Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Lost Gospel : The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot

Herbert Krosney

National Geographic, $13.95, 352 pages

Reviewed by William Murchison

There’s just something so Now — so Today — about the buzz and bustle created by all the current ventures in the deconstruction of orthodox Christianity. First “The Da Vinci Code,” three-years-plus on the bestseller list, accompanied this spring by the Tom Hanks movie; then the well-covered legal row over whether “Da Vinci” author Dan Brown copied the “architecture” of another reinterpretation of Jesus’ life. (A British judge ruled he didn’t.)

At the end of April, the New York Times bestseller list sported not only “Da Vinci” but a novel about the imputed heresies of Leonardo himself; and a novel about the Knights Templars; and a nonfiction account (by one of the parties who sued Mr. Brown) of how Jesus survived the crucifixion; and a book wising us up to what Jesus really said and meant; and — just in time for Easter — a long-lost “Gospel of Judas,” together with a companion book recounting how this great prize of biblical archaeology came to light.

Is this a quirky theological moment we are living through, or what? A lot of Americans who buy books lack for one reason or another any interest in better understanding what we have long known. Their passion instead is for scraping away layers of paint that conceal The Things They Don’t Want You to Know. “Things” like what? Alternatives to the Christian narrative, of course — Jesus as married man, Jesus as the guy they couldn’t kill, Judas as Christian hero. “They” (the custodians of orthodoxy) don’t want you to know because if you knew, they might lose their power (and might have to kill you).

Fear not. Dan Brown is on the job. Not to mention the National Geographic Society. I swallow hard as I write that last sentence. Of all publishers to burst into print with the Gospel of Judas — National Geographic! The Geographic, famed for its yellow-bordered magazine covers and sponsorship of expeditions to the top of the world and the bottom of the sea, threw in its lot with the deconstructors for reasons I am sure the trustees would justify as rooted in scientific excitement but which smell suspiciously of lust for media attention.

The Gospel of Judas — written on 13 sheets of papyrus in the Coptic language, and which languished for centuries in a jar in the Egyptian desert — typifies the thought of a discredited (in orthodox Christian terms) school of early Christian thinkers called the Gnostics. The Gnostics were a weird bunch, to say the least. The hidden knowledge and secret teachings, to which they pretended, were in their own heads — a swirl of strange beings and powers attested to nowhere else, including a dynamic duo of gods.

To the Gnostics Jesus was only partly human — a reflection of their view that matter was evil. St. Irenaeus, a great second-century bishop, is due particular credit for combating Gnosticism as a snare and a delusion, and helping drive it from the Christian marketplace, where over time the church shaped the creeds and the canon of Scripture into their present forms.

Only in recent decades have the Gnostics made a comeback, due, I suppose, to human credulity and also to the salesmanship of scholars — e.g., Elaine Pagels — who, in a world where nothing seems settled, present Gnostic works like the lately recovered gospels of Thomas and Philip as somehow opening to us new understandings. Understandings of what? That’s the immediate question with the Gospel of Judas.

In “The Lost Gospel,” Herbert Krosney chronicles in workmanlike fashion the journey from rediscovery to publication of the text. It is supposed to be Judas telling his own story, as if for an HBO special. Was he really a bad guy? Lord, no! Judas’ gospel (according to whoever wrote it) centers on a long, friendly talk with the Lord — during which Jesus laughs four times. Judas does some figuring: “You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo.”

The conversation resumes the next day. Jesus lets Judas in on secrets “no person [has]ever seen … a great and boundless eternal reality, whose extent no generation of angels has seen …” Guess where these humans came from? Why, from Saklas, an angel considered a fool. There’s a lot more talk, especially about stars.

Then to the point. Says Jesus to Judas: “[Y]ou will exceed all of [the disciples]. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” Mr. Krosney explains: “Jesus is asking Judas to hand him over and sacrifice him. The reasons become clearer. Jesus’ life on Earth is only in the guise of a man. The man provides clothes for the spirit within. Jesus is an eternal figure; he is part of the higher God …”

Believe it if you like. Just don’t confuse it with Christianity, notwithstanding Mr. Krosney’s praise of this “fresh and authentic witness [to] an early era” of the faith. “Fresh” and “authentic” aren’t the words that come most readily to mind. Wild and woolly or febrile and fraudulent are among the likelier possibilities for characterizing the contents of the Judas gospel.

There’s also a word for this whole publishing project: Cynical or credulous, take your pick.

William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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