With the ancient world filled with stories of the births and adventures of semi-divine beings like Hercules and Apollonius of Tyana, it is little wonder that early Christians wanted to know more about Jesus. So infancy Gospels were conceived and legends were born to answer fundamental questions like: Where did Jesus come from? Who were Jesus’ parents? Did Jesus possess power and wisdom even as a child? The two most famous accounts are the Protoevangelium of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. In the NT Jesus’ parents serve an important but subsidiary role. The infancy gospels are dedicated to raising their profile. The Protoevangelium of James, for example, is actually about the nativity of Mary and her remarkable life before she was chosen to give birth to Jesus. While there is some overlap with NT accounts, there are details added about her parents (Joachim and Anna), her upbringing in the temple, her betrothal to Joseph and her virginal birth. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas focuses on the miraculous deeds performed by Jesus between ages 5 and 12. Initially Jesus used his powers to curse and cause injury to others. But after being warned by villagers to control little Jesus or move, Joseph takes Jesus aside and trains him to use his power for good rather than harm. This was apparently a popular account among many Christians because scholars have discovered numerous copies of it in various languages.
After the fall of Jerusalem (AD 70) Jewish Christianities flourished in places like Pella until the fourth century AD. The dominate sects were the Ebionites, Nazoreans, and Elkasaites. Though most of their Gospels are lost, fragments of their Gospels are contained in the writings of church leaders like Eusebius, Jerome, Epiphanius, Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Jewish Christianities typically held to a low Christology, that is, they did not believe in the deity of Jesus and thought God adopted the man Jesus as His Son. Other features included esteem for the Jerusalem church and the family of Jesus, an apocalyptic orientation, a staunch anti-Paulinism, and an affirmation that Christians must continue to observe Jewish law.
The Jesus of these other Christianties was eventually rejected by what became orthodox Christianity. Over time these movements died off and the literature they produced was no longer copied and transmitted to the next generation. That is why the historical record about them is so fragmentary.
On September 6, 2014 I attended a lecture at the Lanier Theological Library in Houston presented by Dr. Mark Movsesian. The title of the lecture was “Religious Freedom for Mideast Christians, Yesterday and Today.” Movsesian is Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John”s University in New York. Essentially the lecture was about the religious freedom or lack of freedom for Christians living in the Mideast. He looked historically first at the development of Christianity in that part of the world. Frankly, most Christians I know in America are unaware of all the flavors of Christianity living in the Mideast. Then he turned his attention to the way Christianity has been tolerated or not tolerated by Muslim leaders in that area since the ascendency of Islam on the Arabian peninsula. He went on to describe the nature of the current threats to Christians. In no uncertain terms he stated that Christianity is the most persecuted religion today in the world. For those of us sitting at ease in America, that seems hard to believe. How can the largest religion in the world be suffering such persecution? Well, because in many places Christians are in the minority as they have been in Iraq and Syria. In fact, Movsesian is convinced that Christian communities in the Mideast are going through one of the worst periods of persecution in their history. And their history is no stranger to persecution.
Movsesian is no light weight. Before he came to St. John’s, he clerked with Supreme Court Justice David Souter. He is published in some of the most prestigious journals in the world: Harvard Law Review, Oxford Journal of Law and Religion, and American Journal of International Law. The list is long. So he knows whereof he speaks. Two extremes must be avoided he says: (1) we must not think that ISIS or ISIL represents “real” Islam and (2) we must not think that what is currently happening is anything new. What ISIS is doing has happened before. The current wave of violence and jihad is only the latest example of a pattern which appears from time to time.
Moderate Muslims are as uneasy as Christians living in the Mideast. In fact, a larger number of Muslims have died in these conflicts since 1979–the year the American hostages were taken in Iran–than Christians or any other religion for that matter. The moderate Muslims I know from the Ahmaddiya movement have been declared non-Muslims and stripped of their rights in Pakistan. The Sufi Muslims in Turkey have been imprisoned, beaten, and killed by those in power in the last decades of the 20th century. When I presented at a conference in London in 2007 exploring the contributions of Fetullah Gulen, Gulen’s followers were clearly intimidated by the presence and threats from the more extreme factions. It has been suggested that the reason moderate Muslims won’t speak out against the Islamic extremists is fear for their lives and concern for the well being of their families. I don’t know. You’d have to ask them. I do know of many Muslims who do speak out courageously. It would be great to see them gather, unify and lobby their nations. It would be great to see Muslim countries rise up against ISIS and defeat them in the name of Islam.
There are “good” Muslims, of course, kicking against extremism but many of them are living and writing in the west. In private conversation Movsesian told us about one scholar living in America who is advocating for the separation of mosque and state. Though it is no joking matter, he jokes to his friend he is just waiting for a fatwa against him.
Moderate Muslims have much to lose if they stand up against these extreme elements. But it may well be possible they have more to lose in the long run if they don’t.
Northwest of downtown Houston lies a little piece of heaven for those, like me, who love books, journals, and quiet place to sit and read. In 2010 Mark Lanier, one of the country’s best trial lawyers and probably the best Bible teacher you will ever hear, built the library and began to fill its exquisitely built shelves with monographs, books, reports, and journals from all around the world. Mark along with Charles Mickey, the library director, and a great staff have collected to this date more than 80,000 volumes on a wide range of subjects touching on archaeology of the ancient near east, Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Egyptology, linguistics, theology, and related topics. Whether you are looking for primary texts or secondary, the Lanier Library is a place to go for a day, a week or a month or more of concentrated study. Though the library is held privately, it is open to the public not as a lending library but as a research library with superb facilities and exquisite hospitality.
The library is built according to Mark’s unique vision of a Cambridge library right in the heart of Texas. In fact, once you leave Houston’s heat and humidity for the comfortable climes of the library hall, you will think you’ve been transported across the pond to one of Europe’s best and finely appointed libraries.
As an added bonus, four to eight times a year Mark and his staff host public lectures featuring some of the best scholars and thinkers in the world. N. T. Wright, Alistair McGrath, Richard Bauckham, Justice Antonin Scalia, Peter Williams, James Hoffmeier, Simon Gathercole, Edward Fudge, and Father Justin are just a few of the scholars, artists, and leaders who have stood in the pulpit of Mark and Becky Lanier’s replica of a 6th century Byzantine chapel and lectured to hundreds or thousands of listeners. And if that were not enough, during lecture weekends Mark hosts local, national and international scholars for panel discussions on topics touching on the main lecture. These too are open to the public.
Past lectures are masterfully videotaped, edited, and made available to the public at the library’s website for free: www.laniertheologicallibrary.org. Future lectures are also announced with a link to registration.
If you are anywhere near southeast Texas, make it a point to visit the library on a regular basis. Their staff will treat you as one of the regulars. If you are planning a holiday in Houston, after you stop at NASA, drive north to the library for a few hours of browsing in one of the most peaceful places and beautiful places in H-town. And if you are a pastor, church leader or scholar in need of a sabbatical, make Houston your second home for while and take advantage of the sacred space Mark and Becky Lanier have carved out in their own back yard.