The Other Side of the Story

Here’s a story about Jesus you probably haven’t heard before:

On another day, Jesus came up to them. [The disciples] said to him, “Teacher, we saw you in a vision. For we saw some great dreams at night. … We saw a great house in which there was a great altar and 12 men, whom we say are priests, and a name. But there was a crowd persevering tenaciously at the altar until the priests finished receiving the offering. As for us, we too were tenaciously persevering.

Jesus said, “What kind of priests were they?”

They said, “Some abstain for two weeks. Yet others sacrifice their own children, others their wives, all the while praising and acting humbly toward each other. Some are lying with males. Others work at slaughtering. Yet others were committing a multitude of sins and injustices. And the men who stand over the altar are invoking your name! And so in all the labors of cutting up their sacrifices, the altar stays full.” And when they said these things, they were silent, for they felt deeply disturbed. …

Jesus said to them, “You are the ones you saw receiving offerings at the altar. That is the ‘God’ you serve. And you are the 12 men whom you saw. And the domestic animals you saw being brought for sacrifice are the multitude you are leading astray upon that altar. The ruler of chaos will establish himself, and this is how he will make use of my name. And the race of the pious will where tenaciously to him.”

Needless to say, you won’t find this story in the New Testament. Yet none of it is quite foreign to us either. There’s the strange vision, Jesus as interpreter of the unclear, discussion of sacrifices, the Greco-Roman assumption of proper gender roles, and finally the polemical accusation that people claiming Christ’s name will lead astray others under the influence of a sub-divine ruler of this world who pretends to be God.

But in this story, it’s the 12 disciples who are accused of these excesses – the child sacrifice, the injustice, the homosexuality – and are told they will lead astray “the multitude” because they serve a false god.

One more story:

Judas said to [Jesus], “I saw myself in a vision. The 12 disciples were stoning me; they were persecuting me severely. And I came also to the place […] after you. I saw a house, but my eyes were not able to measure the extent. But some elders of great stature were surrounding it, and that house was roofed with greenery. In the midst of the house was a crowd. Teacher, let me be taken in with these people.

Jesus replied. He said, “Your star is leading you astray, Judas, since no mortal human offspring is worthy to enter the house that you saw. For that is the place which is preserved for the holy ones, the place where neither the sun nor the moon will rule them nor the day, but they will stand firm for all time in the realm with the holy angels. Behold, I have told you the mysteries of the kingdom. … You will be cursed by the rest of the races – but you will rule over them.”

So this gets a little weirder. The bracketed ellipsis indicates text that has been lost over the centuries, so we can’t get a full picture of the vision Judas has, but it’s clear he sees some sort of heavenly temple and wants entrance. Jesus rebukes him for his presumption – not altogether different from his rebuke of other disciples in the New Testament, though the reference to a star is odd indeed – but then reaffirms Judas’ place as the eventual ruler over the other disciples.

Quite a different story than the one told in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. These narratives can only be found in the Gospel of Judas. The first is from Judas 4:1-3, 5-17, 5:1-6, and the second from Judas 9:6-20, 28-29.

The Gospel of Judas was discovered in Egypt in the 1970s, but it wasn’t acquired by people who knew what they were doing until 2006. In the meantime, large portions of it disintegrated, thanks to improper storage and handling. It’s written in Coptic, but the original text, as yet unfound, was in Greek. The English translation I used is by Karen L. King, whose book Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas the Shaping of Christianity, cowritten with Elaine Pagels, I’m about to finish.

Never having read a so-called “Gnostic gospel” before, there are numerous oddities – strange names and concepts, some of which are apparent in the excerpts above. The notion of mortal and immortal races, humans being guided by stars, a whole host of semi-divine rulers leading people astray from the truth. Clouds and lights and “aeons” and names you’ve never heard of.

For example, in Judas 2, Jesus challenges the disciples by saying, “Whoever is strong among you humans, bring forth the perfect human and stand up to face me.” None of the disciples can do it except Judas, who replies, “I know who you are and which place you came from – you came from the realm of the immortal Barbelo.” Which is kind of a ridiculous name. Did Jesus come from a circus?

Yet Barbelo is apparently a well-known name among those who study ancient Egyptian Christian texts. “In these works, Barbelo appears as the divine Mother, the second figure of the Divine triad: Father (the Invisible Spirit), Mother (Barbelo), Son (Autogenes, the Self-generated One, Christ). In many such works, the ‘realm of Barbelo’ encompasses the whole divine sphere above, so it is a kind of short-hand reference to the divine realm.”

In the end, the Gospel of Judas is a short book seemingly designed to rewrite the traditional story of the black sheep of the 12 apostles. Rather than betray Jesus, Judas is the only one wise enough to be told the “mysteries of the kingdom,” and as a result, will be rewarded despite his gory earthly end – by stoning at the hands of the other disciples, if his vision is to be believed. “You will surpass them all,” Jesus tells him in 15:3-4, “for you will sacrifice the human being who bears me.” In that sense, if I may draw a Harry Potter analogy, Judas is Severus Snape to Jesus’ Dumbledore – he does what must be done, and no one else understands what has truly happened.

But the book is more than just that, as much of it is taken up with Jesus’ explanation of these mysteries to Judas, and mysteries they certainly are to us – phrases like “your star will rule over the 13th realm” (14:11) and “lift up your eyes and see the cloud and the light which is in it and the stars which surround it” (15:14-15). Of course, these things seem strange because they were lost to our study for 1,500 years, known only through the rebuttals of more orthodox church fathers.

Pagels and King are inclined to give books such as Judas (as well as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary of Magdala and others) equal weight with the traditional gospels in determining the shape of early Christianity. On one level, this makes some sense; they are a testament, after all, to what groups of Christians believed. On another, it’s difficult to say how many Christians really believed this – how marginalized were the groups who produced these works? The winners get to write the history books, after all – and they get to write the scriptures and define the heresies, too. Pagels and King explicitly argue against reopening the canon, but they clearly believe these works should change our views of the claims made against them by early church leaders such as Ignatius and Irenaeus.

They argue Judas was written not only to rehabilitate the image of Judas – and we could have a lot of fun discussing how much of a betrayal his actions could have been if Jesus knew all along what he would do and, in one New Testament gospel, actually instructs Judas to do it – but also to criticize the popular tendency of Christianity to glorify martyrdom as a guarantee of salvation.

Twice Jesus rebukes the disciples in the gospel of Judas, once while they participate in the eucharist (well before Jesus’ death and resurrection, so no need to worry about whether this actually took place), and then again in the vision quoted above. In both cases, the disciples are connected to acts glorifying sacrifice – the eucharist, which commemorates Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, and the acceptance of sacrifices at the altar in the vision.

Pagels and King argue the author is angry about the tendency of church leaders to glorify martyrdom to such an extent that it leads  to the unnecessary sacrifice of wives and children to Rome.

They cite John 6:53-63, in which Jesus teaches about the bread of life, telling his followers they must eat of his flesh and drink of his blood to have eternal life. When the disciples object, he says, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” John then notes that, despite many desertions as the result of this teaching, the 12 chose to follow him – yet one would betray him.

The Gospel of Judas, Pagels and King argue, makes a counterclaim: that Judas was the only one who truly understood what Jesus meant.

In the Gospel of Judas, as well as the Gospel of John, Jesus taught that “the spirit gives life, but the flesh is useless.” But many of Jesus’ followers would come to believe that suffering was required for salvation, and these understood their own suffering as a sacrifice to God, an imitation of the sacrificial death of Jesus.”

They quote Paul (Philippians 3:10-11) and especially Ignatius, who said “being torn apart by wild animals in the public arena would let him ‘attain to God’ and ensure his salvation.” Pagels and King argue Judas has preserved a dissenting voice – one arguing that God does not demand sacrifice in the form of martyrdom, arguing stridently that church fathers who glorified martyrdom actually worshipped a false god.

Their case is more strongly made than the text of the gospel itself warrants, I think. Most frustrating, the two chapters immediately after the key vision in which the disciples serve as immoral priests, are the least-preserved portions of the text, which means much of the gospel’s explanation for the vision – and perhaps a clearer explanation for its own purposes – is, thus far, lost. It is interesting that sacrifice seems so strongly condemned in Judas, and that sacrifice is tied to the traditional heroes of the church. Clearly, the author(s) of Judas felt quite defensive, and this probably shows us better than anything else how much of a minority voice they truly represented within the church.

I wonder if Pagels and King aren’t reading too much of our modern debates about the nature of God, especially among those of us who find the violence often attributed to him irreconcilable with his revelation through Jesus. On the other hand, I don’t really have a better explanation. Although Judas clearly aims at rehabilitating the image of the disciple for whom the gospel is named, that motive alone is too shallow to explain the great pains its author(s) takes to develop an alternate theology to the dominant beliefs of second-century Christianity.

We’ll have to put this discussion on hold for now. My class this semester is Early Christian History, and one of the questions I’ll definitely be looking to answer is: Exactly how dominant were the Gnostic strains that produced these alternate gospels? Heresy, after all, is in the eye of the beholder, and what might be considered heretical after 1,500 years of tradition might not have been so clear less than 150 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The winners write the history books, and they get to determine what is orthodox. Is it possible the first centuries of Christianity were a lot muddier than we usually think? Stay tuned!

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