It’s been two years now, and a lot of posts in that interval, so maybe more recent readers haven’t seen my review of the legendary Gospel of St. Nicholas.
I love the notion of these “lost gospels” that keep cropping up. One of these days, I’m hoping they’ll uncover some indisputable ur-text that begins with the words: “Jesus and his buddies were pissing it up one night, tossing around ideas for a really cool religion…”
Enjoy the review and from the Burns family to all of you:
Merry Christmas and all the best in 2010.
I know, it’s ridiculous.
I am, by a significantly large margin, the most cynical person I know. At times, I border on misanthropy. Show me a miracle and I’m sure to be the one who runs over and yanks back the curtain, revealing an elaborate projection system and its red-faced operator.
My philosophical role models are Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Swift–heavy on the satire, please, and spare no one the whip hand. When it comes to contempt for our species, I make Stalin and Mao look like a couple of octogenarian nuns. It’s time to own up to it: humankind is a failed experiment, rinse out the petri dish and start again.
Except…around mid-December my normally un-sunny demeanor undergoes a marked change. Having kids has something to do with it but, when I think back about it, I’ve always loved Christmas. The closer it gets to the 25th, the more excited and tingly I get. This reaction is completely unconscious and involuntary but, regardless, I offer no defense for the shameful sentimentality that overcomes me every December. True confession: if I could, I’d spend the last two weeks of every calendar year walking around, giving money to orphans and kissing old ladies on top of their wispy, age-spotted pates.
The origins of this revolting affliction are not known to me. I have hesitated to share it with you lest I provoke the ire and scorn of my fellow curmudgeons. We aren’t exactly known as a tolerant, open-minded bunch.
I can remember very clearly, the recollection dating back over 35 years now, sitting in my pajamas and listening to an announcement on the local news that Santa’s sleigh had been picked up on radar and he was definitely on his way…
My fondest childhood Christmas memory was when I was nine (ten?). I contracted a mild form of hepatitis and missed two months of school. As an added bonus, I cleaned up at Christmas time: a couple of Hardy Boys books and one of those electronic football games, which ended up maddening me because most of the magnetized players spun in slow, futile circles on the vibrating field. My one regret was that my specialized diet meant I couldn’t have any chocolate. Watching my sisters stuff themselves just about killed me.
As I’ve gotten older, the holiday season became an opportunity to sit back and assess the year; tote up the amount of work accomplished and berate myself for everything left undone.
During that week between Boxing Day and the New Year there’s always a strong sense of something impending. Maybe 2009 with be the year. Just like 2008 was supposed to be. And 2007, come to think of it. Oh, well…
Anticipation. Expectation. Something is coming. Something important.
Waiting. Waiting. Sam Beckett made a whole career out of it.
The curmudgeon in me curls up his lip when the Hallowe’en decorations come down and the Christmas displays start going up. People have staff Christmas parties starting in mid-November. And the Santa Claus Parade often takes place a month before the fact–as a kid I often wondered how the Old Man could take time off during the busiest part of the year to haul himself up on to a float and wave inanely for two hours.
Christmas specials on TV start the first week of December. It’s the old favorites that still appeal. “Charlie Brown Christmas” and the animated “Grinch”, with Boris Karloff narrating. Alastair Sim in “The Christmas Carol” (although, in a pinch, the Muppet version will do).
We’re big fans of the “Wind in the Willows” series too so that one will likely resurface during the holidays. Anyone who has ever seen me trying to assemble something or figure out printed instructions quickly recognizes that I am the very spitting image of Toad. And my friend Dan is undoubtedly a Badger…
I haven’t seen either “Wall-E” or “Finding Nemo” so I’ve promised my family I’ll sit down and watch those two with them; I miss out on too much, sequestered away upstairs in my office. All the movies Sherron and my boys have sat through without me…
We’re not a family who believe in big, extravagant presents. It’s just not us. Small, heartfelt gifts…combined with great food, friends dropping by, the chance to spend lots of time together, no school, no work, no obligations or duties.
Sprawled on the couch or draped across the big arm chair, engrossed in a new book. My boys are teenagers now so, admittedly, there isn’t the same sort of excitement present as there was when they were little gaffers. Up until a few years ago, the house would rattle with their excitement as the big day drew ever nearer. A friend used to buy them an advent calendar and after breakfast the boys would get the calendar down and pull open the little hinged hatch to retrieve their allotted square of chocolate. It became part of our ritual, like scones on Christmas morning (we tried champagne and orange juice once but I ended up passing out at 11:00 a.m.).
Well, we’re all older…but we still enjoy sharing time and space with each other. We laugh a lot and if I was a betting man I’d say this old house will be fairly ringing with mirth in the next couple of weeks. And if this cold snap ever breaks, we’ll get a game or two of shinny in and go for long walks, gawk at the gorgeous river valley, pristine in the sharp, white light of winter.
It’s hard for even a confirmed curmudgeon to maintain an appropriate air of disdain when he is perpetually surrounded by good cheer, a loving family and devoted friends. The barbed remarks and wisecracks stick in my throat, refuse to budge.
There will be other opportunities to prick balloons, pontificate gloom and doom. This is a chance to give thanks for the blessings and good fortune that sustain me even during my darkest moments.
We’ve had enough despair. Now let us sing songs of thanks and praise for what has been bestowed upon us and be all the more grateful and deferential, knowing it can’t possibly last.
THE GOSPEL OF ST. NICHOLAS
Translated & edited by Randolph Carter
(Miskatonic University Press; 2007)
Another lost gospel? Oh, dear, here we go again.
Ever since a couple of farmers stumbled across a treasure trove (over 1000 pages) of ancient scrolls just across the river from Nag Hammadi (Egypt) in 1945, we have been captivated by the notion of “hidden” or heretical texts, suppressed by church leaders, lost to the ages. These texts would, some think, overthrow prevailing church dogma and reveal the “true” message of Christ. The Gospel of Thomas caused a bit of a stir some years back and then a few scraps purporting to give Judas’ side of the most infamous betrayal in human history were recently unearthed and published in the pages of a certain world-renowned magazine.
But the ancient texts always end up promising more than they deliver. Thomas turned out to be a series of sayings and aphorisms that wouldn’t have been out of place in a fortune cookie. Judas failed to lead to a mass reinterpretation of the basic tenets of Christianity and after an initial surge of public interest, dropped off the radar screen. Neither succeeded at rising above the level of what they were: apocrypha. Frankly, one can see why the early church fathers decided to pare them out.
Which brings us to the latest “find”, words composed by one of the early disciples of Jesus’ ministry, a man (if we are to believe him) who was intimately acquainted with the Master and privy to special knowledge not shared with the others (“I will tell you what no eye has ever seen and no ear ever heard” —Nicholas Ch. 1:2).
The Gospel of St. Nicholas has provenance, no question. It was specifically alluded to at the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.), and early church leaders Irenaeus and Eusebius both rail against it, the latter referring to it as “a perverse text (that) slanders the character of our Lord and Master” and calling Nicholas “a bad egg”. There’s a single reference to Nicholas (“a magus, more properly a scoundrel”) in Josephus’ The Jewish War as well as a disputed letter some attribute to Paul that speaks of Nicholas as “that drunken oaf, a laughing stock of a follower…”
And now along comes Professor Carter with this translation of a gospel long rumoured extant (held in a private collection, it was whispered, a prize treasure of the Sultan of Brunei or one of the Rothschilds, depending on the telling) but never publicly exhibited. Professor Carter is notably vague as to how he actually came into possession of such a rare artifact. There was a feature article in the Biblical Archaeological Review relating one version of the story, involving a shady character known only as “Joel Cairo” and a hasty transaction that took place in an airport bathroom in Istanbul (it is not disclosed what Professor Carter offered in exchange for his prize). When I contacted the professor at his home outside Arkham, he was cagy, neither confirming or denying the essentials of the BAR account.
Others have taken him to task for hoarding the Nicholas material, refusing to share his find with fellow scholars, a criticism that has also been leveled at other great “scroll scholars” (see: Roland de Vaux and John Strugnell). By not offering even scant portions of Nicholas to colleagues so they could aid in the authentication and translation process, Carter left himself open to charges of academic fraud and willful self-deception.
All that said, what I personally take exception to is Carter’s translation of the Gospel of St. Nicholas. Yes, I know he devotes nearly half of his lengthy (tendentious) introduction to the necessity of maintaining the tone of the original text. Apparently Nicholas composed his reminiscences in a rather obscure and crude form of Aramaic, employing a surprising amount of slang. Thus we have Jesus rebuking his disciples (Professor Carter’s translation):
“What a bunch of whiners. How many of you braying horses’ asses were born of a virgin mother? Peter? I didn’t think so. So shut your gobs and pay attention…” (Nicholas 3:7)
Does this sound like the Jesus you learned about in Sunday school?
“What do you all have against women? Why do you think so little of our mothers and sisters? Do you not see they are God’s creatures too? I say unto you, give me the presence of a dozen women (of questionable morals?)…(missing fragment)…rather than a bunch of repressed … with tiny, withered…” (fragment breaks off) (Nicholas 4:9)
Nicholas makes it clear that Jesus is not an elitist and wasn’t one to turn down a glass of wine even if it wasn’t strictly for sacramental purposes:
“Jesus roared, slapping his brother James on the back, causing him to spew water and food matter at Simon…..barely restraining himself, Jesus declared ‘laughter smites the staunchest foe; none may withstand its entreaties’…to which Judas belched, provoking more (merriment?)…” (Nicholas 3:5)
Well, we always knew from the four Gospel writers that Jesus wasn’t one to hold with tradition: He broke Sabbath and wasn’t averse to sitting down at the table with sinners, whores, even tax collectors.
But where are the world-shaking epiphanies, passages that refute Christ’s divinity or tell about how He survived His crucifixion and was spirited off to parts unknown?
And what about this “secret knowledge”?
Well, Jesus does confide to Nicholas that He has little respect for the spiritual toughness and intellectual depth of his fellow disciples. Peter comes in for particular abuse, Jesus clearly employing venomous sarcasm when He calls him “the Rock”.
“What wisdom hath the Rock for us today…” (Nicholas 3:8)
“The stones cry out but the Rock merely stares…” (Nicholas 3: 10)
“Brothers, cast down thy tools, we have the Rock to aid us!” (Nicholas 4:1)
We knew there were strong divisions between the early Christians but this is out and out character assassination. And it begs the question, are these Jesus’ words or, even more likely, the rejoinders of a disgruntled follower?
In Nicholas’ version of events, Jesus does not go to Jerusalem to be sacrificed and fulfill ancient prophecy but because He has heard there are some “people of merit inhabiting that place…generous lodgings thereabouts…Judas says we should qualify (?) for a group…rate(?)”.
We know that significant efforts were expended at various points in time to erase the embarrassing memory of some of Nicholas’s antics (in a “letter” Jesus supposedly wrote to King Agbar of Edessa, the Son of Man playfully alludes to Nicholas’ talent at the ancient Judaic equivalent of the “hotfoot”). Immediately following their Master’s death, the other disciples convened a meeting and according to their aggrieved brother (Nicholas 8:12) “cast out and excommunicated the one known as Nicholas…blameless except for that he was best-loved by the Lord and the other…bastards (according to Carter’s footnote the literal translation is ‘goat-humpers’) resented it”.
In the end, the man who will one day be St. Peter is merciful to his old colleague and merely exiles poor Nicholas, sending him on a one-way mission to preach the word of Christ to the residents of Ultima Thule “a blasted and forsaken place…a godless heathen wasteland so complete the pagans knew nothing of Rome…and ridiculed… (fragment missing)…my attire provoking the northern equivalent of ‘girlie man’…”
Clearly it’s hard-going for Brother Nicholas as he plunges through the forests and rough, merciless terrain, cursing his misfortune all the way. We’re led to believe he reached the Baltic Sea. There the narrative abruptly ends.
“Christ, it’s cold. Any maniac who lives in such … (fragment missing) …rubbing seal fat all over themselves, grinning like ghouls… God, I despise these filthy people…tomorrow I shall … and rebuke them for their worship of vile demon gods…”
That’s the last we hear from Nicholas and legend has it he was martyred out of his misery on or about Christmas Day, A.D. 43.
After his prospective parishioners had killed and eaten him, they divvied up his worldly goods. The practice of giving gifts around that time of the year gradually caught on and all this leads, in a very roundabout way, to a fat man in a red suit trailing after a team of reindeer and distributing booty to one and all.
All part of the celebration of a man that Professor Carter assures us was the most “human” of all the disciples. His translation presents Nicholas “warts and all” and makes no excuses for the misanthropic ramblings of this early pariah.
Jolly old St. Nick? Hardly: “Jesus agreed with me that most men are oafs. He favors forgiving them their trespasses (but) I say they should have their nuts nailed to their foreheads” (Nicholas 2:4). Or how about: “Gentiles? Jews? I could give a fig for either. As long as I have a warm cloak and a belly full (food? wine?), Caesar can do as he pleases…” (Nicholas 10:3)
The original Santa Claus turns out to be a rebel, an apostate, a sinner. He was judged unworthy by his colleagues, his rather spotty, uneven gospel consigned to the rubbish heap of history long before the bishops, at the behest of Constantine, sequestered themselves at Nicea. And there the matter would have rested, except for rumours and vague allusions.
Enter, the mysterious Mr. Cairo…
There’s more to this strange and remarkable tale than meets the eye and more than enough gossip, innuendo and intrigue to keep Biblical scholars happy…well, until the next lost gospel surfaces. Perhaps it will be fragments of the original Book of Enoch, to supplant the only copy we have, a corrupted text from the Medieval era.
Will any lost text seriously affect the faith lives of over a billion Christians around the world? Doubtful. More to the point, these texts offer us a fuller, more complete picture of the debates and conflicts that shaped the early church. Each new fragment is important, historically moreso than theologically. It has become manifestly clear, thanks to discoveries like Hag Hammadi and Qumran, that strong personalities were influential in forging the premises and tenets of Christianity and eradicating other, less doctrinally sound, voices and witnesses. We see stark evidence of just how fraught and heated those times were. and how ruthlessly the losers were treated.
Gospels like Thomas, Mary and Nicholas weren’t “lost” so much as discarded, expunged from church records. Keep in mind that venerable axiom that it is the winners who write history—in this case, they also forged a faith that has defied the centuries, endured schism, committed atrocities in the name of its God and today shapes the sensibilities of nearly a fifth of the world’s population.
I wonder what Nicholas would make of that.