Taylor G. Petrey is the Lucinda Hinsdale Stone Assistant Professor of Religion, and Director of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Program at Kalamazoo College. He holds a ThD and MTS from Harvard Divinity School in New Testament and Early Christianity.
As a scholar who writes about gender in early Christianity, I was initially happy to discover that Alonzo Gaskill, an associate professor in BYU Religious Education’s Church History and Doctrine department has recently published a book on supposedly ancient apocryphal teachings of Jesus related to women, titled The Lost Teachings of Jesus on the Sacred Place of Women (Ceder Fort, 2014). I was quite disappointed to discover that the text Gaskill’s commentary is based on is a well-known forgery. Readers deserve to be warned against this problematic book in the strongest terms.
Claims about the words of Jesus should be held not only to the highest historical standards, but also to the highest religious standards precisely because of the authority that they wield. Gaskill’s book fails on both counts putting forth a false gospel as representative of Jesus’ teachings.
First, I want to discuss the fraudulent document, then how Gaskill represents it as authentic in his book. Gaskill is no doubt a fine person and strong teacher. His previous works have provided some nice insights into the gospel, and I hope that he will continue to bring some of his insights in future publications. However, his recent book The Lost Teachings of Jesus should not be distributed among the Saints.
Notovitch’s “Unknown Life of Jesus”
Gaskill’s book is based on Nicholas Notovitch’s hoax in 1890, “The Unknown Life of Jesus,” an account about Jesus supposedly preserved in the Pali language in a Nepalese Buddhist monastery. The document advances a theory that there is a historical connection between Jesus and India, that he both visited there in his youth and that his teachings circulated in India before they circulated in the Roman Empire.
Gaskill’s commentary picks up on a few passages about women in Notovitch’s “Unknown Life.” Gaskill also relies on Elizabeth Clare Prophet’s republication of this text. Clare Prophet is the wife of Mark L. Prophet of the Church Universal and Triumphant, a pair of New Age prophetic teachers in the latter part of the 20th century (you can see old videos of her on Youtube). She relied on her own visions and accounts of past lives in her ministry, and is one of the popularizers of the Jesus in India theory. New Age prophets and Theosophists have been attracted to this theory because of the desire to merge Christian and Buddhist thought, but such historical claims lack any credible evidence, relying on hoaxes like Notovich’s. Such theories have absolutely no credibility outside of New Age publications.
After over a century, the doubts of the authenticity and even the existence of a Pali manuscript about Jesus in a Buddhist monastery have been confirmed again and again. There is no evidence that such a manuscript exists, and the manuscripts some travelers claimed to see cannot be proven to say anything at all like what Notovitch’s “translation” claims. Further, it is worth noting that Notovitch does not actually translate these documents (he does not know the language), but reports on the translations that he claims he was told about by the Buddhist monks over time, acknowledging that he later compiled these diverse recollections into a narrative of his own design, “arranging them in consecutive order to form sense and deducing from them what forms my translation.” That is, he admits to creating the text based on things he was told, not the result of a close reading of an actual text.
The issue of historicity is not solely determined by the existence of some undated Pali manuscript, but is just as easily decided based on the content of Notovitch’s document itself. The entirety of the document is a kind of simplistic retelling of the Old Testament and the appearance of Jesus (Saint Issa). In the text, Jesus spends his teenage years in India and becomes a famous teacher of the Vedas, and taught that they were not divine. Jesus is also depicted as denying the divinities of Hindu gods, and challenging Zoroastrian priests on his way through Persia. Once he arrives back in Jerusalem, the story of Jesus is selectively reimagined. Notovitch constructs didactic sermons for Jesus in various circumstances that take aim at rival religious practices that say more about 19th century colonialism than first century Judea.
Gaskill’s Use of Notovitch
Gaskill does not apply any of the well-developed scholarly methods of determining the historical likelihood of authenticity of a saying of Jesus, or even for dating a text, nor does he use any ancient comparisons to locate the text historically or to find other ancient parallels that would help to provide some evidence of authenticity. Gaskill misleadingly implies that the historicity may be resolved by appealing to the accounts of Theosophical teachers, or his own spiritual confirmations. Presenting these teachings as actual, or even likely, sayings of Jesus has no merit.
Gaskill repeats Notovitch’s account of the origins of the text in his introduction as if it is factual, including the account of ancient Indian merchants acquiring the text. “Consequently,” Gaskill promises, “if their report is true, then their record of Jesus’s teachings was penned before any of the four gospels.” Gaskill repeatedly refers to these teachings as if they are authentic to the historical Jesus. The books is advertised an “extra-biblical text, thought to be the words of Christ.” Throughout his book, Gaskill calls them “Christ’s words” and the “lost teachings of Christ” or the “lost teachings of Jesus”. He uses the teachings as evidence what “the Lord has commanded,” and speaks consistently of the text as the words and discourse of Christ on nearly every page. Gaskill’s commentary asserts the historicity of the text consistently with his chosen constructions: “Christ here offers,” what “Jesus reminds,” “Christ calls,” “the Lord calls,” “Jesus declares,” “what Jesus was counseling,” “Christ speaks,” “the Lord instructs,” “the Lord informs,” etc.
The caveat “if” he applies to the origin story of the text is well worth noting, but Gaskill does not actually question this report. Furthermore, the “if” suggests that there is some credibility to the story. Gaskill relies on the Spirit to determine the ancient and authentic status of this text. He explains, “Though the location of the written discourse [e.g. in India] at the time the Bible was compiled prevented its inclusion in our New Testament, the Spirit of the Lord attests to the truthfulness of the teachings contained therein.”
Appendix A sets this document in the context of lost scriptures, and LDS prophesies of more scripture to be revealed. Gaskill suggests that even though it is outside of the current canon it is “of God.” He explains, “Many an inspired text that has the Spirit’s seal of approval on its content exists outside of our canon. The ancient text examined herein may be one such document, for its content finds support among the teachings of both ancient and modern prophets.” While Gaskill is certainly free to believe that this hoax is inspired by God as a matter of personal belief, his statement that it is an “ancient text” must be substantiated.
Only tucked away in Appendix B does Gaskill acknowledge that no contemporary scholars accept the authenticity of the text, and discusses the debunking of the document that took place within a few years after its initial appearance. Gaskill believes that all scholars are mistaken, and he takes a troubling approach to the question of historicity: “if Jesus didn’t deliver this discourse in the first century, He certainly has spoken the ideas contained in it through His living oracles in this dispensation. The words are true, regardless of when Jesus first articulated them.” (71) Are we really to conclude that whether by the mouth of the Lord’s servants, or by a 19th c. charlatan, it is the same? If Gaskill wants to write about his interpretation of modern prophets’ views about women, there is no need to link them to a fraudulent text about Jesus.
The idea that a notable professor invokes the Spirit to testify in favor of a 19th century forgery should trouble us precisely because it reinforces the critiques about the gullibility and overeagerness of Latter-day Saints to accept factual historical errors based on our desires rather than critical investigation. The sort of paradigm exhibited in this book shows that a professor is not capable of distinguishing between an obvious 19th century forgery and the sacred scriptures of Mormonism, and chooses supposed parallels between modern prophets and a modern forgery as evidence of what Jesus would have said in the first century. That he finds resonance between 19th century LDS perspectives on women and this 19th century forgery’s perspectives on women should have encouraged Gaskill to investigate the shared 19th century milieu of the resonances rather than declare them both to be evidence of eternal truths. This is parallelomania run amok of historical tethers.