Thursday, April 3, 2008

Judas and the Gospel of Jesus - Review

When my Mom and Dad came for Christmas, they gave me an N.T. Wright book, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus. I was eager to read stuff by N.T. Wright because he has been a formative thinker for many in the emerging and missional church movements. Christianity Today Magazine ranked him as one of the top 5 theologians of our time.
However, I wasn't all that eager to read a book about the Gospel of Judas - a newly discovered text from the 2nd century AD. I'm not all that in to conspiracy theories, and most of the people here in our church aren't either.
I wanted a light read, though, so I picked it up. I know - that says something weird about me that I consider a book about a 2nd century pseudo-gospel a "light read." I was pleasantly surprised with how much I liked this book and particularly with how relevant his analysis is for us.
Here's his basic thought line.
1. "The Gospel of Judas" is a genuine text, authentically written in the early 2nd century, but it is not a "gospel" of Jesus of Nazareth. It is in a distinctly different genre and class from the canonical (biblical) gospels. Those are written close to history, heavily relying on history, growing out of Judaism. The Gospel of Judas is written within the context of 2nd century gnosticism and reflects that background in all of its style and theology. Gnosticism basically says that this world is bad (created by a weak or evil God) and that the spiritual world is the real deal (created by the one true God). Jesus came to rescue us out of this evil world of flesh and blood and to take us into the world of the spirit. Some of the quotes from the Gospel of Judas sound eerily like the cults in North America who committed mass suicide to "escape" into the heavenly (or alien) world by leaving their bodies behind.
2. N.T. Wright said we should reject the Gospel of Judas (as a description of Jesus) for two reasons: a) It's picture of Jesus has little resemblance to the Jesus of Nazareth we know from more historically reliable sources, and it makes almost no attempt to connect with history since its theology promotes a disconnect with the physical world. b) It's theology is bad. It promotes completely rejecting Judaism and all connection with the physical material world. This is contrary to the rest of the Bible and would lead to all sorts of negative consequences for our world.
3. However, the real twist comes in the final chapters. In the process of explaining why the Gospel of Judas doesn't measure up to what we should expect from a religious work in general, much less to what we expect from an orthodox Christian text, Wright also analyzes current Christianity and finds us lacking for the same reasons. According to Wright, and several scholars whom he cites, Protestant Gnosticism is rampant among us. Both liberals and conservatives fall into gnostic tendencies from opposite extremes. Liberals tend to act as if our moral actions in this world are irrelevant, since God only cares about our hearts. Conservatives tend to act like this world is inherently evil and damned, and that salvation will mean being rescued from this world. Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, proclaims that this world really matters because God is in the process of redeeming us and this world. Salvation will not be removal to heaven (and the subsequent destruction of the cosmos) but the rehabilitation of creation and all created beings who go along with God's rehabilitation process.
Let me try to rephrase this. The subtitle of the book is, "Have We Missed the Truth about Christianity?" N.T. Wright answers: "Well, partly, but not because of the we missed some secret conspiracy-theory information that the Gospel of Judas brings to light. We are actually, presently, missing true Christianity because we are unwittingly buying into the same lies (a.k.a. heresies) that caused the Gospel of Judas to be written in the first place."
I learned a lot, and I'm eager to read more from N.T. Wright. I give it 4 j's.
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