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Not Prince Hamlet

"Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse."

Judas Was A Good Guy (And Other Shocking Overstatements)

Monday, April 17, 2006

First The DaVinci Code and now this. And during Easter week, too. Either the minds behind last week’s publication of a manuscript of The Gospel of Judas are totally unaware of the religious frenzy cause by Dan Brown’s book (soon to be released as a movie), or they are totally in league with it.

The timing of the publication couldn’t have been more inconvenient. During the Christian church’s most hallowed week of the year, the National Geographic Society held a press conference to announce that it was publishing a manuscript of a long-lost early Christian writing, one that takes the very Biblical account of Jesus’ betrayal that millions of Christians around the world were simultaneously rehearsing, and turns it completely on its head.

It seems Judas was a saint, not a traitor.

On a related note, this just in: Genghis Khan was a sensitive artist, Mussolini was a lilting peacenik, and Buddy Bell has resigned from the Royals to join the touring cast of Cabaret.

Predictably, mainstream media outlets pounced on the Judas story. “Text might be hidden ‘Gospel of Judas’” proclaimed a CNN.com headline. The Arizona Daily Star announced, “New Light Shed on Judas’ Role.” Christians everywhere railed against the God-less forces of liberalism and academia. The Pope re-excoriated Judas as a “greedy liar”; the Archbishop of Canterbury took aim at “conspiracy theories” that infect the faith with doubt.

My grandpa said, “It just aint right.”

What they all saw proof of was that the revisionist advance upon the fortress of Christian doctrine had quickened. Or gained another weapon. Or whatever.

I, for one, am not worried. I don’t count myself among those who sense in announcements like this an urgent call to arms, a do-or-die moment of truth for Christian truth claims. I don’t share the fear of many that the machinery of modern technology and skepticism will stop at nothing to bring down the world’s most widespread religion. I just don’t.

Because, for one thing, announcements like these (and the press reaction they arouse) are almost always overblown; they promise more than they deliver, and much of their effect comes from what they leave out. So there is to be published a translation of a “long lost” gospel, one that directly contradicts the claims of the gospels in the Bible?

So what? It’s only “long lost” to contemporary historians and scholars. The early church knew all about The Gospel of Judas, just like it knew all about the scores of other Gnostic gospels (the genre to which Judas belongs) that were written and circulated during the second and third centuries.

Irenaeus, the second century Bishop of Lyon, wrote about those who declared that, “He [Judas] alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal.” He dismisses their declaration as “fictional history.”

But here’s the main reason why announcements like the Judas discovery don’t compel me to take up my position on the battlefield of doctrine: I think the more we know the better. I think Jesus meant it when he said that the truth will “set you free.” And I don’t think the truth can flourish in a climate of fear and militant opposition to discovery.

The publication of The Gospel of Judas is less of an earthquake than the buzz would have you believe. After all, it’s hardly a new discovery; it was unearthed over 30 years ago in the Egyptian desert and has collected dust at an antique shop for much of the time since then. It’s a partially-reconstructed document that is missing entire pages and that has suffered badly from neglect and profiteering (individual pages of it have been auctioned off to the highest bidders).

And it’s a Gnostic gospel. Like all the other Gnostic gospels, it professes not faith but “special knowledge” a revelation given to a select few who are able to transcend the corrupt limitations of bodily existence. It belongs to a thought system that the church dispatched as wrongheaded long, long ago.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading. And that doesn’t mean that good Christians everywhere should line up to suppress and discredit it. It is, after all, a genuine historical document, a circa 300 a.d. Greek copy of a dialogue gospel originally written in the late second century. It confirms much of what history has known about Gnosticism, that early esoteric cousin of Orthodoxy. It’s really kind of cool.

And, yes, it yields an uncomfortable perspective on Judas, one that praises him for his role in Jesus’ death, which will no doubt delight historians and trouble (if not outrage) the faithful.

But can faith that has never been troubled really stand up to scrutiny? I don’t think so. The tendency to suppress views and claims that don’t gel with the ones you already have isn’t faith; it’s ignorance. And Jesus doesn’t condone ignorance, no matter which gospel you’re reading.


posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 4:31 PM


well said Rocky! I couldn't have articulated it any better!
commented by Blogger Michael, 12:09 PM  

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