Tuesday, June 24, 2008

rajaram: review of 'the gospel of judas'

jun 24th, 2008

Book review

 

CRISTIANITY ACCORDING TO JUDAS

 

Recently discovered gospels give a radically different picture of early Christianity

 

N.S. Rajaram

 

            Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King (2007), Penguin-Viking. 198 + xxiii pages. Price £8.99 (PB).

 

            For nearly two thousand years, Judas Iscariot has been reviled as the archetypical betrayer for which the Jews have been made to pay a terrible price. A recently discovered ancient text known as the Gospel of Judas gives a radically different picture: Judas, far from being a traitor was Jesus's closest disciple to whom, and to whom alone, Jesus entrusted the most important task needed to fulfill his mission on earth— to die for the sins of mankind. In handing Jesus over to the Romans, Judas was doing exactly what his master ordered him to do. Without it there would be no Christianity.

 

            This is the dramatic, not to say shocking message of the Gospel of Judas, one of the forty-odd gospels that were in circulation during the first four centuries of Christianity. This is the subject of Reading Judas by Elaine Pagels and Karen King, two of the world's greatest biblical scholars. It is accessible to the general reader though one is helped by some familiarity with recent biblical discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Manuscripts.

 

The standardization of the New Testament with its four canonical gospels that we know today—of Mark, Luke, Matthew and John—took place in the fourth century. This, as the authors point out had the effect of lowering the message from a spiritual to a material plane with the story of Jesus's body escaping from the grave with a resurrected body. To a non-believer or a scientifically informed person, this supposed miracle seems absurd. But it remains the foundation of Christian belief.

 

The Gospel of Judas, along with its companion Gospel of Thomas belongs to the category of early Christian texts knows as Gnostic. (Thomas was Jesus's twin brother, so who was the Only Son of God?) Gnostic is derived from the Greek gnosis— cognate to the Sanskrit 'gnana' (or jnana)—meaning spiritual knowledge. According to Lost Christianities by Bart Ehrman there were "Christians who… believed in one God. But there were others who insisted there were two. Some said there were thirty. Others said there were 365."

 

To give an idea of how diverse early Christianity was, some said that Jesus never died, while some others claimed he was never born meaning Jesus was a fictional character. This is the view also of several modern scholars who have studied the Dead Sea Scrolls. John Allegro, a very famous Biblical scholar wrote: "I would suggest that many incidents [in the Gospels] are merely projections into Jesus's own history of what was expected of the Messiah."

 

Allegro was persecuted and hounded out by church authorities for expressing such views. It was no different nearly two thousand years ago. The key figure in suppressing texts which "encourage believers to seek God within themselves with no mention of churches, let alone clergy" was Irenaeus, a Syrian theologian who was the bishop of Lyon. He is particularly harsh on Judas with his claim of having received secret knowledge (gnosis) as the favored disciple of Jesus. (It was the claim also of Mary Magdalene in her Gospel.)

 

Irenaeus's program was to suppress diversity and impose total uniformity of belief and practices. According to Pagels "the teachings Irenaeus labeled as 'orthodox' tend to be those that helped him and other bishops consolidate scattered groups of Jesus's followers into what he and other bishops envisioned as a single, united organization they called the 'catholic (universal) church.' The diverse range… they denounced as 'heresy'… could be antithetical to the consolidation of the church under the bishops' authority."

 

One can see that the overriding concern of the early church fathers was exercising political control over the followers. Irenaeus's program was taken a major step forward in the fourth century by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria. He fixed the New Testament substantially in the form we have it today by selecting four gospels out of more than forty then known, and assigning them to Mark, Luke, Matthew and John.

 

Athanasius's theological consolidation of Christianity was soon followed by political consolidation. At the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, persuaded Emperor Constantine to extend protection to this version of Christianity or Nicene Christianity. Armed with this power, it was a relatively easy matter for Eusebius, Athanasius and others to suppress the Gnostics and other competing versions of Christianity. Church dominance became complete when Theodosius in 391 AD declared Nicene Christianity the only legitimate religion in the Roman Empire.

 

Why are these momentous findings little discussed in India when the media is willing to give space to discredited Jesus lived in India stories and proven fakes like the Shroud of Turin? Is it because the English language media is dominated by a convent educated elite that doesn't want to report controversial findings? Or do Indian churches and their leaders still see themselves as serving colonial masters and have no tradition of critical Biblical scholarship? If so they have yielded the space to politico-religious entrepreneurs like John Dayal and outright charlatans like Valson Thampu. Fortunately, the authors of Reading Judas, despite being Christians, have not allowed their beliefs to come in the way of truth.

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N.S. Rajaram is the author of The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Crisis of Christianity.


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