Fri 3 Feb 2006
There is an inherent danger in all archaeological and archival research. What if we find that a cherished truth may not be something worth cherishing any longer and what if it does not even appear to be truth? In today’s front page of The New York Times, in tandem with National Geographic online, it seems that the Gospel has been turned on its head. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as a group make Judas out to be a goat, the evil quisling who betrayed Jesus. But now a new discovery of an ancient manuscript, reputed to be the Gospel of Judas, points to a good Judas. If this news had come out before Mel Gibson’s Passion, God only knows how it would have affected box office receipts. Of course coming as it does near the premiere of The Da Vinci Code, Hollywood may be in for a windfall. But why wait, since there are already at least two books and a television special for this Sunday on the National Geographic Channel.
So what do we have here? Radiocarbon dating puts the papyrus manuscript between
C.E. 220 and 340. While not exactly a smoking gun, the text does indicate there were multiple views about the life of Jesus before the canon was canonized. But this is hardly news. Apocryypha have long outnumbered the “inspired” texts. So did Judas betray Jesus in the garden? Were there twelve disciples present at the Last Supper? Did Jesus and Mary Magdalene have an uncommon law marriage? These are hot questions, judging by the success of several best sellers in your average Barnes and Noble or Border’s bookstores. But the fact is that none of the historical documentation proves anything other than the fact that we really do not know what happened.
A few years ago a scholar made headlines by arguing that Muslim martyrs who thought they would be welcomed by 72 virgins in paradise were really only promised raisins. As reported, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, in The Guardian:
“This naturally leads to the most fascinating book ever written on the
language of the Koran, and if proved to be correct in its main thesis,
probably the most important book ever written on the Koran. Christoph
Luxenberg’s book, Die Syro-Aramaische Lesart des Koran, available only
in German, came out just over a year ago, but has already had an enthusiastic reception, particularly among those scholars with a knowledge of several Semitic languages at Princeton, Yale, Berlin,
Potsdam, Erlangen, Aix-en-Provence, and the Oriental Institute in
Luxenberg tries to show that many obscurities of the Koran disappear if we read certain words as being Syriac and not Arabic. We cannot go into the technical details of his methodology but it allows Luxenberg, to the probable horror of all Muslim males dreaming of sexual bliss in the Muslim hereafter, to conjure away the wide-eyed houris promised to the faithful in suras XLIV.54; LII.20, LV.72, and LVI.22. Luxenberg ’s new analysis, leaning on the Hymns of Ephrem the Syrian, yields “white raisins” of “crystal clarity” rather than doe-eyed, and ever willing virgins – the houris. Luxenberg claims that the context makes it clear that it is food and drink that is being offerred, and not unsullied maidens or houris.
In Syriac, the word hur is a feminine plural adjective meaning white, with the word “raisin” understood implicitly. Similarly, the immortal, pearl-like ephebes or youths of suras such as LXXVI.19 are really a misreading of a Syriac expression meaning chilled raisins (or drinks) that the just will have the pleasure of tasting in contrast to the boiling drinks
promised the unfaithful and damned.
As Luxenberg’s work has only recently been published we must await its scholarly assessment before we can pass any judgements. But if his analysis is correct then suicide bombers, or rather prospective martyrs, would do well to abandon their culture of death, and instead concentrate on getting lai 72 times in this world, unless of course they would really prefer chilled or white raisins, according to their taste, in the next.”
So, let’s say that archaeologists digging through the sedimentary layers of
the Well of Zamzam in Mecca come across an ostracon (clay version of a papyrus) with the words of Muhammad written down only 100 or 150 years after the Prophet died. And let us suppose that this text unequivocably says believers will have their fill of raisins in Paradise. What will be the impact? Will Al-Jazeera run a special report? Will Al-Azhar issue an official apology for teaching the wrong truth all these years and scrap al-Bukhari’s seminal collection of traditions?
The fundamental problem in both these cases is not who is right, since in both cases there is no way of verifying that the textual exegesis, however valid, explains what really happened and went unrecorded on videotape. The point is that most people believe what they have been told to believe or want to believe. The Gethsamane betrayal needs a “Judas,” so if Judas did not do it, another villain must be found.
Maybe it was a domestic quarrel and Mary Magdalene turned Sanhedrin Court evidence. Maybe Barabbas, a known criminal, turned in Jesus so he could get released with the magnanimity of Pontius Pilate? Maybe the early defenders of Islam would
literally kill for the right kind of raisins and had very limited afterlife libido fantasies? What we have here are questions that lead to fascinating novels, films and academic research parading as entertainment.
The New York Times has given over the greater part of an entire page (A20) to the Judas document, following a large photo of the document on the front page. The day before, ironically, the top story was discovery of the “missing link” between fish and land animals, also noted on the National Geographic website. Score: Secular-minded science 1, Intelligent Design advocates, 0?
Meanwhile, how about a reality check. A few hours ago a bomb exploded in a shi’a neighborhood in Baghdad and over 70 people were killed. Yesterday a BBC reporter gave a report about an Ethiopian mother who was unable to feed her baby due to a horrific famine; the baby died before he could file the report. The political news is that Scooter Libby has told a grand jury that he was authorized by Cheney who was authorized by President Bush to leak intelligence material. The list goes on, but after awhile all that seems to come across is that reality sucks.
I don’t know what Judas did anymore than I wish to see Gibson’s blood-buster The Passion or read Dan Brown’s flip decoding or speculate about the relative merit of raisins over ethereal virgins. At this point two millennia later I don’t really care. To hell with Judas and suicide martyrs. Some things are far more important. A week from now how many more Iraqis will have been blown up and Africans starved to death or outright killed in violent conflict?
Daniel Martin Varisco
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