Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week Eleven: Judas and Mary

Thanks to CNN’s Finding Jesus I was able to sit back and relax a bit this week and let the episodes on the Gospel of Judas and Mary Magdalene do much of the work for me. We began our look at Judas with an overview of his appearances in the canonical gospels, covering some aspects of Judas’ story not mentioned in the documentary, including the additional story about his demise from Acts 1:18-20 (it seems most documentary and filmmakers prefer the story of Judas’ repentant suicide to the one of his fall and bowels-gushing). I couldn’t resist also adding the third story of Judas’ death recounted by Papias of Hierapolis and a brief mention of two other Judas apocrypha: the Latin Life of Judas and the Legend of the Thirty Pieces of Silver. Then we looked at the well-loved scene from the Last Temptation of Christ where Jesus tells Judas that he has to betray him; Judas asks him, “Would you be able to betray your master?” Jesus replies, “No, that’s why I was given the easy job.”

I provided the students with a summary of the major acts in the drama behind the publication of the Gospel of Judas. I touched on a few of them that intersected with my own knowledge of the text (having access to Charlie Hedrick’s initial translation, hearing Louis Painchaud’s paper at the Ottawa Christian Apocrypha workshop). When it came time to mention National Geographic’s publication of the text, I showed them a scene from their documentary in which the “crack team” of scholars are shown emerging from a car in a mysterious location as if they are being filmed as part of a sting operation. The goal was to show how intent NGS was to sensationalize the find in order to recoup their investment and to make a point about the criticism from other scholars about how they restricted access to the text before publication.

We watched the entire episode of Finding Jesus and segued into a demonstration of the major differences between the NGS and April DeConick translations of the text. The last time I taught the course I assigned the students a translation comparison on the Gospel of Judas; this text is particularly useful for showing how translations and reconstructions can vary tremendously. We finished with an open discussion of the text.

The second half of the class focused on the Gospel of Mary. As with Judas, I provided a brief summary of Mary’s appearances in the canonical gospels, along with an overview of the manuscript evidence for the gospel. We watched three scenes from the Finding Jesus episode: one in which a possessed Mary Magdalene names “Ialdabaoth” and “Sakla” as two of the demons that plague her, and the other two of Nicola Denzey Lewis viewing the Gospel of Philip and Gospel of Mary manuscripts. As I mentioned in my previous post about the episode, I was quite pleased at the caution displayed in discussing the significance of the two texts and how they tell us more about conflicts in second-century Christianity than about the historical Mary Magdalene. I did add, however, that we do have evidence of heretical Christian groups affording more opportunities to women than were offered in orthodox communities; the Carpocratian Marcellina, who preached in Rome ca. 150, Flora from Ptolemy’s epistle, the tomb inscription of a Valentinian woman named Flavia Sophe, and the roles of women in the apocryphal acts all show that women could be active participants in Christianity and even have leadership roles.

As part of our in-class discussion of the text it was noted that the episode did not look at the contents of Mary’s vision, which narrates an ascension similar to those found in some of the other texts examined in the course. The text begins also with a post-resurrection teaching session with Jesus and the apostles reminiscent particularly of the Letter of Peter to Philip with its interest in suffering. Both texts examined in this week’s class, the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Mary, frequently suffer in popular representations because the commentators do not show any interest in their theological contents. Indeed, I don’t think the greater public care much about these aspects of the texts either.

It was my plan to show the class a few scenes from an episode of The X-Files entitled “Hollywood A.D.” (Season 7, Episode 18) that features the Gospel of Mary. Since we didn’t have enough time to do it justice, I am adding below an excerpt on the show from my chapter on “The Christian Apocrypha in Popular Culture” from the forthcoming Oxford Handbook on the Christian Apocrypha.

Mulder and Scully are called in to investigate the bombing of a crypt beneath a church administered by Cardinal O’Fallon. In the process of the investigation, they find a body which they believe to be Micah Hoffman, a 1960s counter-revolutionary. They visit Hoffman’s home and Mulder finds what appears to be old religious papers. Scully manages to read the Greek text and tells her partner, ‘It looks like some kind of lost Gospel. A gospel of Mary Magdalene, and, uh, an account of Christ’s life on Earth after the Resurrection. . . It’s a heretical text, Mulder. Mythical, I should say, but long rumored to be in existence’. Mulder shows the manuscript to O’Fallon, who reads from it, ‘And then Jesus took his beloved Mary Magdalene in an embrace, an embrace not of God and woman but of man and woman. And Jesus said to Mary, “Love the body for it is not only with the soul that our senses can perceive”’. The gospel is revealed to be a forgery but O’Fallon believed it was authentic and bought a copy from Hoffman to prevent others from feeling the despair and anger he felt as he read the text. ‘The Christ I loved was not the Christ in these texts’, O’Fallon says. Despite Scully’s impressive credentials as a scientist, she is unaware that a ‘Gospel of Mary’ has been available to scholars since its publication in 1960, but it is not mentioned by any known ancient writer. The true Gos. Mary also does not contain anything like what O’Fallon reads in the modern forgery, though Peter does say at one point that ‘the Savior loved [Mary] more than all other women’ (10, 1-3; trans. in Meyer et al. 2007).

One more week to go in the course. Our last class will again depart from the course textbook for a look at more recent forms of Gnosticism, including the Cathars, Ismaili Shi‘ism, and Philip K. Dick.

This entry was posted in 2015 Gnosticism Course. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *