By Jack Miles 5/31/2006 Commonweal Magazine: A Review of Religion, Politics and Culture
NEW YORK (Commonweal Magazine) - The recently published Gospel of Judas, writes biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, “has a completely different understanding of God, the world, Christ, salvation, human existence-not to mention of [sic] Judas himself-than came to be embodied in the Christian creeds and canon. It will open up new vistas for understanding Jesus and the religious movement he founded” (see “Christianity Turned Upside Down” in Rodolphe Kasser et al., The Gospel of Judas [National Geographic Society]).
I doubt it. In fact, I venture to say that almost any reader, religious or irreligious, who takes the trouble to download the text of the Gospel of Judas (available at www.nationalgeographic.com) will come away less enthusiastic than Ehrman. Aesthetically, the newly published text is quite without charm, a few numinous verses notwithstanding. As for historical importance, one is sadly accustomed to seeing a newly discovered text, the relevance of which is no more than incremental, inflated into an epoch-making new departure.
Ehrman subtitles his essay, “The Alternative Vision of the Gospel of Judas.” Alternative indeed. Is Jesus, as Ehrman argues, the founder of the Cainite sect that evidently produced the Gospel of Judas? Were these Cainites – who drew their name from the fratricidal Cain of the Book of Genesis – not simply practicing another religion, one in which Jesus had been incorporated as just one god among many?
The assumption in too much popular talk about the early church suppressing Gnosticism or excluding Gnostic texts from the canon of Christian scripture is that from the beginning the Gnostics aspired to be regarded as orthodox Christians and to have their texts ecclesiastically canonized. But surely there is much reason to suppose otherwise.
In a recent special issue of U.S. News & World Report, one can read: “In the beginning, there was not one Christianity, but many. And among them was a well-established tradition of Gnosticism, one of the key ‘heresies’ upon which Dan Brown builds the plot of The Da Vinci Code.”
Well, no, actually: In the beginning of the common era, there was not even one Christianity but only Greco-Roman Jewry, whose monotheism, even in its proto-Christian guise, the polytheistic majority rightly regarded as atheism vis-à-vis all gods but one. This was the divide that mattered. Within that Jewish world community, two historic world religions – Rabbinic Judaism and Orthodox Christianity – would define each other into existence in a reciprocal process that, as Daniel Boyarin has recently and brilliantly shown (Border Lines, University of Pennsylvania Press), took centuries to reach completion. Alongside both, more than ready to absorb them, was the immense, flexible, metaphysically speculative, culturally omnivorous, definition-defying mainstream that was Greco-Roman polytheism. Gnosticism was a kaleidoscopically pluriform variety of that.
Bentley Layton, in his early and still indispensable anthology, The Gnostic Scriptures (Doubleday), makes two of Gnosticism’s features crystal clear. First, it was a multicultural syncretistic polytheism. Rather than join anybody, it tended to absorb everybody. Second, it neither had nor aspired to have a closed canon.
It is the relevance of the first of these two features that is most often slighted. Gnosticism recognizes a whole troupe of gods or quasi-gods, including Barbelo, the Ten Aeons, Nebro, Saklas, Harmozel, Oroyael, the 365 Archontes, and somewhere in the mix El, Jesus, and other transformed biblical personalities, like Cain, Seth and Thomas. The list goes on and on, and because this array of celestial beings makes the modern head spin, journalists almost always gloss over Gnosticism’s complexity, smoothing it down into a therapeutic version of itself. Layton stresses that Gnostic polytheism, for all its heterogeneity, was readily enough understood by the Gnostics themselves. The point, however, is that the Jews who founded Christianity did not intend to repudiate their ancestral monotheism.
That said, three features of nascent Christianity undeniably complicated the maintenance of a monotheistic identity. First, the emergent dogma of the Incarnation gave the ancient culture of polytheism an opening that it immediately and, as it were, instinctively seized. Belief in the divinity of Christ created a quasi-ditheism through which the established Jewish and the emergent Christian myths alike could be and frequently were absorbed into a revised, enlarged polytheistic supermyth. Second, the decision to admit Gentiles to the Christian movement on an equal footing with Jews meant that Jewish ethnicity could no longer serve as a quick and reliable extrinsic marker for monotheistic belief. Third, the fact that the early Christian movement became a fraternal organization with significant material benefits created a clear practical need for some criterion to determine who was undergoing initiation (baptism) into the community in good faith and who was not.
Before the rise of Christianity, the Greek common noun hairesis most often referred to a philosophical preference or school of thought – the Stoics, the Peripatetics, the Cynics, and so forth. A philosopher could freely cross back and forth from one to another of these without ever ceasing to be a philosopher, an ethnic Greek, or a cultural Hellene. But then these were only schools of thought. The Christian ekklesia aspired to be a material as well as a spiritual union.
Thus, when Irenaeus wrote his Against Heresies in the second century, at a time when the Christian movement was still far too weak to suppress anything effectively, he was not just declining intellectual assimilation. He was also helping to establish a novel form of social organization: the church as a membership organization in which right belief – orthodoxy – rather than ethnicity was to be the membership criterion.
There were those of Christian sympathy, of course, who would happily have welcomed and even joined an acculturated church as just another school of Greco-Roman religious thought, one for which no one need suffer martyrdom, one prepared to extend to others the same easy tolerance extended to them, subject only to nominal homage to the sacred symbols of the Roman Empire. Christians who refused such assimilation created a subversive new possibility within the empire-namely, the unchecked spread of their inherently subversive “atheism” vis-à-vis the religious expression of Roman civic loyalty.
At the time Irenaeus wrote and the Gospel of Judas was in circulation, major imperial persecutions of Christianity like that of Diocletian still lay well in the future. Rather than mighty orthodoxy vs. defenseless Gnosticism, then, one should envision groups variously inspired by Christian scriptures and ultimately Jewish ideas, all deciding just how to render to Caesar the things that were Caesar’s and to God the things that were God’s.
Under such circumstances, what would have been the appeal of a sect that postulated that the Lord of Torah was not really God, and which then inferred, logically, that those who, like Cain, opposed him were not really sinners but paradoxical saints, while their counterparts – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, that crowd, down to and including the Jewish apostles and their successors – were the real sinners?
In some quarters, this would have seemed a welcome “out,” but among second-century Christians of strongly Jewish descent or sympathy the appeal cannot have been very broad. A faintly anti-Semitic Jesus who laughs at Jews for supposing that their Lord is the real God, an ethereal Jesus who hates his own body, a Jesus who aspires not to transform but only to escape the world order and material reality itself – the Jesus of the newly discovered text – is undeniably a different fellow from the hero of orthodox Christianity.
But is it far-fetched to suppose that, “suppression” aside, this eccentric Gnostic Jesus may have had a limited appeal in these circles? The Cainites put one in mind of garage bands with names like “The Aliens” and “The Outsiders.” The appeal of adversarial identity is real enough, but it wears thin as the years pass.
And yet, just as cultural faux pas invariably teach us something about deep cultural differences, so the ways in which Jewish and Christian ideas were ripped out of context and put to use eccentrically in Gnostic polytheism teach us something about those original ideas and their first expression. Thus, for example (and examples are easily multiplied), the canonical gospels do not infer that God was Jesus’ enemy from the fact that God, in some sense, put Jesus to death on the cross (“not my will but thine be done”). But take a step back from the canon, and that inference cannot be called exactly illogical, can it? It is what we call an understandable mistake, what Harold Bloom would describe as a creative “misprision.”
Similarly, although Jesus was God incarnate, and although, therefore, God in some sense put himself to death, the canonical gospels do not infer that God simply wanted out of his human body. But, again: Would that inference be illogical? Finally, though, the idea whose native strangeness we can most clearly see afresh by the light of the Gospel of Judas is that of the immolation of God by God – an act so radically out of character for Yahweh Elohim that it cannot fail to bring his very identity as God into crisis.
As I have written elsewhere (Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God), Yahweh and Jesus are characterologically so different that they must either be two distinct beings or one being who has undergone some kind of change. Modern Christians may be shocked at this suggestion, but it is hardly a novel one.
Rabbinic Judaism looked at Jesus and the God of the Hebrew Scriptures and said, “They are indeed two, but only God is God.” Gnosticism of the sort on display in the Gospel of Judas looked at the two and, in effect, said, “They are indeed two, but only Jesus is God.” “No,” Christianity insisted, “they are one,” and Christian orthodoxy managed to find a way to make metaphysical sense of this insistence.
Yet that metaphysical explanation, the doctrine of the Trinity, did not expunge the characterological difference that haunts the pages of Christian scripture, most of all in the tale of the quasi-suicidal agony and death of the Lamb of God. For if Judas were not a tool in the hand of God incarnate, if the sacrifice of “Christ, our Passover Lamb” were not somehow at God’s behest, then what could Jesus have meant when he said (Jn 10:18), “No one takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own accord”? Sin is an offense against God. No sin in the Bible offends more personally against God than the sin of Judas. If, then, even this sin was not a true sin but only a dark and mysterious part of the great divine plan, how can any lesser sin be considered a true sin?
This is the nettle that Paul seems to grasp in Romans when he claims that by the death and resurrection of Christ, God has “condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom 8:3). In more abstract terms, we would say that Paul has eliminated the category of sin as such. This is the possibility that Martin Luther, in his own way and in his own language, found so electrifying and so liberating. But this is also the point where the gates yawn open on the hellish topic of theodicy.
In the Gospel of Judas, Jesus exalts his betrayer for enabling him to escape corporeality: “You will exceed all of [the baptized]. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” Orthodox Christianity does not resolve the problem of evil by locating it thus in corporeality and then promising escape. All the same, the orthodox answer says something strange about God in its own way, and that strangeness is illumined by this new discovery, as when light falls from an odd angle, through a broken window, into a dark and forgotten corner of the house you call home.