July 24, 2011

Strange New Gospels

Strange New Gospels
by Keith Akers


Some modern proponents of Jesus’ vegetarianism utilize alternative gospels — gospels which suggest that Jesus lived in India, taught novel health ideas, was vegetarian, and had a startlingly different theology from that given in the churches. I do not cite these gospels when discussing the historical Jesus, even though some of these gospels seemingly support my case. Why? Because these gospels are esoteric and modern gospels, created in relatively recent times. Some of them are outright frauds, claiming to be from ancient manuscripts when they are in fact not; others are what we would called "channeled" writings — writings received through a modern communication from another world.

The study of modern gospels is a fascinating topic, which illuminates by comparison the process by which ancient gospels were formulated and became accepted. These writings may in fact be divinely inspired. However, in discussing the historical Jesus with people of differing religious perspectives — who may not agree on what is "divinely inspired" — they are not helpful. They cannot convince anyone of their historical truth who does not already believe them to be "inspired."

Of all of these modern gospels, there are three which are frequently cited by exponents of a vegetarian Jesus:

The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ by Nicolas Notovitch
The Gospel of the Holy Twelve by G. J. R. Ouseley
The Essene Gospel of Peace by Edmund Bordeaux Szekeley


In studying these books, there are several modern works which are quite helpful in the whole area of modern gospels. These are Modern Apocrypha, by Edgar J. Goodspeed (Boston: Beacon Press, 1956), and Strange Tales About Jesus, by Per Beskow (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983).

Another very useful book for Notovitch is The Gospel of Jesus by John Davidson (Element Books, 1995). Davidson only discusses Notovitch briefly on pages 136-139, but his discussion is illuminating because Davidson has clearly drawn a "line in the sand" regarding careless use of materials to prove convenient theories about Jesus. Davidson sets about to prove that Jesus was on the mystic path and thus was similar to many thinkers in Eastern religion. But he relies on historical material, rather than accepting the stories about Jesus going to India. I have also read the books by Notovitch, Ouseley, and Szekeley, in one or more of their various editions.

I believe that there are clear parallels between the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of the Buddha, as well as between Jesus and other great spiritual thinkers. Both the Buddha and Jesus taught and practiced simple living and nonviolence. But we do not have to postulate theories about Jesus traveling to India in order to defend the similarity between Jesus and the Buddha. Truth is truth, and can be perceived by great thinkers across many cultures.

Nicolas Notovitch

Late in the nineteenth century a French explorer by the name of Nicolas Notovitch created a sensation by publishing a book called The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ. In it, Notovitch describes his travels to Tibet, where after breaking his leg, he was brought to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in which he finds an unusual manuscript. It is about a Saint Issa, and Notovitch quickly realizes that Issa is simply Jesus. In this gospel, Jesus is said to have traveled to India and studied with the wise men in that country before returning to Israel and proclaiming his message and ministry. Notovitch’s book was first published in French and created a sensation; it was then translated into English and various other European languages.

Some scholars immediately pointed out problems with the manuscript. The book appeared nowhere in catalogues of Tibetan literature. The same year that the book was published, an Englishwoman who visited Tibet and had inquired about the manuscript wrote: "Yesterday we were at the great Himis monastery . . . There is not a single word of truth in the whole story!" The next year, a professor visited the monastery and asked specifically about Notovitch, reading part of Notovitch’s book to the chief lama. "Lies, lies, lies, nothing but lies!" was the response. The lama stated that no life of Issa was known in Tibet. Confronted with this evidence, Notovitch backtracked and admitted that he had in fact never been to the monastery in question, but that he had found the story of Issa, in fragments, in untitled documents at many different locations. Obviously, however, Notovitch was discredited — if Notovitch lied about how he found the manuscript, why should we believe anything else?

The controversy faded. However, Notovitch’s book remained available in libraries, and later researchers "discovered" the book without being aware of its earlier history, or of the fact that Notovitch had been discredited. For example, Holger Kersten wrote a book entitled "Jesus Lived in India" which is largely based on Notovitch’s book. Kersten is apparently completely oblivious to the history of the controversy over Notovitch’s work. Like the internet hoax that continues to have a life of its own because people continue to circulate it even after it is disproven, this gospel continues to have a life of its own.

Gideon Jasper Richard Ouseley

In the late nineteenth century, G. J. R. Ouseley published "The Gospel of the Holy Twelve." It has been reprinted at various times since then, sometimes without Ouseley’s name, and sometimes without his "Explanatory Preface." I first came across it in the 1980’s in a book titled "The Humane Gospel of Jesus." It is said to have been "preserved in one of the Monasteries of the Buddhist monks in Thibet, where it was hidden by some of the Essene community." It condemns meat-eating, alcohol, animal sacrifice, and recommends vegetarianism, "daily ablutions," and community of goods.

We have here some of the same themes raised in Notovitch’s book — mostly, the hiding of the manuscript in Tibet, which at least in imagination seems to be a favorite place for ancient writers to hide manuscripts. Moreover, there apparently really was an ancient gospel called "The Gospel of the Twelve" which was mentioned by Origen. This is briefly mentioned in The Apocryphal New Testament (London: Oxford University Press, 1924) on page 10.

But is it really derived from an Aramaic text, found in a monastery in Tibet? After encountering Notovitch’s fraud, we should certainly be suspicious of any works claiming to have been found in Tibet. First of all, there are numerous problems with the work. It quotes from all four of the gospels and from the letters of Paul; it contains references to rituals from the later church, and to the "trinity" (a word that never occurs in the New Testament); it also contains references to such non-Biblical species as cats, rabbits, and an ape. And in fact, the real origin of the work is not hidden very far. In an early twentieth century edition published in London, an "Explanatory Preface" precedes the text. Ouseley’s name has been removed, and the Preface is signed "The Editors of the Gospel of the Holy Twelve" (though evidently a similar explanation appeared in earlier English-language versions of the book, with Ouseley’s name at the bottom). Here is part of what this Preface says:

Their "Gospel of the Holy Twelve" was communicated to the Editors, in numerous fragments at different times, by Emmanuel Swedenborg, Anna Kingsford, Edward Maitland, and a priest of the former century, giving his name as Placidus, of the Franciscan Order, afterwards a Carmelite. By them it was translated from the original, and given to the Editors in the flesh, to be supplemented in their proper places, where indicated, from the "Four Gospels" (A. V.) revised where necessary by the same.

To this explanation, the Editors cannot add, nor from it take away. By the Divine Spirit was the Gospel communicated to the four above mentioned, and by them translated, and given to the writers; not in seance rooms (where too often resort the idle, the frivolous and the curious, attracting spirits similar to themselves, rather than the good), but "in dreams and visions of the night," and by direct guidance, has God instructed them by chosen instruments; and now they give it to the world, that some may be wiser unto Salvation, while those who reject it, remain in their blindness, till they will to see.

From this passage, it is clear that no manuscript in Aramaic has ever been seen, or is claimed to have been seen, by Rev. Ouseley. Rather, it is Swedenborg, Maitland, Kingsford, and Placidus (all having died, some very recently, by the time Ouseley received this work) who received the gospel, and who simultaneously translated it into English, and then communicated this to Ouseley and his associates in some miraculous manner. So whenever and however Ouseley received it, it was already in English. Presumably, although this information is not spelled out, the fact that the manuscript is in Tibet in some monastery was also communicated to them by Swedenborg, Maitland, Kingsford, and Placidus. No one has every discovered any such manuscript, in Aramaic or any other language, in any Tibetan monastery.

However, to make things more interesting, there are several versions of this gospel which are circulating without Ouseley’s "Explanatory Preface." This has left some people are under the impression that this is a text which really was originally found in Tibet and translated from the Aramaic. In fact, in Europe there are German and Swedish editions of this work which leave the impression that Ouseley actually did discover the manuscript during a trip to Tibet in 1881. Never mind that Ouseley himself never claimed to have gone to Tibet, and in fact was fairly open about the process by which he received it, making it clear that this is in fact a "channeled" work. Annie Besant, one of the leaders of the Theosophical movement, understood the situation quite well and gave the book a rather negative review, describing its spiritualist sources and calling it "a strange book."

There can be no objection to regarding this as a sacred text. Perhaps it was received through divine inspiration, just as many Christians regard the New Testament as divinely inspired. But as historical evidence, it would not convince anyone who was not already convinced of its divine origin.

Edmund Bordeaux Szekeley

Szekeley is the most difficult case of all of these to resolve. Notovitch was quickly exposed as a fraud; Ouseley never claimed to have anything more than a "channeled" work. Neither of these quick expedients are available in Szekeley’s case.

The Essene Gospel of Peace which he published is similar in its basic themes to claims found in other modern gospels. The Essene Gospel of Peace identifies several familiar themes: vegetarianism, natural living, a theology of the Earth, and so forth. Szekeley claims to have found the manuscripts in various locations, including the Vatican Library, the Royal Archives of the Hapsburgs in Vienna, and the monastery at Monte Cassino. Szekeley identifies Hebrew, Aramaic, and Old Slavonic versions of the manuscript.

There are three problems with Szekeley’s claims. The first and most significant point is that no one has actually seen any of these manuscripts except Szekeley. The second is that there are serious inconsistencies and other problems in Szekeley’s description of the manuscripts. The third is the content of the manuscripts themselves. Taken as a whole, we can say that not only is there no evidence that the manuscripts are genuine, but that most likely Szekeley’s claims are fraudulent.

There are several different editions of the Essene Gospel of Peace. The first was published in 1937, then a second in 1977. The 1977 version is titled The Essene Gospel of Peace, Book One has a foreword in which Szekeley states that the contents of the book are only about one-third of the total he found (the next two-thirds presumably being those volumes subsequently published by him as "Book Two" and "Book Three"). He says:

"The content of this book represents only about a third of the complete manuscripts which exist in Aramaic in the archives of the Vatican and in old Slavonic in the Royal Archives of the Hapsburgs (now the property of the Austrian Government). We owe the existence of these two versions to the Nestorian priests who, under pressure of the advancing hordes of Genghis Khan, were forced to flee from the East towards the West, bearing all their ancient scriptures and ikons with them. The ancient Aramaic texts date from the third century after Christ, while the old Slavonic version is a literal translation of the former."

Szekeley claims to have found the Aramaic manuscript at some time between 1923 and 1924, and during a visit to Monte Cassino he also claims to have found Hebrew fragments corresponding with the Aramaic text. However, no one has ever seen any of the physical documents which Szekeley claims he drew the text from. Per Beskow (in Strange Tales About Jesus) says that when he asked the National Library of Vienna about the Old Slavonic text, the reply was sent that there is no such text, that a number of people have made inquiries about the text, and the general opinion was that Szekeley made it up. A similar negative answer came from the Vatican as follows: "Dear Sir, Thank you for your letter of 25th May inquiring about Edmond Bordeaux Szekeley. This author’s book is known to me and I can assert categorically that no such manuscript of an Aramaic Gospel is possessed by the Vatican Archives. Moreover, Szekeley’s name has not been found in the card index of scholars admitted to the Archives." Finally, the Monte Cassino monastery was, as is well known, destroyed by being bombed during the Second World War. Szekeley made no mention of the Hebrew fragments found at Monte Cassino until after the war.

There are also internal inconsistencies and problems in his account. For example, Szekeley claimed to have known a number of languages, but never even claimed to know Old Slavonic, and there is no evidence (aside from his own claim) that he actually knew Hebrew or Aramaic either. When the book was first published in 1937, it had the title The Gospel of Peace by the disciple John, which in the 1977 edition has been changed — without explanation — to The Essene Gospel of Peace. For the 1937 edition, Lawrence Purcell Weaver is listed as a co-editor, but in later editions he was dropped. In the 1937 edition, he states that the text published is only about one-eighth of the total; but in 1977, this has changed to one-third of the total. In the 1937 edition, the Aramaic is dated to the first century; in the 1977 edition, to the third century. There is no indication of how Szekeley knows that it was either the first century or the third century — did he use carbon dating, analysis of the manuscript style, or what? And why did Szekeley change his mind about the age of the manuscript? We are left without any clues. In fact, the 1937 preface is substantially different from the reprint of the 1937 preface in the 1977 edition in several ways, even though it is still dated "1937."

Astonishingly, Szekeley says almost nothing about the physical condition of the manuscripts in the Vatican — for example, whether it was a scroll or a codex (a bound volume similar to modern books). This seems to be a clearly contrived story: a mysterious manuscript, of no particular description, which no one except Szekeley has ever seen, which Szekeley quickly and effortlessly translated, and which the libraries at the Vatican and in Vienna deny having, is supposed to have fabulous revelations about Jesus? This can’t be taken seriously as evidence about Jesus.

But let us take Szekeley at his word. Perhaps the Vatican, and the library at Vienna, destroyed the manuscripts or are covering them up in an effort to suppress the truth, and Szekeley really saw these manuscripts, knew the Aramaic, Hebrew, and Old Slavonic languages thoroughly, and quickly produced a competent and scholarly translation. What then?

Looking at the manuscript, we see that it is obviously a hopelessly romantic, nineteenth-century idea of what Jesus should have been like, embedded in health ideas which are clearly modern. For example, Jesus is quoted as advocating enemas, complete with a graphic description of how to perform them! In fact, Jesus says that unless you perform these enemas, you cannot come into God’s presence: "No man may come before the face of God, whom the angel of water lets not pass" (p. 16). Enemas were probably practiced in ancient times, but there's no connection of them with any religious practice in any other ancient Christian writings, whether heretical or orthodox; the emphasis on colonics and enemas is a modern concern championed by naturopaths and other advocates of a natural way of life. Jesus also gives practical health advice, saying "Shun all that is too hot or too cold" (p. 58). Jesus is quoted as having said what was in Paul’s celebrated letter I Corinthians 13 — "though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am nothing" (p. 23-24). Jesus advises us to obey both our Heavenly Father and our Earthly Mother, with the idea that our Earthly Mother is the physical earth — "The hardness of our bones is born of the bones of our Earthly Mother, of the rocks and of the stones" (p. 8).

All of this seems to underscore health ideas of "natural living" which were common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Even if Szekeley is telling the truth, in the absence of any other physical evidence, the conclusion would inevitably be that these are later documents. Someone who knew Aramaic, Old Slavonic, and Hebrew, wrote such documents espousing such "natural living ideas" in modern times, attributed them to Jesus, and then secreted them in libraries in the Vatican, Vienna, and Monte Cassino, and left them for Dr. Szekeley to discover later. This would still be of no particular historical value; though written in ancient languages, they would derive from (at the earliest) the nineteenth century.

Other "Channeled" Writings

There are other writings of modern gospels that make interesting claims about Jesus. The Aquarian Gospel, by "Levi," is another work claiming that Jesus lived in India. It is straightforwardly a channeled work.

John Todd Ferrier is one of the most interesting of the authors of this genre of writing. He became inspired and wrote down extensive writings which are essentially his versions of what Jesus said and did: The Master, The Logia, and others. Vegetarianism emerges as a clear theme in these writings. Ferrier left behind a group, the "Order of the Cross," which continues to promulgate his writings and his message today. Again, however, Ferrier’s writings were received, in modern times, from a divine source; there is no claim to have discovered an ancient manuscript. Interestingly, Ferrier also wrote a small book On Behalf of the Creatures in which he does discuss historical evidence, citing such writings as Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and the Clementine Homilies; but he keeps this separate from his revelations about Jesus.

There have been some cases where early writings really do stump even the scholars. The most interesting of these is The Secret Gospel of Mark, quotations from which are found in a letter purportedly by Clement of Alexandria. This letter of Clement was found by Dr. Morton Smith of Columbia University in Mar Saba monastery just a few miles southeast of Jerusalem. Smith took a photograph of it and later published work concerning it. This work has nothing to do with vegetarianism, by the way — the Secret Gospel is said to suggest that Jesus was homosexual, though that it is not clear even if the manuscript is genuine. Unfortunately, this manuscript has never again been found; when the library was inspected later, the letter had disappeared, so controversy rages over whether it is genuine or not.

In this case, there is scholarly consensus that Dr. Smith really did find such a manuscript in the Mar Saba monastery; several photographs exist. There is disagreement, however, on whether it is an ancient or a modern forgery, inserted into the library at the monastery, and left for Smith to discover. It has been pointed out, for example, that most of the excerpts from the Secret Gospel can be found (in different contexts) in the canonical gospels. There is also an index of Clement of Alexandria’s writings which gives access to his vocabulary and writing style. This controversy could probably be resolved if we had access to the original letter that Smith saw; in that case, we could examine the age of the paper, the type of ink used, and so forth. But we don’t have that, and the discussion continues. The debate seems to be slowly oscillating towards the view that it is genuine, but clearly there is still quite a bit of doubt. The ability of scholars to actually see the physical manuscript is critical to our ability to evaluate it as serious historical evidence.

If The Secret Gospel of Mark is a forgery, though, it is much more sophisticated than anything which Szekeley or Notovitch were able to produce. We have an actual photograph of the original letter quoting the Secret Gospel, whereas we not only do not have photographs of anything Szekeley saw, we don’t even have the original Aramaic words, or even a physical description of the manuscript. Notovitch likewise gives us nothing in the original language — it is presented to us already "translated" into a modern language.

All of these writings are significant for our understanding of how gospels spread — though perhaps not in the way the authors intended. They all managed to create something of a sensation and have acquired a wide readership. Indeed, they all have a following even today, as we speak — people pick up these books, read them, and believe that they are the words of Jesus. What we believe is true, in the sphere of religion, must not come only from the mind, and from physical evidence, but from the heart as well. On the other hand, we must guard against confusing what comes from the heart and what comes from physical evidence.

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