Still Pissed Off About the Hawley-Smoot Tariff

Friday, April 07, 2006

Long-lost gospel of Judas recasts 'traitor'

From USA Today.

This is a pretty cool discovery, but mostly in the sense that any ancient document is going to be pretty cool.

"With a plot twist worthy of The Da Vinci Code, the gospel — 13 papyrus sheets bound in leather and found in a cave in Egypt — purports to relate the last days of Jesus' life, from the viewpoint of Judas, one of Jesus' first followers. Christians teach that Judas betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, but in this gospel, he is the hero, Jesus' most senior and trusted disciple and the only one who knows Jesus' true identity as the son of God."

That's kind of neat -- even if a direct rip-off of the plot to Jesus Christ, Superstar. But reading the article, it becomes clear that there's not much new here.

"'We're confident this is genuine ancient Christian literature,' said religious scholar Bart Ehrman of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill."

That kind of depends on how you define "genuine," and on how you define "Christian." As early as Irenaeus you've got early Christian heresy-hunters writing books about how so-and-so is teaching false doctrine. Which, if you know anything about modern Christian apologetics, is true today, as well.

"The manuscript claims that Jesus revealed 'secret knowledge' to Judas and instructed him to turn Jesus over to Roman authorities, said Coptic studies scholar Stephen Emmel of Germany's University of Munster, one of the restoration team members. In the gospel text, Judas is given private instruction by Jesus and is granted a vision of the divine that is denied to other disciples, who do not know that Jesus has requested his own betrayal. Rather than acting out of greed or malice, Judas is following orders when he leads soldiers to Jesus, the gospel says."

This is the part where it all starts to look very familiar. The Gnostics were an Egyptian sect, very old, who were later persecuted by the Roman Church to the point where they had to bury their holy books or see them burned. The Nag Hammadi library, discovered years ago (also in Egypt) is full of these exact same themes. Christ gave secret and special teachings to one of the disciples, in addition to the general instruction he spread to the masses. Only the initiated were to learn the special knowledge. We've got a Gospel of Thomas, a Gospel of John, an Apocalypse of John... It's a pretty long list.

"Other theologians, biblical scholars and pastors say this contrary text is not truly 'good news' (the meaning of 'gospel') and will make no difference to believers as Easter approaches."

That's the correct root of the word "gospel," but in technical circles it just means a document -- any document -- that purports to set forth the life and ministry of Christ. As far as the text making no difference as Easter approaches ... well, that's just a completely ridiculous statement. What on earth difference does the author expect it to make "as Easter approaches"?

"The Bible, they say, is a closed book, nearly universally accepted as the official church teachings since the fourth century."

Yeah, "nearly." I don't know if the author is aware of the very real controversy over the status of the so-called "Apochrypha" (another term whose technical meaning is often ignored). This is just another odd statement. Just because a new book is unearthed that purports to be a Gospel of Judas doesn't mean Bible-printers are going to have to revise their tables of contents -- after all, the discoveries of the Nag Hammadi Library and the Dead Sea Scrolls didn't change anyone's Bible, and those didn't even try to rehabilitate as controversial a figure as Judas Iscariot.

"'Just because you can date a document to early Christian times doesn't make it theologically true," said Pastor Rod Loy of the First Assembly of God in North Little Rock 'Do you decide everything you read on the Internet is true because it was written on April 6, 2006? Fiction has been around for as long as man.'"

That's a wierd analogy, but his point makes sense. If the only key to authenticity were age, then our Bibles would be great messes, indeed.

From the document: "You will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me."

This is also a very old theme, from a doctrine called doceticism (from a Greek word meaning "to seem"). The teaching is that Christ was not really a man, he only "seemed" to be one, only seemed to be clothed in flesh, only seemed to die on the cross. It was an ancient way of dealing with the conundrum about how a perfect God could take on corruptible flesh, suffer, and die.

So really, the only unusual thing about this new document is the identity of the protagonist. Nearly every other apostle has his own gospel, so I guess we shouldn't be too surprised if Judas got one, too. That it was found in Egypt, and contains elements of Gnosticism and doceticism, is all fairly consistent with what we already knew anyway. Still it's an interesting and exciting find, as most ancient texts are.

All that said, I entirely agree with this statement: "Princeton University religious scholar Elaine Pagels, a restoration adviser best known for her work on the Nag Hammadi texts, said, 'The gospel of Judas is an astonishing discovery that along with dozens of similar texts have in recent years have transformed our understanding of early Christianity.'"

Indeed. Long gone are the days when a serious student of Christian history assert that there is, in fact, such a thing as "Christian history," at least in any kind of monolithic sense. Sure, everyone knows about the Great Schism, and the later Protestant Reformation. But the texts referenced by Pagels indicate that from almost immediately after the death of Christ, people came out of the woodwork with alternate writings and teachings. Because there was no central Christian authority, there was no one who could give the final, ultimate pronouncement on what Christians believe and which works were authentic. Indeed, the New Testament writers indicate that fraction started even during their own lifetimes. The newly-discovered Gospel of Judas is evidence of part of that fraction.