‘Good Judas’ idea provocative, but a tough sell

Early manuscript a hot topic in area’s churches for Holy Week

It’s going to take more than the translation of an old Coptic papyrus to rehabilitate the image of Judas Iscariot.

The archetypal villain known for betraying Jesus for 30 pieces of silver holds a special place in the ninth circle of hell in Dante’s “Inferno.” He is the one apostle who has salt spilled on the table in front of him, signifying bad luck, in Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” He has inspired lyrics for everyone from Bob Dylan to Iron Maiden.

Bay Area clergy said Friday that a newly released document dating to the year 300 and portraying Judas as Jesus’ best friend will do little to turn the Bible’s notorious apostle into a benevolent figure. But it will likely be a topic of discussion during Holy Week, which begins today.

“I think it’s much ado about not exactly nothing but much ado about not much at all,” said the Rev. Jim Bretzke, chairman of the theology department at the University of San Francisco.

“It’s well known that in the time of the early church, there were a number of different accounts of the life of Jesus,” Bretzke said. “The church decided that some of those accounts were truly inspired by God. Those are the Gospels we have in the New Testament. Not every letter was included. So, this is another example of what we call an extracanonical account.”

The early Christian manuscript, long hidden in the Egyptian desert and only recently restored, is known as the Gospel of Judas. It was made public Thursday by the National Geographic Society. While the story of a “good Judas” is not new, the release of the document is expected to spark debate over Judas’ role in the Crucifixion.

The document gives Judas star billing as Jesus’ confidant, contrary to his portrayal in the four canonical Gospels. The early Christian Church denounced such an account as heresy.

“I do plan on speaking to this issue in the days to come,” said the Rev. John Talesfore of St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco. “I think it will probably stimulate people’s interest this week as we look at the passion of Christ. But the early Christian community did not recognize this as something that was meaningful.”

The Rev. John Malloy, head of SS Peter and Paul’s Church in North Beach, said the message of Judas is a message for the ages.

“He was a good guy who turned bad and didn’t repent, and in the end went and hanged himself,” Malloy said. “I do not believe he was doing God’s will.”

The idea of the good Judas comes from Gnosticism, a doctrine that holds him to be an enlightened apostle who helped facilitate the redemption of mankind.

The Rev. Cecil Williams, head of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, said he is always open to new discussions of biblical text. He welcomes a debate on the role of Judas.

“I still hold fast to my belief that Judas was more on the side of not supporting Jesus,” Williams said. “I can’t conceive of Jesus setting up his own death. In a way, it would be playing tricks. I don’t see that with Jesus. But I do think this is the right time to have this dialogue.”

The Rev. Alan Jones, dean of Grace Cathedral on San Francisco’s Nob Hill, believes it’s always good to have another voice from the past. But he doesn’t anticipate the screed will make a difference in day-to-day faith.

“This doesn’t make a difference to me as a Christian,” Jones said. “The faith question is more about why you get up in the morning.”

Still, he said he is interested in the Gospel of Judas as another piece in a fascinating puzzle.

“There are people who are literalists who will say this proves this or that,” Jones said. “To me, it proves nothing. It proves that someone wrote a manuscript. It was written more than a century after Jesus and Judas died. Why was it written, and what did the person want to say? Those are interesting questions without easy answers. Religion, like history, is untidy.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
San Francisco Chronicle, USA
Apr. 9, 2006
Julian Guthrie, Chronicle Staff Writer

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday April 10, 2006.
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