Thursday, May 24, 2007

Reflections on THE GOSPEL OF JUDAS and the history of Christianity

By Elaine Pagels, from Edge
..Anyone who joined this movement was aware that he or she could be killed for it, as many had been—Jesus' closet disciple Peter was crucified by the Romans, Paul was beheaded, while other followers of Jesus, like his brother James and his follower Stephen, were lynched by public mobs and riots. It was very dangerous to be a part of this movement. And one of the most troubling problems with anybody associated with it was, what do you do if you're arrested? What do you do, knowing that this could happen? Do you run? Do you accept persecution as if this were something God wanted? There is a Jewish tradition about persecution and about martyrdom which sees dying for God, as they called it, as a way of witnessing God's power. The followers of Jesus argued intensely about that question. And the Gospel of Judas is one of the writings that comes out of these intense, painful arguments involving the threat of violence—arrest, threat of torture and public execution. This shows us what DIDN'T become Christianity—and casts very new light on what did.

For when Jesus' followers tried to make sense of how their messiah died, some suggested that Jesus died as a sacrifice—"he died for our sins." The idea that Jesus' death is an atonement for the sins of the world becomes the heart of the Christian message, for many. It's certainly the heart of the New Testament gospels. There Jesus, before he dies, tells his disciples, when you eat this bread you're eating my body, which I'm giving for you; you're drinking my blood when you drink this wine. Because I'm giving my body and my blood as a voluntary sacrifice for you. So the worship of Jesus' followers became a sacred meal in which people drank wine and ate bread, ceremonially reenacting the death of Jesus.

We call it the Eucharist, the Mass. We're so used to it we hardly see that it's a cannibalistic feast. But whoever wrote the Gospel of Judas has Jesus laughing at the disciples, to say, what you're doing is ludicrous. Turning the death of Jesus into something like an animal sacrifice. Eating flesh and drinking blood ritually, even, is a kind of obscene gesture. This author, this follower of Jesus, sees the idea of Jesus dying for our sins as a complete misunderstanding of the whole message of Jesus.

So, although the Gospel of Judas is an authentic early Christian document, it was early condemned as "blasphemy". We don't know whether this actually IS what Jesus taught—for although New Testament Gospels say that Jesus did teach secret teaching, they don't tell us what it was. But we do have many new texts that show us secret teaching, like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Phillip. And probably Jesus, like other first-century rabbis, taught one kind of message in public, with thousands of people listening, and other kinds of teaching in private. We don't think the Gospel of Judas belongs in the canon—but we also don't think it belongs in the trash: instead it belongs in the history of Christianity—a history that now, in light of all these recent discoveries, we now have to rewrite completely.

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