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.
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.