April 11, 2006

"Jesus, who never laughs in the canonic Gospels, is constantly laughing in this one..."

"...and it’s obviously one of those sardonic, significant, how-little-you-know laughs, like the laugh of the ruler of a dubious planet on 'Star Trek.'" Adam Gopnik reads "The Gospel of Judas. (Via A&L Daily.)
The disciples are furious at Jesus’ condescension, except for Judas, who thinks he knows what the laughter signifies. “I know who you are and where you have come from,” Judas says, standing before him. “You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo.” Apparently startled by his insight, Jesus tells Judas, “Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the Kingdom.”

The true mystery, as Jesus unveils it, is that, out beyond the stars, there exists a divine, blessed realm, free of the materiality of this earthly one. This is the realm of Barbelo, a name that gnostics gave the celestial Mother, who lives there with, among others, her progeny, a good God awkwardly called the Self-Generated One. Jesus, it turns out, is not the son of the Old Testament God, whose retinue includes a rebellious creator known as Yaldabaoth, but an avatar of Adam’s third son, Seth. His mission is to show those lucky members of mankind who still have a “Sethian” spark the way back to the blessed realm. Jesus, we learn, was laughing at the disciples’ prayer because it was directed at their God, the Old Testament God, who is really no friend of mankind but, rather, the cause of its suffering.
Which is just so hilarious.


Steve Donohue said...

Is that funny "ha ha" or funny "they are so going to Hell?"

Icepick said...

Steve, there's a difference?

ShadyCharacter said...

So can we chalk up to ignorance the breathless MSM reports on how this newly-discovered "gospel" undermines the entire Christian tradition?

I mean, it's not like gnosticism has been a great unknown for the last 1800 years -- and this is a garden variety gnostic text.

Of course, a more realistic explanation is that all of the Swiss (right?) owner of the text (discovered in the 70s), National Geographic and the rest of the MSM herd saw this as a perfect opportunity to synergize off of the upcoming Da Vinci Code rollercoaster which also seeks to discredit orthodox Christianity. It's not that National Geographic or the MSM is necessarily anti-Christian so much as they are pro-making a buck and making a sensation out of the ordinary to do so.

Of course, we all know we'd see a little more sensitivity and concern if we were dealing with a heretical Muslim document from the 7th century that appears to show that Mohammed was actually a Buddhist or just a grade A prankster...

jeff said...

There are reasons that this is not one of the cannonical gospels.

The main one being that it's completely fiction.

Joan said...

I can't remember the last time I said anything complimentary about a New Yorker article, but that was excellent. The only thing I question is Gopnik's speculation: As Borges once suggested, had Alexandria, where gnosticism flourished, triumphed rather than Rome, we would have had a Dante making poetry out of the realm of Barbelo.

Even from his brief description of it, the Gnostic gospels amount to little more than ghost stories, and lack the ethical and moral components that make the canonical gospels so compelling. IOW, I don't think the canonic gospels were determined by the politics of the day.

It's interesting to see how Scientology is really just another version of Gnosticism, with a substitute Christ.

MadisonMan said...

It's interesting to see how Scientology is really just another version of Gnosticism, with a substitute Christ.

I know little about Gnosticism, and even less about $cientology, but this comparison rings true.

Ron said...

...and it’s obviously one of those sardonic, significant, how-little-you-know laughs, like the laugh of the ruler of a dubious planet on 'Star Trek'

Clint Howard? Opie's bro? Jesus? What's that make Andy Griffith, John the Baptist?

Terri said...

Jeff: This isn't just fiction, it's Gospel fanfic, complete with Judas as the Gnostic MarySue.

FXKLM said...

There are reasons that this is not one of the cannonical gospels.

The main one being that it's completely fiction.

You're correct, of course, that the Judas gospel is purely fictional, but how does that distinguish it from the canonical gospels?

Richard Dolan said...

Gopnik's piece was entertaining and insightful, and for those coming to the gnostic texts without much background, will be highly informative as well. And I agree with you that the Judas text is funny, in the same way that the Story of Brian was worth a few laughs. That's probably the last reaction the author(s) of the Judas text wanted to evoke -- my image of them is they were about as much fun as your average Iranian mullah in the middle of a jihadi stemwinder attacking Salman Rushdie. In that sense, rather than pretending that the publication of the Judas text is an important religious event, laughing at this text (and the fatuousness of its latter day promoters) is perhaps the reaction it most deserves.

Gopnik is certainly right that the gnostic texts in general, of which the Judas gospel is a pretty standard exemplar in its general outlook, reject the Jewish Bible and its portrayal of a God-creator actively engaged in human history, and instead offer a radical dualism that is completely false to the tradition from which Jesus came. In the Judas text as with gnosticism in general, the earth, the mass of humanity, the body and (especially) sex are all BAD in capital letters; while heaven, spirit, the "elect" and the rejection of the body are GOOD. Far more influential than these oddball gnostic texts were such figures, of real influence in the formation of the Jesus tradition, as Marcion, who espoused generally similar views in the second century. Given how false they were to the Jewish origins of the early Church, and the religious and ethical teachings that the Jesus tradition took from those origins, it's hardly surprising that such gnostic views were widely rejected by the early Church fathers. They haven't fared much better on the many occasions over the centuries that such Manichaean notions have resurfaced.

Apart from sheer sensationalism and the obvious commercial motivations of those seeking to flog interest in books (and movies!) developed from these gnostic texts, there is no real reason for all the brouhaha about the Judas text. If the National Geographic and the MSM crowd thinks that this text might ignite a crisis of faith, I'll be curious to see what they do when they discover, for example, that the creation and flood stories in the Bible have strong antecedents in Babylonian and other early Mesopotamian cultures; or that the gospel writers (the real ones, that is) weren't writing history at all.

Scott said...

One of the better commentaries I've seen on this matter. A preview:

Suppose that sometime around the year 3,800 A.D., someone wrote a newspaper that began: "According to a recently-discovered document, which appears to have been written sometime before 1926, Benedict Arnold did not attempt to betray George Washington and the American cause, as is commonly believed. Rather, Benedict Arnold was acting at the request of George Washington, because Washington wanted Arnold to help him create a dictatorship of the proletariat and the abolition of private property."

A reader who knew her ancient history would recognize that the newly-discovered "Arnold document" was almost certainly not a historically accurate account of the relationship between George Washington and Benedict Arnold. The reader would know that the terms "dictatorship of the proletariat" and "abolition of private property" come from a political philosophy, Marxism, which was created long after Washington and Arnold were dead. The reader would also know that the most reliable records from the 18th century provided no support for the theory that Washington or Arnold favored a dictatorship of the proletariat or the abolition of private property.

This Friday's coverage of the so-called "Gospel of Judas" in much of the U.S. media was appallingly stupid. The Judas gospel is interesting in its own right, but the notion that it disproves, or casts into doubt, the traditional orthodox understanding of the betrayal of Jesus is preposterous.

Alcibiades said...

Now it's Richard being as fun as an Iranian mullah.

Face it, Richard. Scraps of heretical mystical traditions are always fun and intriguing.

Clearly neither the Gospel of Thomas, nor Gnostic belief in general, is *orthodox* rabbinic or early Christian tradition, but that is one reason it becomes fascinating.

Moreover, the Jewish mystical tradition does (re)encounter strands of Gnostic belief resurfacing down through the ages in all kinds of interesting way.

This view of Judas is revealing precisely because it is not the Orthodox interpretation of the Gospel, but another narrative altogether. Here Judas becomes "the living archetype of the paradox of the holy sinner."

And if you think about it, given the awful conditions of life that many people experienced under the Roman Empire - those unelect living under Roman duress, slavery, torture and ill health - the worldview of Gnosticism makes a certain amount of sense, while postponing optimism for a future existence - that the physical world is not the true world, but there is another perfect, spiritual world for elect Gnostics.

It's no more than dismissive conventional wisdom to say that this text was published now to "synergize off" of the Da Vinci Code success. When, in fact, these kinds of esoteric texts and faith traditions have been hot topics, for example, in academia for years now.

Why wouldn't you want to publish the Gospel of Judas?

Quite simply, it adds context and breadth to a period of time that fascinates many people.

Laura Reynolds said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Laura Reynolds said...

The art of mis-using Jesus (often in the name of Jesus) has been ongoing for almost 2000 years, As a Christian, I have to seek the truth, in everything, including the Bible, lest I turn the canonical gospels into one of fxklm's works of fiction.

WV:yrnbph- an exagerrated tale of an enlarged prostate

bearbee said...

Sounds vaguely Philip K. Dick-ish. Also kept wondering if Barbarella was a descendent of the Barbelo line.

Pat Patterson said...

Jesus is laughing because He knows that 2,000 years in the future Stargate SG1 fans will be tied in knots trying to figure out if their Seth is the same one the Gospel of Judas mentions.

Unknown said...

The art of mis-using Jesus (often in the name of Jesus) has been ongoing for almost 2000 years

In fact, one of the purposes of the book of 1 John is to dispel early gnostic heresies regarding Christ. So this kind of stuff has been around before the Bible was even completed.

Fitz said...

The difference between the Gnostic “gospels” and the actual four Gospels included in the Bible are various and many. The four Authoritative texts referred to as the gospels were laboriously collected as first hand accounts of Jesus life, teaching, death and resurrection. They made it through the “editorial” process do to there authenticity. If the Gnostic “gospels” are excepted at all, (as sacred) they would be more like letters or revelation.
They never made the cut for many reasons, the least of these being that the Gnostics (Greek for knowledge) was a cult of secret knowledge. Only the elect few who rose in the ranks of the cult were allowed access to these “secret teachings” of Christ. They were written in this spirit and continue to excite conspiracy theorists to this very day. By their very nature they were designed to contrast with the authentic gospels- showing the chosen few the “real” nature of God. Once you get past the headlines and astute parsing of these works you find passages and concepts that horrify and revile. Especially concerning mind body dualism that caused the early Gnostic cults a myriad of theological and social difficulty.

tjl said...

Barbelo, Yaldabaoth, and the Self-Generated One - it sounds like a hitherto unknown manuscript by H.P. Lovecraft. No wonder Gnosticism didn't prevail over orthodox Christianity.

Richard Dolan said...

I couldn't quite follow the thread of Alcibiades' comment. She writes as if someone were proposing to ban the publication of the Judas text because it might offend someone else's sense of the "orthodox." How ridiculous, and no one (certainly not me) has ever suggested any such nonsense. The Judas text will obviously be interesting to any student of the ancient era -- the discovery of any new text from 2000 years ago is always a major event for people interested in ancient history, literature or culture. But it's a specialist's kind of "interest" that's in play here, and that's far removed from what the stories in the NYTimes etc. were aiming at or trying to hype. And the talk about the Judas text's generating a "crisis of faith" was just silly and uninformed.

From the perspective of the development of the Jesus tradition, the Judas text is not particularly important because there's nothing about it that's really new, let alone "fascinating" or "intriguing." You're certainly right that these gnostic texts have generated a little cottage industry among some academics -- Elaine Pagels comes immediately to mind, but she's hardly alone. But it's a bit much to say that they're a "hot topic" for anyone else, let alone mainstream scholars of first century Judaism, the early Church or the historical Jesus. The reality is that the thematic contents of these gnostic texts weren't all that much of a suprise when they showed up 50 or so years ago -- the details were new but their general thematic outlines have been known for a very long time -- and the Judas text adds basically nothing new other than some amusing stories. As a portrayal of real-life Jewish men in the first century -- surely, Jesus and Judas both qualify on that score -- the Judas text offers a preposterously false account. It's as if the author of the Judas text knew nothing about first century Jewish culture, religion or customs even as he was seeking to talk about two characters -- Jesus and Judas -- defined by that tradition. The reason, of course, is that the Coptic-speaking author of this gnostic text probably didn't know much about those Jewish traditions, and what he did know he rejected in favor of his own peculiar religious dualisms. What specifically he drew on to write this text -- perhaps one or more of the canonical gospels and then perhaps only secondhand, perhaps the septuagint, or perhaps only other gnostic texts -- we will probably never know. The literary detectives will be at work for a long time trying to tease out of the Judas text such clues to his sources as they can, and many a PhD will be granted along the way to those who will try to do that. All for the good, and I wish those toiling in that vineyard every success.

If you want to see really "fascinating" and "intriguing" early texts that have been recently discovered, I wouldn't look to these gnostic texts. In contrast to them, the Dead Sea Scrolls had a dramatic impact and shed substantial new light on first century Jewish practices. Those Scrolls, like the gnostic texts, were at first hyped as having more significance for contemporary Jewish and Christian religious beliefs and practice than they did. But at least they were truly new and exciting. And, among other things, they undoubtedly contributed to the flood of academic literature trying to uncover the historical Jesus, with its now-familiar emphasis on "Jesus the Jew," to borrow the title of Vermes' pathbreaking book of 1973. (You undoubtedly know all of this, and that Vermes was himself a leading scholar of the Scrolls.)

BrianOfAtlanta said...

OK, I'm going to have to get a copy of this thing. The Gospel of Thomas was rather dry. I had a hard time getting through it. This one sounds like a riot.

Hecla Ma said...

Actually Jesus had a wonderfully semitic sense of humor. He enjoyed puns and wordplay, "Come with me, I will make you fishers of men..."

When he gave a message to Herod, he said, "tell that fox I cast out demons..." a play on the jewish characterizations of foxes.

And when he spoke with Nicodemus, when they debate whether a man might be "born again." Or how he appreciated the Samaritan woman's good come back to him, "Even the dogs eat the scraps from the table" I have always imagined him throwing his head back and roaring in appreciation.

It may not be recorded in the Gospels but Jesus mUST have had a good sense of humor. You cannot be charismatic - attractive to others - without out it.

grape_crush said...

tjl: No wonder Gnosticism didn't prevail over orthodox Christianity.

Yep, and the militant Christianity of that time had nothing to do with it, either...Man, those names sure are funny-sounding.

Diane said...

How much more interesting it is to think that this manuscript spent a number of years in a safety deposit box in Hicksville, New York.

PatCA said...

"to synergize off of the upcoming Da Vinci Code"

And, of course, the upcoming Easter...I mean, Spring holiday. Just in time for another "oh, those wacky Christians."

tjl said...

grape crush said, re the fading out of Gnosticism, "Yep, and the militant Christianity of that time had nothing to do with it."

The Christians of the second and third centuries didn't have much time to spend on stamping out the Gnostics, what with having to dodge the Roman authorities and avoid execution themselves.

Anonymous said...

The early Christians were persecuted. Why would anyone join a cult that was persecuted? Because they're nuts.

They were nuts but they had an idea that was not so nuts: Judaism for Gentiles.

The founding of Christianity was nothing like the founding of Islam. The early Christians got their asses kicked, the early Muslims kicked ass.

grape_crush said...

tjl: The Christians of the second and third centuries didn't have much time to spend on stamping out the Gnostics, what with having to dodge the Roman authorities and avoid execution themselves.

Early on, yes. Google or Wiki 'Constantine the Great' and 'Theodosius I'...the Theodosian decrees, for example, effectively banned Roman subjects from practicing Gnostic and Pagan religions...Accompanied by plenty of bloodshed and destruction coming from the Christians of that time.

JackOfClubs said...

So can we chalk up to ignorance the breathless MSM reports on how this newly-discovered "gospel" undermines the entire Christian tradition?

ShadyCharacter: The breathless reports were obviously an end in themselves. You don't expect the average consumer of MSM to actually read the text do you? All that is necessary for propaganda is the suggestion that someone, somewhere has already undermined the Christian tradition. No need to actually present an argument. Haven't you read your Screwtape?

From the first paragraph: "It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy's clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons, we have largely altered that."

JackOfClubs said...

Thecla: Don't forget the story of the woman at the well:

He told her, "Go, call your husband and come back." "I have no husband," she replied. Jesus said to her, "You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true."

I'm not sure if the humor is his or St. John's, but that one always cracks me up, especially when she quickly changes the subject in the next line.

tjl said...

grape crush:

In addition to the Theodosian decrees (whose enforceability in places like Upper Egypt is doubtful), there are other reasons to explain the extinction of Gnosticism. Imagine that you are a citizen of the Late Roman Empire. Faced with hunger, misrule, and barbarian invasion, you seek spiritual comfort. Which of the following is more likely to work for you:

"Our Father, who art in heaven .. give us our daily bread." OR

"Oh Barbelo, out there somewhere, you couldn't be bothered with something icky and materialistic like bread, so we'll be shedding our bodies and joining you soon."

grape_crush said...

tjl: ...whose enforceability in places like Upper Egypt is doubtful..

In the Historia Ecclesiastica, Socrates Scholasticus wrote:

"At the solicitation of Theophilus bishop of Alexandria the emperor issued an order at this time for the demolition of the heathen temples in that city; commanding also that it should be put in execution under the direction of Theophilus. Seizing this opportunity, Theophilus exerted himself to the utmost to expose the pagan mysteries to contempt. And to begin with, he caused the Mithreum to be cleaned out, and exhibited to public view the tokens of its bloody mysteries. Then he destroyed the Serapeum, and the bloody rites of the Mithreum he publicly caricatured; the Serapeum also he showed full of extravagant superstitions, and he had the phalli of Priapus carried through the midst of the forum. Thus this disturbance having been terminated, the governor of Alexandria, and the commander-in-chief of the troops in Egypt, assisted Theophilus in demolishing the heathen temples. These were therefore razed to the ground, and the images of their gods molten into pots and other convenient utensils for the use of the Alexandrian church; for the emperor had instructed Theophilus to distribute them for the relief of the poor. All the images were accordingly broken to pieces, except one statue of the god before mentioned, which Theophilus preserved and set up in a public place; 'Lest,' said he, 'at a future time the heathens should deny that they had ever worshiped such gods.'"

Google 'The Murder of Hypartia' for another example.

tjl: ...there are other reasons to explain the extinction of Gnosticism.

Because the names sound silly to the modern ear. Got it.

tjl: ...Which of the following is more likely to work for you:

Given the lack of knowledge about Gnosticism relative to Christianity, who's can really say that one was more comforting than another?

It's dishonest to claim that one religion is superior to another without a full understanding of all the others.

tjl said...

grape crush:

The extract from Socrates Scholasticus does not make the point that you think it does, since it refers to the destruction of pagan temples in the city of Alexandria. The Gnostic community that produced the Gospel of Judas was located at Nag Hammadi, hundreds of miles south in Upper Egypt (Upper Egypt is actually the south of the country).

The Byzantine Emperor and the Orthodox Patriarch were never all that successful in imposing religious control over the south of Egypt, as shown by the rise of the Monophysite heresy somewhat later than the period we are discussing.

grape_crush said...

'scuse...'The Murder of Hypatia', not Hypartia...anyways...

tjl: The extract from Socrates Scholasticus does not make the point that you think it does.

You are correct! But it does support my earlier point regarding the efforts of the earlier Christian church to quash other religions...Sorry for the confusion.

tjl: The Gnostic community that produced the Gospel of Judas was located at Nag Hammadi...

Coptic Gnosticism wasn't the only flavor of Gnosticism, tjl...just like Christianity has more than one denomination...The Syrian-Egyptian schools, which included the schools of Valentinus in Rome and Cyprus, and the Persian schools; specifically Manicheanism, elements of which can be traced to Rome, Spain, and southern France are examples.

Most of what the modern world knows about Gnostic beliefs result from the studies of the Nag Hammadi texts, however...That, and descriptions by heresy documenters.


I believe my main point still stands...the ascension of a religious belief system relies as much on the abilities of its adherents to suppress or eliminate the competition as it does on the superiority of ideas or lack of funny-sounding names.

tjl said...

grape crush:

Why not just embrace the funny names? Let's face it, the main reason why any modern observer would take an interest in these ancient sects is because of the weirdness factor -- as some posters above have already pointed out. Who would care about the Gnostics if it weren't for the titillating bits like lost papyri, secret doctrines, and the bizarre pantheon of spooky dieties?

So let's enjoy reconstructing a vision of esoteric rites at the Gnostic temple, complete with sinister incantations to Yaldabaoth, accompanied by atonal wailing from a choir of Gnostic priestesses. It would be the perfect setting for the Gospel of Judas movie that Hollywood surely has already in production.

grape_crush said...

tjl: Why not just embrace the funny names?

Funny to the modern ear...Perhaps you are making an argument against adopting Gnostic practices in this century?...I can't speak to that without opening up a whole 'nother can of worms.

tjl: Let's face it, the main reason why any modern observer would take an interest in these ancient sects is because of the weirdness factor

'Weirdness' is relative to the person experiencing it...Without context, someone could see receiving communion as some form of weird symbolic cannibalism.

tjl: Who would care about the Gnostics...

Relgious historians, philosophers...pretty much anyone who want to explore the various influences on modern thought...But I will concede that nothing attracts widespread attention like a half-buried secret about an obscure subject.

tjl: It would be the perfect setting for the Gospel of Judas movie that Hollywood surely has already in production.

Actually, the better one would be a movie based on the Infancy Gospel of Thomas:

Next, he was going through the village again and a running child bumped his shoulder. Becoming bitter, Jesus said to him, "You will not complete your journey." Immediately, he fell down and died.

I can imagine the controversy a movie like that would generate, however.

tjl said...

grape crush:

OK, grape, you win, after hours of torment with my tax forms, I'm at last prepared to admit the possibility of a malevolent creator.

You recruit the choir of heretical priestesses, I'll make up some incantations, and Gnosticism is back in business.