Edwin F. Kagin is a lawyer-poet. He believes that, through grace and faith, this will be a regular column, and, if events are predestined, whatever he believes makes no difference whatsoever. He can be reached in care of this publication, or through e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
ON THE GOSPEL OF THADDAEUS
“But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen:
And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.”
Saul of Tarsus, a.k.a., The Apostle Paul.
For the protection of persons yet living, the circumstances of the discovery and translation of the following cannot now be revealed. The authenticity of this document, and its accurate rendering into English from first century common era Greek, is assured. It is presented now, and with some urgency, for fear that it might otherwise be lost through the efforts of persons who are aggressively attempting to suppress forever any evidence of its existence. The very zeal of those who seek to prevent this work from becoming known, when considered together with the tone and content of the writing itself, indicates this is something far different, and perhaps more reliable, than the pseudepigraphical writings of the Canon pronounced holy at Nicaea. efk.
Thaddaeus, a Jew by birth, a Greek by temperament, and a scholar of Alexandria by circumstance and the Peace of Rome, to Marcus Ulpius Trajanus, conqueror of Dacia and Mesopotamia, to the Emperor Trajan, in Rome, greetings. Long life and good health most noble Caesar, and thanks to the gods you worship for keeping you and making you victorious in battle and bringing you safe to your throne as the worthy successor and heir of our late good and just Emperor Marcus Cocceius Nerva.
I write, great sir, as a man who has lived well beyond the four score years that, by reason of strength, are allotted to some men. It therefore comes as no surprise that the most able physicians of Alexandria, and therefore of the world, have assured me I am on my deathbed, and that I will soon be gathered to my fathers by virtue of maladies that, while perhaps not beyond the skills of Aesculapius, cannot be cured by mortal means. This assurance of imminent and certain death has provided a surprising sense of tranquility. I now fear neither the wrath of men nor the whims of gods. Neither have I the slightest concern for debates touching on any aspect of this world or on the hoped for world to come, in that I will soon vacate the former forever, and learn first hand what truths, if any, are to be learned in the latter. Socrates was surely right when he observed that death is either the most peaceful of all sleeps or the opportunity to meet souls who have gone before. Neither option should cause a dying man any concern, and neither concerns me. I can truly say that I am at peace, or, more correctly, I will be at peace when this testament to you is completed. Please forgive me the digressions permitted, and expected, from old men, be assured that my mind is sound and my memory good, and I will explain why my final hours are spent in writing the Emperor of the Romans, the oppressors of my people.
It is said that all manner of shameful things wind up in Rome. In the same wise, all subjects of intellectual curiosity, no matter how obscure, wind up somehow, eventually, in Alexandria. Thus I came to learn that you had inquired, through Pliny the Younger and others, for information on a religious sect that has come to be known of late as Christians. I will not reveal my sources for this information, but assure you that Pliny did not violate your confidence. There are things known to curious scholars that are denied even to kings. I also know that you do not believe the Christians are a serious threat to the security of the state. From my deathbed, great Caesar, I write to tell you that you are wrong. This superstition, if left unchecked, will become a fire upon the earth that will destroy your empire. This irrational movement, that you perceive as a religion of slaves, has the potential to infect even the imperial throne in Rome, to reduce learning to a barbarism that will cause longing for the erudition of the Celts and the logic of Gaul, and to make men wish for the return of the murdered despot Domitian. How do I know these things? Permit me to reveal something of my personal and, until now, secret history.
I was born two years before the death of Caesar Augustus, in the village of Nazareth, in the country of Galilee, north of Judea, north of Samaria. This land is, or rather was, part of the region you Romans called the province of Palestine before it was destroyed, and its people dispersed, during the reign of the Emperor Vespasian, by the authority of his son, that compassionate idol of the Romans, Titus Flavius Sabinus Vespasianus, later your predecessor, the Emperor Titus. My given name was Judas. My father was Joseph, a carpenter. My mother was Miriam. My older brother was named Joshua, in full Yehoshuah, or in Greek, Jesus, whom some now call Christus, or the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one, the son of god. In consequence of his tragic life, and of certain beliefs that arose concerning his final end, the cult of Christianity was born. As your historian Tacitus is no better informed concerning the history of this belief than he is on the history of the Jewish people, and as our own historian Joseph Ben Matthias, better known to you as Flavius Josephus, understood the true history of the Jews too well to give any credence at all to my brother’s life and death, and in that widely circulated anonymous tracts have built fantasies around Jesus that many, to the detriment of themselves and the state, believe to be true, so it has fallen to me, an eyewitness to the events of his life, to tell the truth of that life, my reliability and my safety both being assured by the comforting and certain knowledge of my pending death.
My brother was over twice my age when he began his, for want of a better word, ministry. This ministry lasted about three years. I, at his urging, became one of his apostles, whereupon I was given the surname of Thaddaeus. I, who had barely become a man under Jewish law, was the youngest of the apostles, and not on good terms of friendship with any of them, all also relatively young men, save for my best friend, another Judas, given the surname of Iscariot when, out of friendship, he joined me as an apostle. I did not know Jesus well. I do not believe anyone did. He was a man by law when I was born. I admired him, respected him, and loved him. He was my older and wiser brother. But he was a stranger, even to his own family. He kept his distance, and brooded often. He was frequently disrespectful to our mother, did not obey our father, and later even maintained that his followers should leave their families and responsibilities to follow him to live in poverty, without giving any thought to how they might be housed, fed, or clothed. I realize now that my brother Jesus was mad. It is hard to believe that an illiterate peasant from the despised Nazareth, together with twelve equally illiterate peasants as followers, could start a movement, a religion, that could change the world. To appreciate how this could happen, you must understand something of our people and our times.
The Jews, sir, must be the most conquered, despised, and warred against of any people. We are not merely a religion, we are a nation, even now in exile without a country of our own. At the time my brother and his followers started out to do whatever we were doing, there were several competing religious groups seeking to dominate Judaism. Chief among these were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes, each vying to be the most repressive, the most religiously authoritarian, and the most holy. Stir into this mix the fanatical Zealots, those Maccabees imitators who arose during the time of Herod the Great and were slaughtered by their own hands at Masada some two or three years after the destruction of our temple, and you can come to better appreciate the instability and uncertainty of our national spirit. Common to all these groups was a hatred of everything Roman, and the hope for the coming of a deliverer sent from god, a Moses, an Elijah, a David, a Samson, a Judas Maccabe, a Messiah who would lead the Jews in glorious war to drive out the invaders and restore the grandeur of the reign of Solomon.
There was no shortage of pretenders. The ill-fated John the Baptist was one. There was also Judas of Galilee, and Theudas the magician, and many other rivals for the office of Messiah. Some, in the manner of Elijah, were said to be able to raise the dead, walk on water, cure the sick, and perform other miracles, and all had their followers. My brother’s message was so unusual, so ill-defined, so incoherent, and so incapable of being articulated or understood, that a few thought he must be the promised one. These shepherdless sheep seemed to believe the more obscure the speech, the more holy the speaker. An analogy might be found among those who find meaning in the unintelligible utterances of the Delphic Oracle. Jesus said such things as his followers were the salt of the earth, and that salt could not be salty if it lost it’s saltiness. Some found this a brilliant parable. If anyone could explain or demonstrate just how salt could ever cease to be salty, there might be some justification for taking the statements of Jesus seriously. But all religions have their mysteries. This is how priests control fools.
My brother was a harmless madman. He didn’t view himself as the Messiah. To my observations, he had no clear definition of himself, or of anything else, at all. Our little band wandered about for three years, attracting attention to ourselves, creating some followers and more enemies. Our mother and father had given up on Jesus long ago, but still held hope that I would eventually come to my senses. From the time we left Nazareth, we never saw our parents, those rather good people, again.
But I digress, and grow tired. Death waits for no man. I must hasten to finish this narrative so you may understand what happened, and appreciate the threat of the irrationality I fear will overcome the world.
Eventually we made our way to Jerusalem. Jesus rode into the city of David on an ass, and was mocked by some who threw palms in his path. I have never been so embarrassed. Few in Jerusalem had heard of Jesus, and, because our religion prohibits the making of images, even fewer knew how he looked. Nevertheless, his activities and small following had managed to attract the attention of the Sanhedrin, the supreme national tribunal of the Jews. One night as we slept, outdoor as usual, agents of the Sanhedrin came upon us with torches and weapons looking for Jesus, who freely identified himself to them. The band of apostles, weary of our way of life, missing their families, uncertain of Jesus and his mission, and unwilling to confront the intruders, fled into the night, never to be reunited again. They were ignored by those who wanted Jesus. Only I, loyal to the safety of my brother, remained, together with Iscariot, who remained from loyalty to me. We asked to be permitted to accompany Jesus, who appeared unaware of all that was happening. This was granted, and we were taken to the meeting chambers of the feared Sanhedrin.
The officials who questioned us were surprisingly reasonable. They attempted to interview Jesus, but when he responded to questions with incoherent answers, for example saying that faith in the kingdom of heaven is a mustard seed, the authorities realized their problem was not political as they had feared. Nevertheless, Jesus had proved an embarrassment to them, and Roman authorities had been disturbed upon learning that Simon, one of the apostles, was a Zealot. The last thing the Sanhedrin wanted was a Jewish movement in revolt against Rome. They had worked with Pontius Pilate, the procurator placed in Jerusalem by Tiberius Caesar, in an effort to maintain safety through an uneasy peace.
Iscariot’s talents had been wasted in the wilderness, as he proved a master of sensible compromise. By morning it was agreed that we would remove Jesus from the country forever, and word would be circulated that he had been crucified for treason. This would both explain his sudden disappearance and warn off other potential troublemakers. Judas was provided with thirty pieces of silver to finance our relocation. To make the ruse more effective, the authorities agreed to use their influence to have a wreath of thorns placed on the head of one of three anonymous persons who had been hanging on stakes of execution on Golgotha for several days, and to place a sign above the poor victim’s unrecognizable head announcing that this was the King of the Jews. Officials would be instructed to keep the curious at a distance. Finally, the unclaimed body would be placed in a new tomb that could be bought from one Nicodemus, who was suffering financial difficulties. The timing was perfect, as the Sabbath started that evening, and all elements of our departure and the burial of the surrogate could be accomplished while potentially interested parties were in their homes obeying ritual Jewish laws. We were provided a room where Iscariot could wait with Jesus until sunset, the beginning of the Sabbath, while I spent the day in Jerusalem spreading the word of Jesse’s death.
I was successful in locating several friends of my brother’s and wept with them over the story. As a final assurance that everyone would soon learn of the tragedy, I went to the lodgings of Mary Magdalene. Mary was a woman of loose virtue who seemed to know everyone in Judea. She had a face of angelic stupidity, and a body that could have tempted a castrated stoic. Properly bathed and attired, she might have been a courtesan in Rome, were she not so hopelessly ignorant and so subject to fits of dementia. It was said that Mary Magdalene wanted only two mites and a mattress and the wit to fall backwards. I couldn’t say. She had a great fondness for Jesus, perhaps because he had no carnal interest in her. Indeed, he seemed to have no carnal interests at all, unless credence be given to a work that has been falsely attributed to the apostle Thomas. The less said of it the better for both their memories. Mary was, in a word, insane, but pleasingly so. She believed Jesus had freed her from seven demons. She was overcome by grief at the story of his death, and feared the demons would now return. I left her just in time to return, before sunset, to the upper room where Jesus and Iscariot waited. Under cover of darkness, we hired passage with a caravan bound for Alexandria.
It is difficult enough to predict the actions of the sane. Mary Magdalene was unpredictable at her best, but no one even wildly could have guessed what she, in her grief and delusions, would do next. What she did may well change the world. The next morning, the first day of the week, by first light, she went to visit the tomb of Jesus. And she went to the wrong tomb. She had somehow gotten the idea, that is now part of the emerging mythology of Christianity, that Jesus had been laid in the tomb of a rich man called Joseph of Arimathea, and he, enjoying the attention, not knowing for sure and not really caring, never denied it. When Mary came to this newly finished unused tomb, she naturally found it open and empty. She immediately concluded Jesus had risen from the dead. She told others who went to the tomb, and, seeing it empty, believed her. Her illness was such that the story changed in every telling, and thus grew stories of angelic visitations, and even visions of Jesus. Those who believed her added their own embellishments, until many accepted the story as too complex and fantastic not to be true. The three of us were with the caravan and learned nothing of these events until it was much too late to attempt a correction, had we had any desire to do so. The story was a more perfect cover for our disappearance than we could have hoped. People either believed Jesus was dead, or that he had ascended to his Heaven. In either case we would not be missed. After some days we arrived in Alexandria.
Words cannot convey how overwhelmed we three from a small village felt in that great city. It would be error to say we were out of place, for nothing ever seems out of place in Alexandria. It is the crossroads of the world and gives meaning to the very ideas of city and civilization. But we saw ourselves as out of place, and dislocated from all certainties we had ever known. We rented a room with the silver of the Sanhedrin. After refreshing ourselves with sleep and foreign food, we set out to explore the wonders of this new world. In one of the many markets run by persons of strange race and tongue, Jesus wandered away. At length we found him at the booth of a trader in exotic reptiles. He was gesturing and talking wildly, to people who did not understand Aramaic, about how those with faith in his idea of god could handle poisonous serpents and not be hurt. Before we or any of the shocked onlookers could stop him, he somehow grasped an asp from a closed basket and held it to his bare chest. He was bitten repeatedly in the neck and face before the reptile could be safely removed. My brother Jesus died before our eyes, in the manner of Cleopatra, in her city, in the dust of a foreign market, before horrified gentiles he had hoped to win to his vision of the kingdom of god. He had preached his belief in the virtue of remaining ignorant of the things of this world. In his death he demonstrated the folly of that belief. Iscariot and I had my brother buried privately, in a manner and place I will not even now reveal. This information must die with me. We grieved for Jesus and for a life wasted and ruined by destructive beliefs and religious madness.
Iscariot and I changed our names. I have not used the name by which I now write since we left Jerusalem. We knew our money would soon be gone, and we agreed to part ways. We were grown men who had to claim our own lives. My friend, who had helped save Jesus, had a great love of the sea, and he found employment on a Roman ship going to the seaside resort of Pompeii.
He planned to settle there and to seek his fortune as a servant to the wealthy. I never heard from him again, and, if he remained there, he either died before, or in, the great calamity. In either case, all memory or record of him is probably forever lost. I resolved to take advantage of the opportunities to acquire knowledge available in Alexandria. I sought out, and became apprenticed to, that most famous and worthy Jew known to you as Philo of Alexandria. The only time I left Alexandria was when I accompanied him to Rome where he argued in defense of the Jews of Alexandria before your evil predecessor, the Emperor Caligula. I remained Philo’s student until his death. I note, with some grim amusement, how his writings on the Logos have been contorted, by some Christian writers, to appear to apply to my poor brother, whose snake bitten body lies dead in an unknown Egyptian grave. I became a scholar and teacher in my own right. Pardon me, and please understand, when I do not reveal even to you the name by which I have been known.
In the many years that have followed our great deception in Judea, I have had occasion to read diverse and contradictory tracts purporting to give truthful accounts of my brother. I am mentioned by name in some of them, but, perhaps because of my unexplained disappearance, nothing else concerning me is reported. I am almost disappointed at this absence of myths about myself when they are so liberally bestowed upon my associates. The stories tell preposterous lies. They usually even start out as lies, with the unknown author falsely claiming to be one of the named apostles of Jesus. This was no doubt done to give credibility to their reports, either invented in whole or borrowed from other fictitious accounts. I will not attempt to recount all of the nonsense, as unhappily it is all too easily available for you, if you are so disposed, to read and believe, or reject, as you choose. To mention but a few of the lies, you will find reports that Jesus was born in Bethlehem where he was worshiped by goatherds and astrologers, that our mother was a virgin, that he was taken as a child to Egypt while Herod the Great killed all the little boys, that angels announced his birth, that the dead came from their graves when he died, and that he was taken to heaven after his promise to return shortly. If any of these things had happened, there would be no doubts, no excuse for disbelief, and no reason for faith. If they had happened, Josephus, you can be assured, would have reported them, as would your own correspondents. You may also note that the promise of my brother’s quick return has not been fulfilled. I believe, great Caesar, that this superstition would never have taken root and flowered if it were not for the work of another madman, a Pharisee named Saul of Tarsus. His bizarre life and work are known to you through his writings under the name of Paul, assumed after he saw, in a fit that temporarily blinded him, Jesus arisen from the dead.
I tire, my Emperor, and must end this writing even as the gods end my hours of life. Much more could be told, but I lack the strength, and hopefully I have given you enough to cause you to consider my warnings. Much mischief has been spawned by these Christians, and many evils lie ahead, the nature of which can only be seen in dreams. What can be predicted of men whose main religious ceremony involves the belief that they, by consuming bread and wine, are eating the flesh and drinking the blood of my dead brother? One might wonder if they would do this as eagerly if they knew he had died from snake venom. I have informed you as best I can, have cleansed my conscience, and can die in peace. I will never know if you receive this, so there is no need for a reply, even if you knew to whom to write. I have charged my beloved daughter, who I know by our secret name of Kather, with making three copies of this writing. One will be sent to you personally, under seal, through the usual channels. One will be hidden in a safe place known only to ourselves in the Museum, the great library of Alexandria, for if anything of our time and culture survives the intellectual destruction I fear from the Christians it will be the library’s priceless repository of the collected knowledge of the world that has survived even the onslaughts of the great Julius Caesar. The third copy will be taken for concealment and protection to a Greek island of Ionia, where knowledge and science will surely continue to exist and flourish despite the mischief of this new superstition. There, my daughter and a fellow scholar will see that these words of mine become known in proper season.
May that measure of peace, justice, harmony and understanding denied religion and its deities be attained by mortals through the use of their minds, and may reason, science, curiosity, and discovery replace the fear, the guilt, the pain, and the ignorance of trembling in terror before capricious gods. Ecce homo.
Here the text ends.
Edwin F. Kagin (c)