Over at OrthodoxyToday.org, Fr. Theodore Stylianpoulos demolishes the media driven speculation that the so-called Gospel of Judas might somehow turn traditional Christianity on its head.
The Gospel of Judas is but another small window to Gnosticism, a hodgepodge of religious speculations that exploded on the scene during the second century. At that time, individual intellectuals or small and elitist groups around them, bothered by the basic story of the Bible, especially the violent God of the Old Testament and the scandalous death and resurrection of Jesus, generated their own religious philosophy. They combined Jewish, Christian and pagan elements to construct literally fantastic systems of speculation including astrology and magic. The core theme, found in the Gospel of Judas, is secret knowledge (gnosis) that leads to salvation.
This is Holy Week in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Daily observances mark Christ’s passion and culminate in Great and Holy Friday and Saturday and, the Feast of Feasts, Pascha (Easter Sunday). In these services, one is struck by the unequivocal condemnation — both in the Gospel readings and in the hymns — of Judas’ deceit and betrayal and greed. Not a lot of nuance or reinterpretation of the Gnostic view here. This would only surprise someone completely unfamiliar with Church history and, in particular, the Ecumenical Councils. Fr. Stylianopoulos, the Archbishop Iakovos Professor of Orthodox Theology and Professor of New Testament at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, exposes the logical flaw behind a Gnostic interpretation of Judas’ suicide:
The vilification of Judas in Christian history is lamentable. For Christians, the right response to all sinners, including ourselves, is sorrow and prayer in the spirit of Christ’s love who forgave his crucifiers. What a magnificent testimony to God’s forgiveness, if Judas, like Peter, had repented of his misdeed and run up to Jesus as he stumbled up the hill to Golgotha and asked for mercy! Forgiveness would have been certain. But it was not to be. Falling into despair on account of his betrayal, Judas killed himself, an act that would otherwise have no reasonable explanation, unless one is prepared to adopt the Gnostic system and see Judas as committing suicide to release his own soul to astral regions.
Of course, it’s hard to take these media-driven Gnostic “revelations” seriously when they are accompanied by sophisticated video and book merchandising campaigns. The National Geographic Society, which made the new translation of the Coptic-language “Gospel of Judas” public, also released two books and a DVD in conjunction with what it modestly refers to as “one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th Century.” All, of course, in time for Easter.
Gnosticism, the heresy, is everywhere with us today and is visible in things like New Age practices. Book publishers will continue to “rediscover” Gnostic writings, as we saw last year with Elaine Pagel’s book, “Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas.” The main attraction of Gnostic beliefs is that it gives us a free pass. We can become our own gods, make our own personal religion, and avoid the labor and struggle and repentance that Christ demands of us. “Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matt. 7:14).
And Gnosticism can be profitable, as National Geographic is showing us. When coupled with the allure of secret spiritual knowledge, buying a $24.95 DVD doesn’t seem like such a bad deal.