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Betrayed By God

Heretical Reflections on The Gospel of Judas

One of the problems in writing about the complex and recondite subjects I tend to tackle—Gnostic heresy, for instance, or the comparative mythology of sacred kingship—is that what I write tends to proliferate wildly as I attempt to sort through the vast and tangled skein of the subject matter. Years ago I was struck by a comment of Jorge Luis Borges, who ingeniously dodged proliferation by writing in a condensed, enigmatic form. Borges suggested wryly that, rather than write an elaborate opus like Don Quixote, why not just write a review of a non-existent book and say in 1,500 words what the book says in 150,000 (about the length of my forthcoming book, Not in His Image.)

Well, considering my advanced age and the dubious state of my cerebral circuits, I may take up Borges' method from now on. For lack of time, I may start to write in a compressed, algorithmic style, like Holderlin in his last poems, or Novalis in his fragments.

For practice, I could start by writing a review of a book I haven't read.

Right around April Fool's Day, 2006, news hit the world press that a Gnostic text entitled The Gospel of Judas had surfaced in Egypt. A team of scholars assembled by the National Geographic Society will publish the 26-page document, which is written in Coptic and believed to date from the same era as the Nag Hammadi codices, i.e., around 300 CE. Needless to say, this is a sensational find for Gnostic scholars. What it has to say to the world at large is another question altogether.

In my Borgesian review of this unread book I will cite three articles: A by John Noble Wilford and Laurie Goodstein (The New York Times), B by Laurie Goodstein (Likewise, NYT), and C by Guy Gugliotta and Alan Cooperman.

Not His Story

"The debate is not over whether the manuscript is genuine — on this the scholars agree. Instead, the controversy is over its relevance" (A). I totally agree. But I would add that the impact could be considerable if it continues to erode faith in the historical veracity of the canonical Gospels, as the Nag Hammadi documents have done. No matter what faith issues are involved, the mere appearance of this text underscores the fact that many Gospels existed, in many versions. It raises the question the Vatican loves to hate, Why should the canonical books of the New Testament have sole and exclusive claim to historicity?

This question is, of course, largely responsible for the sensational success of The Da Vinci Code. Christianity is based not only on articles of faith stated in, or inferred from, the New Testament, but equally so on faith in the historical truth of the books composing it. Those who believe Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God and Savior of the world, have to believe that the documents that tell his story are true reports of events that actually happened, including supernatural events such as bodily resurrection. In refuting The Da Vinci Code, defenders of the faith have had to resort to the argument that Gnostic materials that present the portrait of Jesus and Magdalene as intimate friends, or even lovers, are deviant fabrications rather than reliable historical records like the New Testament. Unfortunately for them, this argument alerts believers all around the world that the canonical Gospels may also be fabricated. The very mention of fabrication used to refute the Gnostic materials redounds disastrously upon those who use it.

The controversy over The Da Vinci Code has put religious authorities in the difficult situation of demanding, not only renewed belief in the articles of faith, but continued, unquestioning belief in the historical validity of the written accounts on which those beliefs are based. Those who insist that nothing in the story of Jesus and Magdalene can be proved to be factual inadvertently bring attention to the counter-argument that almost nothing in the canonical Gospels can be proven to be so, either. The authorities are now trapped in a tactic of refutation that increasingly undermines their own position.

 

    Scholars have long been on the lookout for the Gospel of Judas because of a reference to what was probably an early version in a treatise written by Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, in 180. He was a hunter of heretics, and no friend of the Gnostics, whose writings proliferated in the second through fourth centuries.'They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas,' Irenaeus wrote" (A).

The protest against "fictitious history" in the Gnostic materials works equally well against the canonical writings. Gnostic writings gain, rather than lose, validity each time their historical veracity is put in question. They are increasingly seen to be of interest in their own right, whether or not they are historically true. "The real debate is whether the text says anything historically legitimate about Jesus and Judas" (B). This line, written in reference to the Gospel of Judas, can now be applied equally well to the Gospel of Mark, or the Acts of the Apostles. We are dramatically close to the point of asking—as did scholars such as Ernest Renan and Albert Schweitzer, among the first to deconstruct the Bible and question its historical veracity, well over a century ago—Is there any text that says anything historically legitimate about Jesus and Judas? And we are precariously close to the answer given by those early exponents of Biblical criticism: No, absolutely not.

His story is not history.

Many people remain so deeply identified with their beliefs that they cannot let go of them without losing all sense of who they are, but almost everyone in our day and age knows that a good story need not be literally true to be meaningful. We are more sophisticated about fiction than we are about faith. This being so, anything that makes the New Testament account of Jesus and his times look fictional is dangerous to faith, because it speaks to the part of the collective mind that knows better. It is likely that The Gospel of Judas, whatever its content may prove to be, will contribute to the increasing perception of the New Testament as what it really is: a fictional construct.

Goofy Gnosticism

The articles circulating on the new textual discovery tend to adopt the prevalent assumption of Gnostic scholars (such as Elaine Pagels and Karen King) that Gnostic ideas were merely variations of beliefs debated in the first Christian communities:

    The latter [The Nag Hammadi texts, including gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdalene] have inspired recent Gnostic scholarship and shaken up traditional biblical scholarship by revealing the diversity of beliefs among early followers of Jesus. Gnostics believed in a secret knowledge of how people could escape the prisons of their material bodies and return to the spiritual realm from which they came.

    "These discoveries are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion and demonstrating how diverse — and fascinating — the early Christian movement really was," said Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton who specializes in studies of the Gnostics.(A. Italics added)

These snippets convey two standing assumptions of Gnostic scholarship that I have spent considerable effort to refute, both in this site and elsewhere. First, that Gnostics believed it was desirable to escape from "the prison of the body" to a disembodied spiritual realm, the place we presumably all come from. And second, that Gnostic views are valuable today because they demonstrate the variety and diversity of early Christianity—the implication being, whatever Gnostics thought and taught has no value as such, no value of its own. Scholars like Elaine Pagels spread the view that Gnosticism is only of interest as it helps us to understand and appreciate the development of Christian beliefs.

Scholars are so intent to show the meaning of Gnostic writings in Christian terms that they miss the radical anti-Christian message in those writings.

I doubt if the Borgesian method of reductive paraphrase can ever be applied to these tangled issues. The disinformation around Gnosticism is like a thick, sticky crust on a delicious and nourishing fruit. Articles like the ones cited here continue to spread the scholarly bias, even while they inform us of new and interesting subjects. Rather than get into the thick of it here, I will merely point out that the body-prison-escape model cannot be identified as a genuine Gnostic teaching. (The refutation of this model, which I rigorously uphold, has been extensively developed by Gnostic scholar Michael Allen Williams in Rethinking 'Gnosticism'). Insofar as the Gospel of Judas underscores this model, as it seems to do, it may not be genuinely Gnostic at all.

In the Reading Plan for the Nag Hammadi Library, I explain that the Egyptian find of 1945 contains some texts that are actually not Gnostic. There is an extract from the Republic of Plato, and a scribbled note attributed to Saint Paul, but these are only the more obvious examples of non-Gnostic material in the corpus. I argue that the Gospel of Thomas the Contender is a Buddhist sermon on impermanence and surrender of desire, framed in Gnostic idiom, and The Apocryphon of James is a Jewish tract on the tribulations of the righteous. Granted, both of these texts assimilate Gnostic language, and allude to some Gnostic themes, but they do not express the radical Gnostic message from the Pagan Mysteries. The same may be true of the Gospel of Judas, especially if it is proven to emphasize the body-prison-escape theme, totally alien to the earth-based, Sophianic vision of the Gnostics and contrary to their practice of psychosomatic illumination, as may be inferred from evidence on the Pagan Mysteries.

In short, the newfound Gospel may offer the occasion for what I call goofy Gnosticism: interpretations of non-Gnostic views and beliefs assumed by scholars to be Gnostic because they are written in Coptic and mixed up with other, genuine Gnostic materials, the whole lot being encrusted with anti-Gnostic bias and layered with the disinformation of the Church Fathers. To goof is to err, to make a mistake by taking something for something else. Confounding non-Gnostic elements with the heretical message of Gnosis is one of the great perils of these studies.

To demonstrate the misdirection to be encountered in goofy interpretations of Gnosticism, consider two citations, side by side:

Judas asked: “The authorities dwell above us, but will they rule over us?" The teacher said. "No, you will rule over them." The Dialogue of the Savior.

"You will be cursed by the other generations, and you will come to rule over them," Jesus confides to Judas. The Gospel of Judas (A)

Both passages recount an exchange between Jesus and Judas. Both use the language "rule over," but in quite different ways. In the first instance, Jesus (identified only as Lord or teacher, a title that scholars routinely take as referring to the Jesus of the NT) tells Judas that he will come to rule over the authorities, or rulers. These are the Archons, described by Gnostics as an extraterrestrial species that attempts to deviate humanity from its proper course of evolution, mainly through delusional beliefs that blind humanity to its own true nature and alienate it from its bond to the earth (in Gnostic myth, the metamorphosis of the Goddess Sophia, Divine Wisdom). The Dialogue of the Savior attests to our capacity to detect these deviant, non-human forces and defeat their attempt to rule us by insinuating erroneous beliefs in our minds. This is a genuine and radical Gnostic teaching, consistent with the neglected, anti-Christian message that informs the larger part of the Coptic materials.

In the second instance, Judas is told that he will rule "over other generations," who are presumably human. The language hints at the human-Archon struggle, but construes it as a human-human conflict, making Judas superior to those who curse him. To interpret this statement as Gnostic is goofy. In fact, the second citation comes much closer to the spirit of the Dead Sea Scrolls than the Nag Hammadi codices. The notion of a righteous person who is cursed and then vindicated by a higher power belongs to the Zaddikite ideology of the Scrolls, not the illuminist teachings of the Mysteries.

Judas and Paul

    Scholars on all sides agree that the text was probably produced by a scribe in a Gnostic community of Cainites — early Christians who regarded the traditional villains of the Bible, including Cain and Judas, as heroes."There is no evidence that any of these documents ever represented mainstream Christianity," Professor Witherington said. (B)

I would argue that the assumed heretical Gnostic text, The Gospel of Judas, which does not represent mainstream Christianity, may not represent Pagan Gnosticism, either. From the snippets cited in these articles, I would guess that it represents Jewish Zaddikite views consistent with the salvationist ideology of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Defenders of orthodoxy such as Professor Witherington, who is a well-known Gnostic-basher, not only reject Gnosticism from the canon of "mainstream Christianity," but, more significantly, they deny that "mainstream Christianity" can be derived from the genophobic and genocidal Zaddikites of the Dead Sea. The denial of the historical and ideological origins of Christianity is central to the debate over the work of Robert Eisenmann who traces Christian salvationism to the Zaddikite cult.

This is another barrel of apples, of course. And some pretty rotten apples at that. While it is a daunting task to consider Zaddikite ideology relative to Pagan Gnosticism and these two, together, relative to the founding beliefs of Judeo- Christianity, this triangulation may be the only way to reach a comprehensive and in-depth understanding of the belief-systems that dominate (and terrorize) the world today. My guess is that the Gospel of Judas may throw important light on the origins of Christianity — especially if it proves to support Eisenman's thesis (which I endorse) that Christian faith in Jesus Christ is the outgrowth or mutation of Zaddikite belief in a superhuman Messiah. In other words, the Gnostic elements in the Gospel of Judas, such as they are, may be less important than the Jewish elements, if the latter prove to be consistent with Eisenman's theory that Pauline Christianity was hijacked from the Dead Sea sectarians.

Eisenman's work remains deeply controversial, and squarely rejected by the majority of Dead Sea Scholars. The Gospel of Judas, while certainly at risk of being goofily construed as a Gnostic document, may turn out be highly relevant to Eisenman's renegade notions on the Zaddikite-Christian connection, and may even lend fresh support to those notions.

To get an idea of what all this means, I would advise the reader to look into the work of Hugh Schonfield, one of the leading DSS scholars. In The Passover Plot (1965), The Essene Odyssey (1984), and his last book, Jesus: Man - Mystic - Messiah (2004), Schonfield developed some ideas that parallel and complement Eisenman, but expressed them in a more accessible way, often using a story-telling idiom to illustrate the arcane ideological issues reflected in the figure of the Jewish-Christian messiah. Both Schonfield and Eisenman elaborate extensively on the central theme of the Zaddikim sect: betrayal.

There arose a Scoffer,
Who distilled for Israel deceptive waters,
And caused them to go astray in the trackless wilderness.
To suppress the old paths,
So as to turn aside from the righteous ways

These lines from the Damascus Document are typical of many passages in the Scrolls that describe a scoffer, spouter of lies, or liar who will betray the sect. The text warns in explicit terms against someone who will join the sect and pervert the mission of the righteous ones, the Zaddikim. Eisenman argues that this predicted act of betrayal was fulfilled when the bounty-hunter Saul of Tarsus was recruited to the Zaddikite cause (his "conversion" in Damascus), only to hijack Zaddikite ideology and use it to frame a new religion, Christianity.

Obviously, if we follow Eisenman, the betrayal theme in the Scrolls does not apply to Judas' collusive betrayal of his master Jesus, but to Saul-Paul's treacherous cooptation of Zaddikite belief in God's plan for divine retribution through a messiah who resurrects the dead. Nevertheless, the theme of betrayal figures prominently in the Jewish-Christian connection, and it is entirely feasible that the collusive betrayal in which Judas assists Jesus to get captured and killed could have been scripted to fit with Saul-Paul's betrayal of the Zaddikim.

In Pauline doctrine, the human Jesus needed to die so that the immortal Christ could be revealed. If Judas colluded with Jesus to get the messiah executed, Judas clearly played the key role, not in the betrayal of the Zaddikite sect (the work of Paul), but in the fulfilment of the sect's directive script, a narrative that perversely demanded that the messiah fail in his mission in order to achieve it.

Thus Is It Written

Scholars have pondered endlessly over how the Zaddikim could have worked out a story in which their sect achieves its divine mission by being betrayed. This is one of those baffling, labyrinthine issues that will never yield to Borgesian compression. I am reticent even to introduce it in an article as short at this one, but the Judas-Paul parallel cannot be ignored in anticipating what surprises the Gospel of Judas may hold. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, the teacher of righteousness who leads the sect is betrayed by a treacherous recruit who hijacks his message (Eisenman version). In the Gospel of Judas, the traitor assists the savior to fulfil his mission by turning him over to the authorities — this matches Schonfield's interpretation of Judas's role as colluding traitor. The first scenario cannot be confounded with the second, yet we may sense that they are closely related—as if they were, perhaps, two parts of the same master plot, the same directive script.

In any case, the claim that God fulfills his designs through betrayal and murder is totally contrary to Gnostic illuminism. Judging from the meager clues now available, the Gospel of Judas demonstrates what I call the victim-perpetrator bond, the pathological complex at the root of Judeo-Christian-Islamic religion (as explained in a flagrantly non-Borgesian manner in my forthcoming book, Not in His Image). Schonfield's work suggests that Jesus would indeed have enlisted Judas to bring about his own murder so that he could fulfill the predicted mission of the messiah who triumphs through being betrayed.

So it is written: "And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, or of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again." (Mark 8: 31) This plot reads the same whether it is applied to Jewish or Christian faith. (To be precise, the Scrolls assert that the "teacher of righteousness"—the Tzaddik identified by Eisenman and others as James the brother of Jesus—will be betrayed, not the messiah; but this betrayal affects the mission of the messiah, and so, by extension, the messiah is also betrayed.)

In The Passover Plot, Schonfield argued that Jesus never intended to die, and had arranged to be saved at the last moment. His rescue by fellow Zealots was intentionally misrepresented to the people as a magical feat of resurrection. Schonfield argues this way because he rejects the supernatural element of the story. But if Jesus actually did die, as Saint Paul claimed, death would have given him the opportunity to prove his divine status. Without betrayal and death, there is no resurrection, nor proof of superhuman status. Schonfield favored the mainstream Jewish view that rejects the divinity of Jesus and denies resurrection. The Gospel of Judas may favor the Zaddikite-Pauline view that the messiah was divine and really did rise from the dead. This at least seems to be indicated by the fragments cited in these articles. Once again, this second view is totally contrary to Gnostic writings such as The Second Treatise of the Great Seth which flatly denies the divinity of Jesus and ridicules belief in physical resurrection.

Divine Betrayal

    Jesus speaks privately to Judas, telling him he will share with Judas alone "the mysteries of the kingdom." Jesus asks Judas to turn him over to the Roman authorities so that his body can be sacrificed. (B)

    It [the Gospel of Judas] portrays Judas Iscariot not as a betrayer of Jesus but as his favored disciple and willing collaborator. (A)

The crucial question here is, collaborator in what? In the messiah's clever plan to arrange his own execution and fake death, so that he can be rescued by his cohorts and resume the Jewish revolt against Rome, fortified by the illusion that he can rise from the dead (Schonfield's fix on the Zaddikite story, largely consistent with Eisenman)? Or in a divinely directed plan to have the Son of Man murdered so that he can be resurrected, proving the power of the Father God over death and providing salvific force to raise humanity from its fallen state (Pauline version, hijacked from the Zaddikite messiah story and injected with a supernatural element)? The first story is a political scenario, closely supported by the known historical facts of Jesus' time, particularly the circumstances of the Jewish revolt reported by the (largely, but not entirely reliable) historian Josephus. The second story is a magical or supernatural fable not supported by any historical evidence at all.

Of course, in the minds of those who accept it on faith, the supernatural fable doesn't need to be supported by fact. Yet, goofily enough, the authorities who enforce beliefs that do not need historical verification insist on the historical veracity of the documents that tell the story that encodes those beliefs! You figure it.

In both the political saga and the supernatural fable, the messiah must die, or appear to die, so that he can fullfill his mission. In both stories, anyone who helps the messiah to get himself exposed and killed would be a central and indispensible agent of the divine plot.

    " You can see how early Christians could say, if Jesus' death was all part of God's plan, then Judas's betrayal was part of God's plan," said Dr. King. (A)

    "At one level, the Gospels already see the betrayal as a mysterious part of God's plan," said the Rev. Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He predicted the new text would produce "a short-term sensation" but that after Christians read it, "the impact on the lives of ordinary believers will be minimal." (C)

People through the centuries may have been convinced by the claim that the Father God achieves his grand plan for humanity through betrayal, and some people in this confused world of ours today may also be convinced. But the Gnostic message is a true heresy (from Greek heresthai, "to choose,") that offers another choice, an alternative view. Gnostic teachings on the false creator god, identified with Jehovah, contain the explicit warning not to believe in His plan because it is a "scheme designed against us, to prevent us seeing its error and its senselessness" (Treat Seth 55.10). Faith in God's plan "is what keeps humanity going round and round seeking what it cannot find, because those who seek in this way do not know their true humanity in the first place" (Ibid., 53.12-17).

Gnostic teachings are unique in the theological exposé of the imposter god who betrays humanity—who is none other than the revered Father God of Judaic-Christian-Islamic tradtion. The Gnostic heretics were not early Christians with a diversity of Christian-friendly beliefs. They were Pagan seers and intellectuals radically opposed to Judeo-Christian salvationist faith. Above all, they were concerned about how humanity betrays itself through belief in an off-planet deity with a divine plan that demands racial and ideological segregation, an inhumane standard of perfection, genocidal aggression, betrayal, torture and murder, and supernatural retribution for evil deeds sanctioned by the very god who condemns them.

Betrayed by false beliefs in God, humanity betrays itself. There, I did manage to get a Borgesian sound-byte out of this pot of mollasses, after all.

The betrayal of Jesus by Judas is the supreme theological red herring. It is trivial compared to the betrayal of humanity by the religion founded in Jesus's name. Like Rev. Senior, but certainly for a different reason, I predict that the impact of the Gospel of Judas will be minimal. To those who are long accustomed to being betrayed by what they believe, there is nothing new or startling to be found in this old, sad, tired story.

jll: Flanders April 8, 2006

 

 




 

 

 

 

 

 


Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.