Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Laughing Jesus in the Gospel of Judas

On Jim Davila's JUDAS WATCH, he has tracked two recent reviews of Pagels-King, Reading Judas. On June 24, Stephen Prothero's review appeared in the New York Times here. On June 27, Bruce Chilton reviewed their book in the New York Sun here. Neither reviewer appears very convinced that this new take on Judas - the good Judas - is going to take us anywhere or go anywhere. And Stephen Prothero's review is particularly insightful, when he questions how meaningful Judas' Jesus is when he laughs so much at the disciples.
Although Pagels and King attend with care to the ironies of a text that both attacks Christian martyrdom and sets Judas up as the first Christian martyr, they are less effective in dealing with the most disturbing feature of this gospel: Jesus’ sarcastic laughter. In the Gospel of Judas, Jesus laughs no fewer than four times. He laughs not with his disciples but at them — for worshiping incorrectly and for misunderstanding his teachings. “Teacher, why are you laughing at us?” Judas asks. Good question. Pagels and King devote scant attention to it, responding simply that this laughter is intended to spur Jesus’ disciples on to “higher spiritual vision.” To me, however, it just sounds mean-spirited, turning Jesus into the sort of person you wouldn’t like, much less worship.
My response to Prothero's concern is that Jesus' laugh is mean-spirited, directed at the disciples, including Judas, who are trapped in a fate they can't escape. They all worship Ialdabaoth, including Judas, who is as evil as ever. We must keep in mind that this gospel is not a historical representation of what happened between Jesus and his disciples, but is a historical representation of the opinion of the Sethian Gnostics about the apostolic Christians whom they associated with the twelve disciples and a demonic cursed Judas. The Sethian Gnostics are laughing at the apostolic Christians whom they think are ignorant. Why is it shocking to us, so disturbing? Because we are used to hearing only the mean-spirited voices of the apostolic Christians like Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Epiphanius who say equally nasty things about the Gnostics. What this text does for us is engage the other side from the perspective of the other side. This is invaluable as we try to sort out how the normative traditions emerged as they did!

At any rate, these issues I take up in much detail in The Thirteenth Apostle which will be released in Europe in October and the States at SBL in November.

The specific issue of Jesus' laughter is one that I am discussing in a presentation that I will be delivering at the Society of Biblical Literature in San Diego. Here is a synopsis of my talk.
The Subversive Gospel of Judas and Sethian Humor
to be presented by April DeConick
Society of Biblical Literature
Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism Session
San Diego 2007
This paper will explore the subversive textures of the Gospel of Judas, particularly in terms of its employment of reverse exegesis to critique mainstream Christianity. Traditional genres and stories are subverted in order to expose their hidden meanings, meanings that support Sethian perspectives while berating the mainstream Christian, in particular the confession of the Church, its tradition of apostolic authority, and its coveted atonement theology. The result is Sethian humor that mocks the "ignorance" of mainstream Christianity in, what I think, are frighteningly profound ways. In the end, I will attempt to expose a Sethian reading of this gospel, whose “hero” Judas is really an “anti-hero,” an evil man associated with the demon Ialdabaoth. His tragedy is used to comment on the ignorance of mainstream Christians, who do nothing more than worship Ialdabaoth and curse the very man who made possible their atonement. The Sethian author(s) argues very logically and profoundly given his premises, if Judas was a demon working for the demons that rule this world, than the evil sacrifice he made of Jesus’ body was to the archons who rule this world, not the supreme God. This means that the eucharist is ineffective in terms of redemption, because it serves only to worship and give power to the god of this world who has entrapped us, not the supreme God who liberates us. Everything in this gospel, from the traditional confession story to the traditional betrayal story, is turned upside down and inside out to poke fun at those who do not share Gnosis.

11 comments:

Jim Deardorff said...

The Gospel of Mark sort of sets a precedemce for this. Upon considering that it followed after Hebraic Matthew, as was the common belief until the 19th century, one sees that it treats the disciples, and even Jews in general, as being unfit for discipleship. Even when Jesus walks out upon the rough waters to help the disciples in distress in their boat, Mark has an added clause saying that he intended to pass them by and thus not help after all. This was more mean-spirited than mocking, however.

It is easy to see why 19th century theologians decided that they'd better place Matthew after Mark. Then the problem is greatly alleviated.

Scott Ferguson said...

It is amusing that a reviewer would complain about the laughter of a sarcastic Jesus while ignoring the piquish behavior of Yahweh.

Geoff Hudson said...

More realistically, the same is true of James in the Epistle of James and the Epistle to the Galations. The Pauline editors kept James firmly in Jerusalem away from the Gentile mission - they had their character Paul write about his visit to Jerusalem: 'I saw none of the other apostles - only James, the Lord's brother.' You can't get much more blatant than that. As we are in laughing mode, the other laugh is that Paul is supposed to have met the fictitious Peter during the visit. Then would you believe our Pauline editors naively had Paul write a giveaway punch line:'I assure you before God, that what I am writing to you is no lie.' (Gal.1:18-20)

Geoff Hudson said...

The writer has Jesus say "I am not laughing at you", meaning that he was not laughing 'at' the disciples. Jesus laughed because he observed that the disciples believed their prayer praised their god. The writer has the disciples confess that they believed Jesus was the son of their god. Thus the writer had Jesus laughing because the diciples believe in Jesus and his father god. In effect the writer had the disiples god Jesus laughing at himself, because the writer believed that Jesus was a false god or that Jesus never existed. At least that is my convoluted logic.

Geoff Hudson said...

Sorry for the spelling errors.

Geoff Hudson said...

The writer has Jesus laughing because the disciples believed in him but did not know him and did not dare to stand before him. But Judas knew who Jesus was and did dare to stand before him. Yet Judas 'handed him over to them'(them being the priests who are symbolically the orthodox priests contemporary with, and lambasted by, the writer). The writer did not portray Judas as a traitor for doing this. Rather Judas did the right thing, in effect giving up any belief in Jesus. The suggestion was that all the orthodox should do the same. Jesus was made to appear as a laughing con-man god.

Geoff Hudson said...

Is the writer criticizing contemporary orthodox priests when he has the disciples say: "some sacrifice their own children, others their wives, in praise and humility with each other; some sleep with men; some are involved in slaughter; some commit a multitude of sins and deeds of lawlessness. And the men who stand before the altar invoke your name"? The writer thinks that some bad things were done by these priests in the name of Jesus. In a cultural context, we know that Roman fathers exposed daughters, and Roman women had few rights.

Geoff Hudson said...

The twelve disciples are without names. If the writer wanted to take the rip out of the orthodox Christians, he could have had a go at Peter who supposedly denied Jesus three times.

Was Judas the 'thirteenth' disciple because the writer realised Judas was originally the human leader of the other disciples (who the writer understood to be twelve in number)? Thus the writer understood there were thirteen disciples.

The more I look at this gospel, the more I doubt anyone will ever make any real sense out of it. If such a work was written today, we would all say: What was this guy on? And 2000 years ago most folk were were probably not that easily taken-in either.

Leon said...

My main bone of contention with the book by Pagels and King is that they inaccurately describe what the canonical Gospels have to say about Judas, especially Mark's Gospel. Neither one mentions that since William Klassen's 1996 book on Judas, it is generally agreed now that the Greek word they use to describe Judas' action, "paradidomi", does not mean betray, but is a neutral word, meaning something more like convey. "Betray" is a mistranslation and this does not deserve mention!!??

Couple this with the well-known fact that Mark in particular lacks any motive for Judas, no conflict with Jesus, and no recriminations from fellow disciples, and it becomes a puzzlement how anyone could argue that Mark is telling the story of a traitor. Mark actually tells a perfectly neutral story regarding Judas. This has a rational explanation. It's a wonder no one looks for it.

Geoff Hudson said...

A plot was hatched in the high priest's palace to arrest the prophet and bring him to justice. This was shortly after he had prophesied that 'not one stone here will be left on another'. (Mk.13:2). I believe that the prophecy originally referred to the altar for burnt offerings, not the temple.

A story that was probably taken out of the NT, garbled and inserted in Josephus was the 'pulling down' by Judas and Matthias of 'Herod's golden eagle' from above the entrance gate of the 'temple'. I believe that this story was also originally about the real act of 'throwing down' the altar in front of the sanctuary.

Thus the high priests had a pretty good motive to arrest the prophet. Judas's motive in destroying the altar was that he no longer accepted the Jewish law of animal sacrifices as a means of cleansing.

Geoff Hudson said...

On this view, there is no Jesus.