Wednesday, May 31, 2006

That Judas Gospel

I found this article a refreshing switch from the weeping and gnashing of teeth we've seen over the Da Vinci Code: Judas and Jesus:  What Did the Gnostics Really Believe? by Jack Miles Commonweal 06/02/06 issue (accessed 05/31/06).  Miles writes:

In a recent special issue of U.S. News & World Report (on sale through August 29), one can read: “In the beginning, there was not one Christianity, but many. And among them was a well-established tradition of gnosticism, one of the key ‘heresies’ upon which Dan Brown builds the plot of The Da Vinci Code.” Well, no, actually: In the beginning of the common era, there was not even one Christianity but only Greco-Roman Jewry, whose monotheism, even in its proto-Christian guise, the polytheistic majority rightly regarded as atheism vis-à-vis all gods but one. This was the divide that mattered. Within that Jewish world community, two historic world religions-Rabbinic Judaism and Orthodox Christianity-would define each other into existence in a reciprocal process that, as Daniel Boyarin has recently and brilliantly shown (Border Lines, University of Pennsylvania Press), took centuries to reach completion. Alongside both, more than ready to absorb them, was the immense, flexible, metaphysically speculative, culturally omnivorous, definition-defying mainstream that was Greco-Roman polytheism. Gnosticism was a kaleidoscopically pluriform variety of that.

And this one is thought-provoking, too:

The Betrayer's Gospel by Eduard Iricinschi, Lance Jenott, Philippa Townsend New York Review of Books 06/08/06 issue; accessed 05/31/06.  They give attention to issues like the role of martyrdom in Christianity at the time of the Gospel of Judas and the Gnostics.

As they relate, by the second century the Roman authorities had become suspicious enough of Christians' unwillingness to participate in the Roman religious festivals that they began to coerce them to renounce the faith:

The Roman authorities were particularly suspicious of a cult that encouraged its members to opt out of participation in the festivals and rituals that were central to the public life of the empire, and to do so in favor of secretive meetings in private houses. Such behavior seemed to many people inexplicably withdrawn from society, and hostile to it.

Despite these perceptions of the Christian religion, the prosecution of its members in the second century was sporadic and aimed principally at attempting to get Christians to change what were seen as antisocial practices and not at physically punishing them. Generally, to escape conviction on the charge of being a Christian, a member of the church had to deny his or her faith and make a gesture of willingness to participate in worship of the Roman gods, for example by sprinkling some incense on an altar. Roman judges often gave Christians numerous opportunities to recant before finally sentencing them to death. But many church leaders, for example the second-century bishop of Antioch, exhorted their congregations not to avoid martyrdom, but rather to embrace it. Recalcitrant Christians were held up as glorious examples to others; the idea that martyrs were participating in Jesus' passion made suffering something to be not only endured, but desired.

But not all Christians of the time took that view.  "Some Christians," they write, "objected to what they saw as a pointless waste of life, and they believed that public confessions of faith were unimportant."

They refer to another (presumably Gnostic) text found at Nag Hammadi called *The Testimony of Truth* that dissented from the Church leaders who demanded that Christians accept martyrdom rather than make superficial compromises with the Roman pagan religion.  In that document's words:

The foolish, thinking in their heart that if they confess "We are Christians," in word only but not with power, while giving themselves over to a human death, not knowing where they are going or who Christ is, thinking that they will live while they are really in error, hasten toward the principalities and the authorities.

And they write:

Here [in Testimony of Truth] the principalities and authorities that are referred to may be those of the Roman Empire; or they may be demonic powers who hold sway over the world. While we don't know much about the people who wrote and read this text, it is likely that they believed inner commitment was what mattered. In the same way that Paul advised the Corinthians that it was acceptable to eat meat sacrificed to the pagan gods, because they didn't really exist, these Christians may have felt that publicly renouncing their beliefs and taking part in sacrificial rites was not a betrayal as long as one privately maintained one's personal commitment to the Christian faith.

The Gospel of Judas seems to express a similar attitude toward martyrdom; but rather than criticize the martyrs themselves, it implicitly blames the bishops as wicked priests who are invoking Jesus' name, yet offering their followers up like dumb animals on the altar of a false god. Just as in the first scene, in which Jesus laughs at the disciples because their thanksgiving rituals are directed toward the wrong god, here too he criticizes the apostles and, by implication, their successors the bishops as misunderstanding what the true God wants ...

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