Temptation's On Its Way
Well, I was a little moody yesterday, wasn't I? Fortunately, I've just discovered the salad dressing I dribbled across my lap a few weeks ago left stains in the shape of the Galapagos Island Chain on my black pants. So all is not lost.
On Sunday night, the National Geographic Channel premiered its special The Gospel of Judas, which I watched with rapt attention. The part of my adult life not spent with booze and loose women - perhaps an hour or two, all told - I devoted to studying the Bible, the history of its formulation and what people do with it. And dancing. I can't explain that. In any case, I'm no scholar and I know just enough to snicker at the literalists, but you know as long as they're all about the good works and not bigotry, I snicker respectfully.
The first hour-fifteen of the two-hour show described the discovery of the manuscript, its journey through the antiquities black market and its authentication. There's a whole lot of historical reenactment that's - let's take a step back, here - a bunch of men with historically imprecise hair and loose-fitting garments. Also: the actor who plays Peter turns up as Crixis in the NGC's Spartacus, which is just funny.
Certainly, the viewer wants - me - I want to know the provenance of the document. The language of the program itself is very cautious. One of the Coptic text experts comes clean about having seen the document while it was in the hands of an antiquities dealer - and if you don't know how these breathtakingly important documents change hands this section of the program could provide a bit of a wild ride. It seems simple, right? You dig something up in Egypt, it looks old, you take it to the Egyptian Antiquities gurus you see on the Discovery Channel all the time. History is saved! Nope. A bunch of the Dead Sea Scrolls burned under cooking pots. The story of the Gospel of Judas' strange journey merely hints at what's floating around among private collectors, sitting in bank vaults and turning to dust in a dresser drawer.
Finally, the script gets around to the contents of the text, by which time I'm talking to the television like it's Jeopardy's lightning round. "What is carbon-14 dating?" and "What was the Gnostic Heresy?" and "Who was Emperor Constantine?"
Tata: I'll take GET TO THE POINT FOR $1000, Alex.
Yes, I really said that and if I didn't there were no witnesses because Larry, the little black cat bent on stealing your soul, knows which side the cat food is buttered on...or whatever. Anyway, the text is in Coptic, and the scholars suspect the original was Greek, as a lot of the gospels were. The papyrus was carbon-dated at about 360 C.E., which is not a sticking point. The text is the same text derided by an early Christian bishop in 180 C.E., so copies of this gospel were in circulation for about two hundred years or more before this copy was made. So: hooray! Genuine artifact. About the text itself?
I'm not sure what the hold up is. I'd like to read it myself, as I'm allergic to taking anyone's word for what scripture says. Well, I have to live with what the translators say but meaning is another story. Hopefully, a book is forthcoming.
Our story: Jesus laughs a lot. Jesus makes a big fat distinction between the god who created this world and God, the One and Only worthy of worship, which theme one also finds in the Gospel of Thomas and much later in the Cathar Heresy. Only Judas gets it. Jesus asks Judas to turn him in and bring about his execution. Here, there is a giant omission on the part of the NGC program: Jesus has said he is the fulfillment of prophesy, but the prophesy is also very specific about the way the messiah is treated and dies. Jesus needs Judas' help with the timetable, and Judas agrees. The gospel ends with the apparent betrayal. This is another reason this gospel was considered heretical: for the early church fathers, the important part was the death and resurrection, not so much the actual teachings, which were carefully scrubbed of militant, observant Jewish piquancy. Mmm, lemony!
This is very exciting stuff. It's no more or less important than any other book that got left in or left out of the Christian Bible. What interests me is that the four official gospels offer no real, human reason why Judas would do as the text says he does. The handed-down story doesn't wash, especially when you figure in prophesy: the messiah has to die a dreadful death. For Jesus to be the messiah and not just some wandering rabbi - of which there were heaps and piles, historically - that ugly death thing was the target. For there to be a Jesus, there had to be a Judas to bring it about; without Judas you would never have heard a peep from Jesus. If you read the four official gospels, Jesus reads as a solo part, but it feels wrong - to me. It feels to me like a pas de deux scrubbed of a compliant partner. Maybe it's Judas. Maybe it's Mary Magdalene. I don't know. What's more: I never will.
The last ten or so minutes of the program featured Biblical scholars of several interesting stripes. One jovial fellow said Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were all he needed, he didn't need anything else. In a stroke of hilarious and masterful editing, the next second, Elaine Pagels blurts, "How would he know?" I'll tell you, I spit some pinot grigio then!
In related news, Miss Sasha reports that it's now safe to blab our excellent news. The Fabulous Ex-Husband(tm) proposed to his equally fab girlfriend and she accepted. Miss Sasha helped pick out the ring. Everyone's thrilled. My whole family is overjoyed because we adore him. The fab girlfriend says I should give him away at the wedding. All we were waiting on, it seems, was for the Fabulous Ex-Husband(tm) to inform the excitable Auntie InExcelsisDeo - one of his best friends - in person.
Damn it, another glorious wedding! This one's destined for the record book.