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Reading Judas

reading-judas-gospel-shaping-christianity-elaine-pagels-paperback-cover-artElaine Pagels and Karen L. King have done the usual great job in presenting the lost Gospel of Judas, first discovered back in the 1970’s. It has taken a long time for it to hit the mainstream since it passed through many hands and has not stood well the treatment it has received. It has been painstakingly reconstructed, and there is not a great deal missing.

The Gospel was written sometime around the mid-second century C.E. (150 CE). What we have is a copy of that gospel, written in Coptic.

The text itself is quite fascinating, and presents a rather different interpretation of the times of Jesus than is traditionally accepted. Here the disciples are condemned for worshiping a false god, and Jesus makes fun of them a good deal of the time.

Judas, on the other hand, finds favor with Jesus, and seems to understand that God is to be found in the Spirit implanted within us. If we find and live attuned to that Spirit, then upon death, our Soul, joined now with the eternal spirit, will ascend to God. All others, who do not seek the internal Spirit of God, will perish in death at their appointed time.

Further, the Gospel points out that worship of Jesus as sacrificial lamb is wrong as is the Eucharist. Martyrdom is also a false teaching. God wants no one to perish as a statement of belief. Judas ridicules those who would think that a loving God would send his son with the intention that he should martyr himself for “the sins of the world” or that we should partake of ritualistic eating of the “sacrifice” as memory or as part of our worship.

This martyrdom was occurring in Rome, where according to the author, church leaders were encouraging believers to stand fast against Roman demands of offering sacrifice and go to their deaths instead. The Gospel claims that this is heinous, and not at all what Jesus taught or what God wants.

Whether this be true or not, is really beside the point. One must accept that given its time of writing, that the author had no personal knowledge of any of the things of which he speaks. But that may well be true of most of the gospels.

It is known that church fathers such as Irenaeus were well aware of this gospel and others that were adjudged as “non-canonical”. In fact the Gospel of Judas was claimed to be heretical.

When we read the gospel, we learn something powerful beyond the accuracy of its allegations regarding “what Jesus meant”. We learn of the disputes and disagreements which were ongoing within the early Christian communities throughout the area. We know that within each town or city, there were several “churches” oftentimes each using different texts as authoritative and practicing different rituals.

In part, Irenaeus and others were intent upon reaching a concord as to what was “scripture” and what was not, and what was orthodoxy as to practice. In part of course they were also attempting to solidify their own power and control over the various communities and bring them into a greater church framework.

If one reads the average “history of the church” one sees almost none of this. One learns of various “heresies” that were stamped out and the hard work of various saints and church elders who worked tirelessly to grow the church and develop the practices and beliefs that became central to the faith. They do not of course admit that there were often as many if not more in dissent, who too were struggling to win the day.

As is always the case, the winners write the history.

The Gospel of Judas, like so many of the other writings that did not make the canon and were destroyed in attempts to eliminate them from the public, show us that the beliefs and practices of the early church were both diverse and wildly different among churches, even those within one city.

In showing us that well-meaning and pious individuals disagreed broadly on much that we take for granted today, we recognize that it behooves us to be generous in our claims of¬† what constitutes “orthodoxy” ourselves.

The more we learn, the more it seems apparent that those who make claims to being the “true” repository of all truth as regards the life and times of Jesus Christ, are not only wrong, but in serious theological error.

It is an interesting read just for the very different claims it makes as regards the teachings of Christ, but what it tells us about the history of the early church is even more important.

 

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