Level One: A Los Angeles Times editorial (April 13, 2006) reports that Frieda Nussberger–Tchacos, the Swiss antiquities dealer who delivered the recently–discovered Gospel of Judas to the National Geographic, is a convicted looter. Tchacos presents herself in semi–angelic prose as someone “chosen by Judas to rehabilitate him.” Judas doubtless rehabilitated her, to the tune of $1.5 million. The Times revels in the delicious irony that to avoid jail this felon (who doubtless broke the law in bringing Judas out of Egypt), in true Judas fashion, betrayed a colleague, Marion True, former director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, now on trial for trafficking in looted art. Quips the Times: “…some things don’t change–except for inflation. Thirty pieces of silver then, or $1.5 million now: it’s still all about money.” There is also the further irony that this “new” gospel has the academic name of “the codex Tchacos”!
Level Two: For all the sleaze surrounding its publication, Judas is a genuine ancient “gospel,” written on papyrus leaves dated to the fourth century. The second level of scam is ideological. The media goes first to liberals, who “frame the issue” in terms that justify their own scholarship and religious commitments. Elaine Pagels, rehabilitator of the Gnostic gospels since the 1970s, declares that this new “gospel” “explodes the myth of a monolithic religion, demonstrating how diverse and fascinating the early Christian movement was.” Bart Ehrman calls Judas one of “the greatest finds from Christian antiquity.” Its official translators argue that Judas demonstrates “the rich diversity of perspectives within early Christianity…during [its] formative period.” They dismiss the second century church fathers (who denounced the Gnostic error), as “heresy hunters” leaving the impression that everything about Jesus and the Christian faith is up for grabs.
Nothing has changed. We have known about this second century diversity for 1800 years. The “myth of a monolithic religion” is a modern straw man. The 20th century Church was not taken by surprise in 1945, when 52 Gnostic texts were found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Judas is not “explosive.” It merely brings the count to 53.
Judas contains all the typical (and radical) notions of second century “Sethian” Gnosticism. God the Creator is an evil demon; the reprobates of Old Testament history–Cain, Esau, Korah and the Sodomites–are the true heroes; Adam, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the prophets are “a laughingstock.” Clearly Judas fits the prototype for heroes. In Judas Jesus laughs all the time. In the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, a Nag Hammadi Gnostic document, Seth/Christ laughs at the God who says, “I am God and there is no other beside me” and at the ignorance of those who thought they were crucifying Christ (since it was Simon of Cyrene on the cross). Seth/Christ knows that God is a fool and that behind him is the Great Spirit. In another Gnostic text, The Hypostasis of the Archons, the Gnostic Goddess casts Jahweh into hell!
It is a theological scam to suggest that these Gnostic texts witness to Christian diversity or to different “perspectives.” The later Gnostic “gospels” and the first century traditional gospels represent two mutually exclusive religions, superficially similar only in the common use of certain Christian terms. It is a scam to suggest, as does Pagels, that this well–known second century “diversity” (what the church fathers called apostasy), was typical of first century Christianity, and that Jesus may well have been a Gnostic. Pagels implies that Christian believers in the early “formative period” could not decide between two versions of Christianity (as different as atheism and theism) that were vying for acceptance. She asks us to apply a postmodern “hermeneutics of suspicion” to the traditional version, which, she asserts, was imposed on the world in the third and fourth centuries by the power–hungry ecclesiastic winners.
Perhaps we should apply a “hermeneutics of suspicion” to scholars like Ehrman and Pagels, both once evangelical Christians, who, favoring their own theological and spiritual relativism, pounce on these recently–found texts to frame the issue, grab the headlines, and produce a preposterous account of early Christianity. We are asked to believe that one of the most successful religious movements in the whole of human history began with radical confusion and mind–boggling uncertainty. Gospels like Judas are only “gospel” for scholars like Pagels since such confusion means that “Christians” today can believe anything they want–with a clear conscience. Pagels herself chooses a blend of Christianity and Buddhism and admits that she finds herself strangely drawn to Gnosticism.
However, this “new look” Christianity, popularized by Dan Brown in his successful novel and movie, is not good news for anyone who wants a creditable historical account of the origins of the Christian faith and the person of Jesus.