The Laughing Jesus

I’ve been reading The Gospel of Judas. It’s one of the different narratives about Jesus that the early church disliked and discarded. Irenaeus, who lived in the 2’nd century, mentions the book in his long diatribe against false teachings, but it had never been found until showing up in the hands of an Egyptian antiquities dealer, who purchased the gospel from tomb robbers in the late 1970s. Since the dealer was demanding such a high purchase price, the book languished in his apartment in a cardboard box, was stolen, recovered, taken apart to sell a few pages, briefly loaned to a scholar or two, until finally being obtained, preserved, and translated in 2004.

The manuscript appears have been written in the mid-3’rd century, a copy of the original gospel written in the mid-2’nd century, which was scripture for a group of Christians with unorthodox views. To these believers, Judas was Jesus’ main man and the only disciple who understood him. Tired of dealing with a messed up world and ignorant humans, Jesus asks Judas to turn him in to the authorities so they will kill him and free his spirit from its bodily prison. “You will sacrifice the man that clothes me,” Jesus tells Judas. Then he can return to heaven, which is apparently a much nicer place.

Before going, Jesus predicts the other disciples will hate Judas, say nasty things about him, and then replace him as part of the Twelve, but not to worry. According to Jesus, Judas is the only one of the sorry bunch who will get into heaven.

It’s like having the story about Jesus take place in an alternate universe. Jesus talks about multiple spirit worlds, and multiple deities called aeons, and arch-angels, and servant angels. In fact, this world and most of its inhabitants aren’t made by the true God, the Father of Jesus, but by an inferior god named Nebro, sort of a god-wannabe, which is why it’s such a brutal place. This creator god, lauded by the Old Testament, isn’t any good as an architect or a contractor, and traps people in a cosmic ghetto, like a semi-divine slum lord.

After revealing the truth to Judas, Jesus can’t wait to get out. He’s spent the last thirty years living in the equivalent of a leaky trailer and driving a used Oldsmobile, all while knowing a penthouse and Lamborghini are waiting in heaven. The last thing he wants is to be resurrected; only a masochist would desire another body. Mission completed, he’s going straight to the perfect world of his Father, what he calls the immortal realm of Barbelo, away from the world of stink, pain, corruption, and reality television produced by the incompetent Nebro.

The gospel spins quite a tale, turning the official version of Jesus on its head. But perhaps most striking, as you read the story, is how often Jesus laughs. The variant theology and cosmic vision comes across as pretty esoteric, but Christ’s frequent laughter hits a much more personal note. The first time I read, “Jesus laughed,” I smiled, and realized how much I missed even a hint of levity in the traditional gospels. Couldn’t Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have shown Jesus breaking into a grin at least once?

In the entire New Testament, the word “laugh” only occurs twice, where Jesus pronounces woe on people who laugh now, and blesses people who weep now. The word “laughed” occurs in one story of people snickering at Jesus because they thought he was nuts. And, perhaps most telling, the word “laughter” occurs once, in the Letter of James, where Christians are admonished to turn their laughter into grief and mourning. Paul even forbids believers from engaging in what he calls silly talk and joking around. In comparison to the Gospel of Judas, orthodox Christianity comes across as suffering from a fatal case of terminal seriousness. It’s no wonder groups of early Christians wanted some other books to choose from.

This legacy of deadly sobriety has worked its way through Christian history, suppressing jollity in particular and pleasure in general. As leader of the theocracy in Geneva, John Calvin imprisoned a man three days for smiling during a baptism. The Puritans, Calvin’s spiritual ancestors, prohibited the same during the Sabbath. Deborah Bangs paid a fine of five shillings in 1755 for “Larfing in the Wareham Meeting House in time of Public Worship.” Similarly, Jonah and Susan Smith were fined five shillings and court costs for exhibiting a smile on the Lord’s Day.

American Christians, the spiritual ancestors of the Puritans, carry on the heritage in a variety of ways. There are churches that forbid dancing, rock music, movies, drinking, card games, masturbation, gambling and other “vices.” But mostly it is found in Christianity’s tedious self-importance, as God’s sole guardians of morality and salvation for the world. Who has time for such trivial pursuits when you’re saving humanity?

Now, it must be said, Jesus’ laughter in the Gospel of Judas is mostly because of his followers. Their chronic misunderstanding generates quite a bit of amusement. In one episode, the disciples are saying a prayer before eating and Jesus giggles. The disciples get angry, demanding to know why Jesus is laughing at them, since they are simply doing what God wants. Jesus says he isn’t laughing at them, but at their cluelessness about the God they claim to know.

At first, Jesus sounds sort of mean. But, when you think about it, when you think about the mind of Jesus compared to the rest of us, when you think about all he knew and all we don’t, laughter was probably a healthy way of keeping his sanity. A laughing Jesus may be the most truthful part of the Gospel of Judas, and the most incisive critique of the self-appointed forces of orthodoxy, who soon banished and suppressed the groups whose ideas they disliked, including the people who wrote this gospel. Despite finding their book, we still don’t know who they were or even what they called themselves. All records of them were blotted out.

Before any of us think we know God, or want to enforce on others what we think God desires, or want to think of ourselves as holding preference in God’s sight, or use God as an excuse to quash experiences of pleasure and frivolity, remember the laughing Jesus. He’s probably up there in the realm of Barbelo, still laughing, until it hurts.

About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

3 Responses to “The Laughing Jesus”

  1. Reply June 23, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    As always your script presents thoughtful insight. I can see jesus laughing at our continual inability to actually grasp the “GOD” we all claim to know so well. Thank you for the post. Helen “Kate” White

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. I’m not sure what to think of this, it really does seem to turn the New Testament upside down and I really want to believe there is a heaven to go to when I leave this life. It really is a puzzle!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Reading the Gnostic scriptures is such a great antidote to the mainstream Christianity “package” most of us have known. The human ego is a joyless taskmaster. But true spirituality is true joy!

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