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The Washington Post's EJ Dionne writes about the discovery of the apocryphal Gospel of Judas, a writing known and rejected by Christians since the early days of the Church, but which has achieved new notoriety lately through its textual release after years of study. Dionne addresses the silliness that has accompanied the National Geographic release:
The buzz surrounding the Gospel of Judas is that it will threaten the faith. Much the same has been said of "The Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown, but the Judas Gospel has the additional benefit of being a genuine historical document. It is the product of the Gnostic wing of early Christianity, eventually condemned as heretical, that claims salvation not by faith or works but by special knowledge. ...
Judging by the Gospel of Judas, the "knowledge" claim of the book's author or authors is to a rather bizarre cosmology. The detailed description of a divine realm of assorted angels and an emphasis on the stars -- "Stop struggling with me," the Jesus of the story says. "Each of you has his own star." -- reads like a rejected screenplay for a Spielberg movie.
Gnosticism has always been a seductive force, and not just in Christianity. For some reason, a large percentage of people want to believe that real truth can never be easily understood. Humans appear to have a deep-seated need to be part of a secret, inner circle that can unlock hidden truths -- or at least to believe in hidden truths. Gnosticism could be accurately described as Christianity's first conspiracy theory, except that it undersells the strength of the movement and how difficult it was for the early Church to stamp it out.
The Gospel of Judas and the actual assertions on which the fictional DaVinci Code are based represent the eternal attraction of Gnosticism. We cannot believe that God loved us so that He gave us His only son as the perfect sacrifice for all time, and all we have to do to partake in that sacrifice is to believe in Him. (I often think that Jesus understood this so well that he spoke in parables just to address this human need for deconstruction, along with the other eternal human need to have everything explained in small words.) Because this sacrifice is so unbelievable, a lot of people are unable to take it at face value, and that's when people start thinking about conspiracies, secret knowledge, and so on.
The problem with Gnosticism is that it denies the universality of the sacrifice. Christians believe that Jesus died for all our sins to set mankind free. If that is true, then Gnosticism directly contradicts it. Rather than having Jesus be the universal sacrifice, Gnosticism would have people believe that the salvation offered by Jesus was intended from the beginning for only a select few, only those in on the Double Plus Secret Plan, if you will. Under this system of belief, the only people who can achieve salvation are those who can successfully decode secret messages in the Gospels and recognize the secret nature of God. It casts Heaven as a convention for conspiracy nuts.
It's no small wonder, then, that the Gospel of Judas portrays a Jesus that doesn't sound terribly concerned about humanity but emphasizes astrology -- another form of study that attracts the same kind of attention from the same kind of people. It's also fitting that this gets attributed to Judas, the apostle who apparently believed that Jesus would command an army to overthrow the Romans, a man who looked for the secret code in the teachings of Jesus rather than the overt message He preached. This Gospel only threatens the faith of those who still are tempted to do the same, in the same manner that the Da Vinci Code threatens the faith -- which is to say not at all.
For those of you who wonder why I read Dionne, this column is an excellent example of his insightful writing and point of view. I may not agree with EJ often, but he always has something interesting and provocative to say.
UPDATE: Thank you for all of the excellent comments in this thread and to those who e-mailed their thoughts on this subject. For more on this topic, I'd recommend this post at Stingray.Sphere It View blog reactions
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