The New Yorker's Joan Acocella writes elegantly. Her recent article on Michael Jackson as a dancer was one of the finest non-mawkish reflections that followed Jackson's sudden death early this month. Acocella brings a similar focus to "Betrayal: Should we hate Judas Iscariot?" -- which, despite its loaded subtitle, is a wry summary of efforts to rehabilitate Judas into Jesus' friend, a catalyst to Jesus' Gnostic salvation or, most predictably transgressive, Jesus' gay lover.
She is toughest on Susan Gubar, Distinguished Professor of English and Women's Studies at Indiana University and author of Judas: A Biography. Acocella quotes this passage from Gubar's work:
At other times and in diverse contexts, though, Judas represents a range of quite various and variously stigmatized populations -- criminals, heretics, foreigners, Africans, dissidents, the disabled, the suicidal, the insane, the incurably ill, the agnostic. Members of these groups, too, have been faulted for posing or passing as (alien) insiders. Potentially convertible, all such outcasts might be thought to be using camouflaging techniques to infiltrate, hide out, assimilate, and thereby turn a treacherous trick.
Then she pounces:
Really? The incurably ill are turning tricks? Good for them!
This is shocking nonsense -- argument by incantation -- but its import is clear: Judas represents all the oppressed, and Gubar is there to defend them.
Fun as that is, I'm concerned about how Acocella treats Bart D. Ehrman and his book The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot. Acocella depicts Ehrman, who has described himself as a happy agnostic and no believer that there is any afterlife, as somehow tormented by the thought that few people go to heaven:
"The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed" (2006), by Bart D. Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, came out too early to have to deal with the National Geographic team's second thoughts, but Ehrman, in his writings on the gospel, obviously did worry about the statement that just about nobody would be saved. He claims it's not true that Jesus said that; then he says it's true; then he says it's not true -- all on a single page. But never mind, he concludes: "Some of us have a spark of the divine within, and when we die, we will burst forth from the prisons of our bodies and return to our heavenly home ... to live glorious and exalted lives forever." I like that quiet "some." Maybe not most of us, maybe not you or me, but some of us.
Visit Amazon.com and search Ehrman's book for the phrase "spark of the divine." Then the context becomes clear: Ehrman is explaining what one school of Gnostics believed and not what he hopes is true.
Acocella's closing paragraph sets up a strawman of a fundamentalism in which "every word of a religion's founding document should be taken literally," but she finds her way toward a sensible conclusion that "The answer is not to fix the Bible but to fix ourselves."
Acocella's treatment of both Ehrman and fundamentalists leaves me wondering whether there may be more to Susan Gubar's work than this essay would lead readers to believe.