Bob Schwartz

Tag: Judiasm


Gnostic Bible

I am not a Christian, not in any conventional or even unconventional sense. But I have been a student of Christian religion, literature and phenomena for decades. It is part of a religious triangle—or maybe universe—with my native Judaism and my adopted Buddhism.

One of my earliest Christian experiences was reading the Gospel of Thomas, part of the Nag Hammadi Library, a trove of early Christian writings discovered in 1945. That translation of one of the so-called Gnostic Gospels was done by Dr. Marvin Meyer; I did not know that years later I would work with and become friends with him. What I did know on first reading (and on first meeting) was that the late Dr. Meyer was brilliant. (You may well have seen him on many of the History and Discovery Channel type biblical shows.)

For this Easter, I include a selection from the Gospel of Thomas. It is taken from The Gnostic Bible, edited by Dr. Meyer and by the equally-brilliant poet, translator and scholar Willis Barnstone.

The Gospel of Thomas, often called the Fifth Gospel, is a work of sayings and wisdom; there is no action. Some of the sayings are similar to those that appear in the canonical gospels. Others are more assertively cryptic and mysterious, puzzling in the same way that Zen koans are. This section, appropriately for Easter, is about life and death:


Yeshua (Jesus) said,
This heaven will pass away
and the one above it will pass away.
The dead are not alive
and the living will not die.
During the days when you ate what is dead
you made it alive.
When you are in the light, what will you do?
On the day when you were one
you became two.
But when you become two, what will you do?

Willis Barnstone’s most recent work is The Restored New Testament, a monumental achievement in which he single-handedly translated the entire NT (including Gnostic Gospels) and provided hundreds of pages of lucid and enlightening commentary. In that book, he offers this wisdom for a modern age:

In the end, all people are people, and no people should ever be classified for whatever reason as less than another. Any marker of sect and theology that distinguishes any people adversely is human and humane error. So the gospels and Apocalypse should not be seen for the momentary and external conflicts they may contain, but rather for their greater universality of spirit in a world desperately poor in coming to terms with human consciousness within the perishable body. Happily, the call to spirit is deep and needs no name, and no divisive emblem. The New Testament is a book of the mind; it is infused with compassion and courage and the great questions of being, death, time, and eternity. For the perceptive reader, spirit eludes name, dogma, and even word to reside in the silence of transcendence.

The Mad Dancers

The Mad Dancers
The Baal Shem Tov is the eighteenth-century founder of the Hasidic movement in Judaism. Jews and non-Jews who know the modern versions of the movement often don’t know much about its beginnings. Some of those contemporary manifestations may seem distant from the original spirit.

We have no writings by the Baal Shem Tov, so we rely on the records of his disciples, and on legends and stories that have come down the years—and that still have a remarkable power to inspire. Their authenticity is not in their being a verbatim record of what was said and what happened. Instead, they are an unmistakable reflection of a unique spiritual figure from any age or faith.

The Baal Shem Tov believed in and lived the direct experience of God everywhere in everything. Study and conventional piety took second place, which made him unpopular with the establishment, and would still today. He thought we should be outdoors in the trees, not indoors at the desks. Living in a divine state of optimism, joy and wonder was the ideal. People who live that way, of course, are remarkably hard to control.

This story is taken from The Golden Mountain (1932) by Meyer Levin.

The Mad Dancers

Already the voices of opponents were raised against the Baal Shem’s teaching, for many
rabbis could not understand his ways. Some said of him that he dishonored the Sabbath with singing and freedom, some said that his ways and the ways of those who followed him and called themselves Chassidim were truly the ways of madmen.

One of the scholars asked of the Baal Shem, “What of the learned rabbis who call this teaching false?”

The Baal Shem Tov replied, “Once, in a house, there was a wedding festival. The musicians sat in a corner and played upon their instruments, the guests danced to the music, and were merry, and the house was filled with joy. But a deaf man passed outside the house; he looked in through the window and saw the people whirling about the room, leaping, and throwing about their arms. ‘See how they fling themselves about! ‘ he cried, ‘it is a house filled with madmen! ‘ For he could not hear the music to which they danced.”