Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Judas in the New Yorker

August 3's edition of the New Yorker has an article by Joan Acocella discussing Judas traditions with special focus on the Gospel of Judas.

Did Judas deserve this fate? If Jesus informs you that you will betray him, and tells you to hurry up and do it, are you really responsible for your act? Furthermore, if your act sets in motion the process—Christ’s Passion—whereby humankind is saved, shouldn’t somebody thank you? No, the Church says. If you betray your friend, you are a sinner, no matter how foreordained or collaterally beneficial your sin. And, if the friend should happen to be the Son of God, so much the worse for you.

For two thousand years, Judas has therefore been Christianity’s primary image of human evil. Now, however, there is an effort to rehabilitate him, the result, partly, of an archeological find. In 1978 or thereabouts, some peasants digging for treasure in a burial cave in Middle Egypt came upon an old codex—that is, not a scroll but what we would call a book, with pages—written in Coptic, the last form of ancient Egyptian. The book has been dated to the third or fourth century, but scholars believe that the four texts it contains are translations of writings, in Greek, from around the second century. When the codex was found, it was reportedly in good condition, but it then underwent a twenty-three-year journey through the notoriously venal antiquities market, where it suffered fantastic abuses, including a prolonged stay in a prospective buyer’s home freezer. (This caused the ink to run when the manuscript thawed.) The book was cracked in half, horizontally; pages were shuffled, torn out. By the time the codex reached the hands of restorers, in 2001, much of it was just a pile of crumbs. The repair job took five years, after which some of the book was still a pile of crumbs. Many passages couldn’t be read.


The Codex Tchacos, like the Nag Hammadi library, was the work of an ancient religious party, mostly Christian, that we call Gnostic. In the second century, Christianity was not an institution but a collection of warring factions, each with its own gospels, each claiming direct descent from Jesus, each accusing the others of heresy, homosexuality, and the like. In the fourth century, one group, or group of groups, won out: the people now known as the proto-orthodox, because, once they won, their doctrines became orthodoxy. The proto-orthodox were centrist. They embraced both the Hebrew Bible and the new law proclaimed by Jesus; they said that Jesus was both God and man; they believed that the world was both full of blessings and full of sin. Of the many gospels circulating, they chose four, called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which, by reason of their realism and emotional directness—their lilies of the field and prodigal sons—were most likely to appeal to regular people.


That supposed exoneration of Judas was the most exclaimed-over aspect of the Gospel of Judas. Far more shocking, however, was the book’s portrait of Jesus. We know Jesus from the New Testament as an earnest and charitable man. Here, by contrast, he is a joker, and not a nice one. Three times in this brief text, he bursts into laughter over his disciples’ foolishness. The first time, he comes upon them as they are celebrating the Eucharist. What’s so funny? they ask him—this is what we’re supposed to do. Maybe according to your god, Jesus says. But you represent our God, they say. You’re his son. Jesus now turns on them. What makes you think you know me? he asks them. “Truly I say to you, no generation of the people that are among you will know me.” In other words, Jesus tells them that they are strangers to him. The next day, they ask him about Heaven, and he laughs at them again. Forget about Heaven, he says. No mortal will go there. In response, the disciples “did not find a word to say.”


What use could this bizarre document be to modern Christians? Plenty. Many American religious thinkers are more liberal than their churches. They wish that Christianity were more open—not a stone wall of doctrine. To these people, the Gospel of Judas was a gift. As with the other Gnostic gospels, its mere existence showed that there was no such thing as fixed doctrine, or that there wasn’t at the beginning.

That implicit endorsement of tolerance was probably what American scholars valued most in the Judas gospel, but the discovery gave them something else as well: righteous glee. What a joy to have an ancient document in which the man singled out in the Bible as Christianity’s foremost enemy turns out, arguably, to be Christ’s best friend. Hooray! The higher-ups don’t know everything! This was also the appeal of the new gospel to the political left. For people who claimed that the world was ruled by groups that controlled by marginalizing other groups, the Gospel of Judas was like a keystone being hammered into place. Men had silenced women, colonialists had silenced the colonized, and now we saw the Christian Church establishing itself by silencing other Christian voices.


The trumpet calls were not confined to the mass media. Even the gospel’s translators may have felt the need to augment its revisionist credentials. When Jesus, in the gospel, tells the disciples that no mortal, or almost none, will be saved, one assumes that Judas will be an exception, and that’s what National Geographic’s translators said in the first English edition. But then a number of other scholars took a look at the Coptic text and objected that this was a misreading. The translators must have seen their point, because in the second edition of their version, published last year, the line has been changed—to mean the opposite. Jesus now says to Judas, “You will not ascend on high” to join those in Heaven. In other passages, too, the second edition tells a widely different story from the first.

As you might be expecting, April DeConick gets mentioned at this point:

In fairness, no expert can tell us exactly what the Coptic said. That is not just because of the terrible condition of the codex; even when the words are there, they are often enigmatic. But, as April DeConick, a professor of Biblical studies at Rice University, pointed out in the Times in 2007, there was a troubling consistency to a number of the mistranslations in the first edition: they improved Judas’s image. If the gospel was truly the earth-shaking document that the National Geographic Society claimed it was—if it promoted Judas from villain to hero—then to have him denied admission to Heaven would be decidedly awkward.

She then discusses Karen King and Elaine Pagels's book as well as Bart Ehrman's. I thought the following summary of this literature review was quite appropriate:

Cumulatively, the commentaries on the Judas gospel are amazing in their insistence on its upbeat character. Jesus ridicules his disciples, denounces the world, and says that most of us will pass away into nothingness. Hearing this, Judas asks why he and his like were born—a good question. Jesus evades it. The fact that liberal theologians have managed to find hope in all this is an indication of how desperately, in the face of the evangelical movement, they are looking for some crack in the wall of doctrinaire Christianity—some area of surprise, uncertainty, that might then lead to thought.

Indeed, it does seem a bit desperate to see this as propounding anything that we might consider a progressive theology. It is different, to be sure, but just as doctrinaire. She then gives a history of Judas and anti-Semitism into the rehabilitation of Judas in postwar literature:

By the same token, postwar recoil from anti-Semitism (and, no doubt, the widespread abandonment of faith in the twentieth century) was good for Judas’s reputation. Several distinguished writers—Kazantzakis, Jorge Luis Borges, José Saramago—present him, or seem to, either as a hero, of the resistance-fighter sort, or as a suffering witness. In Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master & Margarita” (1966-67), written before the Second World War, Judas is just a young man, who, after receiving his pay from the Temple, goes off, in sandals so new that they squeak, to rendezvous with a woman. Meanwhile, Pontius Pilate, pained that he washed his hands of Jesus and wanting to punish someone for this, mobilizes his secret police, who get Judas’s lady to lead them to him. They butcher him. Significantly, this happens in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Judas turned Jesus over to the authorities. As the episode ends, Judas’s body lies forsaken in the dirt, but a ray of moonlight shines on one of the dearly bought sandals “so that each thong. . . was clearly visible. The garden thundered with nightingale song”—a scene both poignant and dry.

I have discussed Judas in Borges's work on this blog before (click on the tag, "Three Versions of Judas," and the Master and Margarita remains one of my favorite novels. Her final assessment of scholarly rehabilitations and the attempt to find alternative theologies (or even "rewrite" the Bible) is as follows:

All this, I believe, is a reaction to the rise of fundamentalism—the idea, Christian and otherwise, that every word of a religion’s founding document should be taken literally. This is a childish notion, and so is the belief that we can combat it by correcting our holy books. Those books, to begin with, are so old that we barely understand what their authors meant. Furthermore, because of their multiple authorship, they are always internally inconsistent. Finally, even the fundamentalists don’t really take them literally. People interpret, and cheat. The answer is not to fix the Bible but to fix ourselves.

It seems the response to fundamentalism is as naive as fundamentalism itself. If only we could figure out how to fix ourselves!

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