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Judas:  Historical Streams and Textual Themes
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Elaine Pagels and Karen L King
Reading Judas (NY:  Penguin Audio. 2007.  Audiobook.)

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The ancient Coptic text was translated by Karen King.  Elaine Pagels provides a thoughtful commentary and discussion of the Gospel of Judas and other Gnostic literature, and critical comparison with canonical Gospels.  This was an excellent summary and presentation of the themes of the Gospel of Judas.

The critical comparison of New Testament and Judas texts was well-done and objectively evaluated.  Pagels does a good job of presenting the historical and philosophical context of this gospel and “orthodox” opposition to it into the setting of Domitian's heavy persecution of Christians to the death.

One thing we should keep in mind in reading this and other literature designated "Gnostic" is that this term was coined only in the modern era, and is based on the focus on the concept entailed in the Greek term "gnosis," or knowledge, hidden truth revealed by revealers, sent from God, understood in various ways in the various Gnostic literature.  In the Gospel of Judas and related Nag Hammadi Coptic literature, Jesus is that Revealer.

This publication includes a reading of the whole text of the Gospel of Judas and a passage by passage textual commentary that is very helpful in understanding the use of vocabulary and clarifying cultural and philosophical backgrounds, in addition to the primary commentary Pagels competently provides.

In analyzing the Gnostic perspective of the writer of Judas, Pagels makes one point that differs from my original understanding of the perspective.  My original reading and the commentary in the original translation I read, indicated that only a few of the humans are given the Spirit or Soul that can perceive and understand the deep hidden truth Jesus teaches.

Those who have not received this perceptive soul thus cannot be saved, they cannot perceive, and are like the animals, and indeed are referred to by Judas in this Gospel as animals.  Sometimes in the discussions, Judas seems to be considered a part of "the Twelve," but at other times he seems to be seen apart from them.  His separate status reflects his spiritual perception and response to the the true light of Jesus' deeper Truth.  Pagels comments that she understand the overall perspective here to be that all humans do indeed receive the spirit or soul that can perceive the truth but most do not heed it.

This is where the activity of the lower powers, referred to as angels or daemons (spirit guides subject to error), has led all the disciples except Judas to worship their angels/daemons instead of the High God.  In this context, she provides a helpful discussion of the original concept entailed by the word "daemon," countering the modern reductionist tendency to impose the later European concept of "demon" upon this original Greek word and its original concept.

There is a strong component here, however, of the two-god theory later more fully expressed by Marcion.  The God of the Hebrews, the Creator God, was not the Good, High God, but the god of the lower realm, the physical realm.  To worship this god is to miss the call to the higher spirit realm the new Gnosis of Jesus reveals.  Judas, and Jesus likewise, does make fun of "the Twelve" for their sacrifices, because they do not understand that these are focused on "their god" rather than the Good God of Love who has sent Jesus.

My reading of the text led me to understand it was declaring that "the Twelve" could not understand what Jesus revealed, because they did not have the spiritual capacity, or soul, to hear and accept.  Only Judas of the core disciples had this type of Spirit and could understand and follow the Gnosis Jesus provides.  Pagels does not see it this way.

The difference between the spiritual heritage and the physical heritage is dealt with in Pages' exposition.  The background of this is the myth that Seth, later child of Adam, is the spiritual ancestor of the modern human race.  This Sethite version of Gnosticism is well-described by Pagels, and some of these dynamics lead to the impression I gained earlier that only certain humans have been given the spirit to receive the Gnosis.

This work presents a competent text and excellent exegesis and textual comment to clarify word usage and concepts behind the text.  The first, longer section, of this work is the clear exposition by Pagels.  This exposition should be part of anyone's attempt to understand the Gospel of Judas and the Sethite Gnostic literature it represents.

See related reviews and articles on this site:
[review] A Gnostic View of Jesus
[review] The Gospel of Judas Is this Really Good News?
[review] Semi-Gnostic, Semi-Christian, Semi-Islamic Gospel

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Written 11-12 January 2010
Reviewed on Amazon 12 January 2010
Posted on Thoughts and Resources 13 January 2010

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2010 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

Email: orville@jenkins.nu
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