28 April 2006

much ado about judas

the gospel, that is. national geographic primed an interested public on the 'revelations' of the recently studied and translated gospel of judas by debuting its story at the start of the christian holy week. expectedly, it drew reactions that range from incredulity to hostility, following, of course, the near-exact formula: the strength of negative reaction is directly proportional to the degree of your religious fundamentalism. more expectedly, it was surrounded by so much pr-generated, media-induced hype. the teaser for the tv documentary: it was a discovery that would likely shake the very foundations of the christian faith. sure.

what do we know about it? here's the latest consensus:
1. it is a gnostic text, written in coptic, 'egyptian written in greek characters'.
2. the papyrii copy in question is carbon-dated to have been written in c. 4th century c.e.
3. for a change, it details judas in a good light.

some points to put things in context:
1. it is obviously not orthodox christian text. not the faith of our fathers, definitely.
2. even during the time of the apostles, there were already groups who were appropriating the teachings and life-story of jesus of nazareth and mixing them with elements from various other sources; who, thus, could also lay claim to the identity of being themselves christian churches.
3. these churches also have their own 'sacred texts'. the various gnostic groups have been known to have a long tradition of claiming to be keepers or guardians of secret knowledge and powers stashed in some sacred writings, artifacts, or other-worldly plane.

still, such stories could make the average christian rather perplexed. this situation highlights the gap (not insumountable, mind you) between the christian-on-the-street, even one who had relatively good religious education, and the graduate student of theology who has presumably studied and understood church history and such basic questions as canonicity and inspiration of scriptural texts.

something could also be said about the present intellectual culture that puts more premium on academic interpretation over dogmatic assertions. in this post-postmodern milieu, the gospel of judas is seen as a welcome addition to the body of knowledge that makes wider the perspectives - historical, theological, political, etc - for a better understanding of early christianity.

then again, and here i would assert my 'catholic bias', questions may have to be raised at the apparent tendency of certain scholars (at least, of some of those who contributed to national geographic's documentary) to put all these various 'primitive' christian churches that co-existed during the first centuries c.e. on a seemingly equal footing, sociologically (which is fine) and even doctrinally (which is questionable); or to explain the great influence wielded by one particular group of churches - the (catholic) church that trace its foundation to the apostles - in the language of political power play.

further, there is a wide difference of views and practical life-application between one who actually practices the faith and one who has predominantly academic interest only on christianity - or, even wider, one from outside looking in. the christian faith (the whole gamut of scriptures, tradition, teachings, practices, etc.) cannot be explained by a simplistic recourse to the dialectics of dominance of certain individuals, groups or ideas across the ages, or of the confluence of political forces and historical circumstances. for the christian, it is, first of all, the work of the Holy Spirit, the same Trinitarian Spirit who creates the world, raised Jesus from the dead, effects our salvation, and guides us to our continuing journey of greater union with God.

furthermore, who are those affected by controversies like these (include the one spawned by dan brown's da vinci code)? they generally come from the educated class and the reading public (not necessarily mutually inclusive groupings), in short, from a rather small percentage of our christian population. so, it is safe to say, a wide-scale desertion from organized religion is not in the offing.

finally, these controversies raise questions and create doubt, in short, they generate attention. in a media-saturated, information-overloaded world, if judas and his gospel could make people want to know more about their long-held but largely-ignored faith, then perhaps it may not be unwise to consider all this hype, all this confusion, as somewhat the work of the Spirit. in this limited application, this 'gospel of judas' may just turn out to be divinely-inspired.

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