Monday, April 10, 2006

The Gospel of Judas and The Gospel of John

Last week the National geographic magazine published the text of a long lost Gospel, the Gospel of Judas. Its discovery was hailed by some scholars as the most important archaeological event for sixty years. It took five years to piece together and translate what remains of the manuscript. Newspapers printed headlines claiming that the new Gospel would shake the foundations of orthodox Christianity. The Guardian newspaper, which is not noted for its piety or interest in serious theology, mischievously made the whole translation available to its readers.
According to the hype, The Gospel of Judas shows that a completely different understanding of God, the world, Jesus Christ and the salvation he came to bring, was circulating among some early Christians not long after the canonical Gospels were written. Critics of Christianity are thus able to argue that the New Testament interpretation of who Jesus was, and what he came to do, is just one of many competing attempts to make sense of his life.
In the Christian Gospels as we know them, it is Peter who is the first of Jesus' disciples to recognise who he really is, but in the Gospel of Judas that honour falls, of course, to Judas Iscariot. As a result Jesus shares secret knowledge, with him which is then recorded in the Gospel. That secret knowledge, or gnosis, is what allows the Gospel of Judas to be classified as one of a collection of writings produced by a group called 'The Gnostics', who existed on the fringes of the early Church.
In the fragments of the Gospel which have survived, Jesus spends most of his time berating the disciples for their lack of understanding. Even Judas is sometimes found wanting, but the terrible truth he has to come to terms with is very difficult for him to bear, so he – at least – has some excuse.
As in other Gnostic teachings, a great deal is said about the imperfection and corruptibility of this world, from which it is the disciples' duty to escape into the pure realm of the Spirit. Judas is told that the only way to do this is to get in touch with God's secret Wisdom. But, according to the Book of Judas, God's Wisdom seems to have more to do with special sacred numbers and silly names than with anything remotely wise or sensible.
The terrible secret with which the book ends is that Judas has been commissioned by Jesus to hand him over to be crucified. Judas is not, therefore, the arch-betrayer. Instead, he is the only disciple close enough to Jesus to be entrusted with this special but heart-breaking task.
Well, forget the hype. No one's faith will be shaken by the Gospel of Judas. Last week's newspapers made much of the fact that this book, like many other apocryphal works, was excluded by mainstream Christians from the Bible. There were hints that the rest of us had missed out on something very important as a result, and that a grave injustice had been done. However, the English translation of the Gospel reveals it to be unutterable drivel. It has no narrative to speak of, it contains no spiritual insights and it has absolutely no literary merit. It is a mere curiosity whose value lies solely in what it tells us about the fevered imaginations of the people who wrote it. No one in their right mind would ever compare it to any of the books in the New Testament.
The Gospel of John is actually the closest thing in our Bible to the Gnostic writings, like the Gospel of Judas, which were excluded. In fact, for a while there was considerable argument about whether it deserved to be part of the New Testament at all because it was so different from the other Christian Gospels, and contained so many difficult things to understand. Like the Gospel of Judas it contains references to knowledge. 'If you know these things,' says Jesus, 'You are blessed if you do them.' [1] Yet a moment's comparison with the Gospel of Judas shows how marvellous John's Gospel is and how much it has to teach us about Jesus.
First, John says that Jesus did understand that there was no way he could escape death without being untrue to God's purpose. His hour had come. However, John insists that Jesus did not ask Judas to betray him. Nor was there anything inevitable about Judas' role in the story. John is very clear that Judas was not doing the will of God. Jesus simply foresaw that evil intentions were going to get the better of Judas and, indeed, were already poisoning his mind. Some people have suggested that Judas was trying to force Jesus' hand – to make him declare open rebellion against the hated Roman authorities. Whether or not that is true, Judas certainly lost the plot.
Then John gives us the beautiful picture of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Jesus had talked elsewhere in the Gospels about his mission to be a servant king but it is only here that he actually shows us what he means. The Buddha once did a very similar thing. To the horror of his own disciples, he washed the body of an elderly monk who had died. This kind of humility is the mark of true spiritual greatness.
When John talks about the things which people need to know in order to be put right with God, he isn't referring to the mumbo jumbo and esoteric nonsense of the Gospel of Judas, he's referring to the open secret that we are called to love and serve our neighbours in imitation of Jesus Christ, who loved us to the end. For it is in self-giving, and in loving, that the true glory and meaning of Jesus' life and work is revealed.
[1] John 13.1-35

1 comment:

Vickie said...

Thanks for that - I found the newspaper reports somewhat difficult to translate!