Judas, Da Vinci & Us

This Easter season saw the publication of The Gospel of Judas, a third-century Coptic copy of a second-century Gnostic text. The papyrus manuscript was initially discovered in Egypt in the 1970s, but for want of a wealthy-enough buyer it ended up neglected and deteriorating in a safe deposit box in Hicksville, Long Island, for sixteen years.

The National Geographic Society finally forked over enough money to purchase the rights to the text, and also paid for its restoration and translation. A headline-grabbing publicity campaign followed, featuring a news conference, an April 9 television documentary, two books, and an article in the May issue of National Geographic.

Ancient Gnosticism represented a bewildering assortment of beliefs and practices, but is perhaps best characterized as a mystical faith based on the promulgation of secret teachings known only to adepts. The secret revealed by The Gospel of Judas was that Jesus had in fact asked Judas to betray him—“for you will sacrifice the man that clothes me”—and that in doing so Judas was elevated above all the other disciples. In other words, Judas has gotten a bad rap.

Princeton scholar Elaine Pagels, who tirelessly deplores the suppression of Gnosticism by early church authorities, welcomed The Gospel of Judas for “exploding the myth of a monolithic Christianity and showing how diverse and fascinating the early Christian movement really was.”

Other readers, however, found the gospel more opaque than fascinating, and doubt it contributes much that is new to our understanding of early Christianity. Writing in the New Yorker (April 17), Adam Gopnik, a self-described unbeliever, confessed that the claims for the gospel “feel[s] uncomfortably hyped.” James M. Robinson, an expert on early Christian and Gnostic texts, told Peter Steinfels of the New York Times (April 15) that National Geographic’s documentary was “consciously misleading.” Steinfels went on to point out that those who saw the gospel’s rehabilitation of Judas as a blow against anti-Semitism fail to understand how “profoundly anti-Jewish” Gnosticism could be.

As any reader of The Gospel of Judas discovers, the Gnostic Jesus is much less interesting than the Jesus of the canonical gospels. For one thing, this Gnostic Jesus is not human, but merely a visitor from another spiritual realm “clothed” in human form. However enigmatic the Jesus of the New Testament is, he remains recognizably human.

“The new obsession is to introduce, or reintroduce, into Christianity something hidden, strange, and cultic—to reveal a deliberately suppressed story,” Gopnik concluded. There is, of course, no better example of that “obsession” than the success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, which has sold 40 million copies. The movie version of Brown’s thriller about the secret marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene and the conspiracy within the Catholic Church to hide the existence of the couple’s royal descendants, will be released on May 19. Starring Tom Hanks, it promises to be the season’s big hit.

Is there an element of anti-Catholicism in the success of The Da Vinci Code and the hype surrounding The Gospel of Judas? Certainly both play into the popular idea that the Catholic Church’s foremost concerns are the suppression of dissent and the denial of its own sins. The sexual abuse of children by priests and the hierarchy’s cover-up of those crimes has done little to undermine the superficial plausibility of Dan Brown’s lurid fantasies or speculation that Judas was framed.

At a recent forum sponsored by Fordham University’s Center for Religion and Culture, Mark Massa, SJ, proposed an explanation for why people find The Da Vinci Code compelling. Catholicism, Massa argued, “represents a corporate culture which is perplexing or dismissed, or even feared, by many Americans, even by many American Catholics.” In its sacramental, hierarchical, and communal commitments, Catholicism challenges the pragmatic individualism that pervades American life. “In the story of salvation, in a very un-American sense, the community is more important than the individual,” Massa said. “We are saved as individuals in and through the community.” In Catholic teaching, the encounter with God is always a mediated experience. Yet for most Americans, the ideal encounter between self and God is an individual and unmediated one. Moreover, Massa notes, “mediation means trusting people who may be wrong.” That entails a respect, even reverence, for institutions, something many of us resist.

The Gnosticism of both The Da Vinci Code and The Gospel of Judas tells us not to trust the church, but to place faith only in ourselves and in our own unique understanding of the truth or of God. Yet as Massa reminds us, individual fulfillment and personal detachment cannot be the final answer. In the Incarnation, God committed himself to the messy business of human history. His spirit remains with us in the community of believers. Trusting in others can prove a mistake, but trusting only in oneself is a tyranny even more absurd than Dan Brown’s albino monks.

April 25, 2006

Published in the 2006-05-05 issue: 
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