Which books are included in the official New Testament was essentially established by informal consensus by the 2nd century or so. In the case of the four gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — this consensus was virtually unanimous very early. But there were a number of ‘alternative’ gospels that didn’t make the cut. Some it’s obvious why they were excluded. For example, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas has young Jesus ‘zapping’ neighborhood boys dead who crossed him. Rather obvious why THIS one was shown the door! Others it’s not so clear.
One I’m currently working through is the Gospel of Nicodemus, which goes into much greater detail about Jesus’ trial, crucifixion and resurrection than the official Gospels. The current scholarly consensus is that it was written in the 4th century — too late to be taken seriously as an historical account. So it’s likely an ‘imaginative expansion’ of the official Gospel narrative. Nevertheless it was highly regarded in the early church — over 500 manuscripts have survived, and it was translated into over a dozen other languages. (And we too use imagination to expand on the Gospel narratives in books and movies.)
Here’s a sample from the Gospel of Nicodemus:
The Jews came to Pilate accusing Jesus about many things, saying: “We know this man to be the son of Joseph the carpenter, born of Mary; and he says that he is the Son of God, and a king; moreover, he profanes the Sabbath, and wishes to do away with the law of our fathers.” Pilate says: “And what are the things that he does, to show that he wishes to do away with it?” The Jews say: “We have a law not to cure any one on the Sabbath; but this man has on the Sabbath cured the lame and the crooked, the withered and the blind and the paralytic, the dumb and the demoniac, by evil practices.” Pilate says to them: “What evil practices?” They say to him: “He is a magician, and by Beelzebul prince of the demons be casts out the demons, and all are subject to him.” Pilate says to them: “This is not casting out the demons by an unclean spirit, but by the god Asclepius.
So in this story, Pilate believes that Jesus heals by the god Asclepius! Wow! Who’s that?!?
Asclepius was the Greek god of Medicine. He carried a staff entwined with a serpent — still a symbol of Medicine today. Temples of Asclepius were something like hospital meets place of worship. A key element of their treatment protocol was ‘Temple Sleep’ — the patient would sleep in the temple, and their dreams would inform them and their doctors/priests about the cure. Historical accounts say they were rather effective, and we know these temples were quite popular.
Of course we’d ascribe this to ‘faith healing’, but so what? Sometimes ‘faith healing’ works! It’s well documented that sometimes the faith of the patient in the doctor and the treatment is enough to improve the patient’s condition — even when the doctor prescribes a ‘placebo’ — a sugar pill with no active ingredients. In fact, when testing new treatments, scientists have devised all sorts of means of subtracting the effects of ‘faith’ from the test (e.g. double-blind experiments) so they can determine the effectiveness of the new treatment unaided by ‘faith’. I sometimes wonder why there aren’t Departments of Placebo-ology in medical universities to figure out how best to harness the power of ‘faith’. Hmm, ‘Pistology’ — the ‘study of faith’ — would be the real name. Maybe the ancients knew more about Applied Pistology than we do.
There weren’t many Temples of Asclepius in the ancient world — a patient might have to undertake a long and expensive journey to visit one. So what were these Temples of Asclepius? Why — Sanctuaries of Hope.
It is universal advice in Internet Marketing to ‘find your niche’. I have had a lot of trouble defining a simple niche for myself. But I take comfort in the fact that Beethoven went through 200 versions of the ‘Ode to Joy’ melody before settling on the one we sing today. So I’ve settled on www.GrailHeart.com. I like the feel of that name, and the working subtitle is “Musical and Metaphysical Musings” which is sort of a niche but vague enough I can still follow my nose. I hope you’ll check it out, and my new piano album “Serene Garden”.