It is a widely used expression in our family that when I am lost in thought and unresponsive to family members, it’s because “I am thinking about gluons”. This was literally true 35 years ago when I was reading a book by the physicist, Heinz Pagels, called The Cosmic Code: Quantum Physics as the Language of Nature (1982).
Normally, we think of the nucleus of an atom as consisting of very small particles called protons and neutrons. In the quantum world, as Pagels describes, protons and neutrons are made up of even smaller particles called quarks. The quarks are held together by a very strong force that acts by exchanging short lived particles called gluons. They literally glue the quarks together hence the name gluons (scientists can have a sense of humor).
Fast forward 35 years to last spring. My wife Marcia mentions to me, in passing, that when she was growing up in Kingston, ON and attending the UU fellowship, she was part of a book discussion on the Gnostic Gospels, whose author she remembered to be Elaine Pagels. I was intrigued because it was obviously an important highlight in her UU upbringing. And then I thought to myself, hmm... Heinz Pagels and Elaine Pagels...related?
Sure enough, they were husband and wife, as a quick Google search demonstrated. A physicist writing about gluons and a religious historian writing about gospels. I was thrilled by the small world connection which immediately brought to mind the
title of this reading and the greater challenge
of connecting the two topics.
Gluons are mysterious objects. In his book, Heinz Pagels described how fundamental particles are never directly observed but are inferred from the interactions that produce them. In a particle accelerator, two atomic nuclei can be smashed together with such ferocity that they break up into their constituent parts. Gluons are one of the byproducts. You can’t pick them up, you can’t observe them, but we know they exist because we can infer them through indirect observation.
But indirect observation is not limited to science. It is also used by writers and historians who try to mine records, documents, scrolls and oral histories to get closer to historical truth especially when that history is subject to self-serving interpretation (history after all is written by the victors).
In her book on the Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels uses the indirect method to uncover the struggle between early Christians who were vying for dominance in the development of Christianity. As elusive as quarks and gluons, ancient manuscripts that survived and purported to be gospels, contain nuggets of data that she and other authors have used to reconstruct the life and teachings of Jesus and the subsequent rise of Christianity.
Both gluons and gospels can be studied with indirect observation, leading us to remark that they are both a type of glue, one that binds the physical world and the other the metaphysical.
The Gospel According to Jesus
Let me start by asking you a hypothetical question. What if Jesus had written an autobiography or written his own gospel? If such a document existed, it would settle debates and answer questions that have dogged Christianity for 2 millennia. But, alas, as far as we know, it does not exist.
I will therefore discuss today the methods of indirect observation that can be used to approximate such a document from other gospels, for the purpose of defining the historical Jesus, the subsequent early development of Christianity and whether that period of history holds any lessons for us Unitarian Universalists.
My own inspiration for tackling this topic is derived from 5 remarkable books. “Jesus, interrupted”, by Bart Ehrman; “The Gnostic Gospels”, by Elaine Pagels, “Barabbas” by Par Lagerkvist, “On the Errors of the Trinity” by Michael Servetus and finally, Jose Saramago’s “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ” from which this presentation derives its title.
Jesus had many disciples who were witnesses to his ministry. They were likely illiterate for they left no written record of their accounts but transmitted them orally. The gospel authors relied on these oral accounts decades after Jesus’ death. The gospels written in chronological order by Mark, Matthew and Luke shared similar information and are called the synoptic gospels. If we include John, who came along later we then have the set known as the canonical gospels which appear in the New T estament.
The Historical Jesus
In the absence of a gospel from Jesus, we have to rely on the canonical gospels (and other writings) and the task of defining the historical Jesus becomes very difficult. As Ehrman describes in “Jesus Interrupted”, the authors of the canonical gospels were from different countries, writing in different languages, none of them actual witnesses, relying on handed down stories based on oral story telling traditions. To study the gospels, scholars use the historical critical method, a set of objective lines of inquiry similar to how scientists use the scientific method.
In Ehrmans’ book, he describes his use of horizontal reading to facilitate the application of the historical critical method. If we read the New Testament, for example, the gospels are read sequentially, like chapters in a book. Ehrman calls this vertical reading, you start at the top of page, go to the bottom then to next page and so on, constantly reading downwards, like you would if it were a single long column. Horizontal reading means you pick a specific historical event (say the crucifixion) and compare the various gospel accounts of it side by side like columns arranged next to each other, horizontally across a page. Then one looks for similarities and discrepancies to try to figure out what really happened.
I will add to this my own scientific test to assess the level of discrepancy between gospels. I call this test inter-gospel variability, based on a common measure used in clinical trials called inter-rater variability. For example, if you ask different radiologists to interpret a mammogram, regarding a problematic smudge, different interpretations may be possible (which is why we have false positives and false negatives). If the radiologists
mostly agree on the interpretation, the inter-rater variability is low and the exam can be considered reliable. If the radiologists mostly disagree with each other, the exam is worthless since no reliable diagnosis can be made. Similarly, for biblical events, the variability between gospels can be used to assess the reliability of the gospel narratives.
So, let’s try it out, starting with the virgin birth narrative. We begin with the gospel according to Mark. What does he have to say about the virgin birth? In the gospel of Mark there is no birth narrative. Nothing. No birth story, no indication that Jesus’ mother was a virgin or that Jesus existed before his birth.
In Mathew’s gospel, on the other hand, he was quite explicit that Jesus’ mother was a virgin. But he did not attribute special significance to it.
The gospel of Luke goes one step further: “The holy spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the son of God”.
In his gospel, John does not mention any of these things but claims that Jesus was an incarnation of a pre-existing divine being.
As you can see, all different messages with increasing embellishments as time went on! The inter-rater variability is too high. Did the virgin birth happen? By this measure, probably not. Did Jesus exist and was his mother named Mary? By this measure, probably, since there is no inter-gospel variability at all on these two things.
The Baptism Narrative: According to Mark, just after Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, a voice from heaven speaks out. “You are my son, in whom I am well pleased”. In Mathew it says, “This is my son in whom I am well pleased.” In Luke, it says: “You are my son, today I have begotten you”. John addresses the baptism indirectly by mentioning only John the Baptist.
So, why would these authors have changed Mark’s original quote? In Mark, God speaks directly to Jesus, recognizing him as his son. In Mathew, God speaks to John the Baptist and the crowd gathered around him wanting them to recognize Jesus as his son. In Luke, God wants to remind us that Jesus is his creation by ratifying it through the baptism. So, each author wants to send a different message. Mark implies a direct relationship between Jesus and God, Mathew wants the baptism to have meaning to a larger audience and Luke wants to explain the baptism as a second birth.
Three of the four gospels claimed God spoke but the messages were very different. So, too much variability in what God said and some variability in whether God spoke at all. Did the events surrounding the baptism happen? By these measures, probably not. Did the baptism itself happen and was it performed by John the Baptist? Probably, since there is little variability on the event itself or on the existence of John the Baptist.
On the existence of Barabbas. While Pontius Pilate wanted to release Jesus after his trial, he instead released a criminal named Barabbas so that Jesus could be crucified in his place because that’s what the local leaders wanted. They perceived Jesus as a threat to the established order. Did this really happen? In this case, all 4 canonical gospels agreed that it happened and was explained in similar ways. The very low inter-
gospel variability suggests that the Barabbas story was probably true.
The Crucifixion Narrative: According to Mark, Jesus is silent on his way to the cross. He is mocked by everyone along the way until he finally exclaims, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me”? Betrayed by Judas, abandoned by his disciples, rejected by the Jewish leaders, condemned by the Roman authorities, mocked by the priests, the passersby and even the two criminals being crucified with him. In the end he feels forsaken by God himself. He is in deep despair and physical pain. But, right after his death, a Roman centurion exclaims “Truly this man was the son of God”. The narrative is that Jesus’ death and suffering brings salvation to all.
According to Luke, it is not the Roman soldiers that mock Jesus but rather King Herod’s soldiers. Jesus is not silent on the way to the cross. He speaks to the wailing women “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me but weep for yourselves and your children”. He seems more concerned for the people around him. At the cross he is not silent. In fact, he exclaims “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”. Furthermore, only one of the criminals on the neighboring crosses mocks him but is rebuked by the other who speaks directly to Jesus, saying “Remember me when you come into your kingdom”, to which Jesus replies “Truly, l tell you, today you will be with me in paradise”. Jesus does not seem to be in despair at all and seems to understand what is happening to him. Furthermore, as he’s dying Jesus says, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”. Jesus appears calm and ready for what awaits him, a dramatically different recounting from Mark.
So, A despairing Jesus, on the one hand vs a triumphant one, on the other.
They can’t both be right.
While this depiction of Jesus’s actions is unreliable it is probably true that the crucifixion itself did happen because all gospels agreed he was crucified and historically, crucifixion was a common form of execution.
The Resurrection Narrative: This is my favorite one. Mark ends the narrative by describing how Mary Magdalene went to the tomb with two other women and found it empty where the stone had already been rolled away. A young man dressed in white announces the resurrection. The women are instructed to tell the disciples to go meet Jesus in Galilee but out of fear they run away and don’t say a word about it.
In Mathew, Mary and another Mary came to the tomb. An angel descends upon the tomb and opens it, after incapacitating the guards, and instructs the women to tell the disciples that Christ has risen. As they leave the area they encounter the risen Jesus. Later he appears to his disciples in Galilee.
In Luke, many women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, went to the tomb. Two men in dazzling clothes appear next to them and the women are NOT instructed to go to Galilee for Jesus had foretold of his resurrection previously while he was in Galilee, long before his crucifixion.
In John, Mary Magdalene travels to the tomb alone, finds it empty and then Jesus appears to her, speaks of his resurrection and instructs her to tell the news to his disciples. Jesus then appears to his disciples.
Did the resurrection happen? Probably not, there’s too much inter-gospel variability and, except for John, only indirect, second hand mention of it.
In summary, the mythical events surrounding Jesus fail the historical critical test since they cannot be verified by history, the laws of physics or the gospels themselves. However, if we gather all descriptions that have no inter-gospel variability, the picture that emerges is that of a real Jesus, who was born to Mary, who was baptized, whose ministry challenged the order of the time and who was crucified for it, in place of Barabbas.
The historical critical method does not criticize, nor does it deny the importance of devotional studies of Jesus which rely heavily on the combined information in the canonical gospels, all assumed to be either true or have true value for spiritual guidance. The devotional study of Jesus and what we can learn from it is beyond the scope of this presentation, but we allude to it now as we discuss the evolution of Christianity.
Divergent paths: Jesus inspired many followers, leading to a proliferation of ideas and practices. In the 200 years following Jesus’ death, these ideas competed with each other and followed very different paths. Some followers interpreted Jesus either as a divine being whose rumored miracles and resurrection should be interpreted symbolically rather than literally or more simply, a human who achieved “gnosis” (Greek for knowledge) and then taught his disciples to do the same. The adherents of this path were known as the Gnostic Christians. (Thus Gnostics – those who have knowledge, as opposed to
agnostics who have no knowledge – remember that next time you claim to be an agnostic).
As Elaine Pagels describes in her groundbreaking work “The Gnostic Gospels” there were many other gospels available to early Christians. We did not know about these gospels until very recently. They were discovered in 1945 in Nag Hammadi, Egypt where 52 texts were unearthed.
All Christians at the time, agreed that only God and Christ have ultimate spiritual authority but where they differed was on who gets to administer that authority. Gnostics valued direct personal experience, not second-hand testimony and certainly not mediated by any hierarchical institution. This made sense in the context of the time because early Christianity was heavily influenced by Hellenic thought and many of the early followers were highly educated and wanted to think for themselves.
The Gnostic gospels attribute to Jesus acts and sayings quite different from those in the canonical gospels. For example, the Gospel of Philip states: “the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on the mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended. They said to him, - Why do you love her more than all of us? -. The Savior answered and said to them: - Why, do I not love you as I love her? -”. Not something you will find in the bible. These were totally different gospels indeed! There are many other examples where the Gnostics differed radically from the orthodox Christians.
On organized institutions, for example: From the Apocalypse of Peter, in response to the emerging organization of orthodox Christians. “Others, outside our number call themselves
deacons and also bishops, as if they have received their authority from God. These people are waterless canals”.
On Equality: According to the orthodox: “It is not permitted for a woman to speak to the church, nor is it permitted for her to teach, nor to baptize, nor to offer the Eucharist nor to claim for herself a share in any masculine function – least of all in priestly office”. By contrast, the Gnostics followed the principle of strict equality for both men and women any of whom could be picked to do a sermon or be the group’s leader on a random and temporary basis. Rotating ministers, allowing congregants to participate in services, male or female. Sound familiar?
Tertulian, an early proponent of orthodoxy, described the gnostic fellowship as follows; “How frivolous, how worldly, how merely human it is, without seriousness, without authority, without discipline, as fits their faith? They all have access equally, they listen equally, they pray equally. They also share the kiss of peace with all who come ... This is heretical”. This is supposed to be an insult?
On baptism: From the Gospel of Philip: “many go down into the water and come up without receiving anything and still they claimed to be Christians”. The Gnostics believed that the connection to Christ came from within, not something that could be transmitted to them from outside by someone else.
On the Resurrection: Gnostics suggested Christ’ resurrection was symbolic not literal and was meant to stimulate spiritual pursuits. From the Testimony of Truth: “Only those who come to recognize that they have been living in ignorance and learn to release themselves by discovering who they are, experience
enlightenment as a new life, as a - resurrection -”. Is this not aligned with our principles?
The original sin for Gnostics was ignorance, the lack of gnosis, because without knowledge men suffer because they are driven purely by impulses they do not understand. From the Gospel of Truth: “Ignorance brought about anguish and terror. And the anguish grew solid like a fog so that no one was able to see. For this reason, error is powerful”. Does it not feel like we live in such times now?
The inwardness of the spiritual experience is echoed in the Gospel of Thomas: Speaking to his disciples, Jesus said “there is a light within a man of light, and it lights up the whole world. If he does not shine, he is darkness” (and does that remind you of a familiar song which will shall sing later?).
On fellowship: The Apocalypse of Peter: “Those having been enlightened discriminate for themselves what is true and what is false. They neither attempt to dominate others nor do they subject themselves to the bishops and deacons, those waterless canals (there’s those waterless canals again). Instead they participate in the wisdom of the brotherhood that really exists.... The spiritual fellowship united in communion”. Again, very reminiscent of UU principles.
The orthodox Christians responded by claiming the Gnostics were elitist because only a few had the knowledge to start self- exploration – A fair criticism. The orthodox wanted to form an institution (church) that would admit anyone and be open to all who accepted its teachings. And that ultimately led to its victory and complete dominance some 300 years after Jesus’ death.
The UU Connection
As the triumphant church marginalized the Gnostics, it began to introduce devices to further strengthen its hold on the laity. The introduction of the trinity and the existence of hell, neither of which is in the New Testament, put further distance from its roots. The beginnings of UUism can be traced to the prosecution of Michael Servetus in the 1500’s who resisted such changes and was burned at the stake for it. Dare I say, that he is the martyred saint of Unitarianism?
In his book “On the errors of the trinity” he rejected all the later embellishment of the church such as original sin and the trinity. He put love above faith. His views were partially based on the writings of the ancient Iranian prophet Zarathustra and the religion of Zoroastrianism which emphasized individual good deeds, totally at odds with the Calvinism of Servetus’ time.
While Servetus resisted such changes during the Protestant reformation many believe that the underlying UU philosophy was inspired by the much earlier resistance to the changes prompted by the ever-growing orthodoxy of the church (I refer you to David Bumbaugh’s book, Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History”). It is this resistance that characterized the Gnostics and other early Christians, a resistance that was similar in nature to Servetus’. But to what purpose? I believe the answer is clear. To revert to the early Christian beliefs that a personal relationship with Jesus was possible through a process of individual growth and self-realization.
So, where do we stand today? Today, the 7 UU principles are the gluons that hold Unitarian Universalism together. While modern in their articulation they echo the ancient Christians and
pre-Christians from Zoroastrianism to gnostic Christianity. In a sense, WE should claim the mantle of orthodox Christianity for WE have not deviated from ancient Christianity as much as the mainstream churches have. I personally feel that Jesus, the man, was a great source of inspiration who changed the world forever. If he had written his own biography, “The gospel according to Jesus”, Unitarian Universalists would have been proud and eager to adopt it as their own.
“Jesus, Interrupted”, by Bart Ehrman
“The Gnostic Gospels”, by Elaine Pagels
“Barabbas” by Par Lagerkvist
“On the Errors of the Trinity” by Michael Servetus
“The Gospel According to Jesus Christ” by Jose Saramago
“Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History” by David
By Zarathustra (Zoroaster)
“Your good thoughts, good words and good deeds alone will be
your intercessors. Nothing more will be wanted. They alone will serve you as a safe pilot to the harbor of Heaven, as a safe guide to the gates of paradise.