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From the March, 2007 issue of Touchstone


Myth-Taken Identity by Mike Aquilina

Myth-Taken Identity

Judas and the Gospel of Jesus
by N. T. Wright
Baker Books, 2006
(155 pages, $18.99, hardcover)

reviewed by Mike Aquilina

Just as important as the context in which the recently discovered Gospel of Judas was written, observes N. T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham and a renowned New Testament scholar, is the context in which it was published. Thus, in Judas and the Gospel of Jesus he scrutinizes not only the ancient text itself, but also the positive spin it received from celebrity scholars like Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman, and Marvin Meyer.

He acknowledges that the Gospel of Judas was an important find, though not for the reasons that made the news. The gospel had been known for almost two millennia only because St. Irenaeus gave it a drubbing in his late-second-century catalog of heresies. But the text itself was lacking.

All we knew, for all those years, was the orthodox critique. The rediscovery of the text helps modern scholars understand the challenges presented to mainstream Christianity by late-coming reinterpretations of Jesus.

Judas emerged from the fevered imagination of Gnostic Christians. A heretical movement in early Christianity and Judaism, Gnosticism favored esoteric knowledge over “humdrum” faith, and spirit to the exclusion of matter. Gnostics thought the Creator God a boorish demiurge who had made a botch of the universe, trapping particles of supramundane light in the process.

Those particles were the spirits of the Gnostics, who were destined for better things than the Creator-worshiping orthodox Christians. So the Gnostics disdained catholic Christianity and its tradition, not to mention the materiality of its sacraments.

Subversive Intent

Indeed, the original author of Judas intended it to subvert orthodox Christianity. His composition begins with a satire on the Eucharist—with Jesus himself mocking the rite. The narrative traces Judas’s betrayal back to a command of Jesus. Thus, everything in mainstream Christianity is turned on its head: The good guys are now the bad guys, and the sacred rites are just a joke.

Judas’s modern interpreters would like the ancient author to succeed at long last. Wright quotes one scholar who tellingly contrasts the New Testament’s “tormented figure who will die in agony on the cross” with the supposedly more attractive version we find in the Gospel of Judas: a “friendly and benevolent teacher with a sense of humor.”

Wright does a great service by showing how celebrity scholars strain to make the Gnostics attractive to a modern audience by sweeping anti-Judaism and amorality under the rug, along with the possibility of any religion-based ecology. Why save the earth if the planet and its creator are essentially evil?

In the works of the celebrity scholars, he discerns a “new myth” intended to replace the old orthodoxy. It has three main tenets: (1) The canonical gospels were wrong about Jesus, who was just a man who died, and that was that; (2) there were many varieties of ancient Christianity, not just one church; and (3) true meaning is to be found not in the kingdom of God, but within oneself, in a glorified state of self-esteem.

Capitulating Gnostics

Suddenly, it doesn’t sound so subversive, a point Wright makes in a memorable way: “Here is the irony: that the Gnostic gospels are today being trumpeted as the radical alternatives to the oppressive and conservative canonical gospels, but the historical reality was just the opposite,” he writes.

The Gnostics were quite content to capitulate to their surrounding culture, in which mystery-religions, self-discovery, Platonic spirituality of various sorts, and coded revelations of hidden truths were the stock in trade. In other words, the Gnostics were the cultural conservatives. . . . It was the orthodox Christians who were breaking new ground, and risking their necks as they did so.

Neo-Gnostics today portray the ancient Gnostics as pitiable victims of orthodox nasties like Irenaeus. But Wright exposes that as a lie in a devastating refutation toward the close of the book. It was the mainstream Christians, after all, who were persecuted to the death. The pagan Romans were little interested in the Gnostics, and the Gnostics found it praiseworthy, in any event, to deny their allegiances if faced with a threat.

With brevity, clarity, and grace, Wright conveys the peculiar significance of the Gospel of Judas, and along the way teaches us much about antiquity and its discontents, about modernity and ours. If you read one book about the Gospel of Judas, make it this one.

Mike Aquilina is vice president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology (www.salvationhistory.com) and a general editor of The Catholic Vision of Love catechetical series.

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