Monday 4 July 2016

Written in Water #10: The Word of God in the City of the Cannibals

"Excuse me, Jesus. How do we steer this thing again?"
Today, I want to talk about Bible outtakes. And that means angels, demons, vomiting statues and, most of all, cannibals. Lots of cannibals.

A lot of people seem to think that the Bible was decided on by a committee, that one day Constantine and the Bishops sat down and agreed which books would be the ones recognised as the Bible canon. It wasn't like that. Actually, the Bible just happened, and gradually, organically.

Some books fell out of favour, some became more popular, and by the beginning of the fifth century, roughly about the time Jerome translated the Greek books into the Latin that the Catholic Church still uses, he was able to say, "Well, these are the ones most people seem to like." But there wasn't an actual solid rule about this until the Council of Trent, in 1543, when the Catholic Church said, "nope, Jerome or nothing," and they only did this because Martin Luther, by this time not their favourite person, had done this German version where he'd mucked about with the contents of the New Testament (and incidentally I always find it hilarious that Luther's biggest fans often don't share his cavalier attitude to the contents of the Bible).

The New Testament has a host of out-takes, alternative versions, also-rans and books that, if they had been included, would change the meaning of the whole thing.

In the New Testament as we have it, we have four Gospels (biographies of Christ), one book of Acts (things that the followers of Jesus did after he died, came back and vanished) twenty-one Epistles (open letters from followers of Jesus to other followers of Jesus, more than half supposedly by Paul) and at the end the Revelation, or Apocalypse, which is a wild, associative prophecy of the end of everything.

But they weren't all the Gospels, all the Acts, all the Epistles, or even all the Apocalypses, and even if you just include the apocryphal New Testament books that survive, they make up a book about three times as thick as the actual New Testament.

Some of these books contain some of the strangest stories you will ever read.

In The Gospel of Nicodemus, Jesus, crucified, descends to Hell and beats seven bells out of Satan before kicking him in the face, and handing him over to Death in chains.

In the Infancy Gospels, the Boy Jesus makes a model sparrow out of clay on the Sabbath, and when someone challenges him, he breathes on it and it becomes a real sparrow, and then he strikes his critic dead. In fact he strikes so many people dead, Boy Jesus gets grounded for life.

In The Acts of Pilate, Pontius Pilate wears Jesus's shirt, the one that had been gambled for, and it clouds the minds of those who stand before him.

In The Acts of Paul and Thecla, Paul's travelling companion Thecla is sentenced to die, naked, in the arena, fed to... seals. Man-eating seals. Which, before they can eat her, are killed by divine lightning which then hovers around her body protecting her modesty.

And in The Gospel of Thomas, you get this absolute gem:
Jesus said, "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who wanted to assassinate someone powerful. While home he drew his sword and thrust it into a wall, over and over, to find out if his hand would do the job. Then he killed the powerful one." 
Gospel of Thomas, 98

I know.

(Although to be honest, even the canonical Bible has a story where Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a corrupt official bribing people to save his skin, so I don't know.)

I am not making any of these up.

None of them match the sheer wild-eyed majesty of The Acts of Andrew and Matthias among the Man-Eaters, however.

The Acts of Andrew never really got accepted as part of the Bible; but this particular account is so apocryphal, it's rejected from the text of the Acts of Andrew. It is an outtake of an outtake, a reject from a reject.

Its definitive English translation is by MR James, a Biblical scholar of no small achievement who is better known today for writing some of the greatest British ghost stories, and because most of the texts are in languages other than Latin, I depend upon it. There's a full scan of The Acts of Andrew and Matthias (it being public domain) here.

It begins with Jesus having ascended to Heaven. The Apostles draw out of a hat where they're going to go.

Matthias, the thirteenth Apostle, taken on as Judas Iscariot's replacement, draws the short straw. He has to go and bring the Good News to the City of the Anthropophagi. The Cannibals. They put his eyes out, drug him and throw him into a prison. But Jesus comes to him in a vision, heals his eyes and brings him back to consciousness. He tells Matthias he's got 27 days before he'll be rescued, and to keep his eyes shut.

Andrew has a vision of Matthias in peril, and goes to save him. He goes to the harbour and asks the first boatman he sees to get him to the City of the Cannibals in three days. To his astonishment the boatman and his crew say yes, they will help. The boat travels with supernatural speed, and well it should, because the Captain is Jesus and his crew are angels.

The Captain asks Andrew to tell the people on the boat a story about Jesus. He tells a very strange story indeed, about how Jesus made two statues of sphinxes in a pagan temple come down from their pedestals and talk about how they are angels and how they have come to show truth to the priests, who regardless of the miracle, do not believe.

Andrew's story ends. The ship arrives in the land of the Man-Eaters, on the shores of fiction.

Andrew goes to sleep; he wakes up on land as if in a dream. He sees Jesus in the form of a child.

He advances to the cannibals' dungeon. As he passes, the guards drop dead. He lets out Matthias and all the other prisoners (270 men and 49 women, the story says, in one of its many strange, specific details) and tells Matthias to take them to safety, and that's the end of Matthias's part in the narrative. He vanishes, is not mentioned again.

Andrew returns to the city; he sits by a bronze pillar with a statue on it (the statue is important later) and watches as the cannibals begin to worry about whom they will eat.

They take the bodies of the guards away, and then cast lots to see who's going to be eaten. An old man, chosen to be eaten, offers up his children instead. The cannibals' faceless executioners close in, the better to carve the children up.

But Andrew prays. The swords of the executioners drop to the ground.

Their hands turn to stone.

The devil appears in the guise of an old man. Andrew and the devil argue. The devil and his flunkies try to harm Andrew directly, but they cannot, for he is marked by Jesus. The devil leads a mob against Andrew. They tie a rope around his neck and drag him around the town for three days, until the flesh begins to fall away from his bones. But on the third day, Andrew, healed by a miracle and led by an angel, walks out of the prison and goes to where the statue is.

And he prays, and the statue vomits acid. The acid flows and flows, and floods the city, and the cannibals start to leave the city, but they cannot, because God has walled them in with a barrier of fire.

No escape is possible. Death is everywhere. The cannibals who survive repent in tears and so Andrew walks out of the prison, the acid parting in front of him, and he asks the statue to cease vomiting acid, and it does. The survivors come to him, and he accepts their repentance, except for the old man who Andrew saw offering up his children to be eaten and the executioners whose job it was to butcher people. There will be no forgiveness for these men; Andrew passes judgement. The earth opens up and swallows the man, and the executioners, and all the acid runs down into the pit after them.

Andrew asks the remaining, repentant cannibals to bring their dead, but they cannot. There are too many dead to bring, livestock too.

(I imagine burned, smoking bodies, flesh eaten away, strewn over grass turned yellow and black, between leafless bushes; I imagine the smell of the acid, the smell of death.)

Nonetheless, he prays for the dead anyway, and they are resurrected, cattle and all. The people are baptised. Jesus in the form of a child tells Andrew to stay a while. And then, he goes home.

The Acts of Andrew and Matthias Among the Man-Eaters is a fever dream of a story, a succession of strange, senseless acts tied together with a sort of dream-logic. It falls solidly into the period of historical collapse; it speaks of a far away world where man-eaters with drugs and goads fatten up their quarries, where Jesus appears as an angel, a sea captain, a child. It speaks of a world where statues come down from their pedestals and speak, and vomit acid. It is the ultimate travel of the evangelists: they travel across the world on their missionary journeys, and now they travel outside the world and bring the Gospel to imaginary monsters.

It is a work of horrendous violence, a vengeful work, far too gleeful in its cruelties, too expressive in its brutalities. It's a journey from here into a nightmare.

MR James calls it "A tale of wonder with no doctrinal purpose." And it is, a tale of wonder and horror, and more, a story of a world where terrible things lurked just across a narrow stretch of ocean, tangible, terrifying.