Friday, March 9, 2007

The Return of Judas

This week saw the publication of the new book by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King, Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity. With predictable regularity, the media are revving up their annual round of sensationalistic stories calling into question the foundations of Christianity, just as we head into the holiest time of the year. Last year it was the last hurrah of The Da Vinci Code, combined with the unveiling of The Gospel of Judas. This year Judas is back, together with The Jesus Family Tomb.

In National Geographic's article on the Gospel of Judas, Stefan Lovgren wrote:

In the key passage Jesus tells Judas, "‘you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.'"

Kasser, the translation-project leader, offers an interpretation: "Jesus says it is necessary for someone to free him finally from his human body, and he prefers that this liberation be done by a friend rather than by an enemy."

This is indeed the key passage. It shows just how radically different is the Gnosticism of the Judas author from Christianity. The Gnostics believed that the material world was evil and the body was a prison from which the soul must be freed. Christianity, by contrast, affirms the goodness of material creation, as well as the essential unity of body and soul.

This passage from the Gospel of Judas reminds me of the Heaven's Gate UFO cult, which committed suicide en masse in 1997 to depart their bodies and "progress to the next level." The cult's leader said that human bodies are only "the temporary containers of the soul . . . The final act of metamorphosis or separation from the human kingdom is the ‘disconnect' or separation from the human physical container or body in order to be released from the human environment." More info on Heaven's Gate can be found here.

Not all Gnostic sects were as weird as UFO suicide cults, but many of them were. A sect that read the Gospel of Judas and then asked, "What would Jesus do?" might very well go the way of Heaven's Gate.


Shawn and Sara said...

What an interesting parallel. And I had not really thought of the onslaught of this type of writing during the Lenten/Easter season.

I would love to hear your take on this new James Cameron, Tomb of Jesus business (I think that it what it is called). -Sara

Roland said...

I was not able to watch the Discovery Channel program since I don't have cable anymore, but I have followed the story in the media. In particular, I heard an episode of the Diane Rehm Show dedicated to the tomb of Jesus. One of the show's producers was confronted by experts from Duke and Georgetown. The tomb claims rest entirely on garbage-in-garbage-out statistical calculations. No one familiar with the period, or the facts, or basic statistics takes the claims seriously at all.

I think it is a blot on the credibility of the media that they gave such a ridiculous story so much uncritical coverage.

Roland said...

This article in The Chronicle of Higher Education exposes National Geographic's handling of the Gospel of Judas as "scholarly malpractice." The new consensus is that, contrary to the original published interpretations, the gospel does not portray Judas in an entirely good light - in fact Jesus calls him a demon.