Friday, April 07, 2006

oh boy... here we go again: the gospel of judas / an invective

As if the Davinci Code weren't enough. Here comes more fuel to the fire. They have unearthed the "Gospel of Judas," which looks like another Gnostic text from the same temporal and geographic vacinity as the Nag Hammadi texts. That is, these seem all to have come from groups of earlyish (2nd - 4th century) quasi-Christians in Egypt. Their brand of quasi-Christianity developed in a very esoteric way, on, and then beyond, the margins of the Christianity taught by the Apostles and handed on elsewhere (Rome, Ephesus, Alexandria, Antioch, Smyrna, Jerusalem, and Canterbury [just kidding]).

What is so annoying about the coming-to-light of this "Gospel of Judas" is that the media will swarm about, misreporting the history and significance of it. And there are so many people now who are anxious to believe that the mainstream of Church teaching is factually incorrect, which belief Dan Brown is largely responsible for making cool. I mean, its much more exciting to believe that there is a "secret tradition," guarded by an elite group of tolerant, liberal magicians, than it is to believe that what the Church has taught is pretty much how things happened. But the overwhelming proponderance of historical evidence supports the latter, more boring view. So people invent conspiracy theories.

What's really kind of annoying is that there is a cottage industry of largely politically-motivated quasi-scholarhsip, enabling and promoting a brand of quasi-Christianity that loosely associates itself with the Egyptian Gnosticism evidenced by the Nag Hammadi texts, and now apparently the "Gospel of Judas." It is all very tendentious, mostly fueled by secularist feminism and the homosexual agenda. But the secular media, as might be expected, but nonetheless annoyingly and naively, seizes consistently on this brand of scholarship. The NY Times article cites Elaine Pagels:
"These discoveries are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion and demonstrating how diverse — and fascinating — the early Christian movement really was," said Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton who specializes in studies of the Gnostics.
"Exploding" and other forms of the word "explode" seem to be very hot right now among academics on the cutting edge of nonsense. For my part, I hope "explode" displaces "liminal" and "subvert" in the top spot of the list of Most Fetishized Academic Sillyisms. I think maybe they got it from the exploding parliament scene in V for Vendetta.

Anyway, one of Pagels favorite pastimes (apart from "exploding" things) is seizing upon the most localized and marginal of early Christian communal nuttiness, and elevating it to evidence of some vast (imaginary) multivalent pluraformity among primitive Christian belief and practice. The fact is, even granting divergent strands of Hebraizing and Gnosticizing elements here and there (especially, for some reason, in Egypt), early Christian belief and practice was surprisingly cohesive and consistent -- the near monolithicism Pagels wants so badly to explode. And surprisingly in keeping with what has emerged as the orthodox faith. I suppose that's how it came to be the orthodox faith. It was always mainstream and dominant -- which of course makes it a prime target for revisionsist and postmodern critics: "did someone say 'mainstream' and 'dominant'?!?!?! Call the Thought Police!!!! They must be exploded!!!!"

I am pleased, though, to see this acknowledgement in the Times article:
The consensus of scholars is that the four canonical gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — were probably... written within the first century.
I.e. well over a century before even the (lost but hypothesized) Greek version of "Gospel of Judas," and over two centuries before the Coptic version. Also well before any of the other Gnostic Texts, and well before pretty much every single one of the other apocryphal gospels.

Anyway, it is a very exciting discovery, notwithstanding all the misguided huppla. But not because it sheds light on the "real" (secret) version of Christianity, surpressed by the white, male, heteronormative, Catholic oppressors; but rather because it sheds light on what a particular sect of early, marginal gnostics in Egypt believed.

If you are interested in all of this stuff, I highly recommend Father Raymond Brown's Introduction to the New Testament. It is a terrific overview of the history and background of the various books of the New Testament, as well as of much of the apocryphal material (including the Nag Hammadi stuff). Its engaging, easy to read, and fascinating. Brown is extremely learned, orthodox, and situated well within the mainstream of serious Biblical scholarship.

4 comments:

koenigsfreunde said...

WB,
The sad thing is that they acknowledge James Robinson's opinion in the same article but toward the end. He says that the 'Gospel of Judas' only sheds light on early Gnosticism rather than Jesus since the dating of the document is in the 2nd-3rd century. So the headline of the article does not follow from the evidence that is actually presented in the article that orthodox Christianity is false.

texanglican said...

Not a great shock that Pagels attends an ECUSA parish, is it?

First Apostle said...

This is a very useful commentary. Thanks for posting it!

Thorpus said...

KoenigsFreunde, you're right about that. THe same was true of the National Geographic Special on the Gospel of Judas, aired a couple of days ago. The whole thing was very DaVinci-Code-ish, complete with music out of some cheesy horror movie. NG is falling into the same trap as the History Channel (how the mighty have fallen) in that they think real history just isn't exciting enough without a hint of conspiracy and poorly-acted renactments set to suspenseful music.

And the worst part is, the Gospel of Judas doesn't actually say what everyone is saying it says. Have you read it? the English translation can be found by a simple Google search for Gospel of Judas. I read the whole thing in 10 minutes after church on Sunday. Guess what? Jesus DOESN'T actually ask Judas to betray him. After some very heady gnostic mumbo-jumbo about the heirarchy of angels, Jesus simply says to Judas, "you will sacrifice the man that clothes me." Period. Not a request. Not a 'mission' as Nat'l Geographic took great pains to convince us. Simply a foretelling. You might as well argue that Jesus in the canonical Gospels 'asks' Peter to deny him three times. It's the same language (at least in the English translation). The whole thing about Jesus asking Judas to betray him is an interpretation, read into the text by Pagels and Bart Ehrlman of UNC, people who have a vested interest in 'exploding' mainstream Christianity. Honestly, I think these first post-modern interpreters of the gospel of Judas looked at what it said, then thought to themselves, "how can I read this in such a way as to 'explode' traditional Christianity?" That's the only way you'd get that interpretation out of this text.

Seriously, we get sooooo much more information about Judas in the canonicals than this gospel even pretends to give. It gives no information at all about Judas's motives for the betrayal.

And you should have heard the way Nat'l Geographic railed on Ireneus. They blamed the orthodox leaders for consigning the gospel of Judas to the dustbin of history, when in fact it was consigned to the dustbin simply because NOBODY WAS READING IT! That's how works of literature become no longer extant. People lose interest. No book-burnings, no censureship, no ORthodox Christian leaders rooting out the followers of Judas and targeting them for termination. The sect that liked this gospel simply died out, of its own accord. And NG didn't realize the contradiction that while they railed at Ireneus and the orthodox church leaders for supressing this gospel, it was them they turned to to authenticate the text and to date it. This it is precisely the orthodox leaders who were consciously responsible for PRESERVING the gospel of Judas. (NG thought this delicious irony)

Didn't the NYTimes claim the sect that wrote this was called "Cainites" and saw all biblical villians as heros? No wonder the gospel of Judas appeals to Pagels et al.

And you should have heard some of the scholars who have worked on this thing talking about what it 'really' means. Pagels claimed on camera that when the gospel of Judas says "Jesus often appeared to his disicples as a little child" that it doesn't mean a shape-shifting Jesus, but rather that his ideas were somehow childlike. "A parallel to the canonical gospels" this was called. It's not parallel. The text actually IS making the typical gnostic division between spirit and body, and saying that yes, Jesus shape-shifted to appear as a little child. Which is, of course, patently ridiculous -- when the canoncials talk about his body not being recognized, they have a very good reason for this: it's after the resurrection and he's been glorified. The Gospel of Judas does no such theological groundwork, but simply states that his appearence was that of a little child. Pagels, of course, can't believe this (isn't she an 'expert' on gnostics?), so she has to spiritualize it the same way she disbelieves and spiritualizes the canonical texts. Which of course is part of the problem: many of the scholars behind this 'scandal' are working from a foundational tenet of equality among all ancient texts. The Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas all speak with equal authority. Which shows how far they are from Christian orthodoxy to start with.

And the absolute best, most ridiculous thing in this whole, 2-hr. special, was the statement by the lady who purchased the codex from its Egyptian dealer, who claimed she had been specially chosen, destined, BY JUDAS to find this gospel and clear his name, as it were. The narrator appropriated Evangelical Christian language and claimed she had "a relationship" with Judas, the same way we might claim to have a relationship with the risen Christ. This was just freaky. And the weird part is that they put that at the beginning and didn't bury it at the back, as they would have done 30 yrs ago when people were suspicious of spiritual language. The claim that a long-dead Judas wants this gospel out and extant in today's world was actually perceived as a SELLING POINT, ostensibly I suppose to post-modern spiritual junkies in search of alternatives to Christianity. If this kind of spirit, and that of the Cainites, is behind the Gospel of Judas and its release into today's world, I wouldn't be surprised if more and more people are deceived by its and National Geographic's and the NY Times' purposeful attempt to undermine traditional Christianity.

And the bad thing is, I had parishioners on Sunday who thought the whole thing was perfectly reasonable -- not the Gospel itself, mind you, for they hadn't read it -- but the anti-Christian interpretation invented by Pagels et al to fit their agenda, picked up by the Times and NG, that Jesus requested Judas betray him.