Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Judas' Extreme Makeover

OK, first let me say right up that I'm no theologian, but I've been more than a little interested in the tempest of reactions to National Geographic's recent publication of the so-called Gospel of Judas. The ancient text, of course, has captured headlines worldwide for its suggestion that Jesus actually asked Judas to betray him, a directive that allegedly pained Judas greatly.

Let me say first that I agree with many of the religious experts who contend this certainly ain't gonna do much to rehabilitate Judas' image. If Marty Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ couldn't make Judas hip by casting the always-cool Harvey Keitel in the role, then -- as Keitel himself might say --Fuhgeddaboutit. Can't be done.

Besides, a bunch of Biblical scholars are dismissing the Judas text as the mischievous work of 2nd or 3rd century Gnostics. Not being an authority on the subject, I will politely abstain from weighing in on the text's ultimate historical importance.

What I can comment on, however, is the teeth-gnashing, kneejerk conspiracy mongering of some Christian leaders who see the suggestion of a new perspective as part of a full-frontal attack on Christianity. The Oklahoman's Carla Hinton spoke with several Oklahoma City metro ministers whose opinions on the subject were a bit heated:

"The Rev. George Miley, rector at the Anglican Church of the Holy Cross ... questioned the timing of the text's unveiling.

"'Why is it coming to a head now? Because it's time for Easter and they can get some press. It was designed to damage Christianity,' Miley said.

"'It's a means to an end. Look for the book or the speaking tour.'

"Mark Henderson, senior minister of Quail Springs Church of Christ, said he is not surprised that yet another such document surfaced. He said he is shocked to see how much credibility it has received in the media.

"'It's kind of interesting that any document that would tend to cast doubt on the origins of Christianity or cast doubt on Jesus as He's presented in the canonical Gospels is given credence,' Henderson said.

"'The canonical Gospels are treated as fiction, and this new source that takes another view is treated as authentic. Somebody who's looking for a reason not to believe will latch onto this.'


"'There have been plenty of challenges of Christianity from the first century on. Christians, even today, have been persecuted for their faith and what they believe in. I doubt very seriously that they're going to be thrown off stride by this.'"

OK, just to play devil's advocate for a minute (perhaps not the smartest phrase, considering the topic, but what the heck), why would this alternate view, if it were true, necessarily challenge the basic tenets of Christian faith? How would the teachings of Jesus be any less meaningful? Is the crucifixion reduced to rainbows and unicorns if the betrayal had been orchestrated?

Oh, yeah, I remember now: The Bible is literal. Every word of it.

Anyway, as David Gibson writes in The New York Times, Jew-haters need not fret too much. Even though anti-Semitism was undoubtedly fueled by history's caricature of Judas as a beak-nosed malcontent who would do anything for money, the Christian Bible still has plenty to fan the flames of anti-Semitism.

Gibson writes:

" ... Scholars say it can be dangerous to overplay the role of Judas in the history of anti-Semitism because it might obscure the underlying causes of tensions between Christians and Jews. Even if Judas is erased from the Passion narratives, there are many more passages in the New Testament that foes of Judaism can seize on.

"Erasing Judas 'would change the iconography but it would not change the problem of anti-Judaism in a general sense,' said Amy-Jill Levine, a professor of New Testament studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and an adviser to National Geographic for its television account of the research it sponsored on the Judas papyrus. 'Even if you turn Judas into a hero he is still just one character,' Ms. Levine said. 'The Passion narratives are much more complex.'

"Levine and others say that gospel passages like the famous 'blood cry' of Matthew 27:25 were initially far more responsible for Christian animus against Jews than was the figure of Judas.


"In the end, whoever wound up shouldering the role of the Passion's villain, experts say that it would have had little effect on the course of history between these sibling religions (Christianity and Judaism). But those same experts also believe that the current debates provoked by the Judas gospel, while not undoing a painful history, could help Christian-Jewish relations now and in the future."

That's providing there actually is current debate. Judging by the suspicious reaction of at least some Christian leaders, I'm not betting on it.


At 2:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess I've never understood the anti-Semitism-stemming-from-the-Passion thing.

After all, the Apostles were ... Jews. Jesus was ... a Jew. The women who wept as he carried his cross through the streets of Jerusalem were ... Jews. The man who carried his cross when he no longer could, Simon, was ... a Jew. The people who mourned his death were ... Jews.

There seems to a pattern here.

Second comment: There are stacks of gnostic gospels making all sorts of claims about Jesus -- many of these texts have a distinctly New-Agey taint, in that they were heavily influenced by Oriental and Asiatic cults. The discovery of yet one more adds nothing special.

One would not expect outrage as a reaction to nonsense. Instead, I would say the vast majority of Christians pay very little attention to this. It's no different, really, than consistent attacks by skeptics on the historic existence of Jesus. Been going on a long time...

At 2:57 PM, Anonymous Tripper said...

I heard Judas had a hook on his foot.

At 4:55 PM, Anonymous turtleboi said...

How could the guy have a hook on his foot?

That's funny Spaz.

At 5:10 PM, Blogger KnightErrant said...

It was designed to damage Christianity

The thing that most damages Christianity is hate that passes for sacrament among some Christians.

At 12:02 AM, Anonymous Brett said...

I doubt the document's publicity was designed to damage Christianity -- it was designed to maximize publicity. Some other random thoughts:
1. The threat to Christianity doesn't necessarily come through varying details about the Passion story, since the canonical gospels already do that. It comes because, like most Gnostic documents, this text suggests that true Christianity is a secret knowledge, known and taught by a select few and unavailable to most. Christians throughout history have given in to their exclusivist tendencies, but they've usually been pretty clear that the gospel message was available to everyone.
2. Widespread adoption of this text as a somehow more authoritative view of Judas will hardly dampen anti-Semitism. Like many Gnostic texts, it teaches that the God of the Old Testament worshipped by the Hebrews was in fact an evil lesser being who marred the True God's universe by creating physical matter and trapping souls within it. That's doesn't sound like a path away from anti-Semitism to me.
3. If we clergy were to do a better job educating our people in the history of the early church, then these sensationalist tactics accompanying the latest versions of already-discredited heresies would cause much less commotion, and we might never have to read another Dan Brown "novel" again.

At 7:16 AM, Blogger Chase McInerney said...

Interesting perspective there, Brett. You've obviously timed your thoughts to damage this blog post.

At 9:47 AM, Anonymous Brett said...

I was divinely inspired.

At 6:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I find interesting is that the letters [vs. "gospels"] of the new testament were ALSO written in the 2nd and 3rd centuries by gnostic type cults [at least then they were thought of as cults by all the other religiions of crete and rome]. And, the "gospels" Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were written and rewritten [up to as many as 5 times each] in the 5th - 7th century by UNIDENTIFIED persons.

The vatican acknowledges that the person or persons involved in the writing of the "gospels" was not named Matthew, Mark, or Luke and the one who is believed to have written the book of John is one of the Eastern Orthodox Coptics of Turkey with a definite distaste for Judaism and Jews.

But, all that aside, what is really interesting to me, is the fact that at the time that Jesus was supposed to be roaming the hills of galillee and all that, there were FOUR [yes, 4] other men that were claiming to be the messiah as well. ONE of those was "Judas" and another was "John the Baptist".

Both of these are recorded as having gone to the Sanhedrin and presented themselves as such while Jesus did not go to the Sanhedrin or to the Saducees or Pharisees or even to Pilate to declare that he is the messiah.

But, the fact that Judas did and now a gospel appears in his name, hmmmm - interesting. I haven't read it so I don't know what it does or does not say.

But, since the rest of the NT was written at and after the same time should make this as valid as any other text, I would think.

Sounds like it's a matter of whether or not you agree with it.


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