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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The Judas-as-pal-helping-Jesus-to-the-cross stuff? Say it with me: lame. But the Gnostic cosmology thing going on here: fascinating. That's what all the fuss ought to be about.
Marvin Meyer's True Calling
It can't be easy, right now, being Marvin Meyer, the man who's helped deliver these fascinations. To be sitting in his office in the center of the county must be a little like feeling the rippling effects of that earthquake he helped set off come back at him, like a movie running backward. Certainly the movie of his own personal history must be unreeling. This is a man, remember, who's defying the spirit of his very first memory, when his father prayed he might have the Calling. This is a man whose forebears in the Dutch Reformed church must be sadly shaking their heads at the man their endless Sunday harangues helped shape. It turns out, of course, that Marv Meyers does have a Calling, but it's liberal and it's humanist and it says that, hey, we're all adults here, let's put away the dogmatics because no one needs to be afraid of 17 pages of old papyrus. In fact, having caught him rather breathlessly after his return home from a speaking engagement, he still acts imperturbably excited. He enthuses, "I can't recall a response like this to any recent manuscript discovery!" including the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi manuscripts from 1945. He goes on, "Some of the current fascination may be related to the similar excitement about The Da Vinci Code" (a book and now movie which every single article about the Gospel of Judas has mentioned, and which I was adamant about leaving out until Marvin, damn him, forced my hand), and also to "the [sexual abuse] scandals that have rocked the church in recent years." But he adds, "It may be time for the voices of figures who have been marginalized—Mary Magdalene and Judas, for example—in the history of the Church, to be heard from again. . . . The New Testament gospels themselves show an increasing interest, in the last decade of the first century, in demonizing Judas," so maybe all this new discussion will spur a "greater appreciation among believers in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic family of religions."
A beautifully calibrated answer, that—politic, cautious, meticulous. But how it's affecting Dr. Meyer personally is another question. Oh, on the surface, sure, he's at the happy core of the maelstrom. "My e-mail is unmanageable, my phones rarely stop ringing, my speaking schedule is quickly filling up, and I have people stop me on the street to talk about the Gospel of Judas." Good. Busy. But, um, those people on the street, friendly encounters, are they, considering OC ain't exactly Tolerance Central? "Most of the responses have been positive, and many have been quite enthusiastic." A professorial pause, sly. "A few people have expressed concerns, and a small handful has suggested that for a guide to my future travels I may wish to consult Dante's Inferno."
Ah. Some people are telling good Marvin Meyer to go to hell—and there are probably thousands more where they come from. This is a man whose only aim was to "save this thing" so the past could speak, a man who is just doing his job, which right now happens to be the unleashing of the redemption story of the Christian world's most contemptible character. In a religion dedicated to forgiveness, that's not an easy thing for a lot of people to forgive. His is quite a new Calling.