Monday, August 03, 2009

The New Yorker Tries to Resurrect the Gnostic Judas

In today's New Yorker Joan Acocella amazingly tries to resurrect "The Gospel of Judas" as but one viable alternative reading of Jesus. The "proto-orthodox" Christians (the ones who won out and took their favorite Jesus narratives with them) chose four gospels out of the many gospels circulating. Acocella writes: "Of the many gospels circulating, they chose four, called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which, by reason of their realism and emotional directness—their lilies of the field and prodigal sons—were most likely to appeal to regular people."

Well, these four were chosen over the Gospel of Judas, but not because they "were most likely to appeal to regular people." Ben Witherington writes:

"The Gospel of Judas is a document carbon-dated to the beginning of the fourth century and bearing all the earmarks of a Gnostic theology that did not exist before the second half of the second century. Judas, for example, is quoted as telling Jesus he will help him slough off the flesh and so get into the spiritual realm and condition more quickly if Judas will just betray him to the authorities. This sort of felsh/spirit dualism certainly characterizes much of later Gnosticism, but it in no way comports with the historical Jesus's view, for he was a proponent of a very different form of eternal life - life in a resurrection body." (Witherington, What Have They Done With Jesus, 7-8)

Witherington cites Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine, author of The Misunderstood Jew, as saying that the Gospel of Judas tells us nothing about the historical Jesus or the historical Judas. (Ib., 8) "She was equally clear that she didn't see anything in these documents that could or should shake the faith of modern Christians, because of course this document is not a first-century document written by anyone who knew Jesus or Judas." (Ib.) Contrast this with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, all of which were written in the first century when there still would have been eyewitnesses to Jesus. (See, among other works, Richard Bauckham's brilliant Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.)

Craig Evans writes: "It is highly unlikely that the Gospel of Judas preserves for us authentic, independent material, material that supplements our knowledge of Judas and his relationship to Jesus. No doubt some popular writers will produce some fanciful stories about the "true story," but that is all that they will produce - fanciful stories. Even James Robison, who is no traditional Christian by any stretch, dismisses the Gospel of Judas as having no value for understanding the historical Judas. He is undoubtedly correct." (Evans, Fabricating Jesus, 244)

Acocella is one such "popular writer." She's a "dance critic," for God's sake. Here New Yorker article cuts and pastes stuff that's been in circulation for years. Except that her aesthetic writing churns out howlers like: "Far more shocking, however, was the book’s [Gospel of Judas] portrait of Jesus. We know Jesus from the New Testament as an earnest and charitable man. Here, by contrast, he is a joker, and not a nice one." But... GJ tells us nothing about the historical Jesus.

Acocella's aesthetic bias shows as she spend too much time on Susan Gubar's Judas: A Biography, which is basically an historical Rohrshak test showing how people make Judas into their own image. The Washington Post's review of Gubar's Judas said: "Gubar spends her first 75 pages just telling us again and again what she's going to say or prove. Phrases like "we will see" and "the chapters that follow will contend" seem like endless throat-clearing. Perhaps to balance her slow start, her last chapter also runs on like an endless coda, this time repeating one time too many the points already made. But don't miss Gubar's endnotes, which are crisp, concise and hugely informative. In one, for instance, she lists a score of contemporary pop songs that allude to Judas, including works by Bob Dylan, Depeche Mode, U2, Iron Maiden, Smashing Pumpkins and Dire Straits. Like Jesus, Judas is always with us." OK. Acocella, after spending way too much time on Gubar (which shows she's not really interested in the historical Jesus), writes: "it is Gubar who raises a crucial question unasked in most of the recent writings on Judas: Why shouldn’t we entertain the idea of an archetypal betrayer?" Anyone for a good old-time Jungian analysis of Judas? Can you see that Joan Acocella is herself a Gnostic?
Just as serious Jesus-scholars ignore the Gospel of Judas in their historical-Jesus-studies, so will they ignore the Gnostic Acocella on Judas & Jesus. Unfortunately some will probably feel she has given them more ammunition in their case against the historical Jesus.