The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Saturday, June 08, 2002

The visionary gospel

This essay will highlight a genre of ancient Christian literature I call the "visionary gospel".

Most nowadays would define a "Gospel" as something that resembled the canonical four, that is, a biography of Jesus. By their example, the Egerton Papyrus and Oxyrhynchus 840 are clearly "gospels".

But in antiquity the term was extended to writings such as the Gospel of Thomas; and Mark for that matter seems to have been considered a "narrative" before it was considered a "gospel". According to Helmut Koester, the term "gospel" arose out of the Christian label for their proclamation of faith. As the Christians splintered and their literature expanded, accepting the literature of a given sect became tantamount to accepting the gospel (according to that sect), and from there it was a short step to identifying that literature as "gospel".

There is in fact something of a modern throwback to this ancient definition. Liberal Christians nowadays are skeptical of miracle, visionary, and post-resurrection stories, and are primarily interested in Jesus for what he had to say. As a result the Gospel of Thomas, which contains nothing but sayings, is now considered the "fifth Gospel" in liberal and scholarly circles.

There are other writings called "gospel" at the time which are wholly unlikely to be granted the quasi-canonicity of Thomas. The Complete Gospels includes a few "gospels" that plant Christian traditions - including the sayings tradition - into visions of Christ rather than public episodes in Jesus's life. One example is the Gospel of Mary, in which Jesus appears to Mary. Another is the Secret Book of James, in which Jesus appears to his disciples after the Resurrection.

The Secret Gospels

"Secret James" sets the return of the risen Jesus 550 days after the resurrection (SecJas 2:3) to the "twelve" disciples, and only James and Peter are given the knowledge (2:7). Moreover, The Complete Gospels notes, "Peter speaks twice (3:12, 9:1) but misunderstands Jesus; James alone is addressed directly by name (6:20), and he maintains the more dominant voice" (p. 333). Thus all Twelve are claimed as witnesses to the vision, and to the "filling" of Peter and James. Peter is claimed as a full witness to everything James has received, but the reader is warned in advance that Peter did not understand it. It follows from that that the other disciples' presence exists only to confer legitimacy on James's vision - a bit like saying, "My friend Josh the CEO is planning an insider deal that will net him $5 million. Pete was at that meeting too but don't ask him. He'll deny everything." Therefore the vision is very much a secret vision of James.

The "Gospel of Mary" dates from two third-century Greek fragments and a fifth-century Coptic paraphrase. It has two core sections, both fragmentary: a dialogue section of disciples conversing with Jesus in Mary 1-3, and a vision section of Mary alone seeing Jesus in Mary 7-9. Mary 4-6 and 10-11 (unfragmented) serve to join these two, with the themes of "the seed of humanity" (5:2, from 4:5), "preach the good news of the domain" (5:2, 10:12,14, from 4:8), "not laying down any rules" (10:13, from 4:10), and "Jesus loved Mary" (10:10, from 6:1). The structure has Jesus leave at 4:11 and not return, except in Mary's flashback; and the story ends with Levi spreading the news. Accordingly this is, like Secret James, a post-resurrection appearance.

I will not need to discuss what sources if any might underlie Mary 1-3 and 7-9, and any witnesses to Mary 1-3 beyond the disciples are unknowable as yet. Therefore I will concentrate on Mary 7-9 in its context, for which the introduction and conclusion survive.

Mary 7-9 shared with Secret James the problem of secret knowledge, but handled it differently. Mary receives the vision without witnesses, and relates the vision's content to the disciples (Mary 6:1-4). Secret James claims the granting of the vision had witnesses, and even the vision had a witness; but the vision's content is opaque to Peter and unavailable to other disciples.

In each case Peter stands in for the consensus, as one who should agree but does not. Either Peter refused to believe the testimony of the saint (Mary), or else Peter was physically there and did not understand it (Secret James).


The basics of Jesus's life on Earth were claimed to be historical, and therefore the basic narrative "gospel" - whether one of Ignatius's creeds, the full text of Luke, or some version of Mark - was open to the entire community of believers.

As far back as the canonical accounts, though, there were a few events that only the closest disciples could witness. The Synoptics have the Transfiguration, and the explanation of parables. John 3 has secret information on the spirit world that it shares with Nicodemus, alone, at night. And Luke, Matthew, and John have (conflicting) post-resurrection appearances that were not then available to, say, the Pharisees.

The visionary gospels likewise grew out of both the public creed and the secret tradition, but accent the latter. Which came first is a topic best left for another project.


I would call for a definition of a new genre of gospel: the visionary gospel. The defining characteristic of the visionary gospel is that its information is secret. The gospel's audience knows the truth. If other Christians disagree, it is not because the information is false, but because the outsiders are not privy to it - reasons may vary.

The Complete Gospels planted Secret James and Mary into the "Sayings Gospels" section (contents, p. V). Without doubt large portions of each are thematically close to the "Dialogue of the Saviour", and I agree the Dialogue is in the right place. However, for a Gospel in its finished form, however fragmentary, one must assign it according to its current genre, not the genre of its antecedents.

For Secret James, the misplacement was mostly harmless, because so much of it did consist of sayings. But for Mary, only fragments of chapters 1-4 and 7-9 can be placed in that tradition, and even there the gospel owes more to gnostic myth.

This new proposed genre should help us better understand similar "revelations" granted to elect Christian groups, as a means to reconstructing the history of Christian literature and tradition.

UPDATES: The first version of this project was written 6-8 June 2002. Posted 8 June. 10-11 June, relation to canon. 14 April 2017: Posting on blog, and backdating.

posted by Zimri on 18:02 | link | 0 comments

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