Judas Iscariot Superstar
The media is properly all
aflutter with news of the Eastertide publication of the ancient Gospel
of Judas by the National Geographic Society. Usually I find media
coverage of scholarly religious issues so inept, so biased toward what
the Nielsen Ratings tell them people want to hear, that I cannot bear to
view it. But this time they got the emphasis exactly right. They raised
the question, what if we have to revise our centuries-old opinion of
Judas Iscariot as a despicable traitor to the greatest man who ever
lived? It was a sensationalist approach. But it was the right approach.
Scholars had known of the
existence of a Gospel of Judas for most of Christian history. Bishop
Irenaeus of Lyons, Gaul (France), discussed and condemned the text back
in 180 CE in his massive treatise Against Heresies. From his
account we knew that the Cainite Gnostics circulated this text (and
presumably wrote it), and that it set forth their belief that Jesus had
conspired with Judas, asking him to turn him over to those who would
crucify him. His death was a saving act, not least for him, as it would
extricate him from the imprisonment of the incarnation, setting his
spirit free. Thus, Judas was being recruited for a holy, even a priestly
mission. If this depiction of Judas sounds familiar to you, it may be
that you remember it from either the book or the film version of The
Last Temptation of Christ. When you think about it, it is a little
strange that Christians believe the crucifixion was a wonderful deed of
salvation and yet vilify the chosen instrument of divine providence that
brought it about: Judas Iscariot. Well, it turns out there were some
Christians who were a little more consistent.
Saint Irenaeus discussed
various other “heretical” gospels and revelations that we couldn’t read
for ourselves—until 1945, when the Nag Hammadi library was discovered.
Among the manuscripts were the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Truth,
and the Secret Book of John. The last of these Irenaeus had discussed at
some length, and it was now seen that he had been very accurate. And he
was right on target with the Gospel of Judas, too. It was discovered
thirty years after the Nag Hammadi texts, also in the sands of Egypt.
What’s New, Iscariot?
The TV anchors posed the
question: do we have new evidence about Judas? It was as if they were
discussing new revelations in the ongoing case of Natalee Holloway.
Well, no we don’t. And on this point all the interviewed scholars
rightly agreed. One TV pundit said that the portrait of Judas in the new
gospel is “a product of second-century religious fantasy.” As soon as he
said it, I thought, “You mean—just like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?”
The astonishing fact is that Saint Irenaeus provides us not only our
earliest mention of the Gospel of Judas. Irenaeus is also the first
writer to list our conventional four gospels! He quotes an earlier
bishop, Papias of Hierapolis (writing about 125) as describing the
origins of Matthew and Mark, but it is by no means clear it is our two
gospels Papias was talking about. Irenaeus is the first to mention
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. So they too must have been written before
180 CE. But how much before? There are no clear quotations from them in
earlier writers, much less citations by name. Personally, I favor a
second-century date for all four canonical gospels. And what they tell
us about Judas (and Jesus!) is liable to be just as fictive as the new
At first, it seems that the
story of Jesus’ arrest and death did not feature a Judas character. It
began with the simple assertion that Jesus “delivered up” or “handed
over” (Romans 8:32) for our sins. Who did this deed? God the Father,
that’s who! You see, the Greek word paradidomai can mean “yielded
up” or “betrayed,” depending on the context. In 1 Corinthians 11:23,
Paul speaks of the Last Supper, which took place on “the night he was
betrayed” or “delivered up.” There is no way to know whether the
intended agent is God or some malicious human being. Up to this point
there seems to have been no detailed story of how and why Jesus died, or
under what circumstances. The epistles speak of Jesus’ death at the
hands of invisible, angelic powers (1 Corinthians 2:8; Colossians
2:13-15), with nothing to say about the involvement of the Jewish
Sanhedrin, Herod Antipas, or Pontius Pilate. Mark was the first to try
to tell a coherent story of the death of Jesus, and he cobbled together
material from Psalm 22 to make his crucifixion account. So he had to ask
himself, precisely how is Jesus going to go from the friendly
surroundings of supporters and disciples to the clutches of enemies who
will crucify him?
The easiest recourse was to
incarnate the plot development as a single character existing only to
“do the job.” He is what Tzvetan Todorov calls a “narrative-man.” Such
“characters” are scarcely characters at all, more like narrative
functions come to life. They are often given punning names to signal
their sheer utility. In this case, the betrayer is “Judas,” a Jew, or
rather, the Jew. And he is named Iscariot, or “Man of Falsehood.”
That Judas is a single-use
literary tool is evident from two facts. First, no narrative motivation
is ascribed to him in Mark’s account, where it is simply stated that he
went to the Sanhedrin and offered them Jesus. Matthew thought this odd,
so he rewrote the scene to suggest that Judas approached the council
with money on his mind. John liked that and kept it, but he also picked
up Luke’s attempt to improve Mark, having Judas possessed by Satan to do
the dirty deed.
Second, he does not fit
into the narrative. Why do the enemies of Jesus need Judas? He
guides them to the Garden, but anyone could have shadowed a prominent
group like Jesus’ entourage. He tells the arresting party that he will
point out the man they want. But they are there to seize him on account
of his dangerous popularity! How could they not know which one he was?
“Hey, which of you guys is Elvis?” Judas has been clumsily shoe-horned
into the story. Why does he betray? Because he is the betrayer. How does
he betray? By being on the scene.
Other Judas Gospels
What would have been the
point of composing a “Gospel of Judas”? Basically, it is the same as
Friedrich Nietzsche writing a book called The Antichrist,
starring himself. It signals an attempt to parry the truth claims of
orthodox, “apostolic” Christianity. A Judas evangel is not intended as a
parallel alternative to Christianity, like Buddhism or Islam, but rather
a counterpoint within the Christian tradition. It is to announce
a transvaluation of the values of traditional Christianity, seizing the
higher moral ground to attack it. This is certainly the purpose of at
least two twentieth-century fictions with similar titles.
Ernest Sutherland Bates’s
1929 book, The Gospel according to Judas Iscariot is a remarkable
volume. Bates’s evangelist Judas disdains the Hebrew God Jehovah in a
fashion quite reminiscent of Nag Hammadi Gnosticism, not to mention
Nietzsche. But his alternative is simply to seek knowledge and to
realize one’s solidarity with all humanity. The life within us is the
only “God” we need. In the Gospel according to Judas Iscariot
Jesus first allies himself with Judas and shares his enlightened views.
Satan appears to Jesus, but he withstands his temptations. But he is not
so stolid when Jehovah shows up to tempt him! To Judas’ shock and
disgust, Jesus accepts Jehovah’s offer to sell out to him, becoming his
Son and preaching his soul-destroying gospel of Christian priestcraft.
The scene recalls that in It’s a Wonderful Life when Mr. Potter
tries and nearly succeeds in buying off George Bailey, only Jesus does
not see through it.
The same year Bates’s book
was published, Peter Van Greenaway was born. He grew up to write
numerous novels, including the 1972 thriller The Judas Gospel. It
focused on the discovery of a Gospel of Judas. Seems that Judas had
written to vindicate himself in the eyes of future generations, spilling
the beans that it was actually Simon Peter who betrayed Jesus to the
authorities, then framed Judas for it. The novel is a fast-paced
espionage adventure, and its larger message is to depict the Roman
Catholic Church as a hypocritical institution founded on self-serving,
butt-covering lies, and continuing to employ them whenever necessary.
The book does not try to peddle some alternative version of Christianity
as Dan Brown does in The Da Vinci Code, but it does mirror the
anti-Catholicism of which Brown’s book is accused. (If you have read it,
you know the criticism turns out to be unjustified; things are different
from their initial appearance.) Here again is the Gnostic motif that the
greatest, most hated secret of Christianity is a truth that, if known,
would debunk it. If Jesus was the Lamb of God, Judas was the Scapegoat.
Before the surprise
discovery of the ancient Gospel of Judas, one scholar thought it more
likely that the bishop of Lyons misunderstood a reference to the Nag
Hammadi Gospel of Thomas, in which Thomas is actually called “Judas
Thomas” (common in Syrian church tradition). Thus no separate “Gospel of
Judas.” He was wrong. But there may be an element of truth in his
conjecture. Some think that there was after all a historical Judas, or
rather that the apostle Judas Thomas was later vilified and caricatured
as “Judas the Betrayer,” perhaps for theological reasons. Gregory J.
Riley (Resurrection Reconsidered: Thomas and John in Controversy,
1995) argues that Thomas was associated with numerous doctrines at which
the Gospel of John takes aim, which is why John portrays Thomas as a
doubter, a fatalist, etc. (Elaine Pagels warms over the same thesis,
without crediting Riley, in her Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of
Thomas, 2003.) The Gospel of Thomas does indeed feature a scene much
like one in the new Gospel of Judas.
Jesus says to his
disciples, "Compare me and tell me what I am like." Simon Peter says to
him, "You are like a righteous angel." Matthew says to him, "You are
like a philosopher possessed of understanding." Thomas says to him,
"Master, my mouth can scarcely frame the words of what you are like!"
Jesus says, "I am not your master, because you have drunk, you have
become filled, from the bubbling spring which I have measured out." He
took him aside privately and said three things to him. So when Thomas
rejoined his companions, they pressed him, saying, "What did Jesus say
to you?" Thomas said to them, "If I tell you even one of the things he
said to me, you will pick up stones and hurl them at me--and fire will
erupt from the stones and consume you!" (Gospel of Thomas, saying 13)
Knowing that Judas was
reflecting upon something that was exalted, Jesus said to him, “Step
away from the others, and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom.
It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal.
For someone else will replace you, in order that the twelve disciples
may again come to completion with their god.” (Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin
Meyer, and Greg Wurst, eds., The Gospel of Judas, p. 23)
The scenes have much in
common, suggesting that they might be two versions of the same original.
In both, Judas/Thomas is singled out among the twelve and physically
removed from them for Jesus to confide elite teachings. The eventual
reaction of the eleven is excommunication. The Gospel of Thomas
anticipates that the eleven would seek to execute Judas Thomas for
heresy if they heard his doctrine, so shocking would they find it. The
Gospel of Judas plainly predicts Judas Iscariot’s expulsion and
replacement (as in Acts 1:16-26) in the council of the twelve. And in
both cases the reason is the shocking nature of his teachings, an
advanced course from Jesus the revealer. Such was his infamy: Orwellian
The secret orthodox
Christianity fears the most is the truth that would expose its dogmas as
infantile. The Gnostics wanted to put away childish things, no matter
what became of conventional belief as a result. As Nietzsche said,
“faith is not wanting to know the truth,” and Gnostics, who took Judas
for their symbol, were glad to sacrifice faith to gain knowledge. Judas’
“gospel” symbolizes whatever that higher knowledge is that discredits
Christianity while allowing its knower to transcend it.
By Robert M.