Hey Jude, Your Private Parts Are "Monstrously Huge and Loathsome to Behold"


An excellent New Yorker piece by Joan Acocella deflates the fad for non-canonical gospels that occasionally turn up around Asia Minor and North Africa. In this case, it's the "Gospel of Judas," which was found in Egypt in 1978 and has been firing the imaginations of reform-minded biblical scholars ever since.

An English translation of the Gospel of Judas appeared in 2006, and in addition to a promise from Jesus that nobody will go to Heaven, it contains a cockamamie cosmology with "aeons," "luminaries," demiurges, and maybe Xenu and a few thetans. Nevertheless, experts like Gnostic scholar Elaine Pagels continue to make claims about what Acocella calls the "upbeat character" of the text:

What use could this bizarre document be to modern Christians? Plenty. Many American religious thinkers are more liberal than their churches. They wish that Christianity were more open-not a stone wall of doctrine. To these people, the Gospel of Judas was a gift. As with the other Gnostic gospels, its mere existence showed that there was no such thing as fixed doctrine, or that there wasn't at the beginning.

The big promise is that Gnostic texts will take some of the shine off the religious belief that Jews are collectively responsible for the death of Jesus (and Acocella gives due attention to the never-fascinating insight that the betrayal should make Judas a hero, because it led to the salvation, and so on). Given how effective non-religious anti-Semitism turned out to be in the twentieth century, it seems mighty wishful to think tweaking bible stories will make a big difference. Most of the major Christian churches have made efforts to condemn anti-Semitism—and as only Mel Gibson and the Rev. Fred Phelps are willing to admit, they do so in defiance of their own core documents.

If liberal scholars want to argue from ancient texts, they should take the argument that's right in plain sight: There is no documentary evidence that Jesus H. Christ existed at all. The first gospel was written decades after the alleged fact, and the first independent mentions of the big guy appear about a century later. And the Romans were pretty good record keepers. By these historical standards, there is more evidence today for the existence of Batman than there is for the existence of Gen. Terry de la Mesa Allen, New Jersey Gov. Brendan Byrne, or Reason writer Tim Cavanaugh. The Gnostic texts have a modern analogue: fan fiction in which Kirk and Picard team up to stop a Ferengi bank heist or something. They're contentious for devotees, intriguing for sociologists, and meaningless as evidence one way or another.

And if you want to read a great meditation on the legitimately weird and interesting early history of Christianity, dig Flaubert's Temptation of Saint Anthony.