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Theological Notebook: The Gospel of Judas, Gnosticism, and the New York Times

The New York Times published a story today about the release of a translation of a relatively recently discovered Gnostic text entitled "the Gospel of Judas." Despite the non-tabloid nature of the paper, the writers couldn't restrain themselves from trying to jazz up the story with "Da Vinci Code"-style melodrama, trying to play up the idea that this text is somehow shocking, threatening or undermining of orthodox Christian faith. While they make a small factual error in describing a distinct group called the Gnostics – rather than understanding that this is an "umbrella term" we use to describe a number of fringe groups of similar belief in the first few centuries of Christianity – most of the writers' oddities come from overstatement.

For example, the idea that "the discoveries of Gnostic texts have shaken up Biblical scholarship by revealing the diversity of beliefs and practices among early followers of Jesus" is rather silly, especially given that they go on to quote a source like Irenaeus of Lyon's (who died around 220) book on the Gnostics. Even though our possession of many of these Gnostic texts, like those found in 1945 that make up the Nag Hammadi collection, is relatively recent, the Church has always remembered these groups and has preserved a large number of writings dealing with them. In fact, it is in conversation with such groups that orthodox Christianity often clarified its teaching in ancient times. So it's hard to see how gaining copies of some of these texts has managed to "shake up" Biblical scholarship. Christian scholars had always remembered these groups, even if the Times had not, nor, strangely, the ever-enthusiastic Dr. Pagels of Princeton.

Likewise, one has to cringe to read an overwrought sentence like "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." The very thing that is unique about Christianity (along with the Judaism that birthed it) is that unlike all other religions, it is not one that is born in visions or meditations of some founder, but rather develops as an open, public reaction to a series of historical and political events, if ones with great spiritual, philosophical and theological significance. Rather than producing a generation of Christians who now regard the Bible not as the literal word of God (whatever that is supposed to mean – lots of possibilities there), the writers have in fact described the circumstances of all educated believers who have some sense of the Bible as an inspired collection of literature. So perhaps there is a lot of drama there, but the writers are looking for it in the wrong spot.

So the idea that these discoveries "have proved deeply troubling for many believers," seems more one that the writers are trying to create than one that is being accurately reported. In fact, the Church continues to hold all forms of Gnosticism as incompatible with Christian faith. (And versions of these ideas are recycled all the time.) But the anti-materialism of the Gnostics, with their belief that physical reality is an evil and that human beings have to move to a kind of distilled state of "spirit" is the very opposite of the Incarnational faith that sees God as having become human (or "one of us," as Joan Osborne put it) in Jesus of Nazareth. With that hatred of matter came Gnosticism's hatred of the human body, particularly of sexuality, which the Church has always affirmed as a good (if a complicated one). Gnosticism also has a strong tendency to lean toward determinisms of various sorts, setting itself off as an elite in a fairly racist fashion, though a "racism" of spiritual races of humanity (mostly men) rather than of races based on skin colour. Does this sound like anything anyone wants to endorse? Does it sound like the Church would find this to be a threatening, superior good?

Not really. It boggles my mind to hear some people speak of Gnosticism as some "repressed Church" that, only had it beaten out Rome as the center of Christianity, would have had us all dancing in the streets and loving one another today. I tend to suspect such people have generally not read such Gnostic classics as The Hypostasis of the Archons, and that what we are getting are the sounds of people's current arguments with the Church rather than responsible, disinterested and scientific study of the past. The Gnosticisms were opposed in antiquity because they didn't follow the historical, Jewish Jesus. And good riddance.

Other than that sort of nonsense of today's religious or anti-religious politics being snuck into the text, this is a pretty good article.


The New York Times
April 6, 2006
'Gospel of Judas' Surfaces After 1,700 Years

An early Christian manuscript, including the only known text of what is known as the Gospel of Judas, has surfaced after 1,700 years. 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.

The discovery in the desert of Egypt of the leather-bound papyrus manuscript, and now its translation, was announced by the National Geographic Society at a news conference in Washington. The 26-page Judas text is said to be a copy in Coptic, made around A. D. 300, of the original Gospel of Judas, written in Greek the century before.

Terry Garcia, an executive vice president of the geographic society, said the manuscript, or codex, is considered by scholars and scientists to be the most significant ancient, nonbiblical text to be found in the past 60 years.

"The codex has been authenticated as a genuine work of ancient Christian apocryphal literature," Mr. Garcia said, citing extensive tests of radiocarbon dating, ink analysis and multispectral imaging and studies of the script and linguistic style. The ink, for example, was consistent with ink of that era, and there was no evidence of multiple rewriting.

"This is absolutely typical of ancient Coptic manuscripts," said Stephen Emmel, professor of Coptic studies at the University of Munster in Germany. "I am completely convinced."

The most revealing passages in the Judas manuscript begins, "The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week, three days before he celebrated Passover."

The account goes on to relate that Jesus refers to the other disciples, telling Judas "you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me." By that, scholars familiar with Gnostic thinking said, Jesus meant that by helping him get rid of his physical flesh, Judas will act to liberate the true spiritual self or divine being within Jesus.

Unlike the accounts in the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the anonymous author of the Gospel of Judas believed that Judas Iscariot alone among the 12 disciples understood the meaning of Jesus' teachings and acceded to his will. In the diversity of early Christian thought, a group known as Gnostics believed in a secret knowledge of how people could escape the prisons of their material bodies and return to the spiritual realm from which they came.

Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton who specializes in studies of the Gnostics, said in a statement, "These discoveries are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion, and demonstrating how diverse — and fascinating — the early Christian movement really was."

The Gospel of Judas is only one of many texts discovered in the last 65 years, including the gospels of Thomas, Mary Magdalene and Philip, believed to be written by Gnostics.

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.

For that reason, the discoveries have proved deeply troubling for many believers. The Gospel of Judas portrays Judas Iscariot not as a betrayer of Jesus, but as his most favored disciple and willing collaborator.

Scholars say that they have long been on the lookout for the Gospel of Judas because of a reference to what was probably an early version of it in a text called Against Heresies, written by Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, about the year 180.

Irenaeus was a hunter of heretics, and no friend of the Gnostics. He wrote, "They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas."

Karen L. King, a professor of the history of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, and an expert in Gnosticism who has not yet read the manuscript released today, said that the Gospel of Judas may well reflect the kinds of debates that arose in the second and third century among Christians.

"You can see how early Christians could say, if Jesus's death was all part of God's plan, then Judas's betrayal was part of God's plan," said Ms. King, the author of several books on the Gospel of Mary. "So what does that make Judas? Is he the betrayer, or the facilitator of salvation, the guy who makes the crucifixion possible?"

At least one scholar said the new manuscript does not contain anything dramatic that would change or undermine traditional understanding of the Bible. James M. Robinson, a retired professor of Coptic studies at Claremont Graduate University, was the general editor of the English edition of the Nag Hammadi library, a collection of Gnostic documents discovered in Egypt in 1945.

"Correctly understood, there's nothing undermining about the Gospel of Judas," Mr. Robinson said in a telephone interview. He said that the New Testament gospels of John and Mark both contain passages that suggest that Jesus not only picked Judas to betray him, but actually encouraged Judas to hand him over to those he knew would crucify him.

Mr. Robinson's book, "The Secrets of Judas: The Story of the Misunderstood Disciple and his Lost Gospel" (Harper San Francisco, April 2006), predicts the contents of the Gospel of Judas based on his knowledge of Gnostic and Coptic texts, even though he was not part of the team of researchers working on the document.

The Egyptian copy of the gospel was written on 13 sheets of papyrus, both front and back, and found in a multitude of brittle fragments.

Rudolphe Kasser, a Swiss scholar of Coptic studies, directed the team that reconstructed and translated the script. The effort, organized by the National Geographic, was supported by Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art, in Basel, Switzerland, and the Waitt Institute for Historical Discovery, an American nonprofit organization for the application of technology in historical and scientific projects.

The entire 66-page codex also contains a text titled James (also known as First Apocalypse of James), a letter by Peter and a text of what scholars are provisionally calling Book of Allogenes.

Discovered in the 1970's in a cavern near El Minya, Egypt, the document circulated for years among antiquities dealers in Egypt, then Europe and finally in the United States. It moldered in a safe-deposit box at a bank in Hicksville, N. Y., for 16 years before being bought in 2000 by a Zurich dealer, Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos. The manuscript was given the name Codex Tchacos.

When attempts to resell the codex failed, Ms. Nussberger-Tchacos turned it over to the Maecenas Foundation for conservation and translation.

Mr. Robinson said that an Egyptian antiquities dealer offered to sell him the document in 1983 for $3 million, but that he could not raise the money. He criticized the scholars now associated with the project, some of whom are his former students, because he said they violated an agreement made years ago by Coptic scholars that new discoveries should be made accessible to all qualified scholars.

The manuscript will ultimately be returned to Egypt, where it was discovered, and housed in the Coptic Museum in Cairo.

Ted Waitt, the founder and former chief executive of Gateway, said that his foundation, the Waitt Institute for Historical Discovery, gave the National Geographic Society a grant of more than $1 million to restore and preserve the manuscript and make it available to the public.

" I didn't know a whole lot until I got into this about the early days of Christianity. It was just extremely fascinating to me," Mr. Waitt said in a telephone interview. He said he had no motivation other than being fascinated by the finding. He said that after the document was carbon dated and the ink tested, procedures his foundation paid for, he had no question about its authenticity. "You can potentially question the translation and the interpretation, he said, but you can't fake something like this. It would be impossible."
Tags: biblical studies, books, cultural, historical, media, mysticism/spirituality, new york times, theological notebook

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