The Heretics’ Gnostic Gospel of Choice
Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity
By Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King
Publisher: Viking Adult
Pages: 224 pages
Review Author: Arthur C. Sippo
Ever since The Da Vinci Code became a bestseller, the interest in “alternative gospels” and Gnostic writings has spiked among modern readers. However, for 25 years, Elaine Pagels has been advocating Gnosticism as a viable alternative to historical Catholicism. Her goals include reducing received Christian orthodoxy to merely one voice among many in the ancient Church, “total equality” for women as ordained ministers, the elimination of religious objections to “gay” and lesbian lifestyles, the abandonment of St. Augustine’s views on sin and grace, and emphasizing “spirituality” over the petty moralistic concerns that have “obsessed” historical Christians. Karen L. King now joins Pagels in her latest book about the so-called “Gospel of Judas.”
This recently discovered text is a second-century composition that is part of a genre of revisionist “gospels” penned by Gnostic dissenters. These writers intermingled Christian ideas with esoteric speculation and opposed the teachings of the bishops who followed in Apostolic Succession from the historical disciples of Jesus.
As she has done for over two decades, Pagels lobbies hard for the idea that this new Gnostic text is an authentic witness of the diversity of ideas in the early Church. She claims that these dissenters were silenced by the mainstream churchmen who won out in the end by making their own franchise of ideas appear to be the only truly “orthodox” teaching about Jesus and His mission. As Pagels and her sidekick, King, relate the story, this conflict over orthodoxy was a purely human affair in which politics, manipulative rhetoric, and clever maneuvering determined the outcome. There is no hint here of divine superintendence over the Church or of any preservation of a defined Rule of Faith that derived from Jesus and His first disciples. By this glaring oversight, the Pagels/King godsquad ignores both the Bible (e.g., Mt. 10:19-20; Lk. 10:16; Jn. 14:16-17,26; 16:13-15) and Church history (e.g., St. Clement of Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Justin Martyr, and St. Irenaeus of Lyon).
The authors allege that the primary reason this “gospel” was written was to attack the value of martyrdom for the Faith. The Apostles other than Judas are depicted as advocating violence and suffering as the way of salvation. In the opening sequence, Judas has a dream about the Eucharist in which he sees the Apostles sacrificing animals and people. He tells this to the Apostles, who mock him, but Jesus reveals to Judas the real secret of salvation: There is no resurrection of the body per se. The body counts for nothing. We are to be saved from the body to dwell with God in a purely spiritual realm, which is beyond all imagining. Jesus is then depicted as describing the secret origin of the universe involving multiple levels of reality governed by angels who act as intermediaries to the true God. Some of these angels are good but others are deceivers trying to distract men to material concerns and away from what is spiritual. All sacrifices from the Old Testament were actually made to the angel Sakla — don’t you know — and not to God who is pure spirit and has no need of pain, death, or sacrifices. Jesus then reveals that He has appointed Judas to “sacrifice the human being who bears me” to demonstrate the uselessness of the body. Judas becomes enlightened and turns Jesus over to His enemies to be crucified. It is also alleged that Judas does not commit suicide but is stoned by the other Apostles.
It should be evident even to any Scripture novice that none of this makes sense in light of the Old and New Testament. The emphasis in Judaism was on Yahweh alone as the Creator of Heaven and earth, with all other angels doing His bidding. There were no levels of creation and no mediating angels between these levels. Even evil spirits (which are primarily described in the New Testament) are under God’s control. Furthermore, the emphasis in Judaism was on how one is to live in the body. The center of the Jewish religion was the Torah, the Law of Moses. There was no esoteric teaching about spiritual realms. In fact, in the Old Testament, the emphasis was on this life primarily and — in some later texts — on the life to come after the general resurrection.
All of this is an abomination to the Gnostics. It is no accident that Gnostic teachers invariably were anti-Jewish if not frankly anti-Semitic. For example, Marcion, a prominent Gnostic in the second century, taught that the God of the Jews was not the God and Father of Jesus, but an evil deceiver. He taught that the Torah and all things Jewish were abrogated by Jesus and he excised the Old Testament from the Bible along with any New Testament book that was deemed too Jewish. Only the Gospel of Luke and the undisputed Epistles of St. Paul were left because they attacked “works of the Law.” The entire wisdom tradition of both Testaments is excluded.
This leads to a significant problem that Pagels and King do not seem to notice. There is no mention of sin in the “Gospel of Judas.” Jesus did not come to atone for our sins; rather, the Lord of Lords was made flesh in order to show just how useless are our concerns about the body and its actions. One’s focus needs to be on spiritual realms, not bodily actions. The only sin, if it can be called that, is a lack of knowledge about how the world really is. As such, there is no such thing as Gnostic morality. Guilt and fear of punishment are things the carnal man worries about. The spiritual man has his eyes fixed way above such things.
It is worth pointing out an important parallel between Gnosticism and some of the ideas of the Protestant Reformation. The 16th-century Protestant Reformers overemphasized Original Sin and the sinfulness of mankind to the extent that merely being a human being was sinful in itself. They did see Jesus’ death as atoning for sin, but only in an antinomian fashion. Justification for the Reformers was merely a forensic declaration of innocence that did not correlate with the ontological state of man, and any attempt to do “works of the law” mired one in an impossible quest for “works righteousness.” Like Marcion, they preferred St. Paul to any other biblical author, and wanted to marginalize — if not eliminate — Jesus’ moralistic teachings and the Epistle of St. James.
The Reformers also attacked the Mass as an abomination, relics and shrines as too carnal, works of art as distracting from true spirituality, and the whole sacramental system as just another form of pagan priest-craft. They also denied the authority of the bishops and of the historic Catholic Church to teach in Christ’s name. They even defended Gnostic groups such as the Paulicians, the Donatists, the Bogomils, and the Cathars against the charge of heresy that the Catholic Church had made against them. The parallels to the ideas in the “Gospel of Judas” are obvious.
Adolph Harnack, the 19th-century Protestant Church historian, recognized these parallels and even held Marcion up as an exemplar of early Christian orthodoxy! Several authors have noticed the similarities between Gnosticism and Protestantism, a notable example being Against the Protestant Gnostics by Presbyterian minister Philip J. Lee.
Therefore, in many ways Pagels and King are carrying forward the agenda of the Protestant Reformation into a new phase that further alienates Protestant Christians from their Catholic heritage and tries to rehabilitate the anti-Catholic heretics of the second century. Where will it end?
In short, Reading Judas is just another advocacy piece for disobedience and rebellion against Catholic Tradition. Happily, the antidote for Gnosticism in all its forms is to actually read the Bible and comprehend that humans are embodied beings, not pure spirits. What we do in the body does count, and morality, not mysticism, is the true center of Christian discipleship.
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