Monday, April 10, 2006

I have never read any works by Elaine Pagels

This may be why:

Startling as the Gospel of Judas sounds, it amplifies hints we have long read in the Gospels of Mark and John that Jesus knew and even instigated the events of his passion, seeing them as part of a divine plan. Those of us who go to church may find our Easter reflections more mysterious than ever.
Well, if you consider something written in the middle of the 2nd century of the common era to be a more reliable record of the words of Jesus of Nazareth than the Gospel of Mark (70 C.E.) or the gospel of John (circa 100 C.E., and I have a memory of dating it as late as 120 C.E.), I suppose so.

But the Jesus Seminar wasn't so sure many of the words in the canonicals could be accurately related to Jesus. Disagree with their scholarship and conclusions as you wish, but their method was quite exacting and has to be met on its own terms to be properly challenged. Just as with the word "gnostic," which was used by Iraneaus because it is from a Greek word meaning "knowledge" (i.e., it was not originally a perjorative). And the emphasis on knowledge as a source of salvation is a very Greek one, not a Hebrew one, because Greek epistemology (fundamentally) is centered on discovery, Hebrew epistemology (fundamentally) on revelation. If we are going to assume that Jesus was more interested in Greek mysteries than in the communal and scriptural based Hebrew society, then we need a basis for such a fundamental shift in the Nazarene's thinking. There are no real mysteries in Torah; the "secret teachings" in Judaism, so far as I know and Pagel confirms, come from Kabbalah. My brief review, via Google, indicates Kabbalah reliably dates back no earlier than 100 C.E. and originally referred to the publicly available teachings of Torah. Which buttresses my memories from seminary, that "mystery cults" were of Greek influence, if not entirely of Greek origin, and makes a connection between Jesus of Nazareth (crucified in about the 4th decade of the 1st century) and Kabbalah dubious at best. Although the connection to John's Gospel and Kabbalah or similiar teachings could certainly be made (and certainly has been, somewhere). Perhaps Pagels' makes that argument elsewhere; if so, it must be a very interesting one.

The fundamental critique of the Gnostics is that they preferred individual over corporate revelation. In a post-Romantic world, we are inclined to side with such sentiments against the "corporatizing" institution, which we immediately assume to be soulless. But it wasn't always seen that way, and it isn't ipso facto true, in any case. I've often thought that hasty conclusion was Pagels' primary scholarly sin. I think in that, I may have been right. In fact, Pagels' NYT column raises a half-serious question (courtesy of my snarky brother): who did write this gospel? And did Judas leave a really long suicide note?

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