Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Reading Judas

Reading Judas: the Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of  Christianity
© 2007 Elaine Pagels and Karen King
198 pages, including the author's own work, the text itself, and commentary on the translation.

Jesus Christ was a man who traveled through the land
A hard-working man and brave --
He said to the rich, "Give your money to the poor,"
But they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

Jesus was a man, a carpenter by hand
His followers true and brave.
One dirty coward called Judas Iscariot
Has laid Jesus Christ in his grave.
(Woody Guthrie, "Jesus Christ".)

Mostly on a whim, I picked up Reading Judas on my way out of the library last week. I heard of the book as being Judas' account of Jesus' last days, in which Judas is hand-picked by Jesus to 'betray' his master, and thus serve him in the greatest way possible by allowing Jesus to fulfill his mission. This is controversial, since the canonical treatment of Judas is as a 'dirty coward' who betrayed Jesus for spite or money.

According to Pagels and King, though, and judging from the text of Judas -- included in this volume -- Judas wasn't written primarily to redeem or even defend Judas. The authors see it as another voice in the pre-Nicaean debate on who Jesus was, why he died, why he rose again, and what his followers should do in light of his example. A new cosmology dominates the text, and Judas takes central place for he is the only one of Jesus' disciples willing enough to depart from the old ways and learn it. Jesus sees his potential and takes him aside, teaching him in private while they ruefully shake their heads at the hidebound ignorance of the others. The author of the Judas text uses it to promote a world-view in which material matters are wholly irrelevant, where reality lies in the world of the spirits. That's where Judas realizes Jesus is from: the world of the spirit, and his death is a clarion call to followers that death is nothing: all that matters is spirit.

In the first century of Christian history -- or histories, as the authors see this time as an era of bitter rivalry between schools of thought, all of whom fixate on a particular teacher (Peter, Paul, James, and in this case Judas) as their banner -- many Christians were still waiting the return of Jesus to establish an actual kingdom on Earth. As time passes and Jesus is a no-show, Christianity moves more toward seeing that kingdom as spiritual, and becomes more concerned with spiritual matters. I suppose the watershed event is Augustine's City of God.  What Judas' author proposes is not all that controversial in reality, since Christians are oh-so-eager to defame the world and put their hopes in metaphysics. I'd wager Christians reading Judas would not be shocked by a preconceived idea that it defends Judas, but by the new cosmology, which refers to the god of sacrifice, violence, and blood that the disciples worshiped as  a "lower angel". The "true God" is better than that, and in Judas' eyes, that's what Jesus was sent to say.

Christian theology isn't one of my subjects of interest (theology in general, for that matter), but Reading Judas   added to my understanding of that early period. The authors of this book helped immensely, of course, introducing the book by examining the text in context before producing it. The four opening chapters examine Judas' perception as a traitor, the roles he plays in other texts, the book's cosmology, and its theology. This gospel is unlike the canonical books, which exist mostly as collection of stories throughout his life: it seems to be set in the week before Jesus' passover death. The text is also incomplete:  while the "holy" gospels were protected, Judas was left on its own and became holey in another way.* There are long portions of undisturbed text, but they may be followed by passages that have been nearly obliterated. An patchwork example follows.

"Jesus said [to them], "Cease sac[rificing........]. "It is upon the alt[a]r that yo[u........] [for they are] over your stars and angels, having already been completed there. Let them become [...] again right in front of you, and let them.... [about fifteen and a half lines are missing from the manuscript] to the races [...]. It is not possible for a bak[er] to feed the whole creation under [heaven]." (113-114) 

Passages like these are near-unintelligible, but the text is lucid for the most part. I can recommend this book to Christians, who won't find it as shocking as the "controversy" leads them to expect, or to anyone interested in early Christianity.

*Bless me father, for I have sinned.

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