The New York Times had itself a glorious week last month. First there was the front page “news” that, given ancient Galilean climatological oddities, Jesus might have walked on…ice. But that was small beer compared with the all-stops-pulled media rollout of the Gospel of Judas, published by the National Geographic Society to the loud hosannas of those who find the four canonical Gospels too restrictive — people who, as Sister Sandra Schneiders of Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union told the National Catholic Reporter, “want to believe there is more to the story, that it is more flexible, richer, less closed than they thought.”
All of which reminds me of P.T. Barnum’s commentary on the birth-rate of suckers.
What Gospel of Judas cheerleaders like Princeton’s Elaine Pagels assiduously avoided noting was that this “gospel” isn’t a Gospel at all — that is, a story of the public ministry, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Moreover, its story, such as it is, is so bizarre as to invite the scratching of heads, not the enhanced sense of the mysterious Dr. Pagels promised her Times’ op-ed readers.
The story begins shortly before the passion, with the disciples praying before dinner. Jesus laughs at them. The disciples are not amused: “Why are you laughing at us?” they demand. Jesus explain that he isn’t laughing at them but at their weird notion of how God is pleased. (As Adam Gopnik put it in the New Yorker, “One of the unnerving things about the new gospel is that Jesus, who never laughs in the [canonical] gospels, is constantly laughing in this one, and it’s obviously one of those sardonic, significant, how-little-you-know laughs, like the laughter of the ruler of a dubious planet on Star Trek.”)
The Gospel of Judas then heads into familiar territory — familiar, at least, to those who remember the ancient heresy of gnosticism, with its deprecation of the material world and its dualistic conceptions of the universe and of God. Adam Gopnik again: “The true mystery, as Jesus unveils it, is that, out beyond the stars, there exists a divine, blessed realm, free of the materiality of this earthly one. This is the realm of Barbelo, a name the gnostics gave the celestial Mother, who lives there with, among others, her progeny, a good God awkwardly called the Self-Generated One. Jesus, it turns out, is not the son of the Old Testament God, whose retinue includes a rebellious creator known as Yaldabaoth, but an avatar of Adam’s third son, Seth. His mission is to show those lucky members of mankind who still have a ‘Sethian’ spark in them the way back to the blessed realm.”
To get himself back to Barbelo, Jesus has to shuffle off this mortal coil, or, as he puts it, he must “sacrifice the man that clothes me.” Enter Judas, whom Jesus asks to arrange his demise. Judas protests; this will ruin his reputation down the centuries. Jesus replies that, while “you will be cursed by the other generations…you will come to rule over them.” So, as Gopnik aptly puts it, “Judas accepts the bargain: temporal libel for eternal luminosity,” hands Jesus over, and thereby punches his own ticket for Barbelo.
As the Gregorian University’s Father Gerald O’Collins commented, what Judas demonstrates to any sensible person is what Irenaeus understood in the second century: “the gnostics were against mainstream Christianity and Judaism; they were against our God….It was junk then and it is junk now.”
Why do people believe junk? Because, as Father Richard Neuhaus wrote, there’s nothing surprising about “people who want a designer Christianity tailored to their own predilections.” That’s what Elaine Pagels wants; that’s what she sold to Dan (DaVinci Code) Brown; that’s why she’s hyping Judas.
Closing thought: no Church, no Bible. The Church had to determine which of the many “gospels” on offer in the first centuries of Christianity were, in fact, canonical Gospels: that is, the word of God. Reflecting on that might well advance the Catholic-evangelical dialogue on the relationship of the Bible to the Church. If God can work through the Assyrians, genuine ecumenism can work through Elaine Pagels.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.