Saturday, November 11, 2006

Imitatio Christi, or Getting naked for Jesus' sake!

In 1973 Professor Morton Smith, a distinguished biblical scholar, published two books analyzing a remarkable text he claimed to have discovered at Mar Saba, a Greek Orthodox monastery in the Judean wilderness. Ostensibly, the document contains a missing portion of the Gospel of Mark, which orthodox editors had excluded because of its anomalous character.

After meeting a woman of Bethany Jesus reluctantly agrees to visit the garden where the woman’s brother was entombed. “And approaching, Jesus rolled the stone from the door of the tomb, and going in immediately to where the young man was, he stretched out his hand and raised him, taking hold of his hand. But the young man, having looked upon him, loved him and began to entreat him to be with him. And going out from the tomb they went into the house of the young man; for he was rich. And after six days Jesus commanded him; and when it was evening the young man came to him wearing a linen sheet about his naked body, and he remained with him that night; for Jesus was teaching him the mystery of the kingdom of God. Then arising, he returned from there to the other side of the Jordan.”

Marshalling elaborate textual arguments, Morton Smith maintained that the text was an authentic portion of the gospel of Mark, one that had been censored from the version we know. The text contains Jesus’ original initiation rite. This tradition, he further argued, continued to be honored in antiquity by the Carpocratian sect, while the Orthodox rejected it.

Since the implication of homosexual conduct is inescapable, it would seem that Jesus was gay, and promoted this behavior among his disciples. Jesus never married, so that he was, in effect, a Kinsey Six-—a person whose sexual practice was only with his own gender.

The find has been accepted by a number of scholars, while others continue to doubt its authenticity. My own feeling is that it is a forgery, whether by Smith or someone else.

Some thirty years ago the volume containing the fragment was transferred from Mar Saba, its original home, to a library in Jerusalem. In the year 2000 Professor Nikolaos Olympion of the University of Athens photographed the pages, which had been torn out of the volume in which they were inscribed. (Color reproductions appear in the Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2005). Then the pages were mislaid. For this reason it is impossible to carry out chemical test that might confirm its authenticity.

The whole matter has been reopened in a book that has just appeared: Peter Jeffery, The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery (Yale University Press). This book discusses many interesting aspects of the cultural construction of homosexuality, both ancient and modern. Jeffery strongly inclines to the view that the text was a hoax perpetrated by Morton Smith. But he cannot prove this. The likelihood, then, is that, like certain disputed art objects, the text will continue to have its defenders. It also seems to have enjoyed some circulation in counterculture circles.

Could Pastor Ted Haggard have known this text, accepted by serious scholars as authentic? Publicly, he has attributed his dalliance with the hustler Mike Jones (who was probably not his first same-sex partner) to his “dark side.” He had been struggling with this component of his personality for many years. Perhaps the struggle was unsuccessful because he kept in the back of his mind the possibility that Jesus himself had authorized the behavior. Can imitation of Jesus be wrong?

After all, the text of the Secret Gospel has found its way into quite reputable reference books, e.g. J.K. Elliott, ed., The Apocryphal New Testament (1993). Haggard may well have consulted such sources when he was a seminary student.

There may be a parallel instance. As Gayspecies aptly remarks, “Self-loathing Evangelical Gays certainly do not have a corner on the market. Msgr Tony Anatrella, a consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Family at the Vatican, seems to have a similar problem to that of minister Haggard. Saying that ‘homosexuality results as a lack of plenitude and an immaturity of human sexuality,’ Anatrella went on to opine on the difficulty of the ‘homosexual person to incarnate effectively this symbolic reality of spousal tie and spiritual paternity’ and that gay priests ‘will need a special care, and regular interventions on part of the authority, and a life set in a constant medical and psychotherapeutic cure.’ But, according to a complaint, filed on 30 October in Paris, a French ex-seminarian named Daniel Lamarca said that, while being treated by Anatrella in 1987, he had sexual relations with the cleric, who Lamarca went to in the hope of ‘curing’ him of his homosexuality."

To be sure, “curing” does not sound like something out of the Secret Gospel. But it may be in accord with it. To the cleric falls the duty of initiating the young men in the mystery of heaven and earth. For the candidate one such initiation is enough. To the clergyman, though, falls the heavy duty of repeatedly putting his body on the line. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.

I readily admit that my hunch may be mistaken for both Haggard and Anatrella. However, I feel certain that there are some clergymen who regard the Secret Gospel as authorization for their same-sex activity.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

While sexual initiation rites are relatively common among "pagans" (deliberate scare quotes), neither the Jewish, and especially the Christian, seem to have embraced it. At least the Jewish rites recognized some "sexual" factors, such as circumcision and the transition at puberty, but that's stretching "sexual." The Manicheeism bubbling under Christianity was about as anti-sexual as one can get. Paul, for example, extols the solitary state, and "offers" marriage for the weak rather than perishing in hell. We know what he felt about homosexuality. Ambrose, Augustine's mentor, required married coitus to be "confessed," having indulged the animal instinct rather than dwelling spiritually pure. Calvinism is so hostile to all things of the "flesh," even auditory or visual delights are banished.

Against all that (and there's plenty), the Bible does mention two oddities: (1) that David loved Jonathan more than any woman, and (2) Jesus had a "beloved" that was rumored would live with Jesus in immortality (not experiencing death), and Jesus did nothing to quell the rumor, and the "others" did not know what to do with him (see, Jn 21:20ff).

The "lost" manuscript really does nothing that this last case would not allow, but it's sexual frankness does seem a little "out of place" in the evangelical tradition. Was Jesus gay? Well, he was "unmarried." No sexual relations of any kind are mentioned. He mentions that "lust" is the same as "act." He approves of eunuchs. And then one has this conclusion in John, which frankly is odd. If nothing else, it is suggestive. And the lost pericope would "fit," if it weren't quite as overt, and if it weren't attributed to Mark (Luke or John, possibly). But it's too embelished to "fit" Mark. But could I "see" Jesus doing what the pericope suggests? Possibly in the persona, but not contextually. And textually is all we have. The persona "arises" out of it, but it is imaginable (unlike, say, of Paul).

For good or ill, it doesn't matter. Readers still do not recognize the dissonance between OT, Gospel, and Paul. And celibate bishops get to "decide" the matter, anyway. (What the Fundamentalist does I cannot explain.) And except for possibly Matthew and John, not likely, but possibly, none of the evangelists knew Jesus first hand. Paul, even more distant and removed, seems to have had his own agenda quite apart from Jesus's.

Whether "authentic" or not (probably not), the lost pericope adds to the possibilities of Jesus as an ever greater rebel and subversive than the anodynes of organized Christianity allow. In that sense, it works. In fact, "fits." But Paul and subsequent Christians want nothing of that Jesus, even if that is exactly who is was (assuming he was). So, like the "others," we continue to ask, "what about him?" The beloved? Well, that is the question.

2:24 PM  

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