Second, we've all heard of Christian martyrs. This text sees Judas dying as a martyr—because here the other disciples hate him so much that they kill him! But the Gospel of Judas challenges the idea that God wants people to die as martyrs—just as it challenges the idea that God wanted Jesus to die. Whoever wrote this gospel—and the author is anonymous—is challenging church leaders who teach that. It's as if an imam were to challenge the radical imams who encourage "martyrdom operations" and accuse them of complicity in murder—the Gospel of Judas shows "the twelve disciples"—stand-ins for church leaders—offering human sacrifice on the altar—and doing this in the name of Jesus! Conservative Christians hate gospels like this—usually call them fakes and the people who publish them (like us) anti Christian. There was a great deal of censorship in the early Christian movement—especially after the emperor became a Christian, and made it the religion of the empire—and voices like those of this author were silenced and denounced as "heretics" and "liars." The story of Jesus was simplified and cleaned up—made "orthodox."
For when Jesus' followers tried to make sense of how their messiah died, some suggested that Jesus died as a sacrifice—"he died for our sins." The idea that Jesus' death is an atonement for the sins of the world becomes the heart of the Christian message, for many. It's certainly the heart of the New Testament gospels. There Jesus, before he dies, tells his disciples, when you eat this bread you're eating my body, which I'm giving for you; you're drinking my blood when you drink this wine. Because I'm giving my body and my blood as a voluntary sacrifice for you. So the worship of Jesus' followers became a sacred meal in which people drank wine and ate bread, ceremonially reenacting the death of Jesus.
We call it the Eucharist, the Mass. We're so used to it we hardly see that it's a cannibalistic feast. But whoever wrote the Gospel of Judas has Jesus laughing at the disciples, to say, what you're doing is ludicrous. Turning the death of Jesus into something like an animal sacrifice. Eating flesh and drinking blood ritually, even, is a kind of obscene gesture. This author, this follower of Jesus, sees the idea of Jesus dying for our sins as a complete misunderstanding of the whole message of Jesus.
Pagels contends that while the Gospel of Judas doesn't belong in the canon, it doesn't belong in the trash either. She concludes her article saying: "...it belongs in the history of Christianity—a history that now, in light of all these recent discoveries, we now have to rewrite completely."
I started to write a blog entry this morning about the danger of religious creeds. As I read this article, I saw that one reason creeds are dangerous is that they don't allow for discovery and modification when new information comes to us. We are called on to defend or criticize or overthrow those new revelations to protect the old formulations of faith. Worse, we may be protecting wrong formulations of faith, in fact...