"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Gospel-of-Judas thing

A couple of old friends have asked me what I think of the current discussion about the Gospel of Judas. Many bloggers have already commented, some brilliantly. Examples: Mark Brumley (via Carl Olson) and Al Kimel. They express my overall attitude, but I think it important to highlight something we're seeing over and over again in this post-Christian age.

Many people seem to imagine that all this earnest talk is theologically significant. It is not. The Church knew quite well about the Gospel of Judas, and for that matter the gospels of Thomas, Mary Magdalene, and a few others dubbed by Elaine Pagels as "the Gnostic gospels." In the second century many people read them and some put credence in them. In response, the Church determined that such "gospels" did not accurately convey the faith of the Apostles. There's really no good reason to doubt that. And I said as much to Elaine when I took New Testament from her at Columbia way back in 1979 when she was finishing The Gnostic Gospels, which is still in print and has influenced millions.

Remember that, throughout that century, there were people who personally knew people who had personally known the Apostles. The question whether the Gnostic gospels were faithful accounts of Jesus, his life, and his teachings could accordingly be answered fairly and accurately in a recognizably human way. We know the answer given: only the four "canonical" gospels were judged reliable as records of the apostolic faith despite their evident divergence on some points, which were of course also known at the time. In the case of the Gospel of Judas, we have the testimony of St. Irenaeus (circa 180) that the Catholic Church even then considered it unreliable. Thus:

Others again declare that Cain derived his being from the Power above, and acknowledge that Esau, Korah, the Sodomites, and all such persons, are related to themselves. On this account, they add, they have been assailed by the Creator, yet no one of them has suffered injury. For Sophia was in the habit of carrying off that which belonged to her from them to herself. They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.

So, what we have here is a case of Christianity vs. Gnosticism, an argument that took place nearly 1,800 years ago and whose result we have known almost as long. Gnosticism was deemed bunk in the second century, and it's still bunk. Why, then, is it now being revived as though it were something new and exciting?

Simple: many people are bored with Christianity and prefer almost any of its competitors, including but not limited to Gnosticism. Hence the rage for The DaVinci Code, a piece of shoddy anti-Catholic propaganda masquerading as fiction. Almost anything, fact or fiction, that can be used to cast doubt on traditional, "mere" Christianity gets played up in the media and discussed in every quarter. The buzz thereby generated is then taken as evidence that something important is afoot and that the Church in on the defensive. It's the same thing one sees in lots of other areas. The mere fact that something is controverted, no matter how bad the reasons why, makes into a "controversial" issue something that, objectively speaking, there is no good reason to controvert. I shouldn't have to multiply examples of that.

I suppose that's part of the price we pay for living in a free, secular society. But it sure gives Old Scratch a wide opening indeed.

blog comments powered by Disqus