Thursday, April 13, 2006

Sinner or Saint: The Judas Gospel

I watched the replay of the National Geographic feature on the Gospel of Judas Wednesday night since I failed to catch it when it first aired on Palm Sunday. My row mate, Mike essentially summarized the narrative to me after practice, which was about Christ fixing the betrayal scene between Him and Judas, to allow for the Crucifixion, and thus the Salvation of humanity, to be completed.

When I first heard of it, my initial reaction was one of disbelief, “What? Judas has a gospel, I thought he hanged himself from a tree after betraying Christ?” (I paid attention during Religion/Catechism classes). Immediately, my skeptic alter-ego took over and promptly shifted to the sarcastic mode, “Maybe he took out his notebook and wrote down the sequence of events, buried it someplace before tightening the rope around his neck and finally calling it quits”.

It turns out my instincts weren’t far from the truth. The Judas gospel “unearthed” in 1978 in Egypt, turned out to be a 3rd-4th century Coptic translation of the Greek original, which was denounced by the early Church Fathers, particularly Ireneus, bishop of Lyon around 180 A.D. as heretical. (The other so-called Gnostic gospels of Mary Magdalene, Phillip, Thomas and so forth used extensively in Dan Brown’s thrillers and that lamentable movie Stigmata, also came from this period). Coptic was the language in Egypt from A.D. 200 to 1000 and was the language of an emerging sect known as Gnosticism, which has its roots in paganism (Ireneus, c.a. 130-200 A.D., was the first to inform us of the sect who called themselves the Cainites, or followers of Cain, now known as the Gnostics, who claimed to possess the Judas gospel). Essentially, it borrowed elements from the emerging Christian Church and retold the story of the events leading to the Crucifixion basically to fit neatly with its view of the world.

From the NG feature, various experts theorized that Ireneus was pressured to choose from over 30 existing Gospels circulating then because the period saw intense persecution of Christians by the Roman authorities. He saw to it that persecuted believers knew what and why they were being made to suffer for, and thus, selected the accounts that would best represent the teachings of the emerging but marginalized orthodox church. He basically laid down and consolidated what constituted the teachings of Christ from the four accounts of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.

The feature suggests that Ireneus was under intense pressure, not only because of the persecutions but competition from the Gnostics too, who were incorporating elements of Christian belief into their practices as well. The big question now is, Who was Ireneus? What authority did he have in order to choose which among the existing gospels should and should not be included in what we now know of as the Bible?

If NG only investigated further, perhaps interviewing experts of early Church history from the Vatican, they would find out that Ireneus was a disciple of John the Apostle. Which means he was in the best position, probably among the best qualified, to validate which of the competing accounts of the 30 or so gospels were consistent with Christ’s teachings as the apostles knew them.

The four Gospels were the earliest written accounts and appear chronologically in the New Testament. Mark was written around 60 A.D while the latest, John was believed to have been written in or around 100 A.D. In other words, there still existed first-hand witnesses (the apostles) or credible sources (direct disciples of the apostles) from which to verify and authenticate the various competing accounts. Judas Gospel only came to be noticed in 180 A.D., which means it must have been written much later than the first four.

The contents of Judas ran counter to the spirit of the first four. Christ arranging the betrayal so that it would free his spirit from the body was essentially a Gnostic belief. Gnostics believed that the God of the Spirit World was not the same God who created the Material World, and that it was the aim of everyone to free himself of the body that contains the spirit and join the Spirit God.

In addition, the account painted a sympathetic, even a heroic, picture of Judas, unlike the harsh and dark depictions especially from John. According to the account, Judas was the only one who totally understood Jesus, and that he was personally picked by Jesus to carry out the betrayal because of this. Then why hang yourself if you very well knew beforehand that the crucifixion and death of Jesus was basically fixed? True enough, the account ended abruptly and did not narrate the crucifixion and resurrection scenes. After all, it was not necessary anymore, the death of Christ would have sufficed and released his spirit.

The hype of the NG feature certainly did not live up to expectations. It certainly won’t shake the foundations of Christianity as was widely touted. The gospel of Judas was obviously not a first-person account (he hanged himself, didn’t he?) but a retelling of the events as the Gnostics saw them. (The four gospel authors are believed not really to have personally written the accounts themselves: it was a community effort. The four apostles and their respective disciples undertook the writing of the accounts and ascribed the authorship to the four, ostensibly because they were the direct witnesses to Christ’s teachings). It’s like the latest Ann Rice novel (I forgot the title) which retells the story of Jesus growing up in Nazareth, complete with first person dialogues and narratives, as she imagined it to be.

It would have been more interesting if in fact, there were evidences of Gnostics being followers of Jesus or the apostles, which means first-hand accounts of the events leading to the Crucifixion. This I believe would really shake the foundations of Christianity and subject the existing four accepted gospels to open question.

The woman archaeologist (I think that was what she was) who brought this account to light, at the beginning of the feature waxed emotional, declaring that its as if Judas himself chose her to undertake this monumental task of clearing up his name, which has been cursed down the ages.

Unfortunately, after the two-hour feature, I remain unconvinced.