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The first Christian?
on 8 August 2007
As Ehrman notes, it's hardly necessary to introduce Judas Iscariot to readers. The many allusions to betrayal or deception: the kiss, the "thirty pieces of silver", the "one among you" reference are scattered throughout our literature, politics and daily circumstances. Even the fratricide of Cain receives less attention. However, a long-lost text providing an alternate view of this man, known to scholars but never seen in its original form, is likely to change all that. Ehrman, who was among the first to study the remants of it after it was found in Eygpt over thirty years ago, here provides an analysis of its contents. In a well-written account, he traces the document's history as known, and what it might mean for Christianity.
Judas, Ehrman notes, is portrayed in various ways in the "Synoptic Gospels", the accounts of Jesus that are the standard fare of Christian teachings. They range from a man driven by greed to an instrument of Satan. "The Gospel of Judas", originally written at about the same time as those stock accounts, depicts somebody else altogether. Not written by Judas, the writer tells the story of a man specially favoured by the teacher. According to the text, Judas was the one among "the Twelve" who actually "got" the message. Instead of "betraying" the teacher, Judas is actually given the task of freeing him from the "man who clothes me". Jesus, then, is but a spirit occupying a human body. Judas thus becomes the first Christian.
The foundation of this shift of role lies in a religious philosophy known as "Gnosticism". Although much debate has raged around the term as well as its tenets, its underlying thesis is that the material world is inherently evil, created by corrupt gods. The god revered by the Jews and transferred to Christianity is a false deity. Ehrman launches into a discussion of Gnostic Christianity, beginning with its complex creation myth with a pantheon of gods. There are ranks and hierarchies of them, some good and some bad, but all residing under a superior Great Invisible Spirit. The point of his presentation is to indicate that a minority of humans enjoy the potential to join with the greatest of these gods. Those are the "knowing" [Greek "gnosis"] of which Jesus is one and who "recruits" Judas to be another. Judas' assignment to "betray" Jesus to the authorities in order to restore him to the spirit realm, sets Judas apart from the other Apostles. They naturally resent this situation, but aren't "knowing" enough to change it. Ehrman reminds us that all the Apostles but Judas abandoned Jesus at the arrival of the arresting officers.
Gnosticism isn't for those seeking simple answers. It required the "knowing" to take a stance in direct contradiction to those accepting the Jewish god as paramount. Jesus does not make demands of his followers. Indeed, it's fundamental to Gnosticism that each individual find the route into the realm of the divine on their own. Over time, that would lead to clashes with those who sought a more hierarchical church system - the "proto-orthodox" who were later vindicated by Constantine. The early "Church Fathers" railed against Gnostic ideas - in fact, it is their writings that preserved the thoughts of the Gnostics in ranting against their ideas. Once in ascendency, the "orthodox" saw to it that Gnostic texts were destroyed. The Gospel of Judas, Ehrman reminds us, was known chiefly by a reference to it in the works of Irenaeus in his polemics against "heresies".
To Ehrman, The Gospel of Judas' importance lies in what it can contribute to our understanding of the early forms of Christianity - "Christianities". He leaves unaddressed the inevitable comparison with the doctrine of the Trinity, an issue that has split the faith numerous times. In fact, beyond describing how the Gnostics viewed their spirit realm, he avoids theological discussion. His aim here is to describe the history and words given in the newly found Gospel and put them in perspective. He does a fine job of that in language that must keep his students enthralled. It is a engrossing account at many levels, and deserves your close attention. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]