14 - Introduction to the Gospel of Judas
At the outset, I want to ask the question, "Why the Gnostic Gospels?" As you will see below, I am in fundamental disagreement with a crucial component of the Gnostic philosophy; I emphasize this, because there can be no doubt that these Gospels were composed by a Gnostic author who unabashedly puts a Gnostic slant on all of his material. So what's the point? Why read a piece of ancient fiction--in church? Well, as I will elucidate below, the Gnostic Gospels certainly show us a little slice of history that is usually hidden from us by the sands of time, but, more importantly, they are illustrative of Jesus' power to mythologize Himself; by that, I mean: the impact Jesus made on the world was so great that He became legend before He became bio-graphed. These scriptures are filled with legitimate portraits, and expressions of Jesus, even if they have been decorated by the embellishments of oral tradition; they may not actually turn out to be what they pretend to be, but what ancient scripture is immune to pedagogical dispute? These Gospels may or may not contain historical fact, but they are absolutely imbued with the Holy Spirit, and I have already benefited from exposure to them.
I'm going to kick off this presentation of the Gospel of Judas by first quoting the very last verse of John.
"And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written
every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.
It is significant that John asserts that there are many, many more stories about Jesus that are not recorded in his gospel, (including the other four synoptic gospels, as well, of which many of the stories are the same); John is telling us that there are more untold stories of Jesus. Way cool! If you simply look at the gnostic gospels as a warehouse of new stories about Jesus, you can't go wrong. What a find! What an opportunity! The Gnostic gospels are a treasure trove of new Jesus stories, all of which are resonant with the Jesus stories recorded in the accepted four gospels.
However, let me make this hefty disclaimer before we go any further: in my brief exposure to the field, (which, I find, is immense), I have begun to suspect that the study of the Gnostic Gospels is not mostly about the content of the material, but, rather, it is about enjoying a collection of spiritual allegories and poetic inventions, stylistically characteristic Jesus' time and place.
We know that many of the stories in the Canonical Gospels were told second or third hand, before they were written down. These stories were kept alive, and circulated among believers, through oral transmission. Therefore, certain orally handed-down stories, well-known among the people, might have easily attracted some narrative embroidery, of an archetypal character--and this process of embroidery might have easily yielded some outlandish variants. The beauty of this is that Jesus became a myth practically in his own lifetime! It is, therefore, not surprising that man's tendency to mythologize resulted in so many various religious speculations.
Simply stated, we know through faith, and habit, that the stories in the Synoptic Gospels are historically true, and that Jesus is quoted with literal accuracy. The stories in the Gnostic Gospels, though beautiful, are much more historically suspect; this suspicion compromises the validity of the works as truthful, spiritually resonance documents, because we can't really count on the FACT that Jesus actually said something that they say He said. It may be possible that He said it, it may be CONCEIVABLE that He said it, it may be LIKELY that He said it, but there is no GUARANTEE that He said it.
Admittedly everything is subject to interpretation, such that: any mythological story will communicate not only itself, but the culture and religious prejudices of the author. The stories in the Gnostic gospels are told from the viewpoint of a Gnostic, so they unavoidably tend to echo, implicitly or explicitly, the philosophy of the author. This is where the seed of doubt is planted. It appears that, according to Jesus, Gnosticism is based on a mistaken interpretation of mundane existence: the principle is that we are enslaved by our bodies, and seek, through the use of magic and meditation, to transcend our physical bodies, to become free in the Cloud of Unknowing. This is not unlike the ultimate goal of Jesus, which, to be sure, is to transcend the physical. However, Jesus' transcendence of the physical includes the glorification of the physical in the mundane dimension, finding the eternal in the temporal, and, thereby, establishing the Kingdom of God on earth. Gnostics are not big on "Heaven on Earth"; they just basically want to get the heck out of here as soon as possible.
Iraneus' rejection of the Gnostic Gospels might very well have been driven by a quarrel with Gnosticism, not in any specific sense, but merely on general principles; all of the texts he rejected are more or less actually Gnostic. Perhaps Iraneus took the easy way out--rejecting the principles of Gnosticism, as a school of heretical philosophy, would make it easy for the church fathers to reject the Gnostic Gospels outright, even though there are many non-Gnostic principles expressed in them.
It must be emphasized that the Gnostic view of the physical as a prison, (from which the spirit must enthusiastically escape), is not particularly harmonious with the idea that Jesus put forth of a possible Heaven on Earth. Jesus taught us to focus our perception of identity on the spiritual component; He taught us not to feel bound to the body, and to look forward to an ultimate destiny free of the body. But this does not mean that one's body may not be glorified. Jesus taught us that the physical experience of spirit is, in some ways, just as legitimate and necessary for the evolution of the soul, as its entry and reentry into and out of etheric dimensions.
The more I get to know about the Gnostic Gospels the more I begin to suspect that the gospel of Judas is a work of fiction. Now, that does not mean that the Gospel of Judas does not have something important to say, and true to say. The fact of whether Judas really betrayed Jesus or not, is not of primary interest to me. It's like whether the world was created in six days or not: I don't really care. I don't care if Judas did or didn't betray Jesus; I don't care if he escaped to India; I don't care if he was stoned by the other disciples. I don't know these people, and I don't really have anything to do with what exactly happened. I am a Christian Ex Post Facto--AFTER THE FACT. That Jesus is available to me, in spirit, is the most important part. How He got there, is less important. Furthermore, if we remember that most of the Gospels, most of these these sacred texts, inspired by God, are compositions created by mere by men, who may not even have had direct experience of the events they are reporting, it becomes easier to affirm the the sacredness of the Gospel of Judas.
To be sure, the point of the Gospels is to give us an historical record of Jesus' career, including quotations of His profound sayings--sayings which give us comfort, and direct our the minds toward higher things. However, the mystical experience of Jesus does not depend on the accuracy of any history or doctrine we may have formulated in our minds; it is the higher self which is truly in communion with the Christ.
I find that the word "apologist" keeps attracting my attention. I read up on Iranaeus (who is, as I mentioned last week, largely responsible for choosing the four accepted synoptic gospels, and many other books of the New Testament, meanwhile rejecting many books of Gnostic philosophy. He wrote long books condemning Gnosticism as a false religion, and the gnostic philosophical books as works of heresy. Iraneus is labeled an "apologist" because, with his writing, he justifies his position, and attacks various other positions. So, I find the word "apologist" means to "make apology" in the classic Greek sense of the "apologia" or "defense", the most famous of which is probably the Apologia of Socrates to the Greek accusers who condemned him to death. C.S. Lewis is also always referred to as an apologist. I suppose Martin Luther could be considered one, as well. So in discussing the Gnostic gospels in the present apologia, we have not only the task of presenting the material, which is new to many of us, but also to provide an historical context for it, and then to apologize, or defend, its content--that is, either to confirm it or refute it, or, in some way or other, pass judgement on it. Thus, in struggling to find the truth, we may find items which seem to be somewhat dissonant with the images from the accepted synoptic gospels we have in mind. Those dissonant stimulants must be examined thoroughly to see whether the stimulation is a good thing or a bad thing.
Gnosticism comes in many flavors and intensities, such that it is virtually impossible to describe a single Gnostic philosophy that agrees with all the different varieties. However, this summary of Gnosticism taken from Wikipedia is a good start at providing a meaningful overview:
"Gnostic systems, particularly the Syrian-Egyptian schools, are typically marked by:
• The notion of a remote, supreme monadic divinity, source – this figure is known under a variety of names, including "Pleroma" (fullness, totality) and "Bythos" (depth, profundity);
• The introduction by emanation of further divine beings known as Aeons, which are nevertheless identifiable as aspects of the God from which they proceeded; the progressive emanations are often conceived metaphorically as a gradual and progressive distancing from the ultimate source, which brings about an instability in the fabric of the divine nature;
[Sidebar: You will remember the section on Aeons from last week's sermon. One of the sections of the Gospel of Judas summarizes the Gnostic cosmography. So do we accept the idea that these ideas as, indeed, coming out of Jesus' mouth, or do we, in rejecting this hypothesis, reject the whole of Judas as spurious and heretical?
Back to the Wikipedia summary of Gnosticism:]
" • The introduction of a distinct creator god or demiurge, which is an illusion and a later emanation from the single monad or source. This second god is a lesser and inferior or false god. This creator god is commonly referred to as the demiourgós used in the Platonist tradition. The gnostic demiurge bears resemblance to figures in Plato's Timaeus and Republic. In the former, the demiourgós is a central figure, a benevolent creator of the universe who works to make the universe as benevolent as the limitations of matter will allow; in the latter, the description of the leontomorphic "desire" in Socrates' model of the psyche bears a resemblance to descriptions of the demiurge as being in the shape of the lion; the relevant passage of The Republic was found within a major gnostic library discovered at Nag Hammadi, wherein a text existed describing the demiurge as a "lion-faced serpent". Elsewhere, this figure is called "Ialdabaoth", "Samael" (Aramaic: sæmʻa-ʼel, "blind god") or "Saklas" (Syriac: sækla, "the foolish one"), who is sometimes ignorant of the superior god, and sometimes opposed to it; thus in the latter case he is correspondingly malevolent. The demiurge typically creates a group of co-actors named "Archons", who preside over the material realm and, in some cases, present obstacles to the soul seeking ascent from it;
• The estimation of the world, owing to the above, as flawed or a production of "error" but possibly good as its constituent material might allow. This world is typically an inferior simulacrum of a higher-level reality or consciousness."
One of the interesting sidelights of Gnosticism is the idea of the demiurge, which, translated into Gnostic-ese, means "Creator God". This creator god is not the Supreme God, but merely an "emanation of the Monad". The idea of "levels of the Godhead" is actually something I had thought of before, to whit: in an infinite array, an infinite continuum of material densities, of consciousness states, it is entirely reasonable to think of the God, to whom we pray, as the Creator God--as one more (LOWER) level on an infinite continuum of levels, culminating in the highest infinite, unnamed and unnamable, unthinkable God.
One expression of the Gnostic principle of "levels of Godhead" is the so-called "Gnostic Dualism:
"Some dualism was indeed congenital with Gnosticism, yet but rarely did it overcome the main tendency of Gnosticism, i.e. Pantheism. This, however, was certainly the case in the system of Marcion, who distinguished between the God of the New Testament and the God of the Old Testament, as between two eternal principles, the first being Good, agathos; the second merely dikaios, or just; yet even Marcion did not carry this system to its ultimate consequences. He may be considered rather as a forerunner of Mani than a pure Gnostic. Three of his disciples, Potitus, Basilicus, and Lucanus, are mentioned by Eusebius as being true to their master's dualism (Church History V.13), but Apelles, his chief disciple, though he went farther than his master in rejecting the Old-Testament Scriptures, returned to monotheism by considering the Inspirer of Old-Testament prophecies to be not a god, but an evil angel. On the other hand, Syneros and Prepon, also his disciples, postulated three different principles. A somewhat different dualism was taught by Hermogenes in the beginning of the second century at Carthage. The opponent of the good God was not the God of the Jews, but Eternal Matter, the source of all evil. This Gnostic was combatted by Theophilus of Antioch and Tertullian."
In the Gospel of Judas, Jesus makes reference to an entity Who has never been named, and yet we have, in Hebrew, the Jewish name for God, which is Yahweh. This idea, of the name of God, is somewhat inconsistent with the idea of an unnamed God. This would have been an heretical thought in 200 A.D., and, therefore, would have made The Gospel of Judas a very obvious candidate for expulsion from the Gospels by Iraneus, and the later church fathers who made the final selection of acceptable Gospels. However, once again, for me, it is not a difficult leap to imagine the higher infinite consciousness of God delegating the creation of the world to a lower, co-extensive, creative entity; the idea of progressive distancing from the ultimate source doesn't trouble me at all--as if, by any literal definition, we could ever begin to measure, in anything like an adequate description of spiritual levels and degrees, the height and breadth of God .
Now, going on with more specific excerpts of the Gospel of Judas:
One of the most distinctive features of the portrait of Jesus given in the Gospel of Judas, is that it shows Jesus laughing. There are three places, in this very short book, where Jesus laughs; and, although He denies it, the disciples take this laughter as mocking or making fun of them, and they get pissed off. Where in the synoptic gospels do the disciples ever get pissed off? And yet, faced with this magnificent paradox, Jesus, how could they not? In an effort to make the disciples holy, the synoptic gospels often forget to make the disciples human.
Now, as we know, laughing at the foibles and weaknesses of our friends or children, can be a very open-hearted loving kind of laughter, an indulgent, understanding, forgiving laughter, or it can be a snide, superior, insulting kind of laughter. Of course the disciples, concerned with social status, as the Jews always were, (always pridefully defending their place in the pecking order), take offense at this laughter, and get quite angry with their teacher. Jesus assures them that He is not laughing at them, but with them.
We will begin our review of the Gospel of Judas with that scene. The disciples are gathered over a meal, and have been praying a blessing over the food. Jesus walks in on them and begins to laugh. The disciples get all offended, because they think He is making fun of them. So here is the story, and here is what Jesus has to say:
"SCENE 1: Jesus dialogues with his disciples: The prayer of thanksgiving or the eucharist:
One day He was with His disciples in Judea, and He found them gathered together and seated in pious observance. When He approached, His disciples were gathered together and seated and offering a prayer of thanksgiving over the bread. Then He laughed.
The disciples said to Him,
“Master, why are you laughing at our prayer of thanksgiving? We have done what is right.”
He answered and said to them,
“I am not laughing at you. You are not doing this because of your own will but because it is through this that your god will be praised.”
[Sidebar: So we can see already, that, far from being a humorous laughter at some incongruity, between the intentions of the disciples' prayer and the effect of the prayer, Jesus is merely laughing for joy, that the Father is so intentionally glorified. It MIGHT be that Jesus is amused by the mechanical nature of the Jewish ritual ("We have done what is right."), it MIGHT be that He sees a certain shallowness in the prayer, ("You are not doing this because of your own will,"), but He MIGHT merely be affirming the mystic solemnity of a ritual of praise which transcends its social context, and elevates itself into sacred joy.
The second part of the astray is the telling part:]
“Master, you are the son of our god.”
Jesus said to them,
“How do you know me? Truly I say to you, no generation of the people
that are among you will know me.”
When his disciples heard this, they started getting angry and infuriated and began blaspheming against him in their hearts."
[Sidebar: Notice it says, they "began blaspheming against him in their hearts". No word was spoken, and yet Jesus read their hearts, just as He had done many times in the Synoptic Gospels. This is, indeed, our old friend, whom we have cherished and adored many times before, because He always sees through our petty subterfuges.]
Now, we know that any discussion of the Gospel of Judas must eventually work its way around to the question of whether or not Judas was working FOR or AGAINST Jesus--was Judas following or NOT following Jesus' specific instructions in the matter of the betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane. This is the most difficult controversy in the book, and it is a central idea around which all the other material revolves. Next week we will take a look at that potion of the text.
For now, let us pray: Jesus, as always, we stand in awe of the focus of God that was able to communicate a sliver of its mystery to humankind. We thank you for the opportunity to experience and assess these ancient documents, and we pray, at all costs, that Your Divine Intelligence be available to us, as we explore a vision of you that has been unknown for all these years. Bless our investigations with Heavenly discrimination and open-hearted acceptance. Amen.