Saturday, April 23, 2011

Reading Judas by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King: A review

Just in time for Easter, I've finished Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King.

The non-canonical Gospel of Judas, which is the topic of this book, was purportedly found in Egypt in the 1960s or 1970s. Its provenance is somewhat shaky, but the only known copy of the work, in the Coptic language, has been carbon-dated to around 280 of the Common Era, give or take 60 years. It is believed that this is a translation of an earlier Greek work which was in existence at least in 180 C.E. when the influential Christian priest, Irenaeus, spoke out against it and other writings that offered an alternative view of the circumstances and meaning of Jesus' life and death.

Elaine Pagels and Karen King are two respected scholars of Gnosticism, the philosophical tradition from which the Gospel of Judas springs. They explain how and why the author of the work (who, obviously, was not Judas Iscariot but apparently someone sympathetic to him) disagreed with the branch of Christianity that came to be the accepted, canonical version, the life of Jesus as told by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

A major disagreement between the two factions had to do with the question of death and the afterlife. The canonical view held with a bodily resurrection of the redeemed. The Judas gospel affirms an immortal spirit. Jesus was not reborn in the flesh and the eternal life that he offers is lived in the spirit alone.

Another major difference is the view of blood sacrifice. Judas has Jesus expressing scorn for animal sacrifice and for the implied human sacrifice of the Eucharist. In this gospel, eternal life is won through adherence to Jesus' teachings rather than through the sacrifice of his life.

Judas is the hero of this gospel and the other eleven disciples are essentially clueless. They don't really understand Jesus' teachings or who he is or the significance of his life. It is only Judas who really understands and his gospel tells how Jesus singles him out, takes him aside and teaches him the mysteries that are beyond the world. In this telling Judas' so-called betrayal of Jesus is simply Judas following orders from Jesus.

I think the main value of the Gospel of Judas as well as the other Gnostic writings that have been found over the past century is that they shed light on the conflicts of early Christianity and how it happened that the religion that we know today emerged. In the beginning of this new religion, there were many different views of the events of Jesus' life and of its meaning and different factions fought hard for their views over several centuries before an orthodoxy triumphed and books of the Christian Bible were set in stone - so to speak.

All that being said, I'm bound to point out that the Jesus portrayed in this gospel is not a very attractive character. He is sarcastic and laughs derisively at his disciples' stupidity. It makes for an interesting alternative hypothesis of what Jesus the man may have been like, but, on the whole, I have to admit I prefer Luke's compassionate Jesus.

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