Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Gospel of Judas

I know I'm after the news cycle. So sue me.

As I've said on another blog, the Gospel of Judas is an interesting find for several reasons, but not for any new light it might shed on the actual Jesus, Judas and the disciples. I had the good fortune to take a graduate class on New Testament Literature with Margaret Mitchell at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and I survived the long exposure to the historical-critical method with a few new insights. (Dr. Mitchell has a short article on these "New Revelations".)

You can download the translated Gospel of Judas here at the National Geographic site; it's only 7 pages. I warn you, you're going to be disappointed in the actual gospel after reading all the news articles on how 'revolutionary' it is.

The scholarly context that journalistic integrity ought to have provided is that the Gospel of Judas is a text written in Egypt in the second century (most likely 150 AD or later; its first reference is in St. Irenaeus' letter Against Heresies in AD 180) by Gnostic thinkers, and that it is only one of many such documents (which tend to agree very little with each other).

In essence, such Gnostic gospels were works of historical fiction, based on situations and events recounted in the canonical Gospels, but with characters (usually Jesus) made into mouthpieces for the writer's theology. This explains why such gospels don't cohere well with each other on, say, how Jesus taught the universe was created, or on whether we ought to pursue a Buddhist-like detachment from the physical world or a Rasputin-like plunge into all its illusory pleasures. The Gnostics had many different theological strains, and no Gnostic gospel was bound by any oral tradition of what Jesus actually taught.

The core of agreement between most Gnostics was the idea that the material world was evil and that the physical body was a hateful thing. Thus the Jewish God Yahweh, who created the physical universe, was actually an evil God, and Jesus had come to free us through a special knowledge (gnosis) that would release us from the material world after death. This knowledge concerned, usually, the vast and complicated angelic battle going on, and all the names of the angels ruling the underworld, etc. If you read the Gospel of Judas, the depiction of the complicated angelic generations (and the "Everyone has his own star" bit) reads like nothing so much as what I know of Mormonism.

Incidentally, if you were wondering, the scholarly consensus dates the canonical Gospels as the only known gospels from the first century, composed between 70-100 AD when witnesses were still alive. I was pleasantly surprised to find that mainstream scholarship was pretty well agreed on the existence and ministry of Jesus, His teaching about the coming Kingdom of God, and His Crucifixion. They tend to get squeamish about the miracles and in particular the Resurrection, naturally; in general, their reason for disbelieving in those events isn't that the textual evidence is less present, nor that there are signs of fabrication (as there are in the Gnostic gospels and other documents like The Acts of Paul and Thecla), but that those events would have to be miracles.

Anyway, that's a digression. It's just refreshing to note that the historical-critical analysis of the canonical Gospels generally concedes a historical basis, and that such approaches to the Gnostic gospels have generally shown marks of fictive composition. The Church, essentially, got the canon of Scripture right the first time.

What the Gospel of Judas does tell us, aside from the glimpse into another branch of Gnostic theology, is a confirmation of what we know of Church tradition. It gives external verification that in the second century AD, the Eucharist was widely celebrated by ordained priests who traced their priesthood back to the apostles, and that this was one of the most important aspects of Christian life.

Where does it say all this? One of the things that the author of the Gospel of Judas puts into Jesus' mouth is a denunciation of the apostolic Church. (Naturally, the Gnostics wanted to claim that the Church wasn't what She professed to be.) In particular, there's a "prophetic dream" about the apostles and the priests who succeed them, simultaneously saying the Mass and engaging in foul wickedness, serving the evil Yahweh. 'Jesus' interprets,
For to the human generations it has been said, 'Look, God has received your sacrifice from the hands of a priest'- that is, a minister of error. But it is the Lord, the Lord of the universe, who commands, 'On the last day they will be put to shame.'
Just underneath, he makes it clear that he's ridiculing the Eucharist: "A baker cannot feed all creation under heaven."

This is at the heart of the Gospel of Judas' attack on the Church: that She uses the evil material world to confer God's grace, that She seeks to feed all humanity with bread and wine become (most despicable to the Gnostics) Christ's body and blood. The Gospel of Judas' author writes this 'flash-forward' into the account to attack the Church of his day for having an apostolic ministerial priesthood and the Eucharist; the polemic against it is external testimony to its existence. (Of course, this wouldn't even be an issue but for the historical conspiracy theorists who claim that Constantine invented the hierarchical Church and the sacraments in the fourth century, and that extra-biblical Church documents were all changed/fabricated to reflect the conspiracy.)

Oh, and if you're wondering why the Gospel of Judas can be trusted to have not made up that part too, remember that it was written for the purpose of converting people away from the Church. So it would attack the Church of 150 AD in specific terms, using dialogue it made up from Jesus in 30 AD. It wouldn't make sense to write a polemic against a Church that didn't exist.

The Gospel of Morford

But just try and get that story into the news. The real question with the media is, "Why was this announced just before Palm Sunday, when the translation has been finished for months?" And the short answer is, "Because it'll get more publicity if it makes more Christians angry." The timing couldn't have been more predictable: as Dr. Mitchell wrote in her article,
When I gave my lecture on "The Historical Jesus: What Do We Know and Why Do We Care?" to my Intro to New Testament class in early March, I warned the students that, with the ironic regularity of the liturgical calendar, the major newsweeklies would somehow find a way to put "Who Was Jesus? - New Revelations" on the cover.
It's frustrating to see how successful the yellow journalism of Jesus-related findings can be, year after year. By only quoting the fringe historians (as did the New York Times, sadly) without a mainstream voice to note the things I mentioned above, the newspaper can set up a 'controversy' beloved since H.L. Mencken: scholarly revisionists against angry Christian fundamentalists. The plain fact that the Gospel of Judas was made up becomes 'spin'. Newspapers sell extra copies, National Geographic produces a hit feature on it, everybody in the media world is happy.

This particular news cycle also gave a few people the coveted chance to express open mockery and contempt for Christianity under the heading of "news commentary". I should have known that it was a bad idea to read the San Francisco Chronicle's Good Friday issue, but this article by Mark Morford, Slyboots Judas is winking at you, went a bit over the edge:
Is it not just tremendous heaps of casually blasphemous fun to learn, once again and for the thousandth time, that the Bible -- that happy mishmashed messed-up hodgepodgey cocktail of myths and folklore and revisionist propaganda and who's-your-daddy reproaches intermixed with lovely stories of redemption and hope and oh yes sin and hellfire and death -- is so full of colorful holes it might as well be a bedsheet from the Baghdad Target?
Morford goes on to say that Christianity is reserved for
those who are unable to grasp nuances and unable to think beyond a certain scope, those who are unwilling or unable to follow what is perhaps the single most powerful and significant of all Christ's (and Buddha's, and the Tao's, etc.) teachings: that is, to seek God within. Not in a priest. Not in a building. Not in an organized institution. Within you.
This highest teaching of Christ is best attested, I think, in the third chapter of the Gospel According to Mark Morford, discovered last week in the basement of a trendy San Francisco nightclub. The new discoveries never cease.

I suppose I shouldn't be so hard on Mr. Morford. He may just have wished to honor Good Friday by reenacting the Third Sorrowful Mystery.

Christ Mocked

I'm well aware that faithful Christians aren't being 'persecuted' or anything so dire. I know that there are more pressing problems in the world than an overhyped document that doubles as a hammer to whack the Church with. But you'd feel the same if someone or something you loved was slandered on such a constant basis.

"If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first."

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