Monday, April 10, 2006

Why I Like the Gospel of Judas

Or, Heresies are tons more fun!

In the newly reconstructed Gospel of Judas, Jesus appoints Judas as his betrayer:
In a key passage Jesus tells Judas, "You will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me." This indicates that Judas would help liberate the spiritual self by helping Jesus get rid of his physical flesh, the scholars said.
This narrative of events accounts for the fact, among other things, that Judas returned his 30 shekels of silver to the priests in the Tempe. He didn't betray Jesus for the money but to fulfill prophecy.
Christianity in the ancient world was much more diverse than it is now, with a number of gospels circulating in addition to the four that were finally collected into the New Testament, noted Bart Ehrman, chairman of religious studies at the University of North Carolina. Eventually, one point of view prevailed and the others were declared heresy, he said, including the Gnostics who believed that salvation depended on secret knowledge that Jesus imparted, particularly to Judas.

In any case, this testament from a branch of early Christianity bears a resemblance to the heresy of Sabbatianism, a widespread, heretical messianic movement from the 1600s that moved East from Poland to Turkey under the leadership of a "messianic figure" named Shabbtai Tzvi. In this mystical doctrine, Tikkun Olam - the fixing of the world, is completed by uplifting even the darkest and remotest sparks; specifically, in the case of Sabbatianism through the practice of anti-nomian acts. That is to say, acts that are against halacha, both erotic and heretical, performed in a state which Sabbatians understood to be divine inspiration, in order to liberate the divine sparks even from the depths of darknesss.
But [Shabbtai Tzvi's] truly original characteristic is without any doubt to be found in the peculiarity of his mania: the commission of antinomian acts which in his state of exaltation he appears to have regarded as sacramental actions. ...In his state of illumination he was the living archetype of the paradox of the holy sinner, and it may well be that, without his being able to express it, the image of an act of Tikkun through the infringement of the holy law was before his eyes in these exalted states of mind. And this and nothing else is the true heritage of Shabbtai Tzvi: the quasi- sacramental character of antinomian actions, which here always take the form of a ritual, remained a shibboleth of the movement, not least in its more radical offshoots.

Gershom Scholem in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, p. 293


It was Nathan of Gaza, Shabbtai Tzvi's theologian and prophet, who formulated this theology. Of him, Scholem says:
It is a matter of the deepest interest that one encounters in the writings of a youth from the Ghetto of Jerusalem in the 17th century an age-old gnostical myth of the fate of the Redeemer's soul, built up from Kabbalistic ideas but nevertheless obviously intended as an apology for Shabbtai Tzvi's pathological state of mind. Were it not for the fact that the raw material of this Kabbalistic doctrine is actually to be found in the Zohar and in the Lurianic writings, one would be tempted to postulate an intrinsic, though to us obscure, connection between the first Sabbatian myth and that of the ancient Gnostical school known as Ophites or as Naassenes who placed the mystical symbolism of the serpent in the center of their Gnosis.


And what was the myth of the fate of the Reedmer's soul that Nathan of Gaza formulated? That of its imprisonment in the stronghold of darkness and evil and its eventual release.

Notice the similarity. With Sabbatianism, the deepest mystery about the Messiah is his turn to apostasy when, under duress he converts to Islam (rather than martyring himself). And that act is then theologically transformed, in theory, when tikkun olam is completed, as a way to free the soul of the Messiah.

And with the Gospel of Judas, the deepest mystery of this branch of Gnostic Christianity is the ritual aspect of the betrayal, which act of betrayal allows Jesus to die on behalf of humanity, in order to save it. By sacrificing "the man who clothes Jesus", that is, Jesus' physical body, Judas releases Jesus to his Messianic purpose, through the means of sin and betrayal.

Judas, too, in this Gnostic interpretation of his role, becomes the living archetype of the paradox of the holy sinner. And in both cases, the soul of the messianic figure in each tradition respectively must be freed; in Shabbtai Tzvi's case, from its shackling to darkness and evil, where its shards became trapped after God's act of tsimtsum. For the Jesus presented in the Gospel of Judas, his soul had to be redeemed from its imprisoning flesh before fulfilling the mysteries of the kingdom.

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