Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Gospel of Judas again...

Many of you probably have already read articles about the Gospel of Judas, but I found this article by Elaine Pagels this morning and really enjoyed it. She has some choice thoughts I wanted to highlight by quoting them:

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: " 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...


Dave said...

Back in March, the "Fresh Air" program on NPR featured Elaine Pagels and Karen King discussing their book on the Gospel of Judas. They expanded considerably on this idea that the author of that gospel was probably an early Christian dissenter who challenged the glorification of martyrdom that was popular at the time. I think we are greatly enriched to have access to the wider range of debate that was going on back at that stage of the development of Christianity and I commend these authors for bringing these fairly obscure and inaccessible works to a broader audience.

Dave said...

Here's that link, shortened up to fit:

Rebecca C. said...

A few random reactions.

Quote: We call it the Eucharist, the Mass. We're so used to it we hardly see that it's a cannibalistic feast.

Hmmm. I don't know about that. I think most of Protestantism has a teaching of a symbolic communion rather than a Eucharist that actually *is* something, precisely because , without the underlying theological reasoning, it *is* a thought that repels us.

As for the 'sacrifice' of Jesus and the fact that God had specifically already rejected and denounced human sacrifice, that would only seem applicable if 1) we assume Jesus was human (only)and 2) we buy into substitutionary atonement as the rationale behind his death.
I'm not sold on either of those but I can understand her reasoning.

Back to the Eucharist, when I finally introduced my little vegetarian UU kids to the inner meaning of the Eucharist, interestingly enough ds 'got' it right away. He saw it as God sharing a 'force', an inner strength, with humans.

Anyway, just rambling. Thanks for the link!


julieunplugged said...

Back to the Eucharist, when I finally introduced my little vegetarian UU kids to the inner meaning of the Eucharist, interestingly enough ds 'got' it right away. He saw it as God sharing a 'force', an inner strength, with humans.

LOl - he may be a vegetarian, but he has no problem with invisibilities like "God" and the "force." :)


julieunplugged said...

Rebecca, how do you see the death of Jesus (if not sacrifice or atonement theory), btw?

Rebecca C. said...

I'm not sure it is accurate to say I don't see 'sacrifice' in the death of Jesus. The language of sacrifice is undeniably embedded in the NT.

It is penal/judicial/substitutionary atonement that I choke on: the idea that God's law was violated so a sacrifice had to be made as atonement; it had to be a perfect sacrifice and so God had to be sacrificed to satisfy God's rightous judgement (God's wrath).


I totally didn't understand that reasoning as a Unitarian and I still don't (despite trying!) as I am drawn further into orthodoxy.

I mean that, I really tried to get some glimpse of rational understanding of this and utterly failed. I have finally grasped some of the attraction of the Calvinistic predestination thinking -- even double predestination--I don't agree but I now understand more why some see it that way. But penal substitution eludes me totally.

I read the story as a mystery. We don't really know WHY, in specifics, this death redeemed us. But we are told that it did. We catch glimpses of what it might be (victory over death, infinite love, moral example, and yes, maybe a bit of satisfaction mixed in somehow) but I think it really isn't clear from the material given us what was going on.

The RC and EO appear to be happy not officially pinning it down exactly and that would suit my tastes. From where I sit most of the total certainty that we KNOW about this seems to be generated by Protestants. Of all persuasions. . . .

I stand, as always, ready to be challenged. ;-)


julieunplugged said...

The traditional Catholic understanding of the death of Christ does have at its core the idea of Jesus giving up his life to accomplish salvation for us. From Augustine through Anselm and then even in reading the mystics, the recurring theme seems to be that we would not be forgiven our sins if Jesus hadn't died on the cross, and that it was the divine will that Jesus submitted to in order to exchange his life for ours.

Protestants camped on the substitutionary atonement, but Anselm (as I know you know) predates the Reformation.

I see the Catholics post reformation spending more time tying Jesus's death on the cross to love than to payment.

In both cases, though, for me, the crux of the issue has to do with the idea of God's will being accomplished through the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross followed by resurrection.

Liberation theologies and some of the more postmodern theologians focus more on the historical character of the crucifixion (that the Roman Empire executed Jesus as a criminal for threatening the social order of oppression).

I found reading the mystics focus on the blood, the painful suffering and so on really hard to take after awhile reading it. The crucified Christ in the Middle Ages was a shift away from the Christ victorius (which helped to make Jesus more human - not only divine). But it also had the odd effect of glorfying suffering (making it something to seek to share with Christ).

I think I go with Girard here - the memetic power of scapegoat has left us with a legacy that I think is counter productive to a healthy image of God and view of the purpose of religious faith.



julieunplugged said...

I read the story as a mystery. We don't really know WHY, in specifics, this death redeemed us.

I do like leaving it as mystery.

But we are told that it did.

This is where the Gospel of Judas comes in, though, see? Whose voice became the monopoly "telling" voice? What if other Christianities "tell" something different? What has been the cost/benefit of seeing the death and resurrection in traditional terms, creedal terms? Why do we have to accept the "one" voice? Does there have to be one answer to this question?

We catch glimpses of what it might be (victory over death, infinite love, moral example, and yes, maybe a bit of satisfaction mixed in somehow) but I think it really isn't clear from the material given us what was going on.

What's weird about reading this list for me at this stage in the journey is that none of what you listed makes sense to me now. I can appreciate them when I read them in context (when I read how the story of theology developed and I listen to how a theologian worked out the salvation piece using the resources available at the time).

But today? Victory over death? What is that? We die.

Infinite love? How does dying on a cross give me that experience from God? Was Jesus's love "less infinite" when he lived and walked among us? Why does it require death and unjust suffering to communicate infinite love? Jesus was executed. How does that reveal the love of God?

Moral Exemplar? Yes, if we look at his life. But in his dying (in this construction) it means God required his death as Jesus's act of obedience to God. That puts God in the role of needing Jesus to die and rise again. Back to "but why?" If we are to lead a life of obedience to God, doesn't Jesus's life provide us with more clues as to what that looks like than his submitting to death by execution at the hands of the Roman government?

Worse, doesn't that set up "martyrdom" as the highest form of obedience rather than service to your neighbor?

Satisfaction? Well I know you already know the problems with this construction.

The one thing that did become more clear for me in grad school was the idea that Jesus's LIFE has been ellipses-ed out of the tradition. Centuries go by with scant reference to Jesus's life. In fact, I'd make the bold assertion that the Jesus who lived among us hasn't been necessary to the tradition until St. Francis (he tried to live as Jesus did).

But once you make Francis into a saint, you're back to Christianity being about revering models, not living the life. (And the stigmata etc. led to a mystical interpretation of Francis's life which I think is counterproductive too).

The 19th-20th century saw the rise of historical Jesus studies which I think have forced the tradition to look again at Jesus's life. But as long as the creeds make no mention of it, the tradition is always weighted toward death as the chief obedience and Jesus life as the journey to the cross, not enough in its own right.

That troubles me.


Rebecca C said...

I see that you are troubled by that Julie and I knew that before I wrote this. And I totally validate (sheesh, how code word can I get. . .) your right to be. I don't claim any particular revelation to myself that means I feel forcefully that I have to convince you.

Let me lay the background of my reasoning out a bit more.

I am aware of the Gospel of Judas, and am aware that they represent alternate Christian interpretations we 'don't have'.
I haven't read much Pagel but awhile ago I read a lot of Ehrman and I, umm, don't deny any of the facts they are pointing out.

But, oddly enough, as you are arguing more historically here I have shifted more to an intra-church view of this.

To understand and appreciate a tradition I have to take it on its own terms. Christianity deserves that no less than Hinduism or Bhuddism, etc.

When I studied Buddhism I spent zero time explaining why he couldn't have done some of the things attributed to him. I was aware of the background of mythology attached to the core of the tradition but I thought that to understand what he said I had to accept his a priori's.

A while ago I told my sister that I had decided we have a canon. I don't pretend that the canon is all that ever was. But it is what it is and if I'm going to be able to make any sense of orthodox Christianity then I have to take the story it has looked at so long, not spend time looking for other stories. So I was telling you what I see in the canon. But I'm not insisting that is all there ever was.

Maybe, in a way, I have circled back to old Albert. He comes to us as One Unknown, and, ultimately, in historical terms he always is, at the core, unknowable. I found the historical Jesus question to be like wet keenex--the more I examined it the more it feel apart in my hands.

Alternates strike me like that. I can read Judas, but I can't speak, at this point, examine the church that might have had Judas as its canon and, for SURE, I can't join it!

But I am way too UU to tell someone else what they must see or spend their thought and time on.

I hope that helps clarify my statements a bit.

Rebecca C

Rebecca C said...

I forgot to say that I also recognize that what the RC has emphasized has shifted somewhat over time.

But institutions, as much as people, have a 'right' to grow and clarify what they are about.

The RC has a peculiar way of doing that that sort of blurs any recognition of change (I read once that if they ever ordain women the papers about it will start "As has always been taught. . .")
But they do seem, in the face they present to me, to accept that now we see as through a glass darkly and that what we see may clarify a bit from time to time.

*Holding a hand up* Only the face I see. . . I recognize you are probably looking at a different face! ;-)

julieunplugged said...

Hi Rebecca.

I am enjoying the conversation so I hope you don't mind continuing.

You said that you take the tradition on its own terms. I believed I was taking the tradition on its own terms for a long, long time. I lived in light of the faith as it was taught to me and didn't critique it as I do now. Then I discovered that within the tradition there were myriad ways of understanding the same material, and it became even more critical to "take the tradition(s)" on "its (their) own terms." That meant (for me) looking at the reasons behind the choices each part of the tradition made as to what to include, as well as the choices as to what to exclude.

Both matter. (Perhaps that is the postmodernist in me - looking for what got excluded as well as included.)

I certainly can't join a church based on what Christianity "would have been if..." I agree.

It's not so much that as the desire to honestly look at what the trends and trajectories are of various strains of theological thinking.

I do acknowledge that the RC revises its thinking (and you are right, they do try to anchor any changes in what "the tradition has always taught"). I like that they are synthesizers (taking into account the huge long dialog when they do theology).

Current RC formulations of the faith (not the Jesuits so much or the liberation theologians) feel medieval to me in both content and form and that feels like the very thing Jesus teaches and lives against. The form of religious practice in the RC and church today feels foreign to the Jesus I read in the Gospels, even without historical-critical criticism.

That's where I find myself out of synch with orthodoxy.

Thanks for unfolding more of where you are. Does the religious side of faith (baptism, Eucharist, incense, sacraments, etc.) feel like Christianity to you? And do you find them meaningful to you? It seems that draws many into EO and RC.


SusansPlace said...

I picked this one up at the library yesterday. It's in a big stack but I will eventually get to it. In the meantime, am enjoying the conversation here.


julieunplugged said...

But it is what it is and if I'm going to be able to make any sense of orthodox Christianity then I have to take the story it has looked at so long, not spend time looking for other stories. So I was telling you what I see in the canon.

If you are evaluating what the RC teaches so that you can see if you want to join the church, oh yes! You must do this.

But if you are in my position, I'm not planning to join the RC, but I am interested in understanding why there really are myriad understandings of Christianity, and more, why certain ideas have persisted and then evaluating their impact on society, individuals and the church.


carrie said...

You may not want to read anything that argues against the gnostic and apocryphal gospels, but if you do, I highly recommend Fabricating Jesus by Craig Evans. It seems to me (I'm not finished yet) to be a scholarly and overall respectful work.

julieunplugged said...

Thanks Carrie. I checked out his website. The publisher is IVP so he probably is coming from a different set of a priori assumptions than I am. But I will keep the title available for review.

I can feel that another post is necessary. I said in the original post, "Worse, we may be protecting wrong formulations of faith, in fact..."

The use of the word "wrong" is probably what is accounting for the tone of the comments and I see that now. I don't really think we can kknow definitively what the message of Christ was apart from what the church has said it is for the last 2000 years.

What I am suspicious of is the process by which the church chose meanings to feature and others to silence. Since I take issue with core doctrines of the church (because I believe they create an untenable God image, esp.), I find outside sources of material related to Jesus intriguing and challenging.

More on this later.

Rebecca C. said...

I don't mind a bit continuing Julie; as always I am getting a lot out of your responses and thought.

I've spent a very long day helping my 11 yo run a yard sale to raise money and then assemble the basketball setup he made enough to buy so I am way past too tired to do any of this justice. But I'll try to get a response in gear in the near future, either on this post or the next if you move that fast.

I hope everyone is having a good Memorial Day Weekend!