Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Gospel of Who?

How can you put on a meaningful drama when, every fifteen minutes, proceedings are interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits with toilet paper? ~Rod Serling
This past Sunday night, the National Geographic Channel had a two-hour program about the discovery of an ancient codex that contained the Gospel of Judas. Now, here was a potentially fascinating look at a piece of early Christian history, but, as usual, television managed to turn it inside out. Instead of focusing on the document and what it said, they focused on the peripheral nonsense that surrounded the discovery of the manuscript.
Of course, the discovery could have been just as interesting, except that the document was bought from a black market antiquities dealer. Now, it's nice that the book was saved from rotting in a safe deposit box, but to bore us with a lot of supposition about how it got there, complete with entirely fictional sequences of how it was found and stolen, was so much filler. Oh, there was a comical sequence showing some “expert” standing in front of a cave saying that the gospel “could have come from a cave like this.”
There was also the endless cycle of foreshadowing and repetition. Before each of the many commercials, there would be a “tease” about what was coming, which would show some upcoming footage. Sooner or later that footage would be used. Then it would be shown over and over again as if we could have forgotten the episode we had just seen.
And there was the usual misleading teases, to wit: ”To carbon date the Gospel of Judas, I'm going to have to burn it.” Oh, my goodness! To have survived all those centuries only to be burnt up just to test its validity. Oh, the horror! Oh, the bull. Carbon dating takes little teeny samples, of which exactly five were taken from various places in the book, none of which had any writing on them. Total amount of book destroyed: About 1 square centimeter.
What we had here was a good one hour program that was stretched into two hours to make a better commercial for a couple of new National Geographic books on the subject.
If one could overlook all of the above, the program distilled down to a few notable points.
A codex was purchased from an illegal dealer in Egyptian antiquities. Despite not having any provenance, carbon dating, analysis of the writing, and analysis of the content style seemed to indicate that it is a genuine text from 200-300 AD.
The codex contained a copy of the Gospel of Judas. Contrary to the impression given in the advertising leading up to the showing of the program, this gospel was reasonably well-known. It was one of, perhaps, 30 gospels that were making the rounds of early churches.
The gospel was a Gnostic writing. The Gnostics had taken a very mystical view of Christianity which set them at odds with the more mainstream elements of the early Church. One aspect of Gnosticism was that the spirit was a spark trapped in the body, yearning to be free. The show did cover this, but failed to mention that, in it's most extreme form, some believers felt that suicide was a proper way to free the spark. This was one reason that the Church formed such a strong attitude toward suicide and euthanasia.
The Gospel of Judas, as you might expect, portrays Judas in a very favorable light. Rather than acting as a betrayer, he was following the instructions of Jesus when he turned Jesus into the authorities. Not only that, Jesus shared information with Judas about the nature of the soul and the hereafter that He never told to any other disciple.
That's pretty interesting stuff. Had the program emphasized the place of the Gnostics in the early church and spent more time on the text of the Gospel with some analysis by Biblical scholars (Robert Shuler hollering, “I only need four gospels!” does not qualify as expert analysis), it would have been an excellent program. It would only have needed to be an hour long (well, 45 minutes after commercials) and wouldn't have been suited to sensationalist ads, but it would have been a better program.
I have read some of the books that didn't make it into the Bible, and, it's usually easy to understand why some of them didn't make it. Some are too fantastic, with miracles occurring in every paragraph. Others are at odds with what we have come to accept as the philosophy of Christianity. The Gospel of Judas is in this latter category, not because of its sympathetic portrayal of Judas, but because of its interpretations of the spirit and of God.
Unfortunately, the program harped on the portrayal of Judas as the big item. I hate to break it to them, but not all Christians have a hatred of Judas. In fact, no Christian who follows Jesus' teachings should hate anyone, even Judas. But, even if one is inclined to revile Judas, I think many Christians have the attitude that was presented to me in Catechism classes. Judas had a part to play in the assuring that the prophecies were fulfilled. He should not be condemned for that, because it wasn't as though he had another choice.
An alternative view was detailed in an episode of Mysteries of the Bible (one of the best programs of the type I've ever seen; it's on the Biography Channel on Sunday mornings). The interpretation, as I recall, involved some necessities of Jewish law that come into play when a wanted individual is turned over to the authorities. In this theory, Judas, because of his connections and his role as the treasurer of the group, was the logical one to manage the handing over of Jesus to the Pharisees, again because it was something that had to be done.
It's a pity, really, that National Geographic couldn't dwell on the theology and history surrounding the Gospel of Judas, rather than trying to sensationalize the story. I guess they just don't understand that the story of the Bible and what did and didn't make it into the Bible is fascinating in and of itself to many of us.
Postscript: After I wrote this piece, the channel showed a program on Herod that was much better done, covering aspects of Herod’s life that I had heard before. They still had too many of the same scenes shown over and over, but they generally were just using that as backdrop to some new information, not merely repeating what had been said earlier. Now if they could do Herod so well, why couldn’t they do as good a job with the Gospel of Judas?

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