Thursday, April 13, 2006


The impulse to primitivism is not an unnatural one. It seems consonant with our intuitions that, if we are to follow Christ, it is necessary to know as much as possible about the earliest followers who, it is presumed, knew more about what it means to follow him, since they were closer in time to the Real Deal. There is certainly an element of this in Roman Catholic theology, since we trace our beliefs to Apostolic times, and we regard the Magisterium as a body of teaching that has been handed on to us from the Apostles themselves who, in their turn, got the doctrine from Christ himself. There would be no value at all in any of that if it were not of interest to us to do things as they were done then, to preserve that tradition as coming from Our Lord himself.

This can be taken in a mistaken direction, too, however. Some primitivists find themselves obsessed with the practices of the earliest Christians on the grounds that such practices are more "authentic" in some way than our own. In the 1970s this manifested itself in a variety of ways, some important, others less so. Among the less important, I suppose, were those folks who took delight in replacing the traditional round eucharistic wafers with home baked whole wheat unleavened bread, the gold- or silver-plated communion vessels with rough made earthenware pottery, the cotton and silk vestments with rough linens, and the traditional church architecture with simple room-like utilitarian buildings. All of this was thought to meet a kind of normative standard that the traditional stuff failed to meet, and it was very appealing to a certain crowd of people. Indeed, my own parish continues to use the unpalatable whole wheat, home-baked communion bread and earthenware communion vessels. Relics of a different time, now they stand out like John Denver at a White Stripes concert.

Such things are mere aesthetic anachronisms, however. More worrisome, at least in my opinion, is the attempt to reform contemporary theology in light of the earliest evidence available. This is worrisome precisely because much of the early evidence is extremely vague and open to multiple interpretations. A rather famous crux, for example, is the role of women in the service of the church during Apostolic times. The Greek word for "service" is diakonia, from which we derive the word "deacon" in English. Women are often spoken of as engaged in diakonia, which has suggested to some modern readers that women served the church from the beginning as "deacons". If we add to this what St. Paul writes in Romans 16.7, where he describes the woman Junias along with Andronicus as being episêmoi en tois apostolois--that is, "notable among the apostles"--then some are tempted to claim that women served the church from the beginning not just as "servants" of some kind (diakonoi) but in Holy Orders.

Holy Orders as such did not exist at the time, of course. There were "overseers" (episkopoi), but there is no textual evidence either that an apostolos was also necessarily an episkopos or that women served in the latter capacity. Indeed, there seems to be rather ample evidence that St. Paul used the word apostolos of any person who had been blessed by the Lord with a special revelation--this appears to be his reason for using the term of himself, for example--but to have been so blessed is not the same thing as to be chosen to fill the role of one of the Twelve. If we add to this the possibility that Junias was not even a woman (it would be highly unusual, but the Greek name Iunias could be masculine in form), or point out the ambiguity of the phrase "notable among the apostles" (notable in what sense? Notable as apostles or notable to the apostles, that is, well-respected by those other folks who were apostles?), and it is quite clear that this is not the sort of question that can be settled by a quick and easy glance at some clear and unambiguous passage of scripture or other historical source.

It is easily settled, however, if we understand Tradition, the Magisterium, as authoritative. Since the time when Holy Orders first did exist, right up until John Paul's infallible declaration in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, the Church has believed that she lacks the authority to ordain women to the priesthood.

The Magisterium settles many such problems, if we will let it. Yet still there is this desire to seek out the earliest beginnings, to know how and why the first Christians believed and behaved as they did. Tonight, for example, the feet of twelve men will be washed in imitation of Christ's humble act of washing the feet of his chosen Twelve. The rubrics here specifically call for twelve men (viri), not just any twelve people (homines)--though this point has been lost in many parishes in the United States--because it is an image of the calling of the apostolate, which is all male--according to the Tradition, if not according to the folks at So, too, our Triduum liturgies have been revised and re-revised since the 1930s in an effort to bring them in line with the most ancient of the traditions. As much as some self-styled traditionalists dislike certain elements of the post-conciliar Mass, the "newer" eucharistic prayers are in fact versions of eucharistic prayers that are much older than the Roman Canon (for example, one of them is a version of Hippolytus' canon).

The same impulse that drives us---well, some of us, anyway--to continue these most ancient of traditions and hand them on to our children drives some others to get themselves muddled in the bizarre. I think this is part of the explanation for some of the popular interest in such things as the recently published "Gospel of Judas." Hope springs eternal that we will be able to cast off the shackles of those hopelessly biased traditional Gospels and replace them with something older, something more "authentic". The Gospel of Judas is nothing new--the popular enthusiasm we see today is no different from what was witnessed in the 19th century or in the 1950s when similar things were brought to light--but it is exciting to a certain sort of mindset. Even as I write, Elaine Pagels is extolling the virtues of gnosticism on NPR's Talk of the Nation, while one of the other speakers has been going on about how we should rejoice in the "diversity" of early "christianities". When folks have such a muddled notion of truth it should come as no surprise to find them celebrating the possibility that we've been mistaken for nearly two millenia about what is necessary for salvation. On their postmodern, relativistic account of truth, there is no such thing as something that is "necessary" for salvation. Other than to be "deeply devout", perhaps, to use Elaine Pagels' description of the early gnostics. "Many of them were monks", she notes.

Indeed. During certain periods of Christian history it is possible that the majority of the clergy were Arian heretics. There have been popes who were arguably heretics. In certain times and places gnostics may have comprised the majority of the Christian population. None of this, however, ought to be taken as evidence that there is no such thing as heresy. The folks on Talk of the Nation today keep asserting that the Gospel of Judas is going to "change everything", and yet it changes nothing. It cannot count as real evidence of some more "authentic" sort of Christianity--it is too late a document for that. Even if it were an early text, however, it could do nothing to alter the character of what the Magisterium has ascertained to be the most authentic, whether or not it is also the most ancient, form of Christian belief and praxis. That is something that the Church has slowly discovered, and continues to discover, through time, as she digests, reflects upon, and teaches what has been handed on to her. True, things may have been different if more, or different, materials had been handed on to her--if the gnostics and Arians had not been "supressed" by the orthodox. But when you believe that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, you find it is not mere chance that caused such things to be suppressed. If you are Elaine Pagels, or some other sort of non-believer, you think that things could have turned out differently, that history is always written by the victors, and that this sort of platitudinous analysis explains how things are today.

Not to sound smug or anything, but the excitement of these folks will prove to be short-lived. As Philip Jenkins has ably shown in his recent study Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost its Way (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), the media always present these "discoveries" as though they are going to change everything--perhaps in the hope that they can generate more news by doing so--but nothing ever really changes, other than that some heresy or other gets a fresh whacking by the better-informed and more scholarly. At least it can prove to be a teaching moment--some folks may never have heard of gnosticism before, and now they will get to see first hand just how stupid it is. When I first read the Gospel of Thomas I was perplexed as to how anybody could find it as congenial as the accounts in Mark or Matthew, let alone John--but the Gospel of Judas makes the Gospel of Thomas look like the most sublime of revelations by comparison. Adam Gopnik does a fine job of explaining the banality of the Gospel of Judas in the most recent number of The New Yorker. After perusing these gnostic texts one is reminded of that old Saturday Night Live sketch in which Jon Lovitz played a hapless Michael Dukakis debating a dithering and befuddled George Bush Sr. After listening to Bush say "a thousand points of light, stay the course" over and over again, Lovitz looks at the camera and says "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy." So too, one looks at the buzz generated by these gnostic texts over the years, and then one looks at the texts themselves, and a genuine cognitive dissonance is created. One thinks to oneself, "What the--this is what all that fuss is about?"

We live in debauched times. Is it any wonder that a public that gives higher ratings to American Idol, Survivor, and South Park than it does to such things Masterpiece Theater or the PBS Newshour should find itself all in a tizzy over the Gospel of Judas, hoping that it will "change everything?" Out with the boring, in with the exciting, however banal and insipid.

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