Pseudo-Judas: not a Gnostic?

May 19, 2006

With all the hullabaloo about that plodding movie made from that silly book, it was refreshing to bump into some serious discussion of hidden church history.

In its June 8 edition, The New York Review of Books assigned three Princeton grad students the task of reviewing the National Geographic blockbuster, The Gospel of Judas. It’s a fine piece. It summarizes the contents of the Coptic text in crisp detail, accords it its rightful importance (on a par with the principal Nag Hammadi texts) without hyping it as some sort of authentic history. And best of all, it presents a cogent critique of the underlying assumption of the Kasser/Meyer/Wurst commentary in the book version.

Since the NYRB link may go behind an archive pay wall, here’s the nub. The book under review categorizes the Gospel of Judas as “Gnostic”, and reads it under the presumption that its author shared all the beliefs held by the academic’s stereotype of Gnostics:

  1. that salvation is through knowledge and has no particular ethical complement;
  2. that the physical world is the creation of an evil power in rebellion against the higher, true God.
  3. that Jesus’ salvific role was as a teacher, and his crucifixion had no redeeming importance;

The reviewers don’t think any of those fit the text. First, the Judas gospel has a distinct ethical cast. The higher race of beings into which Judas is to be inducted is described as “pious” or “holy”, and Jesus is sent to save the elect because they are”walking in the path of righteousness.” Second, the angelic beings who create the physical Adam are not depicted as rebelious agents of Chaos, but as agents of the high God, sent to minister over the chaotic material realm.

Third, the final section of the Gospel, in which Jesus gives Judas the mission to assist in getting him crucified, although it is poorly preserved and ambiguous, contains these last words from Jesus to Judas, about the consequence of his crucifixion:

And the image of the great race of Adam shall be lifted up, because before heaven and earth and the angels, that race existed throughout the eternal realms. Behold, you have been told everything. Lift up your eyes and see the cloud and the light within it, and the stars surrounding it. And the star that leads the way, that is your star.

The three reviewers point out that this sounds like a pretty cosmic description of the Passion and its result, not just a mere casting off of an irrelevant physical shell. (And I would point out that the term “lifted up” is a direct reference to the Crucifixion, the Johannine language of “even as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so the Son of Man shall be lifted up.” And that the notion of the crucified Christ as the image of Adam is a Pauline staple. There are significant continuities here with the New Testament.)

There’s also considerable discussion of the role of the Gospel in second century controversies over the value of martyrdom. The twelve disciples, portrayed in the papyrus as even more abysmally clueless than the butts the New Testament gospels often make of them, are set up to stand in for the bishops of the second century, who claimed descent from those same apostles, and preached the great virtue of martyrdom.


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