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Heresy by Catherine Nixey review – book of revelations

Heresy by Catherine Nixey review – book of revelations

As far as variant versions of the nativity story go, the one from the second-century Gospel of James is hard to beat. It starts off rather beautifully by telling how, at the moment of Jesus’s birth, the world suddenly stops turning: birds hang in the air, a shepherd’s arm is frozen and the stars stand still. A few minutes later, a woman arrives and, sceptical about whether Mary can really be a virgin, insists on shoving her finger up the new mother’s vagina, whereupon her hand is immediately burned off. “Woe,” says the woman. Mary’s reaction is unrecorded, perhaps because she felt that she had made her point.

This is just one of the hundreds – thousands, probably – of alternative versions of Christianity that teemed in the centuries following Jesus’s life and death. Take the Ophites, who believed that Christ had appeared on Earth in the form of a serpent. They celebrated mass by encouraging a snake to crawl over the altar on which loaves had been placed, consecrating them in the process. Another sect from the first century AD believed that King Herod rather than Jesus was the Messiah they had been waiting for. In Ethiopia, meanwhile, Pontius Pilate was looked on as far more than a Roman middle manager with a tendency to dither. He is revered there as a saint to this day.

And that’s even before we get to the Apocrypha, those ancient texts that teeter on the edge of legitimacy and offer a kind of through-the-looking-glass version of the gospels. Here you will find tales of how dragons worshipped the young Jesus and of how Mary was capable of breathing fire. The tone is usually highly excitable. Another version explains how Herod’s daughter was accidentally decapitated by her mother while worms poured out of her father’s mouth. Talking donkeys and a dash of necrophilia provide the final flourish.

The reason that we haven’t heard of these disreputable variants of the Christian story, suggests Catherine Nixey in this enthralling book, is that the early Church Fathers moved heaven and earth to ensure they were nipped in the bud. Whenever they came across something – a text, a practice, a belief – that they hadn’t authorised, they labelled it as “heresy” and threw the book at it. Flogging, fining and banishment were the obvious sanctions. But if you really wanted to send a message, then rowing heretics out to the middle of the sea, weighing them down with a sack of sand tied to the neck and legs, and pushing them overboard was the way to go. The idea was to make sure that no body could be recovered and turned into an object of veneration.By dint of such repressive measures, only one version of Christianity survived and flourished. That is the Christianity of the Sistine Chapel,the King James Bible, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Bach’s Magnificat.

In Nixey’s words: “heresy would tilt European history for centuries”. It would lead to the excommunication of Martin Luther and the house arrest of Galileo. Heresy – or rather fear of it – pushed Thomas Cranmer into writing the Book of Common Prayer in 1549. As late as 1947, a group of British bishops attempted to pass a vote of censure at the heresy of a fellow bishop because he had written a book that rejected the virgin birth. They failed, but the fact that they thought it worth a try tells you a lot about heresy’s continuing ability to disquiet and even dismay.

At the beginning of this revelatory account, Nixey tells us that she is the child of a former nun and monk, and, until her late 20s, counted herself a believing Roman Catholic. There is then nothing sneery about her wonderful writing, although you will detect occasional flashes of anger when she recounts some egregious bit of censorship and repression.

What shines through is a kind of exasperated love for the tradition in which she was raised and an impossible-to-suppress laugh at the idea of a Virgin Mary who blasts out flames from every orifice as if it were some kind of Marvel superpower.

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Source: theguardian.com