Yesterday Terri Gross had Elaine Pagels and Karen King on NPR’s Fresh Air. They were there to promote their new book, Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity. I would like to comment on one particular point they kept trying to stress throughout the program.
Evidently, early Christians were very “open” with their “orthodoxy.” There was no real “truth” in early Christianity. In fact, there were many different versions of “Christianity,” and all equally valid. Pagels explains what we learn from the Gospel of Judas at the end of the program this way:
“Christianity isn’t one thing. It’s many different voices, many traditions, many conglomerations of traditions, and it’s always changing and being contended with and struggled with and transformed by every generation. So it’s never been a ‘static’ thing, and many people say ‘if you’re a Christian you have to believe this or that or what I believe,’ of course. In fact, it’s nothing of the kind.”
Earlier in the program Pagels explained,
“What we love about this text*–what is adventurous about looking at gospels like this, or the Gospel of Mary or the Gospel of Thomas, is that they don’t give you the answers that Christians think they expect, like Jesus died for your sins, or Jesus rose from the dead, or, you know, this kind of thing. They will say, “Yes, we’re Christians,” but they take the gospel to mean something quite different. And we realize there are many ways of exploring it, and that’s what we lost, when we lost all these other texts.”
But is this really what the Gospel of Judas teaches us? In the very same broadcast, some salient points were made about this little Gnostic gospel. For example, in the Gospel of Judas, Jesus laughs at and mocks the disciples for believing the things they do and worshipping with the Eucharist. Moreover, the author of the Gospel of Judas is “very angry.” Karen King explains, “[The Jesus of the Gospel of Judas] is very angry with the things being done in the name of God, and, indeed, things being done in his name that are wrong.” In fact, the Gospel of Judas presents Judas as the one who really understands the gospel of Jesus, which King says Judas defines as the fact that “the soul, the spirit-filled soul, . . . will live with God forever.” In addition, the Gospel of Judas challenges the twelve apostles. The Gospel of Judas acknowledges that the predominant Christian teaching it attacks was connected to “proto-orthodox” church leaders. It is said, “Here [in the Gospel of Judas] the apostles are attacked because they’re a stand-in for the church leaders.”
So what do we learn from the Gospel of Judas? We actually learn that there was a very angry person or group of persons who claimed to be Christians, preaching a Gospel they themselves acknowledged to be different from the disciples’, mocking the Christian Eucharist, scorning the sacrificial death of Christ taught in the primitive Gospel, and, most important, militant about these idiosyncratic teachings. While Pagels and King want to paint the picture that the early Christian sects were as cavalier about truth as they are, the point will not stand the scrutiny of their own summary of Judas. This was not a “tolerant” sect or brand of Christianity. This sect was deeply concerned for what it believed. It just so happens that what they believed was not the Apostolic teaching, and heretical. This is why the early Christian “proto-orthodox” teacher Irenaeus said of Judas,
Still others say that Cain came form the Absolute Soveignty above, and Esau, Korah, and the men of Sodom, along with every person of this sort, have the same origin. They were hated by the Creator because though attacked they suffered no harm, for Sophia took to herself what was her own in them. The traitor Judas was the only one of the apostles who possessed this knowledge. For this reason he bruoght about the mystery of the betrayal; through him all things on earth and in heaven were destroyed. They provide a work to this effect called the ‘Gospel of Judas.’ . . .
Perhaps some of them will repent and by returning to the only God, the Creator and Maker of the universe, can be saved.**
Please note that Irenaeus did not try to hide this Gospel for fear of a rival interpretation of the gospel, but instead countered its teachings by soberly explaining its teaching and (eventually) showing its error. Christians have known about the Gospel of Judas for millenia. As Mike Aquilina says,
“The Gnostics were trying to distance themselves from historic Christianity, and they did it by mocking the one unmistakable sign of the Great Church: the Eucharist. We should wish them, once again, all the success they enjoyed the first time around.”
*I have to admit I find delight in the fact that she immediately backed off her confessed “love” for the Gospel of Judas and toned down her excitement a bit.
**Against Heresies 31.1, 3 (trans. Robert Grant; New York: Routledge, 1997).