Apocrypha: The Wisdom of Jesus Christ

From a Lecture Series by Professor David Brakke

According to the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, after Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to the apostles for a period of 40 days before ascending into heaven.

During these post-resurrection appearances Jesus spoke with his followers imparting further wisdom about the scriptures and the kingdom of God. Naturally, some Christians wanted to know what Jesus had to say—and soon enough some Christian writers began to tell them.

Image of The Resurrected Christ by Sebastiano del Piombo for the Apochrypha article
The Resurrected Christ by Sebastiano del Piombo

 Post-Resurrection Conversations

There are several apocryphal gospels that purport to record conversations between Jesus and one or more of his followers after his resurrection and before his ascension into heaven. In these conversations, Jesus tends to present teachings that differ from, expand upon, or deepen what he taught during his earthly ministry.

That is, these teachings tend to be secret or esoteric, reserved for Jesus’s closest followers—and thus for later Christians who considered themselves more spiritually advanced than others. And, because the risen Jesus is a kind of spiritual or heavenly being already, these post-resurrection teachings tend to be about the heavens, the cosmos, and spiritual beings—not mundane matters of righteous living.

If you’re familiar with early Gnostic writings, it might sound as though we’re referring to such works, which were often considered heretical by Christians who came to represent church orthodoxy. Seldom are words like Gnostic or heretical used together when discussing apocryphal gospels because most of these texts aren’t Gnostic or heretical.

Seldom are words like Gnostic or heretical used together when discussing apocryphal gospels because most of these texts aren’t Gnostic or heretical. Click To Tweet

They sometimes have strange ideas or stories that are not part of church doctrine, but very seldom are they outright heretical from the viewpoint of the wider Christian tradition.

Learn More: The Gospel of Judas’s Gnostic Vision

The post-resurrection dialogue gospels, however, are an exception to this. Most of them teach ideas that official Christian leaders condemned as heretical, and some of them are indeed Gnostic. You can see why this might be so—they are presenting teachings that Jesus allegedly revealed only to a small group of his disciples and that concern mystical, cosmological matters. So their ideas tend not to be ones that were widely shared by other Christians. The Wisdom of Jesus Christ, is one such post-resurrection dialogue.

The Wisdom of Jesus Christ was probably written sometime in the 3rd century.  A copy of the text was found in a the Coptic manuscript known as the Berlin Codex. A second copy of the Coptic translation was found at Nag Hammadi in 1945, and a fragment of the original Greek text survives. The Greek fragment was found at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, and it probably dates to the 4th century.

In general, the gospel presents a summary of what Jesus taught. The title, The Wisdom of Jesus Christ, alludes to such ancient Jewish scriptures as the Wisdom of Solomon and the Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach. This book gives the wisdom of Jesus Christ.

The gospel opens with a description of its setting. It says that, after Jesus rose from the dead, “his twelve disciples and seven women continued to be his followers. They went to Galilee, up on the mountain called Peace and Joy.” That’s a pleasing name for a mountain, but we have no record of such a mountain in Galilee.

The Savior appears to them, not as he looked before his death, but as invisible spirit.

Anyway, the disciples are described as confused about basic concepts of the universe and especially about what’s called the secret plan of salvation. The Savior appears to them, not as he looked before his death, but as invisible spirit. He looks like a great angel of light. Jesus wishes the disciples peace and then asks what they want to learn about. Philip says, “About the nature of the universe and the plan of salvation.”

Discussions with Disciples

What follows is something like a press conference, as individual disciples ask Jesus questions, and he provides the answers—not always the clearest answers, to be sure. Several different disciples are named as speakers— Philip, as we have seen, but also Matthew, Thomas, Bartholomew, and Mary. Sometimes the disciples as a group ask a question. Peter does not speak on his own, while Mary asks two questions in a manner no different from that of her male colleagues. Count one for Mary and the Gospel of Mary.

photo of stained glass
Stained glass window depicting Jesus Christ preaching to a circle of followers. This window is located in the cathedral of Brussels, Belgium, and was created before 1866.

The first thing Jesus tells the disciples is that people are made from dust, and from the beginning of the world, they have asked about God, but have not found him. Philosophers, says Jesus, have offered three theories about the order of the universe, “Some of them say that the world governs itself; others say that divine forethought governs it; and still others say that fate is in charge.”

But, Jesus says, all these opinions are wrong because they are merely human opinions. Instead, the Savior says, “I have come from infinite light; I am here, and I can tell you exactly what the truth is.”

Jesus says, “I have come from the infinite to tell you everything.”

That truth turns out to be a dramatically simpler version of the Gnostic myth.

This world is in fact governed by Ialdabaoth and his fellow rulers. This world is perishable, and everything that comes from it is also perishable. But there’s a realm that’s imperishable. Presiding over that realm is a distant, unnameable God, whom Jesus refers to as The One Who Is. No one has known The One Who Is until Jesus came. As Jesus says, “I have come from the infinite to tell you everything.”

Learn More: The Influence of Apocrypha

The One Who Is, is the ultimate source of all imperishable life, but he caused to appear a God closer to us, called the immortal Human. The immortal Human is androgynous, an ideal of humanity, the model for our creation and the source of our salvation. The immortal Human has a companion, the great Wisdom. So it turns out that the title of our book, Wisdom of Jesus Christ, has a double meaning. It refers both to the wisdom that Jesus teaches and to Wisdom, the divine being.

Humanity came into this world as a droplet of divine light, sent by the immortal Human and Wisdom so that it might be guarded by the ruler of the universe, that is Ialdabaoth. But Ialdabaoth’s ignorance has led him not to guard the droplet of light, but to imprison it. And thus the Savior has come to free human beings from their bondage in this world. Jesus says:

“I have come from the places above by the will of the bright light, and I have escaped from that fetter. I have smashed the work of those who are robbers—that is, the rulers of this world. I have awakened the droplet sent from Wisdom, that it might produce an abundance of fruit through me, and be made perfect and never again be defective. Thus, the droplet from the light may be made whole through me, the great Savior.”

Divine Light

That, in a nutshell, is the message of the text, we are the droplet from the divine light, imprisoned in a world governed by hostile powers. Jesus has come to awaken us, so that we may be made perfect and restored to the light from which we came.

Image of The Ascension of the Lord painting in church Chiesa Nuova by Gerolamo Muziano (1532 - 1592).
The Ascension of the Lord painting in church Chiesa Nuova by Gerolamo Muziano (1532 – 1592).

After Jesus finishes his message, he disappears. The disciples experience a great, ineffable joy and then go out to preach the gospel of God.

Learn More: Jesus’s Statements beyond the Gospels

The Wisdom of Jesus Christ is like a press conference, in which Jesus answers all the questions about God and salvation that the disciples could think of.

Jesus revealed secret, higher teachings to the disciples in his appearances to them after the resurrection—teachings that the New Testament gospels do not contain. And they all agree as well that the cosmos in which we live is much more complicated than we might think, and it’s ultimately not our true home. In this gospel, Jesus has risen from the dead, and he is in the process of exiting this world and ascending to heaven.

Some Christians agreed our destiny matches that of Jesus, we will leave this world behind and ascend to a spiritual existence far above the heavens we can see. Other Christians agreed that our destiny will resemble that of Jesus, but they did not imagine us ascending to a purely spiritual world. Instead, the Christians of emerging orthodoxy argued that we will be resurrected from the dead with bodies and souls.

The message of the text: we are the droplet from the divine light, imprisoned in a world governed by hostile powers. Jesus has come to awaken us, so that we may be made perfect and restored to the light from which we came.

Moreover, they rejected the idea that Jesus reserved some secret or apocryphal teachings for only a few people. Therefore, the gospels we have looked at in this lecture became seen as heretical, and the term apocryphal or secret became grounds for suspicion. Here’s a case where apocryphal and heretical definitely go together.

From the lecture series: The Apocryphal Jesus
Taught by Professor David Brakke, Ph.D.

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