A: When we wrote last time (Father of Lights, Mother of Breath), I ran out of time, and we didn’t get a chance to return to the question of Saying 56 in the Gospel of Thomas. I was hoping we could continue that discussion.
J: I can’t help noticing the irony of a person who’s “alive” having a discussion with a person who’s “dead” about the question of “alive versus dead.”
A (rolling eyes): Very funny. I prefer to call you “molecularly challenged.”
J: Hey — I left some bones behind when I died. Traces of them are sitting in a stone ossuary in a warehouse owned by the Israel Antiquities Authority. Kinda reminds me of the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
A: The IAA can have them. I somehow doubt you’re going to be needing them again.
J: Well, you know, there are still people on the planet today who believe in the concept of bodily resurrection on the Day of Judgment. According to that way of thinking, I might actually need to retrieve my bones so I’ll be complete on the final day of judgment.
A: Hey! You’re not supposed to have any bones. According to Luke, you ascended bodily into heaven — not once, but twice! (Luke 24:51 and Acts 1: 1-11). Prophets who are “beamed up” aren’t supposed to leave body parts behind. That’s the whole idea.
J: Nobody gets out of human life “alive.” At some point, the biological body reaches its built-in limits, and the soul returns to God in soul form. There’s no ascension. Never has been, never will be. Luke is lying.
A: Maybe Luke just didn’t understand the science of death. Maybe he was doing his best to explain something he didn’t understand.
J (shaking his head): Luke was lying. On purpose. If Luke had been sincere and well-meaning — if misguided — he would have to stuck to one story about my ascension. But one man — the man we’re calling Luke — wrote two scrolls together to tell one continuous story. He wrote the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles as a two-part story. The Gospel finishes with my ascension from Bethany after three days and my disciples worshipping continually in the Jerusalem Temple.
A: Yeah, like that was gonna happen.
J: Meanwhile, when you open up the book of Acts, you get a completely different story from the same author. In Acts, he claims that after my suffering I spent 40 days with my chosen apostles in Jerusalem, and then was lifted up by a cloud from the Mount of Olives (which is just to the east of Jerusalem’s city walls). The Mount of Olives is closer to Jerusalem than Bethany, the “authentic” site of my so-called ascension in the Gospel. Luke also adds two mysterious men in white robes to the Acts version of the story. These two sound suspiciously like the two men in dazzling clothes who appear in Luke’s account of the tomb scene (Luke 24:4). Luke is playing fast and loose with the details — an easy mistake for fiction writers to make.
A: Well, as you and I have discussed, Luke was trying very hard to sew together the Gospel of Mark and the letters of Paul. Mark puts a lot of focus on the Mount of Olives — a place that was most definitely not Mount Zion, not the site of the sacred Temple. Luke probably needed a way to explain away Mark’s focus on the non-sacred, non-pure, non-holy Mount of Olives.
J: You wanna bet the Mount of Olives was non-pure! It was littered with tombs. Religious law dictated that no one could be buried within a residence or within the city walls, so it was the custom to bury people in the hills outside the city walls. To get from the city gates of Jerusalem to the top of the Mount of Olives, you had to pass by a number of tombs and mausoleums. If you got too close to death, though, you were considered ritually impure, and you had to go through a cleansing and purification process once you got back to the city — especially during a big religious festival. Mark’s Jewish audience would have understood this. They would have wondered, when they read Mark, why there was no concern about contamination. They would have wondered why the Mount of Olives became the site of important events when the purified Temple precincts were so close by. It would have defied their expectations about death and purity and piety.
A: This was easier to understand when the Temple was still standing.
J: Yes. It would have made a lot of sense in the context of Herod’s humongous Temple complex. It started to make less sense, though, after the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE.
A: A fact that Luke took advantage of.
A: Mark doesn’t include the saying from the Gospel of Thomas about corpses (saying 56), but Mark’s portrayal of you shows a man whose least important concern is ritual purity — not what you’d expect at all from a pious Jew, in contrast to Matthew’s claim about you (Matthew 5:17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”)
J: Matthew says this, but Mark says the opposite.
A: Not in so many words, but by showing your ongoing choices and actions.
J: Later Christian interpreters wanted to believe that God had given me special powers over demons and sin and death, and this is how they understood Mark’s account of my ministry. But this isn’t what I taught. I didn’t have the same assumptions about life and death that most of my peers had. It’s not that I had special powers over life and death — it’s simply that I wasn’t afraid of life or death. I wasn’t afraid to “live” and I wasn’t afraid to “die.” I wasn’t afraid to embrace difficult emotions. I wasn’t afraid to trust God. Maybe to some of the people around me it seemed that I had special powers, but I didn’t. All I had was maturity — the courage to accept the things I couldn’t change, the courage to accept the things I could change, and the wisdom to know the difference.
A: The Serenity Prayer.
J: Yes. It seemed to me that Creation is much more like a rainbow than like night-versus-day. It seemed to me that the world I lived in was not “evil” and “corrupt,” as many occult philosophers had said. (Including the Jewish sect of Essenes.) Yes, there were corpses, it’s true. People died. Other creatures died. Beautiful flowers died. But obviously death led to new life, and wasn’t to be feared. Death wasn’t the enemy. Fear of the self was the enemy. Fear of trusting God, fear of trusting emotions such as love and grief, were the obstacles between individuals and God.
To get over those fears, you have to face your initial fears about death — about “corpses.” You have to begin to see the world — Creation — in a new, more positive way, and accept — even love in a sad sort of way — the corpses. You have to stop spending so much time worrying about your death, because it’s gonna happen whether you like it or not, and no religious ritual can stop it. Accept that it’s going to happen, then focus on what you’re doing today. Focus on the Kingdom of today. Build the love, build the relationships, build the trust. Physical bodies come and go, but love really does live on.
A: Some people might take that as an endorsement of hedonistic behaviours or suicidal behaviours, since, in your words, death isn’t to be feared.
J: There’s a big difference between saying “death isn’t to be feared” and saying “death is to be avidly pursued.” If you avidly pursue death, it means you’ve chosen to avidly reject life — the living of life to its fullest potential. Trusting in God means that you trust you’re here on Earth for a reason, and you trust that when it’s your time God will take you Home. What you do with the time in between depends on how you choose to view Creation. Is God’s Creation a good creation, a place of rainbows where people can help each other heal? Or is God’s Creation an evil “night” that prevents you from ever knowing the pure light of “day”?
A: What about those who’ve chosen to view Creation as an evil place of suffering, and are now so full of pain and depression that they can’t take it anymore? What happens to those who commit suicide?
J: God the Mother and God the Father take them Home and heal them as they do all their children. There is no such thing as purgatory or hell for a person who commits suicide. On the other hand, our divine parents weep deeply when families, friends, and communities create the kind of pain and suffering that makes people want to kill themselves. There would be fewer tears for everyone if more human beings would take responsibility for the harmful choices they themselves make.
A: And learn from those mistakes.
J: Absolutely. It’s not good enough to simply confess the mistake. It’s important to confess the mistakes, but people also have to try to learn from their mistakes. They have to be willing to try to change. They have to let go of their stubbornness and their refusal to admit they’re capable of change.
A: Easier said than done.