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The Big Picture

'Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons.' -- Vizzini from "The Princess Bride"

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Judas, Jesus, Gnosis and Christianity

Let me open with a flat statement: I doubt there will be much of an impact from the relase of the text of "The Gospel of Judas" on anyone, from Biblical scholars, to the Vatican, to priests, ministers and preachers, to the Christian lay people. They will all find it interesting to some degree or other, but in the end it will change very little on their perspective of ancient Christianity. If anything, it will give more insight into the Gnostics for Biblical scholars but that is about it.

My reaction is similar. I think it will add something to debate over Thomas "The Twin" in the Gospel of John, and who was the "disciple whom Jesus loved" but in the end, its impact will be minimal. (Maybe down the road I will write about this in light of the new info on Judas.) At least it won't turn out to be a hoax like the inscription on the James Ossuary. Otherwise, it will affect little in terms of the current views of Gnostic Christians from either a theological or a skeptical point of view. I will endeavor to discuss the Gnostics and what this document really means. Hopefully you will take from it that it really does change little, other than help cement what was already known.

The Gospel of Judas paints Judas in an entirely new light, one much more positive than the traditional 'traitor' as found in the gospels... Judas was potrayed as the one disciple whom Jesus trusted with all the secrets of heaven, and who helped release Jesus from his fleshly body. This new insight into what ancient Christians believed about Judas and Jesus really would only change their view of Judas in the Passion -- if they accept it to be true. It would require a rewrite of Mel Gibson's bloody tome, but that would be about the extent of the real effect.

The first fact that jumps out from the news stories is that this document was produced by the Gnostic Christians. The Gnostics played an interesting role in early Christianity, much larger than today's Christians acknowledge or are even aware of. Paul was a gnostic, as were many of the early Church leaders. They escaped the charge of heresy because of time and popularity (fame among Christians of the time). The gnostic aspect of these founders was effectively whitewashed via a simple tool, converting the gnosis into spirit. Evidence of this still abounds today, all one has to do is open the Bible and read Paul's epistles (the letters that made him indespensibly famous). He speaks of Jesus only in spiritual terms and talks of knowledge of Jesus. He noticably never speaks of Jesus of Nazareth, and considers the Jerusalem Apostles to have no more authority than he (something that would have been impossible if Jesus had been real and had had disciples/apostles as they would be the go-to authority over Paul's conversion to apostleship).

Judas was a utilitarian tool for God/Jesus either way (either Judas was inspired by Satan or Jesus, but he still handed Him over), so it makes no difference to the actual redemptive act of death-as-sacrifice. The only real impact would be the final status of Judas' soul, heaven or hell. Liken this utilitarianism to the Pharaoh for Moses. God used him as a foil to achieve a means as well; recall that God "hardened Pharaoh's heart" towards Moses' request to free his people. It would only be a minor point of quibble over the scant passages in the canonical gospels that describe Judas' heart, as the Bible is full of contradictions elsewhere, what would one more be if it was merely who put Judas up to his act.

But is this the extent I, bible scholars, or Christians at large can take this new insight into the New Testament's most treacherous character? Or can we dig deeper and benefit from more analysis? I think so. I think even Christians would stand to gain, if only to re-emphasize the 'spiritual' origin and nature of Christianity. That was Paul's emphasis after all.

The usefulness of this new piece of history to us is to serve as concrete evidence of the broadness -- the variety -- of early Christian beliefs. This is counter-intuitive to what one would expect to find concerning those first Christians. They should all have quite consistent views concerning the facts of Jesus' life, who his disciples were, and their social structure; and by contrast, wide differences in the theological teachings of the new religion. But what we see is almost complete consistency in theology, all agree Jesus was God, all agree to Jesus' redeeming humanity, faith and belief, and the new magical powers bestowed upon the believers. According to Paul, the major disputes concerned facts, did Jesus really rise from the dead, did he intend to save gentiles, did he intend to uphold or abandon Mosaic law. These were all things Jesus supposedly preached on, according to the Gospels, so it would have been a matter of record -- fact -- not theology, although they are theological in nature.

The role of Judas is just another example of the factual disparity displayed by early Christians. This is just another fact which was disputed; whereas the underlying and more crucial theology was not. It is backwards for this simple reason: It is quick and easy to learn a story, to grasp the facts of the story, but understanding the meaning, is very difficult. Anyone can read a Shakespeare play and learn the characters, what they did, etc. But it takes great effort to understand What Shakespeare was trying to say about his society, and humanity in general, people still disagree on that. Yet the opposite was true of the first Christians, they didn't get the story, but they did get the theology.

Recall that at the time there were numerous 'messiahs' in Judah, all professing to be the 'son of God'. Thus it would have been absolutely crucial to keep the facts straight about Jesus so that false doctrines wouldn't creep into that early Christianity via confusing one messiah with another. Again this is the opposite of what we know to have happened.

The gospel of Judas, then when considered in this light, provides more evidence that the theology developed earlier; likely based on Hellenistic philosophy, reaction of Jewish theology to Roman occupation (the beginnings of midrash of the Scriptures), the messianic teacher cults that emerged from Essenism, Far Eastern mysticism, and the ancient 'mystery religions' (Paganism). The Roman empire served to bring all those cultural theologies together in one place, from which the first Christian leaders could pick and choose what to include in their new doctrine. The biggest influence on these first Christians was an intense nationalism steeped in their religious convictions of being God's 'chosen people' and the midrash of the prophet's teachings being taught in synagogues, which was challenged by the reality of emphasize events of the day -- Roman occupation, and Roman corruption of the Hebrew religion.

The messiah of the first Christians was a teacher, so he could lead his people away from the Roman influence on their religion. He was a savior who would restore the kingdom of Israel. He was a redeemer who would remove, once and for all, the sins of the Hebrews. None of this required a real human to accomplish these goals, and because God was uncorrupted with human sinfulness, he could not be human. Thus, the first we hear of Jesus, there was no humanity associated with him -- He was a person, only in the sense that a ghost or spirit was a person. Paul provides us with this evidence in his epistles.

As things got worse politically, concerning the Romans, current events needed to be included, and new teachings of Jesus as well that addressed this. This was the second level of the theology of Jesus, and again is quite consistent among the first Christians. The main schism here were the jews/gentiles who were sympathetic to the Romans, and those who wanted total liberation from the Romans. This dichotomy is witnessed in the gospel of John; the clear split in the character of Jesus, and the long 'trial' that was sympathetic to the Romans.

The third level of Jesus, is his complete humanization and creation of a back story. This making of the messiah into a complete human is witnessed in the synoptic gospels. Here is the point where the facts of Jesus come into play. The theology behind Jesus has now been around for decades and is well settled. Even in the synoptics there is a wide variance of what the life of Jesus entailed. All the different centers of Christianity had been developing their own back stories of Jesus and were unwilling to simply let them go, thus to bring in as much of these stories as possible, a ‘compound’ story was created by combining all the details as best as possible. This was done while keeping the theology intact and preserving their Hebrew heritage, and created a life and set of teachings that on the whole was very contradictory but in pieces made each Christian group happy. Once this occurred, the new religion was for the most part centralized, allowing the odd 'heresies' to be weeded out. This was necessary for the survival of the religion and the ultimate achievement of its goals: The new Kingdom of Israel, but in the Kingdom of Heaven.

So what we've seen is that Christianity was built from the ground up starting with a common cause and thus unified theology, as the religion grew and as current events changed, more was added to the religion, until finally a person was put to the name and his history was added. Since different groups had different traditions/needs/stories they had to be included to keep the religion unified. Finally the last remaining heresies were eliminated, Gnosticism being one of them. The irony is that Christianity began as a gnostic religion, but due to political pressures and the need to maintain centrality, the Gnostics were ultimately pushed out of the religion they created.

It should be apparent now that history, and the New Testament itself, tells us the real story of Christianity -- that the facts of the life of Jesus were the last aspects of the religion to be determined, this is evidenced by the wide variety of facts, when history says the opposite should be true. People would know the story of Jesus before they learned the theology of Christianity.

The gospel of Judas is simply the latest historical evidence of this truth. It proves that late in the game, people were more in agreement and steeped in understanding of the theology than they were in the facts, the life of Jesus. Recall that Gnosticism taught a spiritual Jesus, not a historical human Jesus. Thus they disputed the facts, not the theology. The fact that they too had stories of Jesus proves nothing about their belief in the humanity of Jesus. They use stories to convey the doctrines. Judas was important to them because he was the person who released Jesus. Since Gnostics didn't think they were historical people, the act of Judas was not sinful, it was only when the story came to be viewed as historical did the purpose of Judas change; it had to because he was now conspiring with the enemies, the Romans and their Jewish sympathizers (Pharisees and Sadducees). Thus Judas could no longer be viewed as a hero who released the messiah, but as the traitor who handed him over to be executed by the Romans.

It is interesting to note that the four gospels are canon and thus considered the 'Truth'. This new gospel is not considered to be the truth. What is interesting is that it is historical, in that back in the first and second centuries there were many Christians who did consider it Truth and they did so before the canon New Testament was voted on by committee. They were also living and believing much closer to the time of Christ, yet none of this will ever play in the decision-making of today's Christians; mainly concerning what this can tell them about their own religion. One would think learning the historical truth about the Truth they hold dear would be irresistibly compelling; learning what the gospel of Judas has to say about their religion. But it seems that modern doctrines are more important to them than knowing what Christians at the beginning of their religion taught as doctrine, even if it later was rejected as non-canonical. Those Christians were the ones with the most insight into the religion ever.

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