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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.