Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Gospel of Judas

Unveiled this week at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Philadelphia was a papyrus fragment of the lost Gospel of Judas. There's been a lot of hooplah over the discovery, and even more discussion over its "implications" for Christianity. I want to take a second to add a little perspective on this.

The current narrative being profferred by way too many people is that this document lays bare facts long hidden by the insidious and secretive Catholic Church, and that we will come closer to learning "the Truth" about Jesus and the events of the Gospels.

This is bullshit, pure and simple.

For a century and more, we've been discovering works that had been lost since the Middle Ages and before, through the Dead Sea Scrolls, the treasury of texts found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, and other places. We know of a plethora of "gospels" that do not appear in the canon, attributed to Peter and Mary and Thomas and all sorts of people. There was perhaps in some sense an effort by the churches (there was no monolithic "Catholic Church" until quite late in Antiquity) to consign this stuff to oblivion, but the reason these works got singled out in the first place is that people didn't put as much stock in them as the stuff that's now in the canon. They didn't weed out the works that were actually being used and taught in most of the churches. If the early Christians had found the Gospel of Judas to be particularly compelling, then it wouldn't have gotten tossed.

So the question now is, what is it? What's in it, and does it matter?

A little background: in the earliest centuries of Christianity there were a number of interpretations of the "meaning" of Christ's message. Eventually the interpretation we know today became dominant and aggressively assimilated the others, the "heresies" if you will.

Among these heresies was a belief system known as Gnosticism. The beliefs of Gnosticism are tough to pin down, as even that term is an umbrella encompassing a whole panoply of ideas, but it tends to include notions of having a secret knowledge of the truth, hidden from others. It often includes the belief that salvation lies not in deeds, or purity, or even faith, but in having this knowledge of the divine, given willy-nilly to some but not most for no particular reason. Sometimes it purports a dichotomy between matter, which is evil, and spirit or knowledge, which is good; the startling conclusion it draws is that the God of the Old Testament is then evil, because he made the world, an evil thing made entirely of matter. Jesus came as a savior from a higher God to break the tyrannical rule of the evil, spiteful Old Testament God, and although he preached to disciples and masses, he saved his true knowledge for one disciple alone (which one that is depends upon the attribution of the work: it's Thomas in the Gospel of Thomas, James in the Protoevangelion of James, etc.).

I know that, as an aspiring early Christian historian, I'm not supposed to say this, but I think it's obvious enough: most of this Gnostic stuff is wacko. Color me ideologically Darwinist, but I'd bet dollars to donuts that most early Christians thought that, too, and that's why Gnosticism disappeared long before many other heresies.

It sounds like the Gospel of Judas is another one of these Gnostic writings, though perhaps of a strain of Gnosticism closer to orthodoxy (as I said, Gnosticism, like orthodoxy, comes in many forms). It's Coptic (not important in itself, but a lot of Gnostic stuff came to us in Coptic form), and it involves Judas being given "real" knowledge that Jesus withholds from everyone else. The article I linked to above also seems to think it's Gnostic.

If this thing ends up being anything more than a blip on the radar, I think it's contribution to popular theology will be that, from the sound of it, it begs the question, "If God knows everything and everything happens according to God's divine plan, and Jesus is God, then Jesus must have intended the Crucifixion, and thus Judas' betrayal. If that's true, then what hand did Jesus have in Judas turning him over?"

It will be up to us, then, to decide if it matters, and what it means for us.

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