Friday, April 07, 2006

Hey, Jude

This week was a boon to all those, as myself, who are always fascinated by the history of religion, specifically Christianity. Like most Americans, I grew up in an environment where the sophistication of religious beliefs never exceeded the level of that found in those Children’s’ Bible Books in a dentist’s office. So waking up one morning this week to the announcement of a translation of the fabled Gospel of Judas found several decades ago and languishing in a bank vault since then has filled me with joyous wonder and glee.

As has been noted in several articles on the discovery and translation, this Gospel is not a surprise, having been written about centuries ago in reference to other heretical texts. Perhaps a potted history is in order.

After Christ’s death (and resurrection) the early churches revolved around oral traditions of the teachings, meaning and divinity of His life. It wasn’t until several decades later that ‘official’ writings were created, in a period running starting around 60-70 AD and lasting for around 100 years, which were essentially derivative works of these oral traditions. These writings were fought about and argued over as different churches with different beliefs and agendas struggled to achieve a primacy. These ‘Gospels’ were numerous, including ones attributed to Peter and Mary Magdelene, along with Judas and the big four. By the end of the second century, the powers that be had pretty much canonized the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, relegating the rest of the texts to the island of misfit Gospels. Although certainly the arguments didn’t end there. Sections of Gospels, such as Mark, were argued about until the fourth and fifth centuries and beyond.

Mike, feel free to correct any of this.

You can download a translation of the Gospel at the New York Times. Reading it is generally frustrating, as most of the passages run like this:

‘Yeah, and the Lord didst say, thou shalt not [-15 lines missing-] or thouest will certainly suffer the wrath of the Lord.’


‘ And Jesus said, Blessed are those who […] strawberries […] goats […] crowds of […] for surely heaven will be their reward.]

Perhaps that is why most of the news coverage has been focused on Judas being asked by Jesus to betray him, to ‘sacrifice the man that clothes me.’: It's one of the few sections that hasn't been redacted by the ravages of time. And it's also pretty cool - This is basically a key theme of the ‘Last Temptation of Christ.’ But written 1900 years ago. Good stuff. Maybe finally it will no longer be illegal to name your child 'Judas' in Germany. But what actually struck me the most about this Gospel is that the following passage appears with frequency:

‘When Jesus heard this, he laughed.’

Reading this translation one is struck by Jesus speaking constantly in metaphors, the disciples looking confused, and then him breaking out in crazy laughter:

‘The disciples said to [him], Master, why are you laughing at [our] prayer of Thanksgiving? We have done what is right.”

Then the disciples get angry.

Bill Hicks would have loved this, and it’s a pity he’s not around to have seen this translation happen. One of his favorite rants was on the concept of God being a prankster: He would harp on fundamentalists’ belief that dinosaur bones are a way for God to test us and our faith:

‘Am I the only one bothered by this… that God is just …Fucking with our minds?’

Perhaps God is indeed messing with our heads with this Gospel. Jesus repeatedly rants in it about the evils of men having sex with men, thereby providing specific scriptural proof of the evils of homosexuality. It would be a dream come true for fundamentalists – no metaphors, but specific undeniable scriptural condemnation of a ‘perversion’ – but, oops, the text is heretical. Shit.

It’s like watching God playing with us like kittens. ‘Here’s the text, kitty, kitty.’ And then he yanks it away.

‘Ha, ha, ha…’