Posts Tagged ‘jesus’

cMatthew & eMatthew: A Mystery and a Reconstruction

October 6, 2013 Leave a comment

File:The Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel.jpg

Of all the reports of Jesus’s life, the Gospel of Matthew may end up being the most mysterious. By church tradition, the first of the four canonical gospels to be written, and from early on, the most popular of the four gospels (to judge by the number of surviving manuscripts), Matthew has over the last two centuries been dethroned from its place of eminence. Scholarship has established that in fact the Gospel of Mark was the first of the four to be written, and that Matthew appears to be, in the main, a compilation of Mark and the (reconstructed) Gospel of Q.

Still, one is struck by the many assertions from early church fathers that a gospel by Matthew “in Hebrew letters” was the first to be written. Could such a gospel have existed? Here are RT’s thoughts on the possibility of an earlier version of Matthew than the one incorporated into the New Testament:

1) The Gospel of Mary. This gospel, the extant fragments of which focus on a debate over Mary of Magdala‘s fitness to receive inspired visions from the risen Jesus, ends (in the Greek fragment) in a most peculiar way: with Matthew the disciple going out alone to preach the good news. Now, only about half of GMry is extant, and, in particular, the first six pages of the surviving manuscript are missing. It seems to RT that GMry might have started with a question or statement from Matthew. So, given the fact that the middle of the gospel is apparently devoted to a revelation from Jesus, could Matthew have been on a par with Mary, or even the leader of the disciples in their response to Jesus?

2) Other Gnostic Gospels. Matthew, along with several other of the disciples, questions Jesus in various of the recently recovered Gnostic or discourse gospels. Could assembling the materials related to Matthew’s questions in these gospels give us a glimpse of his earlier gospel? RT has been collecting some of these materials and offers a reconstructed fragment below.

3) The Gospel of the Hebrews. The fairly large number of quotations by church fathers of the Hebrew Gospel (and other quotations from it in GMatt manuscript margins) have been carefully examined, and it seems that not one, but three of these gospels existed: a) The Gospel of the Hebrews; b) The Gospel of the Ebionites; and c) The Gospel of the Nazarenes. Of these three, Ebionites appears to be closest in content to canonical Matthew (though espousing vegetarianism and lacking the Nativity), Nazarenes preserves some powerful alternatives to scenes in cMatthew, and Hebrews is based on a (to RT’s eye) radically different christology than cMatt (or at least, as reported by Cyril of Jerusalem).

4) Hebrew Matthew. Starting in the 7th century and continuing through the Middle Ages, quotations and translations of cMatt appeared in Hebrew. None of the materials seem to be ancient, but some of the readings offered are distinctive.


Of all these materials, RT would vote for The Gospel of the Hebrews as the likeliest candidate for an early Gospel of Matthew. Its fundamentally Jewish worldview (from RT’s perspective) accords with the Jewish emphasis of cMatt. But other of the listed materials give additional ideas of what an early Matthew (eMatt) might have contained. And please note: of all the listed materials, RT has found arguments for original composition in Aramaic only for GNaz.


Here is RT’s reconstructed fragment (based on materials in the Gospel of Mary and the Dialogue of the Savior):

Jesus said:

“You will have no vision of Eternal Life or Radiant Light, where no evil exists, until you put off your clothing of flesh. Therefore, array yourself in a true humanity and do only what you are told. Do not invent any rules or laws.”



RT’s Related Posts: 1) A User’s Guide to Bible Translations; 2) The Unannounced Guest


Painting: The Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel. Rembrandt. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

Andrew and the First Seven Disciples

September 21, 2013 2 comments



RT has been puzzled by questions surrounding the lists of disciples (or apostles) contained in the Gospels.

And there are many questions regarding the precise roster of the twelve men chosen as Jesus’s inner circle. The synoptic gospels each offers a list of the disciples, but none of these three lists agrees with each other. So RT thinks it advisable to concentrate on the first seven disciples listed, about which there seems to be broad agreement.

1) To begin with, all of the synoptic gospels list the following names: Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, and Bartholomew. Matthew is listed as the seventh in Mark and Matthew, while Thomas is given in that place in Luke.

2) Of these seven, five have extant gospels written under their names: Peter, John, Philip, Bartholomew, and Matthew. From RT’s perspective, these disciples are well documented (especially Peter and John) and are likely to have been among Jesus’s first followers.

3) The two who don’t have gospels attributed to them–Andrew and James–are a bit more mysterious. RT will limit himself to discussing Andrew.

4) Andrew presents several difficulties: a) unlike the other three men called by Jesus on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Andrew has no nick-name; b) no surviving gospel is attributed to him; c) In Mark, Andrew is not listed immediately after Peter, but after James and John; d) the Gospel of Mark makes virtually no reference to him; and e) in particular, Andrew is missing from the list of disciples who accompanied Jesus to his curing of the daughter of the synagogue official in Mark 5 (Peter, James, and John, but no Andrew). 

5) The mystery deepens when we discover that a Gospel of Andrew is listed as a rejected book in the Decretum Galasianum (mid-4th cent). Surviving in fragmentary form is the Acts of Andrew, which dates to the mid-second century and apparently espouses “a distinctive” Christology.

These considerations suggest to RT that there was an early, quite sharp, break between the brothers Peter and Andrew. One can imagine that in addition to the normal sibling rivalry between the two, they were also vying for the status of being Jesus’s favored disciple. Whether the break was permanent is unclear, but it may be that the two ended up embracing quite different understandings of Jesus’s mission.

And at the back of his mind, RT is wondering if James, son of Zebedee composed a gospel of his own…  RT


RT’s Related Posts: 1) Bartholomew: “Minor” Apostles and Women


ImageSt. Andrew: 5th century fresco, Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. WikiCmns; Public Domain.


Another Scribble–John 21:11 & the Second Catch of Fish

September 4, 2013 2 comments

File:Konrad Witz – Petri fiskafänge.jpg

RT has been busy with this and that the last week or so, but, predictably, has been waylaid by the chance at a translation. He offers the following without comment (as his time at the computer lab is running out), but tomorrow will add commentary on the passage.


Morning came. Jesus stood on the margin, but the disciples did not recognize the man as Jesus.

**And he spoke to them: “Pupils: have you found any fish?” They replied, “No.”

**And he said: “Try your net to the right, and see what you find.” So they cast their net over the right side of the boat, and could not haul in, so many were the fish they caught.

**And the one whom Jesus loved said, “It is the Lord!” But when Simon the Rock heard, he put on his fisher’s garment  (he had taken his clothes off to work) and plunged into the sea…”


As RT has pointed out before, the atmosphere in which Jesus’s appearances took place after his death was one of intense grief. His disciples had given up everything to enter the Kingdom of God, and now Jesus was gone. This episode works on many levels: it reminds the reader of the first miraculous catch of fish (reported in Luke 5:1-15) and so underlines the importance of seeking (or seeing) and finding–the first steps in the process of Jesus’ religious training. But more fundamentally, it underscores the depth of Peter’s affection for Jesus even as it takes the reader back to the beginning of Jesus’s mission, when he first called Peter and Andrew to follow him. The intensity of Peter’s joy, which leads him to fling himself boulder-like from the boat, is both funny and deeply poignant. The companionship of teacher and student is renewed, if only briefly. Peter has indeed given up everything–and been rewarded.


Painting: Miraculous Catch of Fish (1444); Konrad Witz, tempera on wood). WikiCmns; Public Domain.

Gospel of the Egyptians–Reconstruction of a Fragment

August 27, 2013 1 comment


Salome is one of the New Testament’s more enigmatic figures. Rarely mentioned, she nonetheless is recorded in the Gospel of Mark as one of the women who witnessed the Crucifixion and is numbered among the women who went to prepare Jesus’s body for burial. Some traditions make her the mother of the sons of Zebedee. An important figure, certainly, but perhaps not part of Jesus’s inner group of followers.

Things are more perplexing when we consider the records that survive of her outside the canon. She turns up in documents as disparate as the Secret Gospel of Mark and the Pistis Sophia. A logion in the Gospel of Thomas is devoted to an exchange between Salome and Jesus, and perhaps records their first meeting.

But the reference that had drawn RT’s interest are the mentions of Salome in the Gospel of the Egyptians, a gospel known only through the fragments preserved in the writings of Clement of Alexandria. These are typically given as individual quotes from the writings of Clement, but RT could not help but note that all of these quotes mention Salome, and that they all seem to refer to a single exchange between Jesus and Salome. Well, this was a situation that RT thought could be helped by assembling the pieces of this dialog into a coherent whole. What follows below is RT’s reconstruction:

Fragment from the Gospel of the Egyptians (as quoted by Clement of Alexandria in his writings)


After Jesus finished discoursing on the end of the world, Salome asked him: “How much longer will people keep dying?”

“As long as women give birth,” Jesus replied.

“And so I’ve done right to not give birth?”

Jesus said, “You may eat any plant except the one that tastes bad.”

Then Salome asked the Word when these things would become generally known. Jesus answered:

“When you trample on the garment of shame, and when the two become one. And when the man together with the woman are not man or woman.”


RT will close by noting that the fragment sounds strange, unlike what readers know of Jesus through the Four Gospels, but the themes touched on in this fragment are attested in other non-canonical material: the trampling of shameful garments, the notion that Jesus has come to “destroy the works of the female.” and male and female becoming the same. In the Gospel of Thomas, Peter says that “women are not worthy of life.” To which Jesus replies that he will help make women become like men. And yet this must be set against moments like the “Parable of the Leaven,” a teaching that turns women’s work (and implicitly, pregnancy) into a symbol of the Kingdom of God. I think this is one of Jesus’s more difficult teachings; his understanding of women evolved considerably during his ministry.   RT


Russian Icon: Wives at the Grave (18th century); anonymous. WikiCmns; Public Domain.


Bartholomew: “Minor” Apostles and Women

April 16, 2013 1 comment


None of the apostles can have been ordinary people; Jesus doubtless was very careful in his selection of his inner circle of followers. It seems to RT, however, that some of the apostles were more dynamic than others, serving as centers of activity and interpretation after Jesus’s death. Others among the twelve were drawn to their intensity and leadership. Peter and James, Jesus’s brother (though not an apostle), for instance, appear to have been focal points of the movement. RT has a hunch that Mary Magdalene should also be included in this list of leaders.

On the other hand, one person that RT is fairly certain was not a leader was Bartholomew. That is not to say that Bartholomew was unimportant; rather he may have worked as a consensus-builder in the difficult first years after Jesus’s departure.

Based on his reading of a work variously called the Gospel of Bartholomew or the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, RT thinks that Bartholomew belongs in the Peter-James the Brother camp; that is to say, he was what today would be called a Jewish-Christian, Law-compliant, a follower of a Christology significantly different from the Christian view.

These are deep waters, made deeper by the existence of materials other than the Acts of the Apostles to read and consider. RT will confine himself to remarking on a single point about Bartholomew and his gospel. In GBarth, there is a scene where Peter and Mary the Mother debate who is worthiest to approach Jesus; Peter refers to Mary as the Tabernacle; Mary calls Peter the Rock of the Church. Very high compliments, to be sure, until one considers a similar passage in the Gospel of Mary, in which Peter denounces Mary Magdalene as unfit to have visions from Jesus (and thus to be a leader) because she is a woman.

It seems from these two passages that Peter and Mary Magdalene were competitors for the leadership of the movement, a conflict that apparently was resolved by praising women as mothers and above all the mother of Jesus, while ejecting Mary Magdalene from her leadership position. RT is also curious to find out what may have happened to Salome and other women who evidently were close to Jesus during his life. The Gospel to the Egyptians, preserved mostly in quotations from Clement of Alexandria, consists exclusively of a dialog between Jesus and Salome. RT can’t help but think of this text as The Gospel of Salome.


Already the “minor” apostle Bartholomew, rarely mentioned in the canonical Gospels, has taken us deep into the world of Jesus and the disciples, a world where a wide-ranging debate took place over Jesus and his mission. RT thinks it appropriate to end by pointing out that Jesus founded not one, but two, major religions, Christianity and Gnosticism. Many of the women in the Magdalene’s camp might have been attracted to the latter movement, which embraced, at least to some extent, the notion of equality for women.


RT’s Related Posts: 1) Gospel of the Egyptians–Reconstruction of a Fragment


PaintingSt John and St Bartholomew; Giovanni di Niccolo Luteri (1527); WikiCmns; Public Domain.


Gospel of Thomas 3, a Reconstruction


For RT, the reconstruction of texts (which mostly involves textual criticism) is the discovery of inconsistencies and seams in a work. Sometimes a change in the text’s author can be determined through something hard to miss: for instance, a character is introduced in the story and never heard from again. But at its foundations, the art of reconstruction is about listening for an author’s voice and logic, subtle characteristics of a person’s writing that even the author may not be aware of. Close reading is a prerequisite, but pleasure in the author’s work is also important. Sometimes reconstruction takes a long time as the reader becomes familiar with the work; sometimes, as here, the reconstruction arrives all at once. In any case, here is RT’s reconstruction of one of Jesus’s sayings. And readers, please note: original text is in roman face, additions are in italic.

Saying 3. Jesus said, “Do not listen to those you have trusted. If they tell you, ‘Look, the Kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds will get there before you do. If they say, “Hey, the Kingdom is in the ocean,’ then the fish will swim into it first. And if they say, ‘The Kingdom is in the earth,’ the dead will get there before you. But I tell you that the Kingdom is the fire in your hearts, so that you may precede all others.

© Copyright, 2013, The Rag Tree


IllustrationThe Incredulity of St. Thomas; Malatia Gospel, 1267-1268. Author: Toros Roslin. WikiCmns; Public Domain.


The Resurrection: Death, Grief, and Return

March 31, 2013 1 comment

File:Grunewald - christ.jpg

The past is with us always. It’s an uncomfortable fact; isn’t each generation supposed to live out its span and leave the world to it successors? Well, yes and no.

The dead are no longer with us. They can no longer tell the stories we love most or which are most important to us. They also no longer occupy the physical and psychological space they once did; their exit from worldly events opens up opportunities and liberates resources that are needed as our lives continue.

On the other hand, the mark of the dead is on everything, even the most recent inventions, which depend on theories first formulated and experiments first carried out in the distant past. The grief we feel at the departure of the people important to us is intense and can last years or longer. And all of this is doubly true if we are fortunate enough to have followed a great healer in our life.

Questions about the historical truth of the resurrection are understandable, particularly considering the circumstances reported though the Gospels and other sources: wouldn’t Jesus’s community, suddenly bereft of its leader (who died a terrible death) experience visions of his renewed presence, at least as a part of the grieving process? Wouldn’t this be all the more likely if his community believed him capable of raising the dead?

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance: these stages of grieving presuppose that death and loss are without any constructive or creative value. Something has been lost, and the only question is whether or not one has the strength to admit it. But Jesus’s personal and spiritual evolution was hardly complete at 30; much remained unresolved–had he come to terms with his childhood (whatever the details of that were) and what did he hope for the future? From RT’s perspective, Jesus’s thinking had and continued to evolve and so his messages to the disciples would had changed, remaining inconclusive at his death. His conversations with his closest followers remained unfinished.

The resurrection helps complete that conversation. It gives his followers an idea of what comes next, but, more importantly, it reveals aspects of his mind and heart that otherwise might have remained hidden. He had gone away, as he told the disciples he would, but he has also remained among them.  He has revealed himself more deeply, and so have they.  RT

Painting: Isenheim Alterpiece–Resurrection (1506-1515); Mathis Grunewald. WikiCmns; Public Domain.


After Thomas

October 25, 2012 2 comments


Here is a fragment of a poem I scribbled about five years ago while on the MARC commute home. It was early spring, I think, and I had been making my way through the Gospel of Thomas (yet again) in Marvin Meyer’s wonderful edition with an interpretation by Harold Bloom. Enjoy!   RT




After Thomas


the morning stripped

◊ ◊off its tattered

◊ ◊◊ ◊clouds

and danced

◊ ◊◊ ◊◊ ◊◊ ◊oblivious

◊ ◊◊ ◊to the season’s

◊ ◊◊ ◊◊ ◊formalities–


the ache

◊ ◊of earth


◊ ◊rain;

the promise of

◊ ◊◊ ◊◊ ◊◊ ◊pain

◊ ◊in the bobbing

◊ ◊◊ ◊◊ ◊◊ ◊and weaving



© copyright, The Rag Tree, 2012.


Photo: Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1; WikiCmns; Public Domain.


The Beatitudes

April 7, 2012 4 comments

Ever since a co-worker mentioned to me back in the mid-1990s that in his opinion the traditional English translations of the Beatitudes had lost their power to inspire, I have been trying my hand off and on at producing a version in English that would capture the radical quality of Jesus’s teaching. Apparently, part of the difficulty in rendering them is that the Beatitudes challenged conventional wisdom so deeply during his life that very early attempts were made to tone down their message. Also, I’ve come to think that a certain element of Jesus’s humor was present in these words of encouragement to the destitute and abandoned. Perhaps what is hardest of all to accept in Jesus’s message is his belief that the most wretched members of society have somehow achieved a kind of angelic status, and that everyone should learn from them and in fact aspire to be poor. Far from fulfilling our obligation to give some support to the poor, we should give everything to them. In any case, here is one of my more recent attempts at rendering the anger, humor, and visionary quality of these teachings:




Jesus said–

Blessed are the beggars; God has put his kingdom in your cup!

Blessed are the starving; God groans with your hunger!

Blessed are the miserable; God winks at you!


Photo: The Seven Miracles; Author, Moros; WikiCmns; Public Domain.

Peace on Earth

December 25, 2011 Leave a comment


   Peace on Earth

        Goodwill to All Men 

Image: The Nativity (Byzantine Icon); WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Unported; User: Tetrakys