The Gospels According to Christ?
With so many books dealing with Me and which, after
so many revisions, changes and fineries have become unreal,
The scholarly study of the historical Jesus, an attempt to reconstruct the life of Jesus through historical, anthropological, and sociological methodology utilizing material from first century Palestine and the early centuries of Jewish-Christian history, tends to (too frequently) wander astray from the path of objective observation and enter into the realm of subjective interpretation. Such subjectivism is usually based on both the limitations of sources and knowledge available to scholars of the historical Jesus and, perhaps more often, the personal biases and prejudices espoused by individual thinkers partaking in the study of this important subject. Frequently, by subscribing to a strict rationalist, naturalist, or deist ideology, for instance, many scholars of the historical Jesus have attempted their best to deprive the subject of his recorded miracles and supernatural quality. In the past few centuries, since the study of the historical Jesus developed strong interest in eighteenth century Enlightenment Europe, Jesus has been diversely portrayed by scholars in a multiplicity of identities: as a con man, a magician, a political revolutionary, a medical physician, a healer, a prophet, a socialistic egalitarian, or an apocalyptic enthusiast, to name a few popular labels.2
Research on the life of Jesus has been expansively ubiquitous, ranging from the reasonable to the absolutely absurd, with the latter direction overshadowing the former. Prominent scholar John Dominic Crossan once observed: “Historical Jesus research is becoming something of a scholarly bad joke.”3 Likewise, John P. Meier, whose multi-volume series A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus may very well be the most reliable and sophisticated study on the historical Jesus, concurs as to how modern research on the topic boarders on the ridiculous: “From Jesus the violent revolutionary to Jesus the gay magician, from Jesus the apocalyptic fanatic to Jesus the wisdom teacher or Cynic philosopher unconcerned about eschatology, every conceivable scenario, every extreme theory imaginable, has long since been proposed, with opposite positions canceling each other out and eager new writers repeating the mistakes of the past.”4 From early Enlightenment scholars like Hermann Reimarus and David Friedrich Strauss, personally determined to humanize Jesus against the faith of traditional Christianity, to the dubious polling practices of the modern “Jesus Seminar,” historical Jesus research has had an overwhelmingly suspicious history subjected to ideologically oriented presuppositions advanced by exceptionally opinionated scholars. It led novelist Anne Rice, herself a recent student of the historical Jesus, to once ironically reflect in a Newsweek interview: “Even Hitler scholarship usually allows Hitler a certain amount of power and mystery.”5
Within the tradition of historical Jesus scholars it is Meier who has identified one of the most serious problems with the subject: the “historical” Jesus is not the actual Jesus that existed in first century Palestine, simply a picture (usually distorted) of Jesus which scholars can reconstruct through available, yet limited, fragments of sources broadly depicting his later life and teachings.6
Questions and disputes, of course, arise as to which sources are the most reliable and objective in attributing to Jesus and his teachings. Even serious scholars have disagreements in this polemical area. For instance, while Crossan uses the Gospel of Thomas as a main source in reconstructing his historical Jesus, Meier dismisses Thomas as an unreliable Gnostic text which can tell us little about the historical Jesus.7 Sources available to scholars interested in the life of Jesus do vary, but usually are reduced to the canonical Gospels, extracanonical writings from the early centuries, including apocryphal gospels and Gnostic texts, the letters of Paul, the writings of first century historians like Josephus, and the writings of the early Church Fathers, many of whom cite—in their works—circulating gospels of first century Palestine which are no longer available to us.
Thus, a major (if not the major) problem in the study of the historical Jesus, one which Meier alludes to in distinguishing between the historical and the actual Jesus, is the reduction of sources which the field has been limited to. Meier explains: “The real Jesus is not available and never will be. This is true not because Jesus did not exist—he certainly did—but rather because the sources that have survived do not and never intend to record all or even most of the words and deeds of his public ministry—to say nothing of the rest of his life.”8 This assertion, that the real (or actual) Jesus is not attainable through modern historical scholarship, although a very strong argument in academic circles, can be challenged. The first thing that we need to do is to take the study of the historical Jesus beyond the confines of sources reduced to the early centuries of Jewish-Christian history and expand the field into the twentieth century, observing—scientifically and methodologically— the revelations of modern mystics that can, very well, lead us to the Gospels of Christ. The forgoing statement is perhaps an audacious one and, at first glance, open to a lot of speculation and criticism. But let us take this matter further, seriously examining its possibilities before reaching preconceived dismissals.
The Gospels of Christ?
Throughout the history of Christianity numerous mystics have reported experiencing supernatural phenomena, from bodily and spiritual experiences like the stigmata to religious ecstasies, inner locutions, visions and apparitions of Jesus and Mary, among revelations of other spiritual figures.9 Although the study of Christian mysticism10—in the academic world, at least—tends to be reduced to the medieval period, especially medieval Europe, it is interesting to note that some of the most fascinating, and important, mystical encounters between Christians and the divine have reportedly taken place in the modern period, as late as the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. A couple of these instances point to the possibility that the Gospels of Christ, as revealed by Jesus Christ himself, do exist. If they do, then scholars of the historical Jesus should take notice, to say the least.
In the twentieth century, an Italian woman named Maria Valtorta reported experiencing ecstatic visions of both Jesus and Mary. Valtorta’s visions, which reportedly began in 1943 and lasted until the early 1950s, culminated in not only personal conversations with Jesus and Mary, but also in dictations and visions given to Valtorta revealing the life of Jesus to her, as told—and shown—by Christ himself. The result of Valtorta’s mystical encounters included almost 15,000 hand-written notebook pages, nearly two-thirds of which have been published into a multivolume work depicting the life of Christ, the Italian edition originally titled The Gospel as it was Revealed to Me and the English edition re-titled The Poem of the Man-God. Valtorta has testified to the supernatural origins of her writings, explaining that frequently after her rapturous visions ended and her hands stopped writing she had to have her notebooks read back to her, stating: “I can affirm that I have had no human source to be able to know what I write, and what, even while writing, I often do not understand.”11 Before entering into an investigation of the possibility, or validity, of these experiences, let us begin by briefly examining important moments in Valtorta’s personal history.
Maria Valtorta was born on March 14, 1897 in Caserta, Italy.12 At twelve-years old, she was sent to boarding school at the Bianconi College of Monza, of the Sisters of Charity of the Most Holy Child Mary. After five years, her mother wanted Valtorta to leave school and thus, in 1913, Valtorta moved to Florence with her parents. In Florence, Valtorta eventually worked with the Samaritan Nurses, providing medical assistance for soldiers from the First World War. In March 1920, Valtorta suffered an injury, being senselessly assaulted by a youth who struck her in the back with an iron bar. Though she seemed to recover after a few months, the complications of the injury left Valtorta confined to her bed for the last 27 years of her life, beginning in April 1934.13 It was in her room on her bed, in the city of Viareggio, where her family eventually settled, that Valtorta reported experiencing her sublime visions and dictations, beginning to experience the supernatural phenomenon on Good Friday of April 23, 1943, in the midst of World War II.14 The Gospels, as Christ revealed them to her, according to Valtorta, were written between the years 1943-47, eventually resulting in 10 large volumes.
Valtorta’s writings are presented in the form of dictations and described visions, presenting a mixture of events which are both known and unknown to the canonical Gospels. They include, for instance, the birth of Mary, her childhood with her parents, a detailed account of the birth of John the Baptist, the wedding of Joseph and Mary, and a detailed account of the annunciation and birth of Jesus, to list a very few examples in the multivolume work, in addition to Jesus’ extensive ministry, passion, and resurrection. Furthermore, the so-called “hidden years” of Jesus’ life are revealed – from numerous chapters depicting his childhood to his young-adult years before beginning his ministry— noticeably these depictions differ significantly from the questionable infancy apocrypha. Around 40 additional parables are present in these writings once Jesus begins his ministry. Between these significant events, we see a vast amount of encounters in the life of Jesus and those around him. The events described are not as brief or laconic as many of the Gospel narratives tend to be, but filled with elaborate description and immense dialogue between the participants. At one point, Valtorta describes a vision of Jesus eating his last meal with his mother, before he leaves her to start his public ministry. The poignancy of the event—and the precision given to detail—is evident within the eloquence of the described vision:
Jesus’ own teachings, conversations and the events surrounding his life in Valtorta’s visions do not contradict the canonical Gospels, but elaborate, clarify, and profusely expand on them. For instance, volume one of the work16 consists of 140 chapters, beginning with the lives of Joachim and Anne, Mary’s parents, and ending with the conclusion of Jesus’ first year of public ministry. Volume two begins at chapter 141 and spans into chapter 274, still in the midst of Jesus’ ministry, which is meticulously documented by Valtorta, as it is being revealed, with expansive detail. Volume two, moreover, includes the Sermon on the Mount, which is recorded by Valtorta verbatim, a word-for-word transcription of Jesus’ actual teachings on the Beatitudes which spans five chapters in the work, extensively expounded beyond the brevity of the Gospel narratives on the subject.17
The work has been translated into several languages. The Italian edition is comprised of 10 thick volumes, most averaging 500 pages or more, while the English edition, translated in 1986, has been compressed into 5 large volumes, each ranging around 800 pages. Thus the material is abundant. In it Jesus is presented as a complexly profound figure, both human and divine, whose words are full of tenderness, wisdom, both simplicity and sublime sophistication, and whose acts are supernatural and miraculous. He is the Triune God, the pre-existent incarnate Word—the Messiah. He denounces worldly pride and greed as the root of all sins in human affairs, from which every other sin stems, exalting humility, sincerity, mercy and love as the keys to righteous living embodying God’s will. He emphasizes spiritual beauty in human beings over fleshly and lustful obsessions which poison the soul and destroy the meaning and dignity of true beauty. At one point in his ministry, Jesus is asked by his apostles whether they should allow the presence of a veiled woman with a lascivious past to keep following them, the woman keeps appearing among the crowds when Jesus speaks while the apostles worry that the presence of a former prostitute may damage their Master’s public image. Jesus’ response to the question is a display of compassionate love at its purest, displaying both his mercy and his teachings on the nature of beauty:
Is there any legitimacy to these mystical writings? Can Valtorta’s writings—which, as Valtorta alleges, she did not create but transcribed—be examined scientifically or through historical methodology? Should these works be taken seriously by scholars of the historical Jesus? The answer to these questions, supported by a fascinating array of evidence, is yes. It is noteworthy how many diverse fields of study, from archeology to geology, topography, and scientific investigation of mystical phenomena provide support for Valtorta’s work.
Geologist Victor Tredici has examined the meticulously intricate knowledge which Valtorta provides of Palestine; the accurately detailed accounts of its geological, topographical, and mineralogical elements appear inexplicable, especially when taking into consideration the fact that Valtorta never left Italy, was confined to bed most of her life, “nor did she have access to the indispensable documentation that would have furnished her with possible sources for such accurate knowledge.”19 Moreover, it has been noted that Valtorta’s writings—while recording the travels of Jesus and his disciples through Palestine—include the names of numerous small towns absent from the Hebrew and Greek Bibles but known solely to a few experts. More remarkably, 79—out of 250—geographic locations mentioned by Valtorta were not listed in the 1939 International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE) Atlas. Yet, what is “most surprising is that these names [which Valtorta lists], obscure and unknown in the 1940s, are being proven authentic.”20 52 of these sites have no biblical reference whatsoever “and 17 of these with no biblical reference have been either indirectly confirmed as authentic by recent ‘ancient external sources’ found in the Macmillan Bible Atlas (1968) or actually listed in the HarperCollins Atlas of the Bible (1989).”21 For Valtorta to have knowledge of ancient Palestinian towns, many of which were not even known to geological and historical experts (or to anyone, for that matter) during her years of writing, is uncanny.
Jesuit cardinal Augustine Bea, who examined the work on behalf of the Vatican in 1952, expressed his observations: “I read several fascicles of the Work written by the lady, Maria Valtorta, attending particularly in my reading to the exegetical, historical, archeological and topographical parts,” noting that as “far as its exegesis, I did not find any prominent errors in the fascicles examined” and admitting, “I had been much impressed by the fact that her archeological and topographical descriptions were propounded with notable exactness.”22 Furthermore, what has also perplexed scholars, in light of Valtorta’s claim of being an eyewitness to Jesus’ life in Palestine, is the fact that her tens of thousands of hand-written pages “include over 500 personalities within a perfectly flowing and internally consistent narrative, with hardly a correction,” being written within a period of 4 years and resulting in 10 large volumes with “precise descriptions of the natural topography of Palestine from numerous locations and the information about the outside pagan world of that day, including people, places, customs, Greek and Roman mythology, related in the conversations of that day, [which] are strikingly correct.”23 Given the fact that Valtorta possessed an average education with access only to a Bible and small catechism during her writing years, her knowledge appears unexplainable. Moreover, Dr. Nicholas Pende, an endocrinologist who displayed immense surprise at the sophistication with which Valtorta described Jesus’ spasms during the crucifixion visions, commented on her descriptions as “a phenomenon which only a few informed physicians would know how to explain, and she does it in an authentic medical style.”24 In many of her visions, it should be noted, Valtorta reported experiencing interior locutions, an internal voice describing to her what she is witnessing. What further astonishes is that in her work so “much timing information is given, including years, seasons, Jewish feast days, months, days of the week and even time schedules” of Jesus ministry itinerary “for over 350 ministry sites, that nearly every episode in the Poem and in all four Gospels can be dated.”25 Thus additional reasons as to why scholars of the historical Jesus should take notice.
The Mystery of Medjugorje
By far the most fascinating and complex piece of evidence to support Valtorta’s work includes a supernatural phenomenon that took place in the late twentieth century and, reportedly, continues to this day. In June 1981, six children in the small mountain village of Medjugorje, in the former Yugoslavia (now Bosnia-Herzegovina), reported that the Virgin Mary had appeared to them. She has allegedly been appearing every day since and, thus, to this day—28 years later—the apparitions continue. Unlike other prominent Marian apparitions, like those reportedly taking place at Lourdes, France, in 1858, and at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917, Medjugorje’s longevity, spanning into the technologically sophisticated age of contemporary twenty-first century, has made it very unique and useful for modern study. As investigative journalist Randall Sullivan explained: “the apparitions in Medjugorje had been subjected to perhaps more medical and scientific examination than any purported supernatural event in the history of the human race.”26 The majority of the studies conducted on the young Medjugorje visionaries, which have ranged from lie detector tests to neurological examinations, psychiatric tests, electrocardiogram, blood pressure and heart rhythm examinations, and electro-encephalogram tests measuring brain waves during ecstasies, have supported the validity of the apparitions. The tests have shown that the visionaries were not lying or hallucinating, nor were they in any epileptic or hypnotic state during their daily ecstasies but, indeed, are experiencing something beyond scientific explanation, transcending the boundaries of scientific understanding and the physiological laws of nature.27 Furthermore, numerous miraculous healings have also been reported at Medjugorje, many of them copiously documented with abundant medical evidence supporting the claims.28
Why is this relevant in connection to Maria Valtorta and the study of the historical Jesus?
Because in the messages of Medjugorje the Virgin has supported Valtorta’s work, according to two of Medjugorje’s visionaries, Marija Pavlovic and Vicka Ivankovic. One of the Virgin’s messages, according to Ivankovic, explained: “if a person wants to know Jesus he should read Poem of the Man God by Maria Valtorta. That book is the truth.”29 The statement is startling and, if it in fact is coming from the Mother of Christ, it is also impossible to ignore. Without such supporting evidence, shrouded with the proof of scientific inquiry behind it, Valtorta’s own personal visions would have been easy to dismiss by the scholarly community – since the academic world has frequently blurred the boundaries between the seriousness of mysticism and the probability of “natural” explanations.
As Amy Hollywood, Harvard scholar of Christian mysticism and medieval history, points out, frequently mysticism—and thus mystical experience, particularly—is denigrated by skeptical scholars through psychoanalytical categories as simply constituting a form of hysteria, among other possible natural disorders. “Most scholars who have wanted to take mysticism seriously have, as a result of such dismissive diagnoses, either avoided the term ‘hysteria’ entirely or have reserved it for those figures seen as somehow marginal, excessive, or troubling to standard religious categories.”30 Religious historian Moshe Sluhovsky, likewise, points to the numerous “natural” diagnoses which are employed by many modern scholars to dismiss the validity of mystical experiences, whether divine or diabolical, especially reported experiences of late-medieval and early-modern Europe. Such diagnoses include: “insanity, hysteria, paralysis, imbecility, or epilepsy…”31 Yet Sluhovsky aptly explains that stereotyping Christians of past centuries, particularly of early-modern Europe, as ignorant of medical or psychological causes for abnormal (if not paranormal) behavior constitutes an erroneous approach, if not an altogether arrogant dismissal, obstructing serious study of such cases. Since matters like hysteria and epilepsy were “all classifications of afflictions that were not unfamiliar to early modern people” the assumption “that medieval and early modern people were simply not sophisticated enough to know the right meanings of the symptoms they experienced and witnessed tells us more about modern scholarly arrogance than about premodern ailments and healing techniques, or about early modern configurations of the interactions with the divine,” Sluhovsky concludes.32
Yet, again, this is what makes the case of Medjugorje (and its support for Valtorta’s revelations) so unique: by occurring in the contemporary society of the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the Medjugorje apparitions have been able to be scrutinized by exhaustive medical and scientific investigations unavailable to past generations—instead of remaining untested and being prejudicially dismissed by modern thinkers as constituting a case of hysteria, fraud, or any other possible natural explanation. As the French doctor Henri Joyeux, an internationally renowned physician and Professor of Cancerology in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Montpellier, explained in regard to the timely significance of the apparitions:
Thus the Medjugorje visionaries have been tested for all of the natural symptoms which are applied by skeptics to discredit mystical experience, passing each time. Dr. Joyeux led a team of French physicians from the University of Montpelier to examine the Medjugorje seers in ecstasy during their daily apparitions of the Virgin, when the children simultaneously fall to their knees and enter a visible trance. This phenomenon takes place daily at the same time (5:45 pm in the winter and 6:45 pm in the summer). Dr. Joyeux’s concluding report, delivered in the spring of 1985, stated: “The ecstasies are not pathological, nor is there any element of deceit. No scientific discipline seems able to describe these phenomena.”34 He explained that “these young people are healthy and there is no sign of epilepsy, nor is it a sleep or dream state. It is neither a case of pathological hallucination nor hallucination in the hearing or sight faculties…It cannot be a cataleptic state, for during ecstasy the facial muscles are operating in a normal way.”35 In addition to medical findings, all psychiatric explanations were also ruled out. The visionaries underwent immense psychological and psychiatric testing. The results showed a group of perfectly healthy young people. According to Dr. Joyeux’s report: “The visionaries have no symptoms of anxiety or obsessional neurosis, phobic or hysterical neurosis, hypochondriac/or psychosomatic neurosis, and there is no indication of any psychosis. We can make these formal statements in the light of detailed clinical examinations.”36 Dr. Philippe Loron, head of the Neurology Clinic at La Salpietre Hospital in Paris who examined the visionaries himself in 1989, concurred in his conclusion: “This is the first time that medical science has been involved to such an extent in evaluating the phenomenon of ecstasy. And, in the process, what was confirmed in several ways was the moral and psychological integrity of the visionaries.”37 After taking all of the examinations and their findings into consideration, Dr. Joyeux had to conclude that the experiences of the children at Medjugorje “do not belong to any scientific denominations.”38
Additionally, in September 1985, an Italian team of physicians and scientists from Milan’s Mangiagalli Clinic also conducted important tests examining the visionaries. One of the doctors was Michael Sabatini, a psycho-pharmacologist from the faculty of Columbia University. Using an algometer, an instrument used to measure the intensity of pain by applying pressure to sensitive areas of the body, Dr. Sabatini concluded that while experiencing their apparitions the children were impervious to pain, alienated from the senses and significantly disconnected from the physical world around them.39 The algometer showed that “prior to the apparitional experience their reaction to pain was normal (between 0.3 to 0.4 seconds), [yet] during the apparition they did not perceive any pain.”40 The experiments, according to Dr. Sabatini, proved that the mystical experiences were not the product of fraud nor deception. Moreover, Dr. Luigi Frigerio, another member of the Italian team, explained that these results combined with neurological testing, which determined that the visionaries were not only awake but hyper-awake during their ecstasies, presented a paradox that “cannot be explained naturally, and thus can be only preternatural or supernatural.”41 Likewise, Dr. Ludvik Stopar, a prominent psychiatrist and parapsychologist who conducted numerous tests on the visionaries years earlier, reached the same opinion in his conclusion: “I had the impression of coming into contact with a supernatural reality at Medjugorje.”42
Such facts—pointing to the supernatural through scientific inquiry—have led to many spiritual conversions, even of scientific skeptics, in the small Bosnian village. Sullivan relates the story of Dr. Marco Margnelli, a prominent Italian neurophysiologist and an ardent atheist who came to Medjugorje in the summer of 1988 determined to expose the apparitions as a fraud. An expert in altered states of consciousness, Margnelli conducted an array of medical tests on the visionaries in which he had to conclude that during their daily apparitions the children did, in fact, enter into “a genuine state of ecstasy” and adding: “we were certainly in the presence of an extraordinary phenomenon.”43 Dr. Margnelli’s observations have ranged from conducting medical investigations on the seers to personally witnessing miraculous healings and strange supernatural occurrences which, admittedly, left him bewildered and deeply shaken. Dr. Margnelli described a sequence of events to which he had been a witness at Medjugorje:
The very presence of the supernatural in modern society, as strongly supported by medical science and observation, challenges an immense array of Enlightenment influenced thinkers subscribing to rationalist ideology, whether in the field of the historical Jesus or in philosophy, who have denied the possibility of such phenomena—denials that have led to renouncing the miracles of Jesus and, frequently, the very existence of God.46 The fact that science lends strong support to the Medjugorje apparitions as constituting a legitimate supernatural phenomenon undermines numerous preconceptions of the rationalist worldview, providing support for the validity of mystical experience and divine intervention. Valtorta’s experiences are supported in a double manner here – both indirectly as a separate mystical encounter (and the scientific probability for such an encounter to occur) and, directly, as a mystical encounter supported by the messages of Medjugorje. The fact that a supernatural occurrence has taken place at Medjugorje, according to the offered evidence, is unquestionable. Whether one chooses to believe in the spiritual content behind the phenomenon—that the Virgin Mary is appearing—does, however, still constitute (and require) an act of faith. But since so much evidence is offered for the possibility, excluding all other alternative scientific explanations, then the visionaries’ claims must be given a fair chance. Anything less would constitute an act of ideological self-deception, ignoring the hard facts of the reality because they may not fit into a certain post-Enlightenment, rationalist worldview of anthropocentricism that is prevalent in our secular culture, particularly dominant in Western society. Our minds should extend beyond such reductionism of knowledge, rightfully placing evidence over ideology. Not to do so would easily constitute an inverse reflection of dogmatic fundamentalism (in rationalist thought) over the findings of objective scientific and medical studies.
Consequently, since so much evidence is also offered for Valtorta’s work, as possessing the possibility of supernatural origins, in archeology, topography, geology, and the scientific study of mystical phenomena, it is clear that the multivolume work depicting the life of Christ (and claiming to be the work of Christ himself) deserves more scholarly attention. We may, very well, have the life of Jesus Christ fully revealed in accurate and extensive detail, over 600 chapters of descriptive precision and transcription recording his hidden years, most of his public ministry in Palestine, and his subsequent spiritual endeavors, without even the most serious scholars of religion or of the historical Jesus knowing about it. Perhaps by expanding our boundaries beyond sources reduced to early Jewish-Christian history, and by expanding our minds beyond the restrictions of ideological rationalism, we can come to a better understanding of the ultimate subject – not a subjectively distorted reconstruction of the “historical” Jesus but, conceivably, the actual Jesus. Meier said it would be impossible, but then again, who better than Christ to make the impossible possible?
— NOTES —
* [This article was written by Yale
University Graduate and author Daniel Pewel Kliemek and was published by Glossolalia,
the Yale Divinity Graduate School's Student Journal. Kliemek was born in
Chicago, will be 24 in March, 2010, and is currently studying for his M.A.R.
in the History of Christianity at Yale. He also studied at Harvard
University achieving the prestigious Harvard Crimson Certificate of
Kliemek was interviewed concerning this article by Ministry Values.
The interview can be read at: