So says Jesus in the recently republished manuscript of the Gospel of Judas. Let me tell you, that ain’t my Jesus.
I was at a party last night when a few key words signaling “religion discussion alert!” reached my ears. Naturally, I lunged for that side of the room, found out that the conversation was about the Gospel of Judas, and ended up delivering a mini-rant about why Gnosticism annoys me. A friend (let’s call him “Subcomandante Possum”) then asked if I was going to report this discussion on my blog. “No!” I replied indignantly. “I don’t mine daily conversation for blog material.”
So . . . I lied. I really wasn’t going to write about the Gospel of Judas, because plenty of people already have (check out Philip Jenkins’ article on Beliefnet—it’s a good one), and I’m not sure I’m adding anything. But then I woke up in the middle of the night and found myself composing the entry in my head, so I figure I’d better write it for the sake of my own sleep, if nothing else. So here we go. Subcomandante Possum, as last night’s assistant in slamming Gnosticism, this one goes out to you.
I’m not going to talk much about the details of the canonization process, about how the early church selected the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, while rejecting other contenders. Experts can tell you a lot more about that than I can. All I’m going to say is that it was not, as Dan Brown and others have implied, a top-down, hierarchical decision made at the Council of Nicea by Constantine or anyone else. A consistent, de facto canon had already been formed by the early Christians who passed around the texts that are now part of the Bible. As Bible scholar Craig Evans explains, “Those early Christian groups were generally poor; they couldn’t afford to have more than a few books copied, so the members would say, ‘I want the Apostle John’s gospel, and so on. The canonical Gospels are the ones that they themselves considered the most authentic.”
And that’s part of what makes me believe the canonical Gospels, as opposed to the Gnostic ones. It was the people, ordinary people in communities of faith, who recognized the authenticity of the canonical Gospels; the Gnostic Gospels, on the other hand, were the ones promoted by those who wanted to be the elite, those who wanted to view themselves as more enlightened than others—specifically, more enlightened than poor Jewish believers.
Several religion scholars have claimed that the discovery of the Gospel of Judas will help to combat anti-Semitic trends in Christianity (by explaining that Judas wasn’t really a traitor; he was simply doing what Jesus instructed him to do). Now, I heartily agree that anti-Semitism is a problem that needs to be addressed—and I believe that Gnosticism one of the last places on earth to look for a remedy, for, in its origins, practices, and beliefs, Gnosticism was thoroughly anti-Jewish. It was a way for the Greeks to reject all that offended them about the Jewish roots of Christianity and to separate themselves from those “primitive” people with their strangely concrete beliefs.
And what was most offensive about Jewish Christianity? Its emphasis on the goodness of the material world, especially the body. For Gnostics, the material world was evil, and so they ascribed its creation not to God but to an evil demi-urge. To become truly enlightened and divine, you had to cast off the body, which was separate from the soul (in contrast, consider the Hebrew word nephesh, meaning one’s whole being, body and soul wrapped up together). To the Gnostics, it was unconscionable that God would come in the form of a human, because human bodies were evil. Thus, the Gnostic Jesus of the Gospel of Judas tells Judas, “you will sacrifice the man that clothes me,” thus freeing Jesus to transcend the body and become divine—just as the Gnostics believed they, too, would become, if they gained access to the special secret knowledge hidden from everyone else.
The Jesus I know and love would never tell a disciple, “Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom.” If you look at Jesus’ life and teachings in the canonical Gospels, it’s pretty clear that there’s no chance of understanding the mysteries of the kingdom apart from others. There are no secrets. Plenty of weirdness, yes. The Bible is a pretty weird book, and Jesus is a pretty weird guy, so I can’t dismiss the Gospel of Judas on the grounds of weirdness alone. But the Gospel of Judas is precisely the sort of weirdness that I would expect people to come up with, because it sets up those hierarchies and divisions that we tend to crave. Jesus, on the other hand? As W.H. Auden wrote, “I believe because He fulfills none of my dreams, because He is in every respect the opposite of what He would be if I could have made Him in my own image.”
And yet the mystery (a very public mystery, not a secret one) of Jesus, according to Christianity, is that we are made in his image. Jesus’ incarnation as a human is a signal flare flashing out that God actually kind of likes these bodies God created, as well as the particular environments in which those bodies live. Here’s an experiment: take a look at the Gospel of Judas and observe how no specific places are mentioned—for the Gnostics, specifics would get in the way of enlightened abstraction. Now take a look at the canonical Gospels. Place names abound. Jesus gets hungry and tired and irritated and amused, and fully embraces the messy goodness of the human body.
So I guess I could say that the beauty of the Incarnation is the reason I get ticked off at Gnosticism. And I really can’t think of a better expression of incarnational beauty than my favorite Gerard Manley Hopkins poem:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
I say more: the just man justices,
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Christ—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Ha! In your face, Gnostics!
I do also have to mention that today, as we were picking up a pizza, a little boy in the parking lot looked up at Porpoise and said “Hello, Jesus.” Or maybe it was “Hello, pizza.” One of the two.
Add comment May 14th, 2006