This evening Dr. Elaine Pagels spoke at Rice University on the topic of the newly published Gospel of Judas and its impact on the scholarship of early Christianity.
I had no real idea what to expect of the presentation, which was part of the Archaeological Institute of America’s Local Lecture Series. The venue was a gorgeous lecture hall, with a reception at the student center across the street. There were quite a lot of people there, mostly white, mostly middle-aged or elderly, although I spotted a few folks who were likely students. I hadn’t thought of it until I sat down in the hall, but it would have been a fantastic gathering for some local networking, if I’d had even a couple of contacts to aid with introductions. Perhaps I can continue to attend and figure out who the important people are.
I am, of course, a great fan of the various ancient texts which make up the Nag Hammadi Library and other sources of “lost” Christian writings. As Dr. Pagels pointed out, though, the name “lost” gospels is a misnomer. They weren’t lost, they were systematically and deliberately suppressed by the orthodoxy. These texts point out tremendous conflict in the early Christian movement, highlighting dissenting voices in debates about the nature of God, the Resurrection, and the amount of foreknowledge Jesus had about events.
According to Dr. Pagels, the author of the Gospel of Judas is a very angry Christian who is expressing a lot of objection to the practice of church leaders’ encouragement of voluntary martyrdom. In addition, there is a bit of mystery tradition as the author describes a “secret teaching” Jesus gave to Judas before asking Judas to betray him as part of a larger plan. The mystery involves a higher spiritual existence that gives a kind of immortality that is distinctly different from the idea of bodily resurrection put forward by traditional Christianity.
The vision of the spiritual plane that overlays this one echoes so many mystical traditions, from paganism to Sufism to even some Hellenistic philosphy. One of the phrases from her lecture sticks in my mind discussing death: stepping into God. That is really the attitude that the author of the Judas manuscript takes toward Jesus’s death. He was demonstrating that great mystery, showing through his own transcendence the power of leaving behind one’s physical body.
I am put in mind of Paul’s initial conversion, which if I recall correctly was a vision of light by the side of the road. That’s the kind of Resurrection I could imagine, a spiritual power that transcends the physical world and can reach infinitely through space and time.
One major point in the discussion touched on current events: the issue of the glorification of martyrdom. In the Gospel of Judas, Judas is described as scolding the other disciples for sacrificing children on the altar. There is a question to read between the lines there – what has the Church become, what kind of God do we worship, who would want the blood of our children? Are we turning to human sacrifice now? This question is born out of the cultural glorification of martyrdom during the 2nd century among the Church orthodoxy. And the Gospel is just the sort of dissenting viewpoint that modern scholars and Christians have never heard.
Early Church fathers went out of their way to tell their naive and trusting faithful not just that martyrdom was glorious when it was necessary, but that it was so glorious and desirable that they should activiely seek it out. There is a very great difference between telling someone to be willing to die for their beliefs if they are arrested, and telling someone that they should throw themselves at the cops to die in glory for their faith and secure their place in Heaven. Incredible, how parallel that seems on the surface to the current pattern of Islamic radicalism and their glorification of martyrdom through murder-suicide.
Yet, as Dr. Pagels pointed out, the early Christians were a persecuted minority that did face death if caught. To tell them that it was better to accept martyrdom than to deny their faith was in line with Christian thought. Early Christians never murdered non-Christians or bystanders in their pursuit of glorious martyrdom, though. There was a distinct difference in the context. Still, Dr. Pagels mentioned that upon reading the Gospel of Judas she was put in mind of an Imam today, protesting the great movement of glorious martyrdom through terrorism. This is a voice of protest as well as a mystical revelation.
The one topic Dr. Pagels only touched on briefly was the spiritual relevance of this Gospel and the others of the “lost” texts. She said that she did not read the texts as a minister would. That, of course, made me want to read them from that perspective. I will have to see about getting my hands on the texts and reading from several perspectives now.
On the whole I was fascinated by the lecture and discussion, and look forward to seeing Dr. Pagels’s forthcoming book on the subject next spring. I am also looking forward to exploring more of the Archaeology, Religion, Interfaith, and Cultural resources of the sponsoring organizations: Rice, AIA, The Boniuk Center, and The Center at Christ Church Cathedral.