What is Gospel?

Posted by Censor Librorum on Apr 14, 2006 | Categories: Lesbian in a Catholic Sort of Way

An April 8 NY Times Op-Ed gave me a new mystery to reflect on in church over Holy Week. “The Gospel of Judas,” by Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, raises the issue–not new–that in the early days of Christianity there were many gospel stories. But in an interesting twist, perhaps Judas was not the instrument of the devil as portrayed, but in fact betrayed Christ at his request, helping him to fulfill his mission.

Several hundred years after the death of Christ, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria wrote a letter to Christians in Egypt ordering them to reject what he called “secret, illegitimate books” and keep only the 27 approved ones. The 27 he named constitute the earliest known list of the New Testament canon. The New Testament Gospels contain much of what Jesus taught in public. The secret books, like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and now the Gospel of Judas include the stories of what Jesus taught his disciples when they were talking privately. An early Father of the Church, Irenaeus, whom Anthanasius admired, condemned these gospels insisting that Jesus never taught any of his disciples secretly; such secret revelations were illegitimate, and those who revered them were heretics.

What in the Gospel of Judas (or Thomas or Mary Magdalene) goes back to Jesus’ actual teaching? Where is it similar to the other four Gospels? The Gospel of Mark also tells us Jesus explained things to certain disciples in private. The Gospels of Mark and John collaborate with the Gospel of Judas to hint Jesus knew what would happen, and even instigated the events leading to his suffering and death as part of a divine plan.

What else is there? What else has been suppressed? What discoveries lay ahead? How can advances in linguistics, science, historical research impact what we have always accepted as…Gospel? The timing of the announcement by the National Geographic Society was a marketing person’s dream–near Easter (a coincidence?!), right on the heels of the Da Vinci book trial, and right before the movie’s release.

Was Judas one of the great villains of history, the ultimate betrayer; or is he a man who deserves our utmost compassion, because he undertook this role at Jesus’ request, and has suffered for it for over 2,000 years?

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