Friday, April 07, 2006

The Lost Gospel?

A word about the newly announced "Gospel of Judas," which National Geographic was breathlessly promoting to booksellers a few months ago, all the while withholding all information about it save that it would be a major event:


Probably that is too dismissive. No, certainly that is too dismissive. Here is what National Geographic is saying about it at their website:

"The Gospel provides an alternative view of the Jesus-Judas relationship and evidences the diverse theological beliefs that circulated among early Christians."
That sounds about right; if only it would stop there. This is an important find; for Biblical historians; of that there is no doubt. But I have a copy of The Complete Gospels, assembled and published by the Jesus Seminar. It includes the canonical gospels as well as: The Signs Gospel; The Dialogue of the Savior; Secret James; The Gospel of Thomas; Q; The Gospel of Mary; The Infancy Gospel of James; The Gospel of Peter; The Infancy Gospel of Thomas; Secret Mark; and the Egerton Gospel, along with various other bits and pieces. So this "Gospel of Judas" isn't exactly the lost coin or the single straying sheep. Frankly, I'd rather find a copy of Secret Mark. We only have two excerpts from that Gospel, in a fragment of a letter from Clement of Alexandria. The major interest is it seems to explain the strange appearance of a figure of a naked man running from the arrest of Jesus (check Mark's story and you tell me where he comes from).

In a time over-heated by The Da Vinci Code, when yet another book is already out claiming Jesus left children and didn't die on the cross (and this author has evidence of the 2000 year old conspiracy to cover this up!), it's all too clear what market The Lost Gospel is meant to appeal to. And I don't blame National Geographic from wanting to cash in.

I'm just not convinced there is any there, there. Dom Crossan, in a lecture he gave when I was at Eden (material I think he included in his book on the crucifixion, and how it was wrongly attributed to the Jews, one of the worst source of anti-Semitism in Western culture), claimed that "Judas Iscariot" probably didn't even exist, largely based on the name. "Judas," if I recall correctly, is an unattested name in the literature, but clearly derives from "Judea," from which place name the Romans got "Judean." German still retains almost that pronunciation: "J├╝den." In English, we say "Jews." Crossan's argument is that the name designates, not a person, but a people. When you are a marginal religion among the marginal people, it's best not to incite the Empire against you; safer to blame another marginal people. That's only a piece of his argument, from a memory that is now over 10 years old, but there is good reason to believe "Judas" was an invention of the early church, and little reason to believe he was a real person. So the idea that there was a relationship between Judas and Jesus is about as probable as the idea that in his youth Jesus caused a rainbow bridge to appear over a lake, the better to lure children onto it to their doom. Yet that is the story in one of the infancy gospels.

Sadly, however, this is not how it is going to be reported in the press. The New York Times article opens this way:

The text gives new insights into the relationship of Jesus and the disciple who betrayed him, scholars reported today. In this version, Jesus asked Judas, as a close friend, to sell him out to the authorities, telling Judas he will "exceed" the other disciples by doing so.

Though some theologians have hypothesized this, scholars who have studied the new-found text said, this is the first time an ancient document defends the idea.
As Mahanoy indicates at Street Prophets (and the analysis there is very good), this is simply indicative of a Gnostic text, not of a whole new light shed on the "truth" of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Not unless, as I say, we are going to take the Infancy Gospel equally seriously. There will be comments like those of Craig Evans of Acadia Divinity College:

"It is possible that the Gospel of Judas preserves an old memory that Jesus had actually instructed Judas in private, and the other disciples did not know about it," Dr. Evans said.
But frankly, that strikes me as being about as plausible as the theory that Jesus walked on ice, and it looked like water.

In the end, I suspect this isn't even as explosive as Elaine Pagels thinks it is: "These discoveries are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion, and demonstrating how diverse — and fascinating — the early Christian movement really was." "Exploding" is perhaps a little strong. It certainly adds a new source for our knowledge of the early Christians. But it also means we have to endure statements which are, frankly, just stupid. As the NYT article points out, the Gospel of Thomas introduced popular audiences to the idea of the Gnostics in 1959:

The Gnostics' beliefs were often viewed by bishops and early church leaders as unorthodox, and they were frequently denounced as heretics. The discoveries of Gnostic texts have shaken up Biblical scholarship by revealing the diversity of beliefs and practices among early followers of Jesus.

As the findings have trickled down to churches and universities, they have produced a new generation of Christians who now regard the Bible not as the literal word of God, but as a product of historical and political forces that determined which texts should be included in the canon, and which edited out.
But the Bible as the "literal word of God" was more a product of the post-Enlightenment era, and itself only became popular in the late 19th century, as a response to German hermeneutics which challenged the readings of the texts in ways the discoveris of Nag Hammadi could never do. Before the German scholars, we all largely accepted that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, that there was one Isaiah, that Paul was the author of all the letters attributed to him, and that the Gospel writers were contemporaries of Jesus.

The generations of Christians that learned otherwise, especially in Europe, were hardly "new" by the late 1950's. This is why new Biblical discoveries vex me, more than thrill me.

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