Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A New Twist on a Familiar Tale

Reading Judas:
The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity
by Elaine Pagels and Karen King

History is written by the ones who win. That is essentially what Pagels and King are getting at, and it is worth remembering. Pagels and King are both world-renowned scholars who have spent a tremendous amount of time translating and analyzing the Gospel of Judas, which was uncovered in Middle Egypt sometime in the 1970s, but only was made available to scholars much more recently.

Judas forces us to confront assumptions that we have internalized for centuries and at least consider other possibilities for how things might have unfolded during Jesus' life and in the early days of the church. We have made Judas the scapegoat of the crucifixion story, but Judas (both the actual text and Pagel's and King's analysis) suggests that Judas was not the bad guy at all. In fact, he was the only one who really "got it." Judas shows a relationship between Jesus and Judas wherein Judas was Jesus' most trusted confidant. Jesus imparted the "secrets of the kingdom" to Judas, because he was the only one who was spiritual and sophisticated enough to understand them. In this scenario, Judas's betrayal of Jesus is seen as an act of courage, the tipping point after which the rest of the drama unfolds.

Pagels and King acknowledge that the Gospel of Judas must have been written by someone who was feeling very defensive and angry. The text itself definitely has an edge - probably because the writer was not part of mainstream faith or society. One idea of the day that the writer was questioning was martyrdom - the conventional wisdom that Christians should hope to be martyred and even seek it out, because to die for one's faith is to glorify God. The writer of Judas raises the legitimate question "What kind of God wants torture and death for his/her people?" While acknowledging that Christianity's position in society was tenuous at best, and that martyrdom would occur for some unfortunate people, Judas takes the position that martyrdom was not something to be sought after or hoped for.

The writing in Reading Judas is not electrifying, but the book is worth reading for the different perspective that it adds to the biblical narrative. Pagels and King remind us that even the process of developing the canon was undertaken by those who were in power at the time. The books that made it into the Bible as we know it now were the ones that seemed appropriate to Irenaeus, Tertullian, and other 2nd-century church leaders. Pagels and King do not advocate re-opening the question of what writings should be included in the canon, but they make a persuasive case for reading Judas and other non-canonical writings ( such as The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Truth, and The Apocalypse of Peter) now. The more we can learn about the divisions and disagreements of that time, the more we can understand who we are as Christians today and how we came to this point.

Reverent Reader


At 4/29/08, 9:54 PM , Blogger jbl said...

Leslie, why don't we hear more about these conflicts to the canon? It seems to me that there should be some very energetic attempts to consider there importance and impact on the Bible as we know it. Your are right that the authors of this tome do not adress that issue. It seems theologians are hunkering down on these last 30 - 35 years of gospel revelations. Or am I wrong about that?


At 5/1/08, 1:56 PM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

Jim - there have been some attempts to re-emphasize things that were left out of the canon. I am thinking specifically of Pagels' "Beyond Belief," which focuses on the Gospel of Thomas. Also, a guy who is chair of the religion department at UNC Chapel Hill has written several books on the infighting and political machinations that led to the canon as we know it. His name is Bart Ehrman. I have his book "Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew" if you are interested in taking a look at it. Ehrman has also written a few other more recent books. His newest one (I can't remember the title) is about the Bible's utter failure to adequately address the question of why people suffer. I am sure there are others out there, I'll keep my antenna up and let you know what I hear of.


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