First, I’m updating the “currently reading” section to reflect, well, a textbook that I’ll be reading for the remainder of the semester. I will say that the author must be the kind of guy that loves the sound of his voice!
But tonight, it’s time to step away from a bit of the divisiveness, whether I’ve been gentle enough or still too rough. I originally wrote this as part of a devotional for my History of the Christian Church class. Though not for credit, the professor asks for a student to come up with a devotional based on an extra-canonical source. He never fully explained his reasoning for this “assignment,” but with a little intuition, I believe he is saying to us that a vast array of Jewish-Christian sects believed they had the right interpretation of Jesus, and it so happened that the beliefs that would become “Orthodox,” and not “heretical,” won out – but meanwhile, there still are points of value we can take from the non-canonical documents. Now, doing the background research and reflections for this “assignment” was an invigorating process for me. And since I found the Gospel of Thomas to be some rather low-hanging fruit, I ended up choosing the Dialogue of the Savior.
Wait, the WHAT of the WHO (you may ask)? Yeah, I’d never heard of it either. So I’ll do this post kind of like this: first, some background on the Dialogue of the Savior, then the passage that I chose, and then a section of my reflection. Hope you enjoy!
Facts about the Dialogue of the Savior
- The Dialogue of the Savior originally was a Greek text, but only survives to us today in a Coptic version found in 1945. This Coptic version dates to the mid-to-late second century C.E. and was first published in English in 1976.
- The Greek text may date as far back as the mid-to-late first century C.E., or around the time of the apostles and the writing of the Synoptic Gospels.
- In Deconstructing Jesus (2000), Robert M. Price refers to the Dialogue of the Savior (and similar Gnostic documents) as “something like a news conference in which the Risen Jesus answers questions from the disciples, revealing great mysteries fit only for Gnostic ears.”
- The text is in the form of sayings of Jesus, and parallels the Gospel of Thomas very closely. However, the Dialogue of the Savior includes more quotations from Jesus’ disciples, differentiating it from the Gospel of Thomas.
- Throughout the surviving text, Jesus is talking exclusively with Matthew, Judas (not necessarily Judas Iscariot, though I proceed under this assumption in my reflection/devotional), and Mariam. However, near the end of the text, “all disciples” are invoked.
- Interestingly, Jesus’ name never appears in the surviving text. He is referred to as “The Savior,” “Lord,” or occasionally the “Son of Man.” Within the context of the creation myth, Jesus is referred to as the “Word,” which we’re all familiar with from John chapter 1.
- The Dialogue of the Savior is suggested to be dated after the Gospel of Thomas, and represents an evolution of textual tradition from “sayings material,” including the Gospel of Thomas and the lost source Quelle, to the narrative texts that today comprise the canonical gospel accounts. Of these canonical accounts, the Dialogue of the Savior most closely parallels John.
- So, therefore….. Gospel of Thomas < Dialogue of the Savior < Johannine Gospel
- Possibly, the Dialogue of the Savior was a “response” to the Gospel of Thomas, given that it builds off Gos. Thom. sayings #1 and #2, and the divine references to Jesus.
- Given the relationship to Thomas and John, the Dialogue of the Savior is hypothesized to have come from Syria. As with Thomas, the Dialogue of the Savior is heavily Gnostic.
- Among the excerpt we will read today are elements of a creation myth, dialogue, and a so-called “wisdom list” delivered by Jesus.
- The author (or redactor) of the Dialogue of the Savior is both cosmically and geographically inclined, which we’ll see in our excerpt.
- The Dialogue of the Savior is NOT mentioned by any ancient church fathers, suggesting that it could have been a private or “barely public” document unique to a few communities.
- The Dialogue of the Savior is HIGHLY fragmentary. In many cases, the meaning of words cannot be discerned from the text that remains, so we are left with sets of ellipses. However, in some cases, textual critics are able to reasonably deduce the original meaning (though this may not be perfect), and in our excerpt these cases are denoted with sets of brackets.
- Our excerpt is the most complete pericope within the Dialogue of the Savior.
- Before our excerpt begins, we see two things happening:
1. First, Judas “gives glory to the Lord” after Jesus explains his purpose for coming, which is that the earth “might not be in want from generation to generation and age to age.” Jesus also explains that he became manifest from springs of milk, honey, oil, wine, good fruits with a sweet taste, and good roots.
2. In response to this, Mariam asks to no one in particular where Judas, Matthew and she will “keep” the things Jesus has just said about himself, and Jesus interrupts by saying that they have a place in their heart for these things. And, by keeping them in their hearts, they will no longer be confined by “this impoverished world” but enter “the place of life.”
With no further adieu, I give you, the Dialogue of the Savior:
Matthew said, “Lord, I wish [to see] that place of life, [that place] in which there is no evil, but rather it is [the] pure light.”
The Lord said, “Brother Matthew, you cannot see it, as long as you wear the flesh.”
Matthew said, “O Lord, even if [I can] not see it, let me [know it].”
The Lord said, “Every one [of you] who has known himself has seen it; everything that is fitting for him to do, [he does] it. And he has been [doing] it in his goodness.”
Judas answered him and said, “Tell me, Lord, [the earthquake] that moves the earth, how does it move?”
The Lord took a stone [and] held it in his hand. [He said, “What] is this that I hold in my [hand]?”
He said, “[It is] a stone.”
He said to them, “He who sustains [the earth] is he who sustains the heaven. When a word comes forth from the Greatness, it will go to him who sustains the heaven and the earth. For the earth does not move; if it moved, it would fall, but (it does not fall) in order that the first word might not be annulled, namely ‘he is the one who established the world, and he dwelt in it, and he received incense from it.’ For everything that does not move I [will bring] to you, all ye sons of men, for you are from [that] place.
“As for those who speak out of [joy] and truth, you are in their heart. And if he comes from [the] body of the Father through men, [and] they do not receive him, [he] turns again to his place. He who knows [not] the works of perfection knows nothing. If one does not stand in the darkness, he will not be able to see the light. If one does not [understand] how the fire came to be, he will burn in it, because he does not know his root. If one does not first understand the water, he does not know anything. For what is the use for him to receive baptism in it? If one does not understand how the wind that blows came to be, he will run with it. If one does not understand how the body that he wears came to be, he will perish with it. And he who does not know the Son, how will he know the [Father]? And he who will not know the root of all things, they (all things) are hidden from him. He who will not know the root of wickedness is not a stranger to it. He who will not understand how he came will not understand how he will go, and is not a [stranger] to this world which [will perish and] which will be humbled.”
The third of my three points of reflection and devotional centered around the humanity of Judas and other notorious sinners. Now, I say “notorious,” but I could easily omit that to say just “other sinners.” Either way, we find that were this Dialogue of the Savior excerpt to be in the canon, we would have some significant character development for Judas, if it is indeed referring to Judas Iscariot (not explicitly stated). In the four canonical gospel accounts, commonly included in our numerous interactions with Judas is a phrase like “who would later betray [Jesus].” Instead, Judas is more well-rounded in the Dialogue of the Savior, which features no crucifixion narrative (or the betrayal leading up to that point). Judas asks about earthquakes, and multiple times he is explicitly stated to fall to his feet and worship Jesus. He also engages Matthew and Mariam, and is accepted by them rather than outcast as the one who came to betray Jesus.
This isn’t the portrait of Judas that we commonly hear. In the same way, we are reminded of the humanity – the virtue – of sinners we’ve encountered in our own lives (whether personally or through the media). For example, unless you’ve done a biography on these people, how much do you know about Timothy McVeigh, Mark David Chapman, or even Tiger Woods or Ben Roethlisberger beyond their highly publicized sin?
It boils down to this: do you wish to be known to the world by the worst of your sins – and nothing else? You’ve probably heard this before, but we are challenged in our everyday lives to separate the actor from the action. This is difficult to accomplish if the action was committed against you, but God invites you to forgive this way…
“Forgive us our trespasses (debts), as we forgive those who trespass against us (our debtors).”
If you utter this without the willingness to forgive, you are actually saying to God, “Forgive me to the degree which I am willing to forgive others, which ends at a certain point.” Therefore, fresh light being shed on Judas isn’t a terrible thing at all. Of course, Judas will never be viewed as a good guy. But maybe he used to be. And maybe that’s why Jesus chose him as a disciple in the first place.
ENDNOTE Excerpt and background information adapted from: Ron Cameron, ed., The Other Gospels: Non-Canonical Gospel Texts (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1982), 43-44.