The Thirteenth Spirit 25 April 2006Posted by Todd in Christianity, Homosexuality, Religion.
About a week ago, I ran across the newly discovered and translated Gospel of Judas. It is a coptic gospel, apparently from the Sethian branch of gnosticism. National Geographic's cover story for the June issue will be about the codex and it's implications. Two books available treat the gospel in depth: The Gospel of Judas is a translation of the codex with four commentaries of scholars of early Christianity and the Near East; The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot covers the scientific and scholary search for, restoration, testing, and study of the codex itself.
I read the translation of the codex and a couple of the commentaries last week and have found myself coming back to the text over and over trying to understand why I find the text to be so meaningful.
Early in the gospel, Jesus calls Judas the "Thirteenth Spirit" because he sees things that others cannot see, and he knows who Jesus really is: the embodiment of the divine. Much of the text covers Sethian gnostic theology, which is basically that the gods of this world, the creator, are lesser divinities and are jokesters who set us in a corrupt universe to keep us from the True God. Christianity as a whole during this time was aimed at transcending the world, and evolved in some ways to be life-denying (a point of much angst for my favorite philosopher Nietzsche). This is an aspect of Christianity I personally do not accept, finding the Buddhist response to suffering much more authentic and resonant with my experience; and although I have a great love for Jesus the teacher and Jesus the reformer, I haven't seen him as Savior for many years. And so I have been struggling with why I find the story told in this gnostic gospel so compelling.
One of the main points of this Gospel is that some individuals are the embodiments of the Divine Spark, and that spark of holiness within them allows them to see things that others do not see. Other gnostic traditions believed that everyone had a piece of the True God in them and that they could see if they chose to, but most choose to deny the holy within them. One of the things I value most from my Mormon upbringing is the idea that human beings are holy by nature. The story of Judas recognizing or listening to his own holiness and then seeing the divinity in Jesus moves me. Judas sees clearly the world around him, sees it for what it is, and recognizes the divinity of Jesus.
The Sethian tradition (as most gnostic traditions) saw salvation as coming not from atonement or the death and resurrection of jesus, but as coming through Knowledge. When Judas sees Jesus and recognizes the divine, Jesus pulls him aside and teaches him the mysteries. From sight to knowledge, Judas understands his own nature and the nature of the world.
But that knowledge is a great burden, for now he knows that Jesus, his dearest friend, is the divine housed in a mortal body in a realm of corruption. So when Jesus asks Judas to deliver him to the Pharisees, his knowledge becomes a burden, as in order to be true to the knowledge he's received, he must lose everything. Judas has a vision where he sees the 11 other apostles stoning him and chosing another, so he becomes the 13th. He is the only one among the 12 who actually get it, who know, who see. And so he must deliver up his friend to death, to free him to return to the True God.
I have always identified with Judas in the New Testament (and Cain and Esau in the Tanakh). These characters in our foundational myths are outsiders, rejected. Having always felt like an outsider, for many reasons, but most obviously because I'm gay, I have always felt that I understood these people. The Judas of this Gospel felt real to me: something about his very being allowed him to see what other miss and to know what other cannot know. It is the gift of being Other, of being outside. And his act of ultimatle betrayal was actually a sacrifice of love for his dearest friend.