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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on 19 May 2007
Mind-bending drugs should be taken in small doses - which perhaps explains the brevity of this study. It's certainly challenging, yet surprisingly unfulfilling. The authors examine the recently discovered and painstakingly translated gospel, written about the middle of the 2nd Century CE. They include the entire available text plus commentary on the translation as part of this volume. They suggest it provides a fresh image of early Christianity - things not revealed by the other texts such as that from Nag Hammadi - the so-called "Gnostic Gospels". It demonstrates the many conflicts besetting the movement prior to the imposition of Constantine's "orthodoxy" on Christian society. The Gospel of Judas is most significant for its redefinition of the deity. It's an insightful and compelling account, but raises nearly as many questions as it provides answers.
We [should] all know of the "Judas kiss" purportedly betraying the teacher of a new relationship to the Judaic divinity. According to the four Synoptic Gospels, Judas supposedly sold out his teacher for a few coins, later regretting the act and taking his own life in consequence. This gospel demolishes that old story, replacing it with one in which Judas was directed to perform his act by the victim himself. The reasons for this overthrow many commonly accepted ideas of who the deity was and what was desired of its followers. Judas is portrayed as outside the original group of twelve, and given special recognition by his teacher. So detached was his role, that he's shown to be in serious conflict with his colleagues. The strife was intense enough that Judas, instead of a suicide, becomes the victim of murder by his colleagues.
The themes underlying this gospel are the role of martyrdom and the act of sacrifice. What kind of god demands the ultimate sacrifice? The author of The Gospel of Judas is particularly disparaging of those Christians who accepted, indeed willingly embraced, the martyr's role. He viewed this as a violation of a loving deity, the novel idea Jesus had taught. As a short-cut to Paradise, the author of the Gospel of Judas found martyrdom unacceptable. Innumerable questions arose over what kind of martyrdom Jesus had really suffered, resulting in extensive debate about his human aspects. That debate, of course, hasn't ceased, the Trinitarian concept being but a stopgap. The authors see The Gospel of Judas as depicting Jesus as a special entity, capable of reaching beyond the human body even while living. At one point, he's said to leave the group of disciples to enter Paradise directly, and enabling Judas to do the same. Martyrdom need not be endured if the proper faith is exercised. If Judas could achieve it, so could anybody who understood what Jesus' message conveyed.
If martyrdom was a misleading idea, what of the role of sacrifice? Jesus own death, often depicted as a sacrifice, was anathema to many, often blocking potential conversions. Human sacrifice was becoming seen as deplorable even in pagan societies. Animal sacrifice was a substitute, but did the deity view it that way? In their discussion of this and other offering practices, the authors show that the monotheism we consider essential to Jesus' teaching wasn't truly in place in that era. The Great Invisible Spirit referred to in the Judas Gospel was merely the highest in a confusing hierarchy of deities, angels and other spirits. The world wasn't created by Elohim, as the Jews generally taught, but by Saklas, a lesser deity. Another god was in charge of the sun, while yet others guided the planets and stars. The monotheism of Genesis is overturned in this Gospel. Instead of one creator, an array of over 360 "luminaries", each taking a particular role is depicted. Jesus own death is decreed by one of these, a "false god", to which the disciples, excepting Judas, make sacrifices. Jesus' taught Judas to bypass these unreliable spirits to reach the Great Invisible Spirit.
While the authors successfully demonstrate that Christianity was a hotch-potch of beliefs and practices, particularly as the author of The Gospel of Judas recognised, their own statement of how the text should now be considered is little short of staggering. They contend that elevating the text from its historical value to one of theological teaching "is not useful - and beside the point". The long history of the Synoptic Gospels being used in many faiths as the "standard" overrides whatever contribution either the Judas Gospel or the spectrum of "Gnostic" writings might make. Given that each of these has its own version of both Jesus and the deity who supposedly spawned him, this seems bizarre. We are left, after all these centuries of still wondering which deity should command our attention and worship. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]