Thursday, April 06, 2006

Things people like me get excited about

Biblical scholars have unveiled the Gospel of Judas, a third-century papyrus manuscript of a second-century "Gnostic" (why did I use quotes?) gospel that claims Judas was the only guy who really understood Jesus and betrayed him so Jesus could fulfill his messianic mission. (The four gospels in the Bible are only a few of the texts written about Jesus, although they're the earliest to be composed. Many others exist in complete or fragmentary form, the most complete and most famous being the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of Jesus' sayings that shares some phrases in common with Matthew/Mark/Luke but is also quirky.)

Probably legit. Irenaeus referred to the Gospel of Judas in Against Heresies at the end of the second century. All the paleography, carbon-dating, etc. checks out. Or so they say. I don't get to look at a lot of third-century Egyptian papyri, and I don't know Coptic, although knowing Coptic would be way cool.

It does engage the question, doesn't it, of how there could have been a passion without Judas? One can kind of see the philosophical appeal. But then there's the typical gnosticism-so-called: the body-spirit dualism, the idea that Judas had some Special Knowlege (Only $19.95! Smug sense of superiority our special gift to you when you order today!), etc. Not my style.

From the NY Times article:

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.

By now, after the discovery and translation of the Nag Hammadi texts (yeah, that happened decades ago, but in the world of scholarship, anything that wasn't written by nineteenth-century Germans--how I do love to poke fun at nineteenth-century Germans!--is recent) and the kerfuffle over The Da Vinci Code, it seems to me that the diversity of thought in the early church should be a given and we can all calm down now. Maybe it's only obvious because I study this stuff, and because I took about a zillion classes for my MA with names like Orthodoxy, Heresy, and Religious Coercion in Early Christianity (our listserv address was heretics@u... which was kind of neat), but I don't know. With all the Dan Brown/Elaine Pagels/Bart Ehrman books published lately, I thought this had more or less seeped into popular culture. No need to move on if everyone finds it interesting (I'm a little tired of it, but that's why I study what I do and not Gnosticism), but a fact like "Other Gospels Exist!" can only be news so many times. Or not. Newsweek keeps doing cover stories about things I thought I already knew.

This report does seem peculiarly timed to coincide with the release of The Da Vinci Code: Now a Major Motion Picture! (the scholars involved have been pasting together the little scraps of manuscript for years now, so what's another month or two?), or with the western churches' commemoration of the Passion, but maybe that's just a coincidence.

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