The ‘good news’ of Judas: Are the contents of this treasure the gospel truth?

Given that the old Greek word behind the English term “gospel” means “good news,” you have to wonder whether the much-touted and recently published Gospel of Judas really qualifies as either.

Assuming that you didn’t give up the media for Lent – which, come think of it … oh, never mind – you could hardly have avoided this month’s announcement about the latest addition to the religious history files.

To make a long story short: The Gospel of Judas is part of an ancient manuscript (known as Codex Tchacos, for you archaeology wonks out there) that apparently was unearthed in the late 1970s in Egypt. After a lengthy trip through the sometimes shadowy realm of the antiquities trade, it came to rest about five years ago at the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Basel, Switzerland.

Since then, the badly damaged pages have been in the process of restoration, translation and publication – this last in the form of a little volume titled “The Gospel of Judas,” courtesy of the National Geographic Society.

In this revised-and-not-so-standard version of the story, Judas is not the archetypal villain who betrays his master to enemies under the influence of greed and dark powers. Instead, Judas does Jesus a favor by handing him over; indeed, he basically takes the place of John, traditionally the “beloved disciple.”

“Step away from the others,” Jesus tells Judas, “and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom.”

Many students of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John might tell you that the apostles were often (at least in hindsight) not the sharpest knives in the drawer when it came to what Jesus was about, but in the Gospel of Judas, they aren’t even worshiping the right deity. When they report seeing priests guilty of “a multitude of sins and deeds of lawlessness,” Jesus says: “Those you have seen receiving the offerings at the altar – that is who you are. That is the god you serve, and you are those 12 men you have seen.”

In contrast, he later says to Judas: “But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”

Don’t feel bad if that last phrase elicits a “Huh?” In this theological world, the Crucifixion did not serve as a sacrifice for others’ sins but as an escape route from our nasty physical world.

Which brings us to the question: Is the Gospel of Judas “good” and “news”? Well, yes – and arguably no.

In one sense, this document is huge news: It apparently is the same text, vanished until now, that the second-century Christian author Irenaeus mentioned in his criticism of a sect of gnostics, the New Agers of his day.

“And Judas the betrayer was thoroughly acquainted with these things, they say,” Irenaeus wrote in a passage quoted in the National Geographic book; “and he alone was acquainted with the truth as no others were, and so accomplished the mystery of the betrayal. … And they bring forth a fabricated work to this effect, which they entitle the Gospel of Judas.”

In Herbert Krosney’s “The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot,” Swiss translator Rodolphe Kasser says: “The importance of this text is that it is not only a new manuscript, but an entirely new kind of document. … We previously had only what the church forefathers were saying about the gnostics, but rarely the texts the gnostics wrote themselves. Now we can understand the nuances of what the forefathers said by using the gnostic texts.”

In terms of its presentation of its namesake as hero rather than goat, the Gospel of Judas is indeed something new and interesting. But in its presentation of an arcane gnostic cosmology – “The twelve aeons of the twelve luminaries constitute their father, with six heavens for each aeon, so that there are seventy-two heavens for the seventy-two luminaries” – it seems to be old hat for scholars. In an essay in “The Gospel of Judas,” co-editor Marvin Meyer indicates that the content is typical of what’s known in the trade as “Sethian” gnosticism.

You could be forgiven, then, for thinking (like a weary cop listening to an all-too-familiar tale): “Yah, yah – we’ve heard it before.”

So if the Gospel of Judas is not entirely news, is it “good”? True, it provides a touchstone for what certain people believed 150 or 200 years after Christ’s death, but does it record the “real” story – one that was unjustly erased by heavy-handed religious figures – of Judas, Jesus and the early faith?

Maybe not.

In the book “Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew,” North Carolina scholar Bart D. Ehrman – who provided commentary for both Krosney’s book and “The Gospel of Judas” – notes the diversity of theological talking heads in ancient times: “In the second and third centuries there were, of course, Christians who believed in one God. But there were others who insisted that there were two. Some said there were thirty. Others claimed there were 365.”

But one can argue on a couple of grounds that the biblical accounts have the edge here. Ehrman himself says in “The Lost Gospel“: “The first (canonical) Gospel to be written was that of Mark, from about 65 or 70 CE (35-40 years after the death of Jesus).” Matthew, he says, came “somewhat later (80-85 CE).”

And if the apostle Paul was writing his epistles in the years 49-62 (as per a time line in Krosney’s book), that would tend to place the writing of Acts (which ends with Paul still alive) and the Gospel of Luke (traditionally ascribed to the same author) in the same historical ballpark.

In contrast, Meyer says that the Gospel of Judas probably was “composed around the middle of the second century, most likely on the basis of earlier ideas and sources.” In other words, the historical gap between events and writing is about two or three times that of some of the biblical material.

(For an informative take on this entire discussion, try Philip Jenkins’ 2001 book “Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way“.)

And in addition to the matter of eras is that of ideas. “Jesus was a Jew living in Palestine,” Ehrman notes in “The Gospel of Judas,” “and like all Palestinian Jews, he accepted the authority of the Jewish Scriptures. … Jesus presented himself as an authoritative interpreter of these Scriptures and was known to his followers as a great rabbi (teacher).”

If so, given a theology that repudiates the God of the Torah as an inferior deity who created a hellhole of a world – the view of Gnosticism – and a theology that affirms and builds on the Jewish Scriptures, which is more likely to record what the historical Jesus actually taught?

“But there are also many other things which Jesus did,” said the author of the Gospel of John (Revised Standard Version); “were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

Something tells me that the Gospel of Judas wasn’t exactly what the biblical writer had in mind.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Star-Telegram, via The News-Sentinel, USA
Apr. 26, 2006
Alan Cochrum

Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday April 26, 2006.
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