Monday, May 5, 2014

This blog location will be deleted by May 17

Just a reminder that this blog location has moved to  The blogger location will be deleted on May 17.  We will have a party!

Monday, April 28, 2014

What are the facts about the Gospel of Jesus' Wife

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Friday, April 25, 2014

Gnostic Thoughts

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Gnostic Spirit

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Monday, April 21, 2014

Site Has Moved to

Go to to read about Grant Adamson who just received his Ph.D.  You will automatically be forwarded to the new address where you can subscribe to continue to receive my new posts.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Forbidden Gospels is moving

Well I finally made the decision to integrate the Forbidden Gospels blog into my personal website.  You will automatically be redirected to the location of the Forbidden Gospels blog in 5 seconds.  If you are a subscriber, please change the address to

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Performance of Easter in Memory of Her, Saturday April 19

I am thrilled to announce that "Easter in Memory of Her" will be performed again this year, on April 19, 4-5 pm, at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Houston.  This is a musical and meditative performance that I co-authored with Rev. Betty Adams last year.  It remembers the women disciples of Jesus who remained at the foot of his cross while he died.  Jesus is seen through their eyes and their memories and their emotions.  Please join us if you are in town.  Share this link.  Last year we had over 300 people attend.  I would like to double that this year if possible.

More information about the performance can be found HERE in the Houston Chronicle.

Friday, April 11, 2014

What do we do with religious experience?

In the last week, there has been a handful of well-placed pieces on the subject of religious experiences and how we go about explaining them (away).  I point you to these links in case you missed them:

Jeff Kripal, "Visions of the Impossible"
Jeff Kripal, "Embracing the Unexplained 2"
Jerry Coyne, "Science is Being Bashed by Academics Who Should Know Better"
Barbara Ehrenreich, "A Rationalist's Mystical Moment"
Ross Douthat, "How to Study the Numinous"

For my entire career I have been studying the written records of ancient religious people about their experiences of the divine.  Historians have typically shied away from penetrating these descriptions of ecstasy because, heck, what are you supposed to do with ecstasy, especially in a modern world where God is (supposedly) dead and reality has been restricted to what we can observe and verify about the material universe? 

Usually these ecstatic events reported in the ancient texts I study are declared by historians of religion to be hallucinatory or exegetical - either a record of a psychotic episode or a form of imaginative plagiarism where a person copies old texts about ecstatic experiences and gives them a new context.  Or, did I fail to mention it?, a trip on drugs. 

I have always been frustrated with this paradigm because it fails on so many levels.  First, the ecstatic experiences I study in early Christian and Gnostic texts are more often than not connected to ritual and body-mind practices. In other words, the ecstatic experience has a religious context that is lived. People are doing things to prompt or achieve these states, to make them accessible to more people than those who have the occasional rapture experience, when ecstasy comes unbidden.  These religious practices are not about trying to have psychotic hallucinations.  Nor are these practices about the ingestion of drugs, although there are plenty examples of religious ceremonies that use drugs to induce ecstasy.  I think it is fair to say that religions have become very good at developing certain practices to prompt experiences that people perceive to be religious, to be ecstatic and often unitive.

Second, the brain is involved in a major way, as it should be.  The brain is involved in all of our typical forms of consciousness whether we are talking about being awake and alert, being in REM dream sleep, or deep sleep.  Why shouldn't it also be implemented in ecstasy?  Cognitive scientists have a very good idea now about the brain circuit involved when people are having ecstatic experiences.  They have a very good idea about the shifts in serotonin and dopamine levels that take place in brains when people are having ecstatic experiences.  They also have a very good idea about how the autonomic nervous system shows signs of being hyperstimulated when people are having ecstatic experiences.  So the scientific lab has been revealing important information to us about the physical platform of ecstasy.

Some people want to leave the religious experience here, reducing it to neurons firing in a circuit, as if this explains the experience.  But if we are honest with ourselves, we know that this reduction doesn't explain the experience and its reality, anymore than this type of reduction explains our experience of the color red, or our experience of a glass of wine, or our experience of love for another person (and not someone else).

Where does this leave us?  It leaves us with the reality of ecstasy as a form of consciousness that involves specific areas of the brain. It is a form of consciousness that a large portion of the human population experiences, even without drugs.  How do we evaluate this form of consciousness given its subjective nature?  People generally frame the answer as either a reference to a reality "out there" that is being experienced, or a reality that we have constructed inside our heads.  In the first case, the brain is thought to work like a filter or a gateway through which another reality is tapped.  In the second case, the brain is thought to construct the reality as its own personal fantasy.

I wonder if there might be a third option.  When we consider the human acquisition of language, we know how much this acquisition transformed our reality as a species.  Our ability to create and use language opened up for us realities that we could never have perceived had we continued being restricted to making a few animal sounds and following our instincts.  Our brain made it possible for us to talk and think using language, and reality got a whole lot bigger for us because of this.  Might the same thing be going on with ecstatic states of consciousness?  Is our brain circuitry making it possible for us to expand our reality yet again?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Very exciting news about the Jesus Wife fragment

It is very exciting news that the scientific tests have come back with a thumbs up for the antiquity of the papyrus fragment that mentions Jesus' wife and her discipleship. 

The fragment is now dated between the 4th and 8th centuries according to the latest reports. 

When it first came out, I suggested that it was a fragment indicative of Valentinian Gnostic theology where Jesus and Mary Magdalene were spouses, and she was his disciple.  I see no reason to alter this opinion now that the reports have come back on the document's antiquity. 

There is more to read about this in the New York Times HERE.  Now that its antiquity has been authenticated, Karen King's article on the Gospel of Jesus' Wife is finally being released in the Harvard Theological Review HERE  

This whole "event" has impressed upon me again the problems that we have with our traditional forms of biblical analysis which rely on outdated concepts of "sources" and "redaction" and "dependence."  It brings home that we should be cautious and humble about what we can really know and what we can't.  Sometimes history can surprise us.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Dr. Franklin Trammell

I am very proud of Franklin Trammell, my first student to finish his thesis and graduate from the Bible and Beyond program at Rice.   Yesterday he defended his dissertation on the Shepherd of Hermas.  His thesis is called (Re)growing the Tree: Early Christian Mysticism, Angelomorphic Identity, and the Shepherd of Hermas.  He has illuminated the religious landscape of Roman Christianity, reconstructing a very old form of Christianity that is not only mystically-oriented, but from Jerusalem.  He has done what no one has been able to do.  Outstanding.  Congratulations Dr. Trammell!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Roman Soldier's plight

My student, Grant Adamson, recently has published a reconstruction of a letter from Roman solider.  Interest in the letter got picked up Owen Jarus on Live Science. 

It is a great story that you can read HERE.  Photo is reproduced from the Live Science.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Gnostics Were Intellectuals

Larry Hurtado has posted his opinion of the Gnostics, that they were not intellectuals, but esoterics who taught a bunch of "mumble-gumble", such as a read of the Nag Hammadi texts reveal; that they were not engaged with reasonable arguments such as we find in the writings of the church fathers; and that pagans never engaged them, proving that they were not an important part of the intellectual scene. The only real intellectuals were the catholic Christians.

Now Larry is a good friend of mine - we have been members of the early high christology club since its inception, which is a good number of years.  But that does not mean that we do not disagree, and on this topic we disagree.  Larry is taking a standard position espoused by many biblical scholars (he is in very good company), that the Gnostics are non-consequential to Christianity and that their ideas and practices were irrational and secretive.  Some biblical scholars would add to this description, perverse and exploitative.

I remember about ten years ago when I visited Oxford to work in the library, I was invited to dine at the table in one of the colleges.  One of the biblical studies professors sat next to me and asked me what I was working on.  When I told him the Gnostics and the Nag Hammadi texts, his immediate reaction was, "Why are you wasting your time on them?  When I read the Nag Hammadi texts it was clear to me that it is all craziness.  Nonsense.  Go back to the New Testament where it matters."

So I have been working upstream most of my career, swimming against a current that is much stronger than I am.  I guess I like the challenge, or I wouldn't keep doing it.  I have spent a lot of time within the Nag Hammadi texts, reconstructing the worlds of the authors, which are not crazy once you learn their references and points of view.  The Gnostics from antiquity were anything but crazy, inconsequential or irrational.  But they were different.  And difference often leads to misunderstanding.

So let's clear up some of the misunderstanding:

1. Basilides was a philosopher who converted to Christianity as a Gnostic.  This was sometime between 110 and 120 CE.  He wrote some of the first commentaries on New Testament texts, that is before they were part of any New Testament.  He appears to have been our earliest biblical theologian.  He was also a mathematician and astronomer.

2. Valentinus was a contemporary to Basilides.  Tertullian, who dislikes him with a passion, admits that people at the time thought he was a "genuis" because of his command of the biblical materials and his exegetical abilities.  He was also a poet.  There was even a moment when some thought he would be the next bishop of Rome.  When he was not elected, he felt a big mistake had been made so  started his own church school to train Christians correctly.

3. We have a letter that Ptolemy writes to Flora (yes a woman convert) which is every bit a rational and reasonable interpretation of biblical texts that supports his view of the world as anything we have from the catholic Christians.

4. The Sethians participated in Plotinus' classes, much to his dismay.  While he disagreed with them on several points, we are coming to find out that Plotinus and the Gnostics were in dialogue with each other and the influence of each other's philosophical doctrines went both ways.

5. Heracleon wrote one of the first, if not the first, commentary on the Gospel of John.  Origen engages it thoroughly and from this engagement we can see that Heracleon was an astute philosopher and biblical theologian with very reasonable arguments for his positions.

6. Celsus engaged the Gnostics, although he called them Christians and knew of them only as Christians.   It is because of his extensive engagement with these Christians that we know so much about a group that Origen calls the Ophians.  Origen in fact is furious with Celsus, that Celsus thought the Ophians were Christians.  Origen tries desperately to distance catholic Christianity from Celsus' description of (Ophian) Christianity.  By the way, one of Celsus' arguments against them is that they were simply Platonists who had nothing new to say because Plato had said it already.

7. The Gnostics were engaged in actual debates with catholic Christians.  For instance, Origen debated the Gnostic Christian Candidus in Athens.  Archelaus debated Mani.  This debate is recorded by Epiphanius and it is extremely learned and rational.  We should also add here that there is a solid tradition that Simon and Peter debated, some of which is recorded in the Ps-Clem literature.  Even if the records of these debates are not actual transcripts (they probably aren't), they do not portray the Gnostic opponents as irrational dunces.  In fact, the Gnostics come across as very learned and articulate opponents.

What does this all mean?  

1. The Gnostics were extremely rational and educated people.  They were intellectuals and their study of biblical texts was as astute as (and sometimes they read the Greek better, as in John 8:44) the catholic Christians. They were engaged in a two-way debate with catholic Christians, a debate that was consequential to the birth of the catholic landscape, as well as the generation of a new form of spirituality: Gnostic spirituality.

2. The Gnostics turned the tables on religion in antiquity.  They really revolutionized conventional religion.  While they based their world views on profound philosophical insights and reasoned biblical exegesis, they felt that reason could not get us all the way to God.  Reason was step one.  But step two was another matter.  God, for the Gnostics, was beyond our comprehension, ineffable, unknowable by conventional means.  The Gnostic felt that God had to be experienced.  Ultimately it was the experience of God (which was had through intense ritual events) that mattered.  This was the pinnacle of knowledge.  This was step two, and it is what they thought other Jews and Christians missed.  The Gnostics felt that other Jews and Christians had mistaken lower gods for the real God who was beyond all the images and forms we can make of him-her.

3. The consequence of their form of religiosity was enormous, as I am writing about now in The Ancient New Age, where I argue that Gnostic spirituality which emerged in antiquity has won the day and now forms the basis of modern American religion. The book will be published with Columbia University Press.

I go now to keep writing my chapter on Gnostic ritual: "Helltreks and Skywalks"...