jeudi, avril 06, 2006

"Gospel of Judas": Threat...or opportunity?

Two years ago Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" sparked a furor with its blood-drenched portrayal of Jesus as he faced his last days. Some found it an artistic, moving and cathartic. Others were repelled by its graphic violence. The movie also raised other vexing cultural questions, most notably accusations of persistent bias, among some Christians, towards the Jewish community. The announcement, on the Thursday before Holy Week, by the venerable National Geographic Society that the 1,700 year old "Gospel of Judas" has been found is also likely to stir debate, but of a different sort. This time the subject for discussion will be the character of the man the writers of the canonical Gospels blame for betraying Christ. In Judas believers see the greatest human enemy of the Savior.

Americans, who seem to have an insatiable appetite for information, misinformation and fantasy about Judeo-Christian belief, practice and history, may be as taken with this new discovery as they are about the possibility that Mary Magdelene was married to Jesus.

Found in Egypt, the papyrus manuscript is said to be a copy in Coptic of a Greek original, apparently written the century before. According to an article in the New York Times, scholars have thought such a work existed. Irenaus, the second century bishop of Lyons, referred to it in his text titled "Against Heresies."

According to the article, the writer of the Gospel believed that alone among the apostles, Judas understood the meaning of Jesus's teachings. It is to Judas that Jesus turns when he seeks someone to hand him over to the authorities, telling him that if he accomplishes this he will "exceed" the other disciples.

Who hasn't had a twinge of sympathy for Judas? In some ways, the guy seems to have been put in an impossible position.

As a new Christian convert studying Christian fiction in college, I was fascinated by the warm and passionate Judas of Nikos Kazantsakis' novel, "The Last Temptation of Christ". " In the Greek author's novel, it is Judas who convinces Jesus to fulfill his destiny. Later portrayals of Judas in pop music operettas like Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar offer a tortured but all too human persona.

Some scholars quoted in the NYT seem jubilant about the possibility this find could affect the way we view early church history. Students of gnosticism, or the "secret" religious texts of the early church, have long been opposed to the view that there was one point of view in the early church. In that they are right, of course But to see this manuscript, and the discovery of various Gnostic texts, as an assault upon the authority of the canonical Scriptures misses the more essential point.

Yes, there are still, and will continue to be, Christians who believe that the Bible was written without human error. On the other end of the spectrum, there are Christians who believe that what ended up in the canonical Scriptures was an accident of history.

But the believer who grapples each day with the Scriptures call on his or her life affirms that the Holy Spirit was in charge of what got put in, and what got left out. Although not every passage is free of human error, each one is there for a reason.

Unless they have been frozen in a glacier for 2,000 years, this new discovery is not a threat to the faithful. It does not raise new questions, but some very old ones.

As we approach Holy Week and take another hard look at the person of Judas, we see our own very human struggles scrawled large, both in the canonical record and in the pages of those who sought to augment it with their own testimony. Who among us has not betrayed a friend? Who among us has not been tempted by the allure of greater material wealth? Who among us has not turned our back on the lonely figure of the Messiah, reproachful and loving, as He stands in the shadows and reaches out His hands to us? If we look at Judas and feel a little queasy, if we don't like what we see, it may because we are looking in an ancient, flawed but still truthful mirror.

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