Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Saint Anne's Church - Jerusalem

St. Anne's Church in Jerusalem is what prompted my review of both the Protovangelium of James and the Gospel of Pseudo-Thomas. It is in those apocryphal accounts that we learn of the Virgin Mary's parents, Anna and Joachim, and about the Virgin Mary's birth. Up until a few years ago, I'd never heard that there were names for Mary's parents or any writings detailing activities of their lives. More recently I've started to realize how much the apocrypha has impacted Catholic and Orthodox culture and doctrine, such as the doctrine of perpetual virginity for Mary. A visit to St. Anne's Church is eye opening in that regard. St. Anne's is dedicated to the Virgin Mary's mother, Anna (as she is referred to in the apocryphal accounts above) or Anne. 
The front of St. Anne's
A view of the north side, from near the Pools of Bethesda.
A beautiful side door. Picture from
St. Anne's was built over a period of eight years, between 1131 and 1138, at the direction of Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem. Melisende was the third Crusader ruler of Jerusalem, acting from 1131 to 1161, following Baldwin I and her father, Baldwin II, who were both part of the First Crusade. In the book, Jerusalem, by Simon Sebag Montefiore, it states that "Melisende embellished Jerusalem as both Temple shrine and political capital, creating much that we see today. The Crusaders had developed their own style, a synthesis of Romanesque, Byzantine and Levantine with round-headed arches, massive capitals, all carved with delicate, often floral motifs. The queen built the monumental St. Anne's Church, north of the Temple Mount...[which] stands today as the simplest and starkest example of Crusader architecture." (p. 238)

Right next to St. Anne's, at the time it was built, were the ruins of the Church of St. Mary of the Probatic, a 5th century Byzantine church that covered the more ancient Pools of Bethesda, mentioned in John 5:1-8, where Jesus healed a paralytic, and the later expanded Temple to Asclepius and Serapis, built by Hadrian. In fact it appears that St. Anne's covers a portion of the foundation of Hadrian's temple. Over a northwest portion of the ruins of St. Mary was the much smaller Crusader Church of the Paralytic, built about 30 years earlier and which included a monastery, where Baldwin I had banished his wife, Arda.

Birthplace of the Virgin Mary

St. Anne's was built over a grotto that the Crusaders believed to be the birthplace of the Virgin Mary, which is why it was dedicated to her mother, Anne or Anna. If that was the case, then Joachim and Anna were living right next to the asclepeion, the pagan healing temple to the god Asclepius, and very close to the Pools of Bethesda, the south pool which was used as a mikvah by Jews purifying themselves to enter the courts of the temple.
My favorite part of the church was the sculpture of Anna and the young Mary.
A side view.
Steps  from the south aisle of the church go down to the crypt which is in the cave where, according to tradition, Mary was born. Unfortunately, we were oblivious to this when we visited and did not visit the crypt.
Picture of the grotto from
Another grotto picture from
For more pictures of the grotto, go to  

The church has three aisles, or halls, of equal size, separated by two rows of columns. The columns each have a base shaped in a cross. It has beautiful cross-vaulted ceilings and very little ornamentation inside, perfect for the Romanesque architecture.
The north hall. 
The simple, beautiful altar, and two green kneeling pads.
The central hall and main altar, separated by the two rows of columns. 
A view of the high altar.
An eastern window above the high altar.
The southern hall. 
The main ornament in the southern hall is what must be a statue of Anna and Mary.
The beautiful ceiling.
The front door of the church, viewed from the central hall. 
The high altar incorporates reliefs with scenes from Mary's life.
The nativity, from the high altar. The animals at bottom right look like aardvarks. 
The Annunciation on the high altar.
The church was designed for the Gregorian chant so its acoustics are perfect. says they are "so perfect that the church is virtually a musical instrument to be played by the human voice." A small group of us sang the LDS primary children's song, "I Am a Child of God," and the reverberation in that beautiful building was amazing.
Chris, Judy and Julia start to assemble in preparation for their song. 
Muslim Madrasa

In 1187 the Muslim Saladin, or Salah ad-Din, reconquered Jerusalem. Instead of destroying the Church of St. Anne, the fate of many other Crusader churches, Saladin converted it into a madrasa, or Islamic school, known as al-Madrasa as-Salahiyya (of Saladin). Over the doorway of St. Anne's it is still inscribed to Saladin as "Reviver of the Empire of the Commander of the Believers."
The inscription in Arabic can be seen in a rectangular box above the front door. 
This photo, from, gives a much better view of the inscription. 
The French supported the Ottomans during the Crimean War. In 1856, to thank the French for their support, Sultan Abdulmecid I presented Napoleon III, on behalf of the Country of France, with St. Anne's, which by that time was abandoned and in disrepair. The French government subsequently restored St. Anne's and allows the White Fathers, an order of the Catholic Church, to administer it.

White Fathers

The White Fathers is a Roman Catholic missionary society, so named because of their white habit. It was founded in 1868 by the Archbishop of Algiers as the Missionaries of Our Lady of Africa of Algeria and is now known as the Society of the Missionaries of Africa. The founding intent was to convert Arabs and the people of Central Africa. The habit of the White Fathers is patterned to resemble the white robes of the Algerian Arabs with a white cassock, a rosary and a cross around the neck. In 1880, the Holy See, the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Catholic Church in Rome, directed the White Fathers to establish a Greek-Melkite seminary in Jerusalem to develop clergy for the Melkite Catholic Church. That seminary is Saint Anne's Seminary, located right next to Saint Anne's Church. The Melkite Greek Catholic Church is a Byzantine Rite church in full communion with the Roman Catholics.
Julia and Judy pose with one of the White Father's inside St. Anne's Church. Note the white cassock and rosary and cross around his neck. Unfortunately, he has on a blue jacket so we don't get the full effect. He was very friendly and encouraged us to sing a hymn in the church. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Pools of Bethesda - Jerusalem

Jesus heals the paralytic at the Pools of Bethesda

One of the miracles of Jesus happened at the Pools of Bethesda. In John 5: 1-18: "...Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals....[N]ear the Sheep Gate [is] a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie - the blind, the lame, the paralyzed - [and they waited for the moving of the waters. From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease they had.] One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, "Do you want to get well?" "Sir," the invalid replied, "I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me." Then Jesus said to him, "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk." At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked." Some versions of the Bible do not include the bolded language above because it is only included in some manuscripts. Further, some versions include the term "sheep market" instead of "sheep gate" and some use the term "porches" or "porticoes" instead of "colonnades."

Was Sheep Gate the modern Herod's Gate or Lion's Gate or neither?

The majority of Biblical translations include the term "sheep gate" instead of "sheep market," but the King James translation uses the term "sheep market." Our tour guide mentioned that the area around Bethesda was a sheep market, I assume because of this verse in John 5, but I'm not finding anything that corroborates that. Most sources I've read tie in the term "Sheep Gate" to the modern "Lion's Gate." However, other sources talking about the gates of Jerusalem without any connection to the Pools of Bethesda connect the Sheep Gate to the modern "Herod's Gate," a northern gate, instead of an eastern gate. 

The Sheep Gate is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible in Nehemiah 3, but a little history helps with the setting: Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and many of the Tribe of Judah were taken to Babylon. In 539 BCE Babylon fell to the Medes and Persians. The conquering Persian Emperor Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem. The exiles did not all return at once (in fact many did not return at all), but returned in waves. The first wave of returning exiles was led by Zerubbabel in 536 BCE. They started re-construction of the temple in 535 and completed it by 516 (Ezra 1-6). The second wave of returning exiles were led by Ezra who left with 1,500 men in 455 BCE (Ezra 7-10). The third wave was led by Nehemiah in 446 BCE and in 445 Nehemiah helped to build the walls of Jerusalem in 52 days. Nehemiah 3 describes the rebuilding of the wall, including various gates: "Eliashib the high priest and his fellow priests went to work and rebuilt the Sheep Gate. They dedicated it and set its doors in place..." (Nehemiah 3:1) "Malkijah, one of the goldsmiths, made repairs as far as the house of the temple servants and the merchants, opposite the Inspection Gate, and as far as the room above the corner; and between the room above the corner and the Sheep Gate the goldsmiths and merchants made repairs." (verses 31-32)

Below is an illustration of the gates and walls at the time of Nehemiah which also shows how they compare to the modern walls. The modern walls spread out much further, particularly to the north and west. 
This illustration of the gates from Nehemiah's time is here. I've found modern associations for Sheep Gate as Herod's Gate, for East Gate as the Golden Gate and it looks like the Muster Gate, or Inspection Gate as identified in Nehemiah, would be the Lion's Gate. See here.  However, those modern associations are approximations as the old walls are not in the same place as the current walls as indicated in the illustration. 
This modern map of the old city shows the gates relative to the Pools of Bethesda which are just north of St. Anne's Church just inside St. Stephen's Gate or Lion's Gate. Picture from Wikipedia. Note that this map shows Herod's Gate to be much further away from the Bethesda Pools than the gate would have been at the time of Nehemiah and the time of Jesus. 
I believe the answer to the discrepancy between the association of Sheep Gate to Lion's Gate or Herod's Gate is that it is neither. The city walls were expanded between 41 and 42 CE by Herod Agrippa and the Bethesda Pools, which had been just outside the city walls were now included within the city walls. Sheep Gate no longer existed. So when we associate Sheep Gate with Lion's Gate or Herod's Gate, it is not reality. When Jesus was near the Sheep Gate, in John 5, he was outside the city walls. Today if we associate Sheep Gate with Herod's Gate, it has almost no relation to the ancient gate, except to the extent it faces north. I think that the reason Sheep Gate gets associated with Lion's Gate today is because it is closest to the Pools of Bethesda and John 5 implies that it is near. However, it is oriented in the wrong direction as Lion's Gate is an east facing gate and Sheep Gate was a north facing gate.  

Lion's Gate (or the approximation of it) near the Bethesda Pools is shown on the mid-6th century depiction of Jerusalem on the Madaba map, a mosaic on a floor in a church in Madaba, Jordan, which we visited (see below). The Madaba map has been extremely helpful to archaeologists in helping determine what Jerusalem was like at that time. The main street shown running horizontally through Jerusalem at that time is today known as the Cardo. At the top of the map, which is east, is what today would be the Lion's Gate, just below the Greek letters YC. A little bit to the left, below the Greek letters ICI is St. Mary of the Probatic, the Byzantine Church built over the Pools of Bethesda (more on that below). 
This is my photo of Jerusalem on the Madaba map. Below I give a borrowed photo which has much better delineation and different emphases on the color scale. 
This photo was taken from here
Symbolism of the Sheep Gate to Christ

The Sheep Gate was apparently named because it was the gate that sheep and lambs were brought through to be sacrificed at the temple. John 10:1-10 makes this a fun connection, where Jesus says, "I am the gate for the sheep...I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved."

History of the Pools of Bethesda

Because the area where the Pools of Bethesda is so overlaid with different layers of history, it is extremely confusing to figure out. I give two maps below to help out with the discussion of the history. I'll refer to the first map as Map A and the second map as Map B. The structures that were built there were built in the following order (then follows a brief mention of each structure): (1) the northern pool or "upper pool;" (2) the southern pool; (3) the asclepeion or Roman temple (shown on Map A, but not B); (4) the asclepeion expanded by the Emperor Hadrian (shown on Map B, but not A); (5) the Byzantine church; (6) the Crusader chapel; and (7) St. Anne's Church. 
This map, Map A, is from It shows the initial asclepeion, referenced as "Roman temple," but not the expanded asclepeion built by Hadrian. 
This map, Map B, is from here. It shows the expanded asclepeion built by Hadrian, but not the initial asclepeion. 
The Pools of Bethesda were started in the 8th century BCE when a dam was placed in a small valley to create a reservoir for rain runoff. This reservoir is what became known as the Upper Pool or as on Map A, the northern pool. A sluice-gate in the dam allowed the water height to be controlled and an open channel in the rock allowed water water to be brought into the city for use at the temple. This pool is possibly mentioned twice in the Hebrew Bible, first during the reign of King Ahaz of Judah (who ruled from about 744 to 728 BCE). In Isaiah 7:1-4, the sons of Remaliah, King of Israel had come to Jerusalem to fight. The Lord told Isaiah to "Go out, you and your son...., to meet Ahaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Launderer's Field. Say to him, 'Be careful, keep calm and don't be afraid.'" During the reign of King Hezekiah (who ruled from about 715 to 686 BCE), 2 Kings 18:17-18 notes: "The king of Assyria sent his supreme commander, his chief officer and his field commander with a large army, from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem. They came up to Jerusalem and stopped at the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Washerman's Field. They called for the king..."

Around 200 BC a second pool was added on the south side of the dam to increase the water capacity. It is referenced on Map A as the Southern pool. John speaks of a pool surrounded by five covered colonnades. A colonnade is a roof structure over a walkway supported by columns or enclosed by walls. The northern pool and southern pool were surrounded by colonnades and the dam between them also had a colonnade. The length of each side, covering both pools, was about 131 yards. The width was about 55 yards and the pools were about 49 feet deep. If you count each long side as one colonnade, the north and south end, and the dam, that gives you five colonnades. Jews planning to visit the courts of the temple had to be pure. To be pure they had to be immersed fully in water. There are steps leading into the southern pool which lead scholars to believe the southern pool was a mikvah, a place for the tens of thousands of Jews visiting Jerusalem during the three annual pilgrimage feasts to become ritually pure.  The model of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus in the Israeli Museum, below, shows the Pools of Bethesda with the colonnades surrounding the outsides and over the dam.
The Pools of Bethesda in the model of Jerusalem. The northern pool is to the right and the southern pool to the left. The healing pools of the asclepeion, which would be to the front of the model, are not shown. Note the walls of Jerusalem in the background, illustrating the pools were outside the city walls. I assume the opening in the wall to the upper left is Sheep Gate. Photo from Wikipedia. 
In the 1st century BCE (although I've seen speculation for the 4th century BCE), and probably in conjunction with the building of the Antonia Fortress, the Romans built an asclepeion, a healing temple, sacred to the god Asclepius (marked on Map A as Roman temple), just east of the southern pool and turned natural caves just to the north of it into small baths. The baths were used as part of the healing rituals. Scholars believe that these baths were where the healing miracle of Jesus took place, rather than in the larger northern and southern pools. The baths is where the sick people would have congregated and the southern and northern pools were too deep for the paralytic and other sick people.
The area in the center is part of the asclepeion. The base of the pillar to the upper right and just left of center are to St. Mary of the Probatic, the Byzantine church. 
The central water channel (the black hole in the center) brought water in from the north pool through the channel to the right and into the cistern to the left. The cistern was then used to fill the baths in the asclepeion to the right (and out of the picture). 
Remnants of the baths and grottoes in the asclepeion.
Facing east, another view of the baths and grottoes of the asclepeion with the Byzantine pillar to the upper left. To the far back, beyond the metal rail, are ruins of the expanded asclepeion and temple built by Hadrian.  
The Roman street over the dam connecting to the asclepeion. Photo from here
Herod the Great (73 to 4 BCE) built a new water system to the north of Bethesda making the pools obsolete. This would have left the asclepeion and its healing baths as the primary focus of the area during the time of Jesus.

When Herod Agrippa built a new city wall about 41 to 42 CE, after the time of Jesus, which brought the asclepeion and pools into the city, he blocked the water to the pools completely. So the focus was on the baths. Bethesda is a Hebrew word meaning "house of the graceful waters."

When the Roman Emperor Hadrian built Aelia Capitolina, starting around 130 CE, he expanded the asclepeion to encompass a larger area, added a temple to the gods Asclepius and Serapis (an Egyptian god), and put in a roadway over the dam to the asclepeion (see the map just above).   

In the 5th century a large Byzantine church, dedicated to St. Mary of the Probatic (sheep pool in Latin), was built that covered a portion of the asclepeion and Roman temple and extended west to cover a southeast portion of the northern pool and a northeast portion of the southern pool. The dam between the pools was the central support for the western end of the church and required rows of arches on each side to support it. The footprint of the church is outlined in dark red lines on Map A. This is the church shown in the Madaba map. I find a source that says it was built during the reign of the empress Eudocia, wife of the Emperor Theodosius II (between about 421 and 443) and another source that says it was built during the time of Patriarch Juvenal of Jerusalem (between 452 and 458). The church was destroyed by the Persian Chosroes II in 614. It was shortly thereafter rebuilt by Modestus, Patriarch of Jerusalem, who died in 630. The church was destroyed again in 1009 by the Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim.
The central pillar base with a Byzantine cross is a support for St. Mary of the Probatic. Behind it to the right is an enclosed section which features some preserved mosaic flooring from St. Mary. Below the levels of the pillar are the baths and grottoes of the asclepeion. 
A model of St. Mary of the Probatic, the Byzantine church, and the northern and southern pools (now without colonnades) is found in St. Peter in Gallicantu. Photo from 
When the Crusaders arrived in 1099, they built a small Crusader church, called the Church of the Paralytic, or the Moustier, over the northwest section of the ruin of St. Mary of the Probatic (see both Map A and B). The Church of the Paralytic included a monastery. This is where Baldwin I, the first Crusader king, banished his Armenian wife, Arda, in 1104.
Facing west, the back wall, just left of center, with two pillars, is the west side of the southern pool. The arch in the center of the picture is a support for St. Mary of the Probatic, the Byzantine church. Looking through the arch to the right is the dam which separated the northern pool and the southern pool. To the right is part of the ruin of St. Mary of the Probatic.
Facing west, the rock structure to the upper right is part of the Church of the Paralytic, the Crusader church built on the ruin of St. Mary of the Probatic. Just left of center is the base of a white pillar. It is marked with a Byzantine cross and was a support for St. Mary of the Probatic. More in the foreground, the lower levels are the area that were the baths and grottoes of the asclepeion. This area is where the miracle of the paralytic would have occurred. 
As will be the subject of a later post, a new church known as St. Anne's was built between 1131 and 1138 by the Crusaders. St. Anne's is shown on both Map A and B. In B it shows it covering part of the footprint of the asclepeion. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew

The early apocrypha filled in some of the gaps in the Gospels. Remember that the Protovangelium of James harmonized the early stories about Jesus and his family found in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Some of the later apocrypha filled in even more gaps, synthesized earlier accounts and added embellishments. The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew is a perfect example of those points and very fun to read, particularly having just read the Protovangelium of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The text of Pseudo-Matthew is here. Pseudo-Matthew uses the Protovengelium of James, in an edited form, sometimes adding to and changing the facts, then adds an account of the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, then uses the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, adding to and changing facts, and ties them together into one coherent account. 

Pseudo-Matthew starts with letters between the Bishops Comatius and Heliodorus asking Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin (known as the Vulgate), to translate a Hebrew document they found that was written by Matthew, the author of one of the gospels. Jerome pronounced the writings "doubtful," but said that "the sacred nativity of St. Mary was preceded by great miracles, and succeeded by the greatest; and so...they can be believed and read without damaging their faith or imperiling their souls." The underlying document was most certainly not written by Matthew and it is very unlikely that Jerome wrote the letters attributed to him. Scholars believe that Pseudo-Matthew was written about 600 to 625 CE, much later than the earlier documents it relied upon (Jerome died in 384). 

In Pseudo-Matthew, compared to the Protovangelium, Joachim is not only rich, but we learn he started to herd his own sheep at the age of 15 and divided his lambs, sheep and wool into three portions: one portion for widows, orphans, strangers and the poor; another portion for those that worshiped God; and the other portion for his family. When Joachim was 20 he married Anna, the daughter of Achar, of the tribe of Judah and the family of David (this gives Jesus a lineage to David through Mary, which arguably is not otherwise found in the Bible). They were married for 20 years and were without children. 

Joachim, grieving because of lack of children, went into the mountains (instead of the desert) to tend his flocks with his shepherds and stayed for five months (instead of 40 days). An angel, who "appeared [as] a young man," asked Joachim why he didn't return to Anna. Joachim responds that he's been married to her for 20 years and has no children, so "Here then will I remain with my sheep." The angel informed Joachim that he appeared earlier that day to Anna and that she has conceived a daughter (not just a child) from Joachim's seed and that the daughter "will be in the temple of God, and the Holy Spirit shall abide in her; and her blessedness shall be greater than that of all the holy women" (here the child's future service is directed by the angel instead of it being Mary's promise to God). Joachim invited the angel into his tent, but the angel responded, "my food is invisible, and my drink cannot be seen by a mortal." The angel suggests Joachim offer a burnt-offering to the Lord instead. 

Joachim started back to Jerusalem and it took him 30 days. As he got near, the angel appeared to Anna and told her to go to the Golden Gate and meet Joachim there. When she saw him coming with his sheep, she "ran to him and hung on his neck." 
The Golden Gate, centered above (now blocked up), with a view of the Kidron Valley below.
The Golden Gate as viewed from the Garden of Gethsemane with the Dome of the rock in the background to its left. 
After nine months, Mary was born and Anna weaned her in her third year. Then they took Mary to the temple and placed her with the community of virgins. Mary "went up the fifteen steps so swiftly, that she did not look back at all; nor did for her parents." 
The Church of St. Anne in Jerusalem is just north of the Temple Mount. It is built on the spot that the Crusader's identified as the home of Joachim and Anna, the parents of Mary the virgin.
Beneath the Church of St. Anne is a crypt which is identified as the birthplace of the Virgin Mary. Picture from 
Mary spoke perfectly, "spent her the praises of God" and "was not reckoned a young infant, but as it were a grown-up person of thirty years old." Mary was beautiful, glorious and occupied herself "constantly with her wool-work." She prayed from the morning to the third hour, and again from the ninth hour until the angel appeared who fed her. She only ate food given to her by an angel, the food she got from the priests she fed to the poor. From the third to the ninth hour she wove. She was never angry and did not speak evil. She was often seen speaking with angels. (This is very different from her son, Jesus, per the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, who killed people when he was angry, and took some time to mature and grow out of a bratty phase.) 

Abiathar the priest wanted Mary as a wife for his son. Others kept telling her that "God is worshiped in children and adored in posterity...But Mary answered:...God is worshiped in chastity..." Mary was resolved not to "know a man at all." 

When Mary reached age 14 (instead of 12), the Pharisees said it was custom that no woman of that age should reside in the temple (contrasted to the high priest praying to know what to do with her). Normally virgins of that age were given in marriage, but Abiathar (not Zacharias), the high priest said that Mary had found a new order of life, to remain a virgin. All Israelite men with no wives were invited (not just widowers) to the temple. Lots were cast to determine who Mary would be entrusted to (instead of married to). On the first go round, Joseph's rod was not initially considered "because he was an old man," but no one was selected. So they did it again and Joseph was selected when a "dove whiter than snow" emerged from his rod and "flew toward the heavens" (instead of to the top of Joseph's head). After being selected, Joseph "bashfully" spoke to them, saying: "I am an old man, and have children; why do you hand over to me this infant, who is younger than my grandsons?" (Joseph is painted as timid and much older. A man like that would have no interest in marital relations.) 

Mary was given five virgins for "consolation," so Joseph took home not only Mary, but five additional virgins, named Rebecca, Sephora, Susanna, Abigea and Cael. (They are witnesses able to confirm that Mary remained a virgin. There is no mention of Mary's visit to Elizabeth.) 

Meanwhile, Joseph was "house-building, in the districts by the sea-shore" (he is very far away) and "after nine months he came back to his house, and found Mary pregnant." (Increasing the time from six months to nine months means Joseph was not even in the same city at the time Mary got pregnant.) Mary has five virgin witnesses to verify that "no man has touched her...We have watched over her..." Mary defends herself in front of the people who question her virginity: "I have not known man; but I am known by Him to whom from my earliest years I have devoted myself. And this vow I made to my God from my infancy, that I should remain unspotted in Him who created me, and as long as I shall live, will I remain unpolluted." 

The time for enrollment [census] came, ordered by Cyrinus, the governor of Syria. Joseph had to go to Bethlehem because he and his family belonged to the tribe of Judah and the house of David. (In the Protovangelium, the enrollment was limited to Bethlehem, leaving the impression that Joseph was from Bethlehem.) As they were traveling, Mary saw two people in front of her, one weeping and one rejoicing. Joseph could not see them and did not believe her. However, an angel appeared and explained that one was the "Jews weeping, because they have departed from their God," and the other was the "Gentiles rejoicing, because they have now been added and made near to the Lord." Then the angel ordered Mary's "beast to stand," and had her get off and "go into a recess under a cavern, in which there never was light, but always darkness..." (Joseph was not specifically accompanied by two sons, one of whom led Mary's ass.) But as Mary entered the "light from God so shone in the cave" that it was as bright as the sixth hour of the day, both day and night. 

Joseph [went] away to seek midwives" and while he was gone, "Mary brought forth a son, and the angels surrounded Him when He was being born. And as soon as He was born, He stood upon His feet, and the angels adored Him..." (No midwife was present to report on the virgin birth and no miraculous light to signify the virgin birth. Jesus doesn't need help here, he's able to walk immediately.) Joseph returned with two midwives, Zelomi (not previously named) and Salome, and found Mary with "the infant." Salome stayed outside while Zelomi made "an examination" of Mary. Zelomi exclaimed, It has never been heard or thought of, that any one should have her breasts full of milk, and that the birth of a son should show his mother to be a virgin. But there was no spilling of blood in his birth, no pain in bringing him forth." (In the Protovangelium the first midwife had no need for an exam because she was present at the birth.) Salome then came in and did an examination (but not as descriptive, no thrust of the finger). When Salome had "withdrawn her hand from handling [Mary], [the hand] dried up, and through excess of pain she began to weep bitterly..." (the hand did not burn as if on fire). But the touch of her hand to Jesus instantly cured her.

The third day after the birth, Mary "went forth out of the cave" and entered a "stable," placing Jesus in "the stall" where an ox and ass adored him. On the sixth day, they "entered Bethlehem" and on the eighth day Jesus was named and circumcised. It is not clear if Jesus was circumcised in Bethlehem or at the temple in Jerusalem, or twice, once in each place. In the temple, Symeon, who was 112 years old, saw Jesus and cried out. He'd been promised he would live until "he had seen Christ."

After two years, the Magi arrived in Bethlehem to see the infant. The Holy Family was in a house, not a cave or stable. (This two year wait makes more sense of Herod's order to kill all infants two years old and younger, but it requires the star to be visible for two years.)

Joseph and Mary flee to "Egypt by way of the desert" and we get some new stories about the two year old Jesus not found in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. A cave was found where they stayed with three boys and a girl, apparently Joseph's children by a prior marriage. Then there "came forth from the cave many dragons" and Jesus left Mary's bosom "and stood on His feet before the dragons; and they adored Jesus." Jesus then told his parents, "Do not be afraid, and do not consider me to be a little child; for I am and always have been perfect; and all the beasts of the forest must needs be tame before me." From that time on, "lions and panthers...accompanied them in the desert" showing them the way, bowing their heads and showing "submission by wagging their tails." The third day they stopped in the shade of a palm tree and Mary looked up to see it full of fruit. Jesus said, "O tree, bend thy branches, and refresh my mother with thy fruit." Then "the palm bent its top down to the very feet of the blessed Mary; and they gathered from it fruit." Jesus then blessed the palm that from then forward, "all who conquer in any contest" will "have attained the palm of victory."

Later, Joseph complained of the "boiling heat" and suggested they "go by the sea-shore" so they can "rest in the cities on the coast." Jesus says, "Fear not, Joseph, I will shorten the way for you." They then looked ahead and saw the "mountains and cities of Egypt" and what would have taken 30 days is done in one day. They went to the region of Hermopolis to a city called Sotinen and entered a temple with 355 idols. When Mary and Jesus entered "the idols prostrated themselves on the ground,...lying on their faces shattered and broken to pieces...plainly show[ing the idols] were nothing." 

An angel told Joseph to return "to the land of Judah, for they are dead who sought the child's life." They arrive in Galilee (the Infancy Gospel mentions no place) and Jesus is age four (instead of five). The remainder of Pseudo-Matthew uses the Infancy Gospel of Thomas as a source.

Jesus made "seven pools of clay" in the "bed of the [River] Jordan" (instead of an unspecified number of pools in a mountain stream). One of the boys Jesus was playing with (not specified as a son of Annas) "shut the passages which supplied the pools with water, and overthrew what Jesus had built up." Jesus cried out, "Woe unto thee, thou son of death, thou son of Satan! Dost thou destroy the works which I have wrought? And immediately he who had done this died." Joseph "said privately to Mary: I dare not speak to Him," so Mary did and was told by Jesus, the boy "deserved death, because he scattered the works that I had made." (Mary is part of the story and participates in dealing with the young Jesus brat.) So Jesus, "not wishing to grieve His mother...kicked the hinder parts of the dead boy...and "he who had been dead rose up, and went away. And Jesus, by the word of His power, brought water into the pools by the aqueduct." (Jesus reverses the homicide, but he is far from perfect, and does not measure up to Mary's youth).

The story of the fashioning of the 12 sparrows out of clay from the pool is similar, but Jesus tells the sparrows, "Go and fly through the earth, and through all the world, and live."

There is a second story about pools, and this time the boy who broke down the dams and aqueduct Jesus had made was the son of Annas, and he dies. So Joseph, trembling, "took hold of Jesus" and took him home. As they went, a boy from the other direction ran into Jesus' shoulder and Jesus caused the boy to fall dead. (Jesus' anger is justified to a greater extent by identifying the boy as "a worker of iniquity" who intentionally ran into Jesus "wishing to make sport of Him." At least we feel less sorry for him.) The people were in an "uproar" and Joseph feared "violence." So "Jesus seized the dead boy by the ear, and lifted him the sight of all" and spoke "to him like a father to his son." The boy's "spirit came back to him, and he revived" and all "wondered." (In the Infancy Gospel, Joseph pulled the ear of Jesus and the dead boy was not brought back to life. Pseudo-Matthew softens this boy terror, but is it enough?).  

Jesus meets the "Jewish schoolmaster" Zachyas (not Zacchaeus) and tells him, "I am a stranger to your law-courts," but "I was before the law" and since you think "no one is equal to you in learning," I will teach you. "I alone know when you were born, and how long your life on earth will be." Later Zachyas asks Joseph and Mary to let him hand over Jesus to "master Levi" who will "teach him his letters and instruct him." Jesus "began to ask [Levi] the names of the letters one by one, and said: Let the master of the law tell us what the first letter is, or why it has many triangles, gradate, subacute, mediate, obduced, produced, erect, prostrate, curvistrate." Levi was "thunderstruck."

Joseph and Mary "departed" with Jesus to Nazareth and they stayed there. The same incident of the boy falling from the roof and dying, then being brought back to life occurs, except it is noted that another child pushed the boy off the roof. (The story of Jesus healing the young man who died after splitting his foot with an ax is missing.) The story of Jesus using a cloak to carry water after the pitcher is broken is pretty much the same. Then Jesus took "a little wheat from His mother's barn" and he reaped three kors. (Joseph is removed from this incident and Mary inserted, and the yield is significantly reduced from 100 kors which was obtained from one grain). Jesus gave the corn to his "acquaintances" (instead of to the poor).

A new story is given of Jesus at age 8 going to the River Jordan near Jericho. Jesus walked into a cave with a lioness and her nursing cubs and was unhurt. Then Jesus crossed the Jordan with the lions, the water "divided on the right hand and on the left." After the dragons, lions and panthers in Egypt at age two, this particular incident seems tame.

The incident of the lengthening of the piece of wood for Joseph is similar, but expanded. We learn that Joseph not only did ploughs and yokes, but also "implements of husbandry and wooden beds."

The two additional incidents with the teachers are similar. The first teacher still dies, but Joseph does not bring him back to life. Joseph and Mary are "asked by the people that Jesus should be taught His letters" (they are not seeking this for him). The second time, Joseph and Mary let him go to school only because of fear of the people, "overbearing princes" and "threats of the priests." They know that Jesus "could learn nothing from man, because He had perfect knowledge from God only." The second teacher (that survived the encounter) "fell to the ground and adored" Jesus (instead of asking Joseph to take him home).

Then we get some more completely new material. The Holy Family moves to Capernaum because of "malice" from their "adversaries." A rich man, also named Joseph, died and is "lying dead in his couch." Jesus hears the mourning and instructs his father to take a handkerchief and "put it on the face of the dead man, and say to him: Christ heal thee; and immediately the dead man will be healed, and will rise from his couch." Joseph did as instructed and the "man rose from his bed and asked who Jesus was."

They left Capernaum and went back to Bethlehem where they lived in Joseph's house. Joseph asked his "first-born son James" to go "into the vegetable garden to gather vegetables for the purpose of making broth" (instead of to gather wood). The viper incident is then similar: James is healed by Jesus and the serpent dies.

(The last incident from the Infancy Gospel, Jesus conversing with the teachers in the temple, is removed). The last scene is a feast with Mary, Joseph and "his sons, James, Joseph, and Judah," Simeon and his two daughters, and Mary's sister "Mary of Cleophas." Jesus "sanctified and blessed them, and He was the first to begin to eat and drink..." It concludes, "when Jesus slept, whether by day or by night, the brightness of God shone upon Him."

The most interesting piece of this last incident is that Mary of Cleophas is identified as the sister of Mary "whom the Lord God had given to her father Cleophas and her mother Anna, because they had offered Mary the mother of Jesus to the Lord." She was given the same name of Mary "for the consolation of her parents." Where is Joachim, how does Cleophas get inserted as Mary's father? Well, apparently there is a theme of "Holy Kinship" which has Anna conceive three Mary's through three different husbands: Joachim, Cleophas and Salome. One Mary, the virgin, married Joseph and bore Jesus. Another Mary married Alpheus and bore James the Less [an apostle], Joseph the Just (or Joses), Simon [an apostle] and Jude [an apostle], identified as brothers of Jesus in Mark and Matthew. They are often viewed as children of Joseph by a prior marriage, but in this light, are cousins of Jesus through his Aunt Mary. The third Mary married Zebedee and bore James the Greater and John [both apostles]. This genealogy makes five of the twelve apostles cousins of Jesus. This same genealogy treats Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, as the daughter of Hismeria, the sister of Anne, which also makes John the Baptist a cousin of Jesus.

All of this extra-Biblical information created lots of fodder for use by artists and makes much of it hard to interpret for those of us not steeped in this sort of background. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Infancy Gospel of Thomas

When we were in Nazareth in March, I was touched by the thoughts of Jesus as a youth. I wondered what he was like, what he did for fun, whether he liked to explore, whether he liked to catch lizards and snakes? In other words, was he anything like me? Early Christians also wondered what Jesus was like as a youth and various pseudepigraphical accounts filled in some of those blanks left by the Gospels. The most popular account is known as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and it is attributed to "Thomas the Israelite." A translation of one account is here. The account finishes with the story in Luke where Jesus is in the temple at age 12, listening to and asking questions of the teachers (Luke 2:41-52). The Gospel of Luke was written about 80 to 85 CE, so the Gospel of Thomas is at least that old. The first likely quotation of it is by Irenaeus of Lyon around 185 CE. So most scholars believe it was written in the mid to late 2nd century. Some have suggested it was written in eastern Syria, where the Thomas traditions are located, and the original language was probably Syriac or Greek. 

Far from my own imaginations of Jesus as a youth, this young Jesus was a lot a bit of a bully and snotty brat, particularly early on, so I have a hard time relating to it, but it is very interesting and sometimes hilarious material. 

At age 5, Jesus was playing in a stream and collected the water into pools. By his word he could make the muddy water clear. From clay he molded 12 sparrows, but it was the Sabbath and an on-looker informed Joseph that Jesus was profaning the Sabbath. When Joseph arrived to scold him, "Jesus clapped His hands, and cried out to the sparrows...Off you go! And the sparrows flew, and went off crying." There goes the evidence.

The son of Annas the scribe took a willow branch and broke open the pools Jesus had created to hold the water. Jesus was angry and called him "wicked, impious and foolish." Jesus called for him to dry up like a tree without root, leaves or fruit and he died. Don't cross Jesus, he's got a temper.

A boy was running through Nazareth and ran into the shoulder of Jesus. The angry Jesus called out to him and he "fell down dead." The parents of the boy complained to Joseph about his child, that it was "impossible" to live with them in the village because "he is killing our children." Parents, don't let your kids play with Jesus. 

Joseph admonished Jesus that when he did these things "people suffer, and hate us, and persecute us [after all, two people have already died]." Jesus told his father he would remain silent for his father's sake, but he would still mete out punishment. So thereafter, those that accused Jesus were "struck blind." At least Joseph had the courage to take hold of Jesus' ear and pull it hard. His son was angry, but Joseph did not die or go blind, so there was progress. It is very apparent that many of the early Christians viewed Jesus in the way we would view a Marvel comic book character. He seemed to be using super powers. 

Zacchaeus, a teacher, offered to teach Jesus letters. He recited to Jesus Alpha through Omega and Jesus responded to him, "Thou who art ignorant of the nature of the Alpha, how canst thou teach others the Beta?" He called the teacher a hypocrite and questioned him about the first letter. Zacchaeus was overwhelmed and questioned his own teaching ability. "I, wretch that I am, am at a loss, bringing shame upon myself...Take him away...I cannot endure the sternness of his look; I cannot make out his meaning at all...I...have been conquered by a child. There is nothing for me but despondency and death..." No one "dared to make [Jesus] angry" fearing a curse or being maimed. 

But Jesus is learning and getting better. Jesus was playing with a boy on the roof of a home and the boy fell and was killed. Of course, the boys parents blamed Jesus, with good reason. Jesus "leaped down from the roof, and stood beside the body of the child, and cried with a loud voice...Zeno...stand up, and tell me; did I throw thee down? And he stood up immediately" and absolved Jesus, acknowledging that Jesus "hast raised me up." 

A boy was splitting wood and "cut the sole of his foot in two" with the axe and died from loss of blood. Jesus took hold of the foot and the boy came back to life and was cured immediately. Jesus told the boy, "Rise up now, split the wood, and remember me." 

This was all at age five! At age six Mary gave him a pitcher and sent him to draw water. Jesus bumped into someone and the pitcher broke. So Jesus "unfolded the cloak which He had on, and filled it with water, and carried it to His mother." He got a kiss for that. 

At age eight (he must have settled down a little bit), he was with Joseph sowing corn. Jesus sowed one grain and when it was reaped and threshed it made 100 kors (about 600 bushels). Jesus called on the poor and gave the corn to them. He is growing charitable. 

Joseph was a carpenter and primarily made ploughs and yokes. A rich man ordered a couch and Joseph cut one of the cross-pieces too short. Jesus instructed his father to put down the two pieces of wood on the floor. Then Jesus stood at one end and "took hold of the shorter piece of wood, and stretched it, and made it equal to the other." Jesus is now getting quite useful and resourceful.

But, there are still slip-ups. Joseph sought out another teacher to teach Jesus his letters. The teacher resolved to teach Jesus first Greek letters, then Hebrew. Similar to the first teacher, Jesus challenged him and the teacher "struck [Jesus] on the head." Jesus cursed the teacher and he fell to the ground on his face and died. When Jesus returned home, Joseph turned to Mary and said, "Do not let [Jesus] go outside of the door, because those that make him angry die." Good point. Jesus is lucky he's not in jail. 

Another teacher, a friend of Joseph, volunteered to have Jesus come to his school. Joseph said, "If thou has the courage, brother, take him with thee." I grasp a hint of resignation on the part of Joseph. Joseph's friend took Jesus with "fear and great agony" (this is a true friend), but this time Jesus "went along pleasantly" and "found a book lying on the reading-desk" and opened it up and started to speak. But he didn't read the letters, he "spoke by the Holy Spirit, and taught the law to those that were standing round." Joseph heard what was going on and "ran to the school." His friend asked Joseph to take Jesus home. Jesus heard this and "laughed" and then "cured" the previous teacher. Joseph took Jesus home.

Joseph sent his son James to gather wood and Jesus followed him. A viper bit James' hand and he was near death. Jesus "blew upon the bite and the pain ceased" and James was safe. The viper, on the other hand "burst." 

An infant of a neighbor "fell sick and died, and its mother wept sore." Jesus heard her and "ran in haste, and found the child dead, and touched his breast, and said: I say to thee, child, be not dead, but live, and be with thy mother." The infant "looked up and laughed." Jesus told the mother, "give it milk and remember me." Jesus is now starting to act and talk like he did as an adult. 

Jesus found "a man lying dead" at a house construction site. He took the dead man by the hand and told him, "arise, and go on with thy work." The man did and the crowd responded, "This child is from heaven, for he has saved many souls from death." Now the village people are singing a different tune.

The last scene is the scene from Luke. Jesus is 12 and he went with his parents to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. As they were going back home, Jesus went back to Jerusalem to talk with the teachers in the temple, which is where his parents founds him some time later. After some interchange, "Jesus rose up, and followed His mother, and was subject to His parents." And in a paraphrase of Luke 2:52, "Jesus advanced in wisdom, and stature, and grace." 

It is not the story I would have written for the young Jesus. I think the LDS culture tends to think of Jesus as more man than God, particularly at his young age. More approachable, more friendly, more even tempered. The Jesus painted by this portrayal is more in the line of a Greek god, a man with great power, but also very real faults and passions that oftentimes overruled his good sense. 

Another thing that strikes me is that this is almost all Joseph raising and trying to discipline the young Jesus. Where is Mary? She kisses Jesus when he's been good and brings her back water and he follows her when he leaves the temple at age 12, but nowhere is she shown disciplining Jesus or fretting about his antics. I suspect that it is all about her reputation that must be preserved. Mary is nigh unto a god in many traditions and Joseph disappears. Better to let Joseph take the humiliation and frustration for Jesus' antics and preserve all positives for Mary. 

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Protovangelium of James

I am guessing that no apocryphal book has had more impact on art, culture and Catholic and Orthodox doctrine than the Protovangelium of James, also known as the Gospel of James or Infancy Gospel of James. It is a genre of apocrypha known as an Infancy Gospel, written to satisfy the desire of early Christians to know more about the youth of Jesus. Protovangelium is a Greek term for a pre-Gospel narrative. 

The Protovangelium, a copy of which is found here, purports to be written by James, the brother of Jesus, but it is pseudonymous. It relies heavily on the Gospels of Matthew and Luke as sources. Matthew talks about the slaughter of the innocents by Herod and Luke talks about the birth of John the Baptist to Elizabeth and the sojourn to Egypt by the Holy Family. The Protovangelium harmonizes these stories. Since the Gospels of Luke and Matthew were written around 80 or 85 CE, it had to be written after that time. Since James died earlier than that, around 62 CE, James could not have been the author. On the other end of the spectrum, the first mention of the Protovangelium was by Origen of Alexandria in the early 3rd century.  So it was written before then. Most scholars believe the Protovangelium was written mid-2nd century, about 145 CE. 

It is the earliest document to name the mother and father of Mary: Anna and Joachim. It starts with a parallel to the story of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac. Joachim is grieved because he has no seed. He thinks of Abraham and goes into the desert, without telling Anna, for 40 days and nights to fast and pray. Anna thinks Joachim is dead and mourns her "widowhood" and "childlessness." Angels visit each of Joachim and Anna to inform them that God has heard their prayers and they have a joyful reunion. 
This statue of Anna and her child, Mary, are found in St. Anne's Church in Jerusalem, which is dedicated to Anna and Joachim. The church is erected over the site of the grotto the crusaders believed to be the birthplace of the Virgin Mary. 
It has a parallel to Hannah and Samuel. Anna promises the angel that the child (she doesn't know if it will be a boy or girl) will be a "gift to the Lord my God" and will "minister to Him in holy things all the days of its life." At the age of three, Mary was taken to live in the Temple in Jerusalem where, on at least one occasion, "she received food from an angel." She stayed until she was age 12, then the priests were concerned that she would reach puberty and defile the Temple. 

A primary focus of the Protovangelium is the virginity of Mary and it is the earliest source to indicate that Mary remained a virgin during and after the birth of Jesus. The doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, which states that Mary was a virgin before, during and after giving birth for all her life, is an essential part of faith for Catholics and is believed by the Orthodox and Anglicans as well. The focus on Mary's virginity begins when Zacharias, the high priest and eventual father of John the Baptist, goes into the holy of holies to pray about what to do with Mary. The answer is to find her a husband. An angel tells Zacharias to assemble "widowers" (who will be older and less interested in and capable of marital relations) and to determine Mary's future husband by lot. Each widower brought a rod and Joseph was chosen when a dove flew out of his rod and landed on his head. Joseph then took Mary to his home and immediately went away for six months to "build" his "buildings" (there is to be no question that Joseph is not the father). While Joseph was gone, Mary, with seven other virgins, made a veil for the temple (probably the same veil that was rent when Jesus died). During that time she was visited by the archangel Gabriel who told her that she would conceive "the Son of the Most High" and "call His name Jesus." But it would not be "as every other woman brings forth," the "power of the Lord shall overshadow" her. Mary then visited Elizabeth, wife of Zacharias the high priest, who greeted her as the "mother of my Lord" and John the Baptist, in her womb, "leaped and blessed" Mary. Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months (and somehow, by then, she had advanced to age 16).

Joseph returned home after 6 months and found Mary "big with child...and wept bitterly...I received her a virgin out of the temple...and I have not watched over her...Who has done this evil thing in my house, and defiled the virgin?" Mary wept and said, "I am innocent, and have known no man." That night an angel visited Joseph in a dream and told him that the child in Mary "is of the Holy Spirit" and will be a "Son" who shall be called Jesus.

An order was issued by the Emperor Augustus that all in Bethlehem should be enrolled. We learn that Joseph has sons from his prior marriage who need to be enrolled, but he wondered what to do with Mary because "all the sons of Israel know that she is not my daughter." He saddled an ass for Mary and his "son led it, and Joseph followed."  
A mural from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It shows the birth of Jesus in a cave, the Magi coming to visit, and the Holy Family leaving for Egypt. 
Mary indicated that "that which is in me presses to come forth." So they "found a cave," the first source to indicate that the nativity took place in a cave, and Joseph left his two sons with Mary while he went to seek a midwife in the district of Bethlehem. One midwife arrived first and a "cloud overshadowed the cave." Then it disappeared "and a great light shone in the cave, so that the eyes could not bear it." Gradually, the light decreased "until the infant appeared" and the midwife cried out, "This is a great day to me, because I have seen this strange sight." As the midwife left the cave, Salome, another midwife, arrived and would not believe Mary is a virgin "unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts..." Salome entered the cave and told Mary to "Show thyself; for no small controversy has arisen about thee." Salome "put in her finger, and cried out...Woe is me for mine iniquity and mine hand is dropping off as if burned with fire." Salome cried out for help and an angel appeared and told her to put her "hand to the infant, and carry it." As she did so, she "was immediately cured."
This spot in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is where tradition holds that Jesus was born. It is in what was once a cave and was determined to be the spot by Helena, the mother of Constantine. 
A cave we visited at Beit Lehi, an archaeological site, which was an ancient stable. 
This cave stable had two chambers separated by a rock wall with windows. The people to the right are leaning through the windows. 
The windows had little troughs where feed could be placed for the animals. The story of the birth in a cave, which seemed hokey to me when I first heard it, was brought to life for me by this experience. 
The Magi arrive, guided by the star, and then were warned to go back by a different route to avoid Herod who wanted to know where the "king of the Jews" was born. Herod was enraged that they did not return and "sent murderers" to kill the children "two years old and under." Mary, "having heard that the children were being killed...took the infant and swaddled him, and put Him into an ox-stall."
A stained glass window of the nativity from the Church of St. Catherine in Bethlehem.
Elizabeth learned "they were searching for John, and took him and went up into the hill-country." There was no place to hide, so Elizabeth groaned with a loud voice and said, "O mountain of God, receive mother and child. And immediately the mountain was cleft, and received her" and an angel stayed with them and watched over them. Herod sent officers to Zacharias to ask him where he'd hid his son. Zacharias replied that he was "constantly in the temple" and did not know where his son was. Herod apparently believed that John was the child the Magi were seeking, the child "destined to be king over Israel," so Herod sent men to kill Zacharias instead. Simeon, who had been told he would "not see death until he should see the Christ in the flesh," replaced Zacharias as high priest and that is how it ends. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Gospel of Nicodemus or Acts of Pilate

While putting together a post on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I was really intrigued to find two chapels dedicated to figures in the final events of the life of Jesus that I'd never heard of before, Longinus, the Roman soldier who thrust the spear into the side of Jesus while he was on the cross, and Dismas, one of the thieves that was crucified next to Jesus on the hill of Calvary. Both of these names come from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, a writing I'm not sure I've ever heard of before. But it is appended to the earlier Acts of Pilate, or Acts of Pontius Pilate, that I have heard of before. The fact that these two figures are honored and worshiped in the most famous and revered Christian structure in the world really brought home to me how important many of these apocryphal works were to people in prior centuries and perhaps still are to many people today. I decided to learn more about it.

The text of the Gospel of Nicodemus is found here. It is written by multiple authors, but the final version is dated by scholars to about the middle of the fourth century, just about the time the first Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built. Like most apocrypha, it fills in the gaps and adds additional information to the Biblical texts. It is purported to be a public record of Pontius Pilate from the 19th year of Tiberius, Emperor of Rome, and found by the Emperor Theodosius (who was emperor from 379 to 395) in the hall of Pilate.

Nicodemus is found in the New Testament in the Gospel of John on three occasions. First, he is identified as a Pharisee who came to visit Jesus at night and Jesus talked to him about being "born again." [John 3:1-12] Next, he met with the chief priests and Pharisees and recommended that they investigate before making a judgment about Jesus. [John 7:50-51. And finally, he and Joseph of Arimathea took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with 75 pounds of spices of myrrh and aloes and strips of linen and laid Jesus in his tomb. [John 19:39-42]
This Pieta, by Michelangelo in Florence, shows Nicodemus helping to remove the body of Jesus from the cross. Photo from Wikipedia. 
This mosaic is found in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre behind the Stone of Unction. It shows Jesus being removed from the cross. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus are frequently shown, in iconography, with a ladder helping in this process. I assume Joseph is in red with the white beard and Nicodemus is in green with the brown beard.  
Same mosaic. Nicodemus and Joseph helping prepare the body for burial.
Same mosaic, Joseph and Nicodemus help carry the body of Jesus to the tomb.
The gospel begins with Annas and Caiaphas and other named Jewish leaders going to Pilate and accusing Jesus of crimes and asking for Pilate to have him executed. Pilate asks for Jesus to be brought before him and as he is, the "tops of the [inanimate] standards did of themselves bow and worship Jesus..." Pilate requests new standard bearers and has Jesus approach again to make sure that this was not the standard bearers bowing and the inanimate standards repeated their bows.

Then a large group of witnesses come before Pilate to attest to the goodness of Jesus. First is Nicodemus, followed by the man cured at the Pool of Siloam; a blind man that received his sight; a leper that was healed; a man that was crooked, then made straight; Veronica who touched the hem of Jesus and was healed of issues of blood; a man who witnessed Jesus rebuke the devil out of a man in the synagogue in Capernaum; a Pharisee who saw infirm people come to Jesus and be healed; a man named Centauro who saw Jesus heal a man of palsy in Capernaum; a nobleman whose son was near death and healed by Jesus in Capernaum; and then many others cried out that Jesus is "truly the Son of God." Others tell Pilate of Lazarus who was in the grave for four days and brought back to life. I find two things very interesting about this segment: First is the lineup of many of the recipients of miraculous healings by Jesus, all there to testify with little notice on his behalf; and second, the woman with the issue of blood who touched the hem of Jesus is identified by name as Veronica. This is the first historical mention of her name. As I indicated in my post on the Via Dolorosa, Veronica later got linked to the Sixth Station of the Cross where she wiped the face of Jesus with her handkerchief while Jesus was carrying the cross to Calvary and that handkerchief with the imprint of the face of Jesus is now held at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
This statue of Veronica is in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. She is holding the handkerchief. Photo from Wikipedia.
When Pilate sentenced Jesus to be "hanged upon a cross" he mentioned there would also be "two criminals...whose names are Dimas and Gestas." In the Via Dolorosa post, it was noted that crucifixion victims were stripped naked as part of the humiliation process of the Romans. But here it was stated that Jesus was "stript...of his raiment, and girt...abut with a linen cloth..." In "like manner," so were the "two thieves...Dimas on his right hand and Gestas on his left." As they were crucified, Gestas says to Jesus, "If thou are Christ, deliver thyself and us." Dimas "rebuked" Gestas and told him they deserved their punishment, but Jesus had done no evil, and then tells Jesus, "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom." Jesus responded to Dimas, "this day thou shalt be with me in Paradise." Much later, when Jesus visits the "depth of hell," he finds Adam, the patriarchs and prophets, including Isaiah, Simeon, John the Baptist, Seth, David, Satan and the prince of hell. Jesus "broke down the prisons from top to bottom, dismissed all the captives, released all who were bound" and "laid hold on Adam's hand" and "ascended from hell, and all the saints of God followed him." Jesus, "holding Adam by the hand, delivered him to Michael the archangel" and "led them into Paradise." Two "ancient men met them," Enoch and Elijah the Tishbite, both of whom were translated and had "not tasted death." Just at this time "came another man in a miserable figure carrying the sign of the cross upon his shoulders." The saints asked, "Who art thou? For thy countenance is like a thief's; and why dost thou carry a cross upon thy shoulders?" Dimas responds, "I was a thief...and the Jews crucified me with Jesus..." He "gave me this sign of the cross saying, Carry this and go to Paradise; and if the angel who is the guard of Paradise will not admit thee, shew him the sign of the cross, and say unto him; Jesus Christ who is now crucified, hath sent me hither to thee." So now Dimas, or Dismas, or Dysmas, as he is sometimes known, is venerated in some Catholic traditions as a saint, although he has not formally been canonized. And close to home, the town of San Dimas, California is named after him. This is the first clear mention of Jesus actually descending to hell between his death and resurrection. It is also referred to as limbo by the Catholics.
This fresco we saw in Chora Church in Istanbul shows Jesus descending into hell to rescue Adam and Eve as he takes them by their hands. Reading about this fresco, after we saw it, was the first time I heard of this event. 
The soldier who took the spear and pierced the side of Jesus while he was on the cross is identified by name as Longinus. Later, a centurian, after "Jesus...gave up the ghost...glorified God, and said, Of a truth this was a just man." Although there is no connection in this document, Longinus was later linked to be the centurian and legend grew that he was converted to Christianity. There is a statue to St. Longinus in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, done by Bernini, and the spear point from the "Holy Lance" is apparently conserved at St. Peter's.
Statue of Longinus at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
After Jesus was laid in the tomb, Joseph of Arimathea was seized by the Jews and put in a chamber with no window, and a fastened door with a "seal upon the lock." Joseph states, "while I was standing at prayer in the middle of the night, the house was surrounded with four angels; and I saw Jesus as the brightness of the sun...Jesus laying hold on my hand, lifted me from the ground" and "kissed me." Joseph asked Jesus to show him the tomb where he'd laid him. "Jesus, taking me by the hand, led me unto the place where I laid him, and shewed me the linen clothes, and napkin...Then I knew that it was Jesus." Jesus then led Joseph to Joseph's home and told him not to go out until the 40th day had passed.

These were the parts of the gospel I found most interesting. The Gospel of Nicodemus is apparently important because it names some of these "bit players" in the passion, such as Veronica, Longinus, Dismas and Gestas. And I realize more and more that much of the statuary and iconography we see in Catholic and Orthodox churches relate to events set forth in apocrypha.