Only the New York Times and National Geographic could be surprised — or distracted from 1970s sitcom reruns — by the publication of yet another Gnostic gospel. Isn’t it obvious yet why these things never caught on in their own day? They’re prolix, pretentious, elitist, and, unlike orthodox Christianity, genuinely misogynist and sexually repressive. They multiply angelic presences and wars among deities. And their “Jesus” weaves hither and yon in his wise utterances, ranging in tone from the fortune cookie to the acid trip.
And yet people who get apoplectic over the literal sense of Genesis 1-3 warmly welcome the Gnostic creation story, which claims to reveal the names of numerous archons to whom cosmic governance was delegated by the creepy creator. I mean, read the texts — this was Pokemon for second-century grownups.
Today’s rant is occasioned by the coverage of National Geographic’s publication of the Gnostic Gospel of Judas. The text has been lost for the better part of two millennia. But it presents nothing new or exciting. It’s the apocryphal same-old same-old.
As I read the text, I wondered if it was all a hoax, penned by my favorite satirist Chris Bailey. He, after all, has a track record of parodying the Gnostics. Then the New York Times reported with the usual breathlessness about how these documents “are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion and demonstrating how diverse — and fascinating — the early Christian movement really was.” That priceless quote comes from Princeton’s Elaine Pagels, who has turned the Gnostic gospels into a cottage industry.
Did anyone ever really think that ancient Christianity was monolithic? Could anyone think that, after reading Aphrahat side by side with Tertullian, Gregory of Nyssa, and Melito of Sardis? Can anyone think that about any age of Christianity? I say this as a former newspaper journalist who regularly had to run from Tridentine Masses to Charismatic conferences before covering the local centering-prayer group.
The only people who believe in a drab, dull, monolithic Christianity are modern secularists, who uniformly think of themselves as diverse and interesting. What they believe about early Christianity is fantasy. What they know about modern Christianity is laughably wrongheaded. In the words, again, of Chris Bailey, it’s “Pat Robertson dressed as a nun with a ruler in his hand.”
There was, of course, a kind of diversity in ancient heresy. But this came mostly because every man was his own pope (and I do mean man; Mary Magdalene was exalted among the Gnostics, but only after their “Jesus” turned her into a male!). They couldn’t keep a church together because someone was always getting a new and more “interesting” revelation.
Yet even the Gnostics attest to the existence of a Great Church — a catholic and orthodox Church that was not uniform, but was indeed universal. Their documents everywhere attest to their sense of rebellion, their sense that they were outsiders. Gnosticism failed not because of oppression, but because it lacked credibility — and, actually, any other interesting quality.
Oh, and here’s another surprise: Judas, in his newly rediscovered “gospel,” says he wasn’t really guilty! Still, even this is not news, since it was translated, in the 1960s, into powerful poetry by Eric Burdon and the Animals, and later interpreted profoundly by Joe Cocker: “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. O Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.” O Lord, indeed.
The Gospel of Judas will be buzz for its fifteen minutes of fame, but we shouldn’t be fazed. The lure here is the same as the lure of The Da Vinci Code and other neo-Gnostic hashes. Their message is simple: “You’ve been lied to; you’ve been duped by the establishment. Now here’s a scientist to lead you to truth.
“Pay no attention to the Pokemon archons along the way, and the anti-woman doctrines, and the horror of sex. We’re taking care of those. This is all scientific. Really.”