Just in time for the Da Vinci Code movie...

News from today's New York Times and more information at the National Geographic on the finding and translation of the Gnostic Gospel of Judas. You know, the one where Judas is the good guy. Because he helped get rid of Jesus' (evil, or close to evil) body.

Unlike some theologians who are afraid that this will just lead to more confusion (in addition to yet more questions for me at weddings this summer...), I think that the more information that we get out there on what the Gnostic Gospels are actually saying, and how the current biblical canon was created, will better help people to make an informed decision. It also will help to undermine a view of the Gospels as dropping full-formed from the sky...these texts were created by human beings, in communities of other human beings, and the process of the reception and rejection of the texts is far more interesting then either Dan Brown or an idea of divine inspiration as angels-whispering-in-your-ear dictation would lead you to believe. (They're both really two sides of the same coin.)

The two things that I think most weaken popular culture's ability to interpret these texts correctly are our lack of a real sense of history, and our current crisis in church authority. First, when we read that this manuscript fragment is 1700 years old, and based on an 1800-year-old original, our first impulse is to think that this must be true, because it's really, really old, like all the other Gospels. But to actually pay attention to the dates, instead of setting up the binary pair "ancient/contemporary" might help here. So we know that the canonical Gospels are written between 65-110 a.d.-ish, give or take. And we also know that Christian communities are running around the eastern mediterranean basin from around 45 on, if not earlier...that is, within about ten years of the death of Jesus. So it takes a pretty big leap of historical judgment to think that a document written around 200 a.d., and rejected by these 150-year-old communities, has the story down better and more accurately, in either its details or its theological understanding, than the texts circulating more widely and earlier than these fascinating, but not necessarily more accurate, Gnostic texts.
To make a crude analogy: if you were trying to understand the American Civil War, from which we're about 150 years distant, would you trust the documents of the time and the continuing stream of interpretation from that time and the following 150 years of historical interpretation, or would you trust a new document -- not a new interpretation of old documents, but an entirely new document -- which claimed, say, that General Grant actually lost the war, that the entire "union victory" was in fact a hoax developed to confuse us, and that the U.S. Government has been intentionally hiding this from you in order to control you? Note that I haven't made an argument here based upon my faith; just because we're talking about something upon which people are making religious commitments, we shouldn't take off our critical historical hats and believe anything that comes down the pike. This is fundamentally the argument of N.T. Wright.
The second factor, I think, which makes us more likely to be a bit more gullible when it comes to biblical texts, is the fact that so many of our church leaders have been less than honest in recent years, particularly in the Catholic church. It's no coincidence that the Da Vinci Code (and I _refuse_ to hyperlink to it) took off so quickly during the height of the abuse crisis here in the U.S. In some ways the Da Vinci Code has been a great thermometer or canary in the mine to alert the Christian community how disillusioned, how distrustful, we've become of our own leaders. If so many Christians could so easily think that our leaders were lying not just about sexual abuse, but about the whole darn story, then we have a real crisis of authority (not to mention a crisis of basic catechesis). You can see this in the Da Vinci Code itself...the greatest historical mistakes that Dan Brown makes involve the transposition of late 20th century church structures (like an all-powerful papacy) directly into the early church. Historically, the decisions about what texts did and did not fit into the canon weren't made by a "them", by a group of bishops, popes, and emperors deciding from the top down, but by an "us", by local communities interpreting new texts in the light of their own traditions. The best short intro to some of these issues is Bart Ehrman's Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code.
So if all of this helps people to understand the real process of how the bible was written and collected, then I'm all for it. But I'm just a little suspicious, given past experience, that instead I'll be spending the entire summer explaining to other wedding guests why I think the bible as we have it is a relatively reliable source for knowledge about Jesus. Sigh.


Richard said...

Compelling stuff. I had not thought about the role of hypocrisy in the current bevy of interest mushrooming around the David Brown cultus.

I offer my own – less articulate – rant about the narcotic high that the culture is primed to experience as Hollywood prepares to rake in millions from those who crave a mind altering, cinematic Da Vinci Code summer injection. Check it our at http://richardsingleton.blogspot.com/

RC said...

I think the gospel of Judas' timing is perfect...althought I think it's totally cracked out...but not surprising, there's a lot of non-canonical gospels floating around.

To me this has been a really interesting story I've enjoyed following. The real conspiracy is how many people benefitted from this lawsuit...I outlined the beneficiaries on my own blog.

--RC of strangeculture.blogspot.com

Michael said...

Just an Amen to the problem of total lack of historical perspective. This exists across the denominational range. I recently finished reading Alex Boese's new book, Hippo Eats Dwarf: A Field Guide to Hoaxes and Other B.S., in which he notes the well-known tendency of people in the internet age to think that if it is on the net, it must be true. Seems silly; but as you point out, it is no different from the traditionalist in all of us who says, "It's old; it must be true or better." This book, incidentally, is not about religion at all, but it might be good required reading for theology students in need of some practical examples of the uses and misuses of logic and rhetoric.

One of the great lessons from reading gnostic texts and the history of gnosticism for me has been that there have always been many streams of thought within the church. That doesn't mean that all are of equal validity or value. It does mean that the existence of a train of thought only means that people have thought this way and possibly some still do. The truth of the thought must depend on other things besides the existence of believers -- even of personally sincere and holy believers.

Also, the fact that a gnostic believed "A" does not mean that "A" cannot be true. Many of these arguments on all sides ultimately collapse into arguments from authority, the weakest argument of all.

Claiming that God is the authority is no solution, because that is precisely the matter in question. Many Protestants easily see this fallacy when Catholics claim it to support papal declarations of mariological dogmas, but they fail to see that they do it all the time with proof-texting. Some Catholics are willing to challenge Protestant proof-texting, but then they themselves proof-text from conciliar documents just as vigorously.