Idol Chatter

The long-lost “Gospel of Judas” published by the National Geographic Society today has one thing going for it: it’s one of the shortest gospels on record. It’s a mere 25 (very small) pages long, in contrast to the canonical Gospel of Mark, which occupies 27 densely packed, double-column pages in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

The Gospel of Judas is a gnostic document (the version we have is in Coptic, but the original was probably written in Greek during the mid-second century). Like most gnostic documents, it’s all talk, no action, and to modern minds a wee bit dull. In this text, Jesus discovers that out of his 12 disciples, Judas is the only one who is from “another realm.” That is, Judas, like Jesus, wasn’t created by the God of the Old Testament—an evil being in gnostic theology—but by a higher, true God called the “Great One.” After much arcane dialogue, Jesus secretly arranges for Judas to betray him, telling Judas that he will actually be doing a service because the man Jesus will be killed off, releasing his spirit. End of gospel. Jesus laughs quite a bit in this gospel, mostly at how stupid the other disciples—and most of humankind—are. Elsewhere, Jesus sounds like a surprisingly contemporary New Age guru, as when he tells Judas, “The star that leads the way is your star.”

Obviously, the Gospel of Judas is an important and valuable record of the thinking of the gnostics, a heretical Christian sect that flourished during the second century, then gradually died away. As their name “gnostic” (from the Greek word for “knowledge”) indicates, the gnostics believed that people were saved, not by their good deeds or by Christ’s redemption, but by self-knowledge, which was available only to an elite few. The editors of “The Gospel of Judas” explain that gnosticism was one of many “competing” versions of early Christianity wiped out when the orthodox obtained political power. I must say that on aesthetic grounds alone (the canonical Gospels at least tell a rousing story), I’m glad the orthodox won.

The editors of “The Gospel of Judas” also argue that, by rehabilitating Judas into a hero instead of a renegade, the gnostics struck a blow against the anti-Semitism of the early church (Judas’ name in Hebrew is “Judah,” the root word of our word “Jew”). But isn’t dissing the God of the Old Testament just as anti-Semitic?

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