Early Christian Protest

Early Christian Protest

At Princeton, there’s a course in the study of New Testament that some evangelical students were warned not to take. They called it “Faith Busters 101.” And some of them come just to flex their muscles and see if they can sit there and stand it while somebody teaches them about how the gospels were written. But what they usually discover is that learning about those things doesn’t change the fundamental questions about faith.

That’s from a very good interview with scholar Elaine Pagels at Salon about the Gospel of Judas, quarrels among early Christians, and some of the hazards of and alternatives to a literalist Bible reading. I’ve been reading her books for a long time now, and I like her quite a bit. I am fascinated with the history and texts of the early Christians. So much evidence was destroyed, but even what we have shows that there were many ways to be a Christian in the early days.

Here’s a bit more, go read the rest.

So the Gospel of Judas is a kind of protest literature. It’s challenging leaders of the church. Here the leaders are personified as disciples who are encouraging people to get killed, to “die for God,” as they called martyrdom. This gospel is challenging them and saying, when you encourage young people to die for God, you’re really complicit in murder.

Are there also theological issues at stake? This gets at the meaning of suffering, and the nature of evil as well.

It does. This was at a time when all followers of Jesus were struggling with the question, Why did Jesus die? What does it all mean? In the New Testament, the gospels say he died as a sacrifice. Paul says Christ, our Passover lamb, was sacrificed for us. Why? Well, to save us from sin.

But this author is saying, wait a minute. If you think God wants his son to be tortured and killed before he’ll forgive people their sins, what kind of God do you have in mind? Is this the God who didn’t want animals to be sacrificed in the temple anymore? So this author’s asking, isn’t God a loving father? Isn’t that what Jesus taught? Why are we saying that God requires his son to die for the sins of the world? So it’s a challenge to the whole idea of atonement, and the idea that Christians — when they worship — eat bread and drink wine as if it were the body and blood of Christ. This person sees that whole thing as a celebration of violence.

You can see why some early Christians would have attacked this gospel. This is very threatening to other Christian accounts of why Jesus died.

It contradicts everything we know about Christianity. But there’s a lot we don’t know about Christianity. There are different ways of understanding the death of Jesus that have been buried and suppressed. This author suggests that God does not require sacrifice to forgive sin, and that the message of Jesus is that we come from God and we go back to God, that we all live in God. It’s not about bloody sacrifice for forgiveness of sins. It suggests that Jesus’ death demonstrates that, essentially and spiritually, we’re not our bodies. Even when our bodies die, we go to live in God.

Does this raise questions about how we should think about the Resurrection? In orthodox Christian accounts, this is considered a resurrection of the flesh.

That’s right. The idea that Jesus rose in the flesh is very important for a lot of Christians. And certainly for the martyrs. When people were going to get themselves killed, some of them were asked, Do you believe that you’re going to be raised from the dead in your body? And many of them said yes, of course we do. That’s why we’re doing this. So those promises of bodily resurrection and heavenly rewards were very important for many Christians.

Some of the things we’re talking about would seem to have great resonance in the Islamic world. Do you see any parallels between this Christian history and what we’re seeing among Muslim martyrs today?

I do. The author of the Gospel of Judas wasn’t against martyrdom, and he didn’t ever insult the martyrs. He said it’s one thing to die for God if you have to do that. But it’s another thing to say that’s what God wants, that this is a glorification of God. I think he would have spoken in the way that an imam might today, saying those who encourage young people to go out and supposedly die for God as martyrs are complicit in murder. The question of the uses of violence is very much at the heart of the Gospel of Judas. If you have to die as a martyr, you do because you don’t deny Christ. But you don’t go around encouraging people to do it as though they would get higher rewards in heaven.

Can you put the Gospel of Judas in perspective, alongside some of the other Gnostic texts that have come to light in recent decades — the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene? Do these really change our understanding of early Christianity?

Before, we had a puzzle with just a few pieces. Now we have many more pieces. We begin to see that in the early Christian movement, people discussed and struggled with all the issues that we now think of as normative Christianity, like, What does the death of Jesus mean? There wasn’t one kind of understanding of Jesus in the early Christian movement. Actually, there were many.


6 thoughts on “Early Christian Protest

  1. Recently a friend of mine asked if it bothered me that there were so many challenges to the authenticity of the Bible. I answered that these challenges don’t bother me, because if God is omniscient and omnipotent He certainly can control what we have come to know as His Word. If God doesn’t have these “omni” attributes, then he is at best irrelevant, and more likely non-existent—definitely not worthy of our attentions or worship. Believing in the inspired nature of the Bible doesn’t resolve the issues that are raised in your post, it just challenges me to find a framework that fits. I cling to a few additional beliefs including: 1. If it is important it will be repeated in the Bible, 2. There will be things about a non-created thing–God, that created things will not be able to understand, and 3. The reason the universe exists is because God desires a relationship with us. My recent ponderings on the death and resurrection of Christ have revolved around the role of language in reaching a diverse and intellectually evolving world and wondering if the Passion of Christ was really an instantiated metaphor for what really happened before the beginning of time: “Christ Jesus, who although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men”. Phil 2:5-7

  2. Thank you for this link! I’m currently doing background research for a new article, “Rethinking Judas,” and this interview will help out a lot. There’s another interview with Elaine Pagels online (only for the next week at SFGate):
    Religious scholar Elaine Pagels on how the newly discovered Gospel of Judas sheds new light on the dawn of Christianity

    The new book by Pagels and King, Reading Judas, is really good. It includes a whole new translation of the Gospel of Judas, by Karen King, that to me is a lot clearer than the one issued last year by National Geographic. Pagels and King also do a much better job of putting the gospel in its historical context, and they even make it seem less “weird.”

    There’s at least one biblical scholar who says National Geographic and Pagels/King both got it wrong:

    Prof. April DeConick says:

    “I didn’t find the sublime Judas, at least not in Coptic. What I found were a series of English translation choices made by the National Geographic team, choices that permitted a different Judas to emerge in the English translation than in the Coptic original. Judas was not only not sublime, he was far more demonic than any Judas I know in any other piece of early Christian literature, Gnostic or otherwise.”

    Should be interesting to see further scholarship on this fascinating but bewildering “lost gospel”!

  3. “This web of time — the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect or ignore each other through the centuries — embrace every possibility.” – Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths

    My view of Judas was always that the truly spiritual would pray for him rather than hate him. It always seemed like a set-up to me.

    This view was complicated for me by the multiple possibilities presented by the Jorge Luis Borges short story “Three Versions of Judas” (from Ficciones). (Tim McGrath and others have some good commentary).

    What if the betrayal of Judas was interpreted as a parallel sacrifice, equal if not greater than the crucifixion (since he was presumably damned)? The hanging tree resembles the cross. Or suppose that perhaps in some mysterious way God was expressed through all of the players in the story? If a demon can appear as an angel of light, then why not the coincidence of opposites on the other side? How would one integrate and/or transcend the gestalt of the Nazarene, the Magdalene, Judas the kissing betrayer, Peter the 3x (cuckolded?) denier, the fish-men, the Romans and Jews and everyone else speaking marketplace Greek, the liberators and the oppressors, the writers and those who burned the libraries? These are the kinds of questions that keep me from religious community (grin).

    Perhaps the storyteller wrote Judas as betrayer for symbolic reasons. Perhaps it was done, for example, as a commentary based on his name (the lion of Judah or his tribe?). Or maybe as an early rebuke against the temptation to political power, when the kingdom can only be within you? Maybe just to lay the blame at the Temple, although crucifixions were solidly Roman?

    I would like to see a collection of betrayal stories from the surrounding regions, to compare the themes. A friend of mine did a dissertation on miraculous birth-stories… it was eye-opening.

    When it comes to interpretation, if you don’t have a scholar’s familiarity with the original text in its original language then you must start with the very best translation you can find. It is sometimes illuminating for me to read different translations side by side. Add what is known about the historical context, the intended audience, the political issues, and so on. Bracket out (as much as you can) your own projections and prejudices. My own style of reading is a kind of alternating current between a hermeneutics of sympathy/kinship (where I try to put myself in the place of the writer) and a hermeneutics of suspicion (where I question motives, power dynamics, and what we now call “spin”).

    What I like about Pagels is that she has a way of noticing things that are sometimes assumed about a text, but that are absent from the text itself. I started with her analysis of the origin of Satan, and I also really enjoyed Adam, Eve and the Serpent.

    I look forward to reading Dr. DeConick’s book – thanks for the link.

    “The heresies we should fear are those which can be confused with orthodoxy.” – Jorge Luis Borges, “The Theologians”

  4. Heidi,

    Would you consider joining the Blogswarm Against Theocracy this weekend? You write wonderfully on the subject of religious extremism and I know yours would be among the best of the best, if you chose to join.

    For anyone considering it…. please click on “Blogs Against Theocracy” above, in case (like me) you don’t see the link in the comments.

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