the Twelve Disciples of Jesus—only that Peter, Andrew, James and John were fishermen, Matthew a tax collector, and nothing at all about all the others. That’s because the gospel is not about them, but about Jesus. The details are all about Jesus.

If anything, the gospels are so out of line with the patriarchy of the time. Women are shown to have stood at the foot of the cross, while the men went into hiding. Indeed, women were also the first to believe, while the men were hesitant and reluctant believers. Women, more than men, had the places of honour in these supposedly misogynistic traditional gospels. So this is a baseless argument just to justify going off on a tangent.

Thayil’s Jesus

Thayil remarked about “the violence in these stories. They are violent always, bloodthirsty even, to the extent that they seem to revel in gore. I think you get a sense of that in some of the scenes in Names, in particular Christ’s disintegration on the cross…”

There you have it. Thayil is not concerned about marginalization of women. He wants to show that Jesus suffered “disintegration on the cross”. He was not even a hero.

In the end he has Jesus saying from the cross, “Forgiveness is the recourse of the weak, and we are not weak and we must not forgive.” In his interview with Times of India, he elaborates, “I don’t subscribe to it, but if you have been nailed to a cross for a day and a half you might be forgiven for feeling unforgiving.” In those lines, his real agenda comes through. He doesn’t like the Jesus who prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

Everyone, everywhere has always admired Jesus for being so forgiving in the face of torture. For the first time, here is someone who says that Jesus wasn’t like that at all. He was unforgiving. He was just a man with a vengeful spirit. And that is simply because Jesus bothers Thayil.

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