Judas: So Hot Right Now!

After a 2,000-year career as Christianitys bad boy, Judas Iscariot is getting his 15 minutes of fame and freaking out the faithful

The Cosmic Catastrophe in the Suburbs of Deity
Given the imaginative feebleness of this gospel, what are all these Christian groups worried about? What kind of challenge can the Gospel of Judas mount? Why the papal hand-wringing, the conspicuously timed Vatican discourse? Why the savage attacks on what is essentially (and merely) a highly scrupulous scholarly attempt to present an important, and rather amazingly restored, ancient document?

Meyer, as I said, is surprised by the response, believing as he does in the value of objective scholarship. He was interested, he says, "in saving the thing—saving this text that was on the verge of being destroyed forever." What was exciting to him about the translation was to give "somebody or some text that was voiceless—to give it a voice again."

Of course, not all voices are created equal, and certainly those invested in orthodox Christian interpretation don't like their dogma disturbed. At its core, what people object to about the Gospel of Judas is, number one, that it brings up the whole question again about the veracity of the Christian Bible and, number two, it does so in the most in-your-face way possible, by deconstructing Judas, by offering him up not as Evil, but as a sort of in-on-the-deal Handmaiden of the Lord. Most believers conveniently forget that the Bible, as wise and beautiful as it assuredly is, was put together from disparate sources, translated and retranslated, sometimes rewritten, and eventually assembled by councils of elders whose reasons for including some texts and not others were designed in the end to enforce orthodoxy and repress dissent. Nothing strange about this; that's the way religions work. But to be reminded that the Word of the Lord has some awfully greasy human fingerprints on it is a shock to the heart, especially when the new word is the Betrayer's.

But having disposed of this, there's something more interesting going on in the Gospel of Judas, and that has to do with the nature of evil. If Judas isn't the evildoer of all evildoers, who is? In a world made by God, where did evil come from? This is the question that's depressed people for centuries and out of which theodicies are devised. And on this question, the Gospel of Judas is not lame at all—weird, but not lame.

The Judas gospel, again, is Gnostic, and it relies on its readers to know the Gnostic creation myth, which it does a fairly terrible job of explaining on its own. (Professor Meyer translated some of these apocryphal gospels, the most famous and beautiful of which is probably the Gospel of Thomas.) But Meyer explained it all to me, in his lucid and mellifluous voice, and here's, more or less, what he said:

In the beginning there was The Great One—I've called him the Supreme Spirit in this piece so far, but He or It doesn't really have a name because He or It is too transcendental for words to do justice to. Anyway, This Supreme Spirit (or whatever) is essentially Light (that is, Truth, Being) and when he created the universe, what he basically did was emanate some of his light into the void: he created stuff that the Gnostics call "heavens," "emanations," "angels" and "eons." He also created what appear to be sub-gods, full-blown deistic personalities with wills and powers of their own. Now, all is well and Perfect until one of these Gods, Sophia—which incidentally means "knowledge"—made what Bart Ehrmann calls a "cosmic catastrophe." "In the suburbs of deity," Professor Meyer tells me, "somewhere Sophia made a mistake."

You can't exactly tell what that mistake was from the Gospel of Judas—you need some help from The Secret Book of John—but apparently Sophia didn't consult enough with The Great One or some other male God when she decided, in her little suburb, to give birth to a son, who is described as "imperfect" and "misshapen," the first imperfect and misshapen emanation in Creation.

This imperfect, misshapen thing, the Gnostics say—"this is the most fascinating part of the whole thing, in fact" Professor Meyer insists—grew up to become the God of the Old Testament. Which is to say, the God who created us and our world is a Demiurge, a Fallen God, the product of the first cosmic fuck-up perpetrated by a female God, Sophia, who didn't listen to her man. The reason, in other words, that the world has evil in it is not because, as orthodox Christians believe, Eve got seduced by a sweet apple and a slithery snake, but because there's something about The Great One's light that dims as it emanates down into Creation, and that dimming—a certain wattage-weakening in the power of God's light—is what allows for evil's presence in the world.

All of which is not by any stretch lame. That the origins of evil lie not in the Fall of Man but in the Fall of God is very interesting indeed. Not because I think Man ought to be let off the hook, but because it'd be nice to deal with a God whose judgment is tempered by a knowledge of his deep enmeshment in all the otherwise inexplicable brutality, selfishness, hatred and suffering we have to live with down here.

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