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The Thirteenth Spirit 25 April 2006

Posted 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.



1. GDTeacher - 25 April 2006

Thanks Todd. I have not read the Gospel of Judas, but will do so. This is a very different story than the standard Christian fare which characterized Judas as a traitor. Although standard Christian teaching hold that Christ had to die for our sins, there is no obvious path for that to happen in the context of the Gospels until Judas delivers him. Thinking of this as a sacrifice of love is a very interesting alternate view that makes a lot of sense in the context of the story.

2. Scot - 25 April 2006

I have been interested in the Gnostic gospels and saw some of the media rush to The Gospel of Judas beginning pre-Lent this year, building to burst out around Holy Week (a marketing ploy by publishers??)
Anyway,Brent Walters is going to speak to the Gospel of Judas when I sit in on his class next week, in part because he knows I’m anxious to hear his take on it. I sincerely enjoyed reading yours (and your railing against postmodernism too).

3. ChristFollower - 28 April 2006

It’s interesting that in LDS theology we honor Adam and Eve for their faithfulness in essentially disobeying God to allow “the plan” to roll forth, yet Judas is condemned in Christian theology for essentially the same basic thing. Doing a “bad” thing that allowed a “good” thing to come forth.

Apart from the actual truthfulness of the Gospel of Judas, what I have learned from it is that there were a lot of different versions of the story around that could have been included in the canon. It makes me look a little more critically at what went in, in light of what didn’t.

The “gay” connection you bring up is interesting. I’m assuming one reason you hang around sites like the NOM site is a gentle process of educating the rest of us on this, and I just wanted to tell you, at least in my case, it’s working. 🙂 Doctrinal issues aside, you really help me empathize in many ways with gay people. The image of associating yourself with Judas as fellow “outsiders” really says a lot. At least to me.

4. J. Todd Ormsbee - 28 April 2006

This post has been removed by the author.

5. J. Todd Ormsbee - 28 April 2006

Welcome to my wee blog, CF.

I think the Mormon take on Adam and Eve is because it was explicitly addressed by the founding texts (i.e., the Pearl of Great Price), and so Mormons are comfortable diverging from the standard interpretations. Unfortunately, the LDS church has maintained much of the sexism from western culture’s standard understanding of Eve, even as they changed the story.

I’ve thought a lot recently about why I stick around NOM, and honestly I don’t have the motive of “educating.” The reason is that I lived for a brief time after I came out with the idea that I could change people’s minds or teach them the truth but being an extra-good fag. It’s exhausting and doesn’t really work. People’s homophobia is much deeper seated than that. I think the reason I keep coming back to NOM is because the wounds that I bear from being rejected by my Mormon community, by my people, are deep and still painful. It is odd to think about, given that I do not believe in the doctrines of the church or in its divinity at all anymore–yet the scars of that rejection still affect me.

On NOM I find a welcoming space where I can interact with other thinking, questioning, seeking Mormons. I did not find that on the Foyer, where I often encountered a more insidious kind of homophobia, where “liberal” people cannot believe that they may possibly still be homophobic so they refuse to think critically about their positions. But on NOM, I have found comfort, because it is made up of people from my Mormon origins who don’t reject me. Some may disagree with me (some may dislike me), but they engage with me instead of telling me to leave.

I don’t know why, but it has been very healing.

6. belaja - 28 April 2006

I’m sure you’re aware that this is similar to the take that Nikos Kazantzakis has on Judas in The Last Temptation of Christ. It’s a compelling way of thinking about it. However, I also find it interesting that the gnostic Gospel of Thomas has that disciple (Doubting Thomas) as the one that truly understood Jesus and received the great secret understanding–which, in both cases, is something along the lines of what Jesus’ “divinity” means. Even more interesting is that the “Peter-centric” (no dirty jokes please!) gospels that made it into the canon have Peter (all right–Simon!) being the one who recognized Jesus’ divinity. And it seems to me some of the Johannine stuff that got into the canon also hints at John being the one who saw Jesus for “who he really was.” And the take on what that “divinity” means seems to be somewhat different in each case. It’s interesting. It seems like SOMETHING big was going on there, some big insights that people were having trouble processing–and apparently still are having trouble processing and coming to grips with.

7. diana s. - 28 April 2006

interesting information on the gospel of judas. i’ve been wondering what is in it because i haven’t had time to pay attention to it. i’m so fascinated by the gnostics.

i love the new insight into judas’ character.

are christians in general paying attention to it? do they consider it to be part of the bible? or do they think only the canonized gospels count?

i think it’s interesting that some of the mormony-ist mormons do see the feminist interpretation of eve’s decision, (bruce r., for instance,) but then continue to hold on to anti-feminist beliefs. that’s the thing about religions. everyone has their own version. it’s interesting how we all have our own interpretations of life in general. i’m glad. it makes people interesting and complicated.

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