It’s been a summer of sizzle and burn—theologically speaking—here in these United States. First, we find out that Christianity’s arch-traitor, Judas, has his own “gospel.” Then Dan Brown, an inventive novelist of dubious literary skill, brings to the big screen his shocking revelation that organized religion is as fertile a ground for the action thriller as Michael Crichton’s world of scientific R&D and Tom Clancy’s black ops underworld. And, let’s face it, there is no religion more organized than my beloved Catholic Church.
Let’s start with The Da Vinci Code (book and movie). Dan Brown is a hack novelist who hit upon a winning formula (spoiler alert!)—that Jesus had a child with Mary Magdalene, that their blood line survived through the ages, and that a secret para-Vatican society was charged with keeping you and me from finding out. Like most spinners of tales, Brown took the shred ends of history, threw them all in a blender, slathered them on a page with protagonists, antagonists, a central mystery (plus excellent car chases), and served it up hot off the grill to a religiously charged public. The secular fundamentalists love it because it “proves” Christianity is a bunch of bunk. The Catholic fundamentalists love it because it boosts their direct mail returns as they wage their war against “creeping gnosticism” in this post-modern era.
My greater concern is for those who are unable to distinguish between fact and fiction. Psychologists recognize this phenomenon in children who falsely perceive television programs to be “real.” When adults are unable to make this distinction because their knowledge is not broad enough to put the fiction in a factual context and they rely heavily on personal experience and individual emotions not tested in community, the results historically have been disastrous.
NOW ON TO the “gospel” of Judas released in April by the National Geographic Society. Despite NG’s Hollywood-style hype timed to coincide with Easter and to ride The Da Vinci Code wave, the authentication, restoration, and translation of the 1700-year-old Codex Tchacos is historically groundbreaking. Discovered in Egypt in the early 1970s, these ancient manuscripts were privately held until 2001, when they were handed over to a U.N.-related cultural heritage organization for preservation of their badly deteriorating papyrus pages. The codex, likely transcribed by Coptic monks between 300 and 400 C.E., contains four texts, three of which have long been available in English translations based on earlier manuscripts discovered in 1945. But the fourth text—the one about Judas—had been missing since the time of the early church. Historically, it’s a fascinating discovery.
But what about its biblical significance? The Judas text portrays Judas as the one Jesus entrusted with secrets of the universe. “[Come],” says Jesus, “that I may teach you about [secrets] no person [has] ever seen.” The text implies that Judas informed on Jesus at Jesus’ request. (This thesis is richly explored in Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ.) The Judas text was rejected by the early Christian church for very good reasons: It was pantheistic, it demonized Judaism, and it was ethnically exclusive. It arose from a 2nd-century spiritual movement that claimed to have secret knowledge about God and Jesus: the Gnostics. Characteristics of gnosticism include a removed, impersonal God; a view that the created world, including “the flesh,” is evil; and the belief that only certain humans with access to esoteric knowledge can save themselves.
In the first 400 years of the church there was a roiling gumbo of Jesus-related testaments, letters, collections of stories, and mystical revelations that needed to be sorted out. Leaders in the most-established communities used specific guidelines for identifying the true catechism for Christians: apostolic authority (meaning that the oral history could be clearly traced to an apostle or an apostle’s community), a general consensus across an array of Christian churches, and general usage by broadly respected theologians.
Constituting the biblical canon was as messy as sausage production, but for the most part we ended up with the good stuff rather than the scrapings. While some narratives were suppressed for reasons that need to be re-examined, specifically around the role of women in the Jesus movement, the Judas text is not one of them.
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.