Purported heroization of Judas
During the 1970s a leather-bound Coptic papyrus was discovered near Beni Masah in Egypt. The codex has four parts: the Letter of Peter to Philip, already known from the Nag Hammadi Library; the First Apocalypse of James, also known from the Nag Hammadi Library; the first few pages of a work related to, but not the same as, the Nag Hammadi work Allogenes; and the Gospel of Judas. About a third of the codex is currently illegible. Since the other three texts were previously known, interest has focused on the last, the Gospel of Judas. This document is not claimed to have been written by Judas himself, but rather by Gnostic followers of Jesus.
After many vicissitudes, this intriguing manuscript came into the possession of the National Geographic Society, which sponsored a 2006 translation of the text (a translation that has proved defective in some respects). The Gospel is an esoteric account of an arrangement between Jesus and Judas, who in this telling are Gnostic enlightened beings, with Jesus asking Judas to turn him in to the Romans in order to allow Jesus finish his appointed task from God.
As has been noted, currently the text is extant in only one manuscript, a late-third or fourth-century Coptic compilation known as the Codex Tchacos, which surfaced in the 1970s, after languishing some sixteen centuries in the desert of Egypt. (Rumors that another version resides in the Vatican Library are unsubstantiated.) The existing manuscript has been dated "between the third and fourth century," according to Timothy Jull, a radiocarbon-dating expert at the University of Arizona's physics centre. That means, of course, that the present text was written some 250 years after the death of Jesus. It is generally assumed that it is the Coptic rendering of a Greek original, but there is no way of determining the date of that.
Some scholars detect a possible clue to the origin of the Greek original in a reference to a “Gospel of Judas” by the early Christian writer Irenaeus of Lyons, who, in arguing against Gnosticism about 180 CE, called the text a "fictitious history" (Refutation of Gnosticism, 1:31). Still, it is not certain that the text Irenaeus mentioned is in fact the same text as the Coptic “Gospel of Judas,” which in its present form must be at least a century later. Thus there remains no solid evidence for an early Greek prototype.
Unlike the four canonical gospels, which employ narrative accounts of the last year of life of Jesus (in the case of John, three years) and of his birth (in the case of Luke and Matthew), the Gospel of Judas takes the form of dialogues between Jesus and Judas, and Jesus and the twelve disciples, without embedding these in any narrative framework or working them into any overt philosophical or rhetorical context. Such "dialogue gospels" were popular during the early decades of Christianity, and indeed the four canonical gospels are the only surviving gospels in narrative form. The New Testament apocrypha contain several examples of the dialogue form, an example being the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.
Owing to poor treatment after its exhumation, today the manuscript is in over a thousand pieces, with many sections missing. For some passages, there are only scattered words; for others, many lines. According to Rodolphe Kasser, the codex originally contained 31 pages, with writing on front and back; when it came to the market in 1999, only 13 pages, with writing on front and back, remained. It is thought that individual pages had been removed and sold.
According to the canonical Gospels of the New Testament, Judas betrayed Jesus to Jerusalem's Temple authorities, who handed Jesus over to the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate for crucifixion. The Gospel of Judas, on the other hand, portrays Judas in a very different light, for the newly recovered text seems to present Judas's act not as betrayal, but rather as an act of obedience to the instructions of Jesus. It seems that Jesus required a second agent to set in motion a course of events which he had planned. In that way Judas acted as a catalyst. The action of Judas, then, constituted a critical juncture, triggering a series of pre-orchestrated events.
This depiction seems to accord with a notion current in some forms of Gnosticism, that the human body is a kind of prison of the spirit. In this view Judas served Christ by helping to release Christ's spirit from its corporeal bondage. The action of Judas allowed him to do that which he could not do directly. The Gospel of Judas does not claim that the other disciples knew Gnostic teachings. In fact, the Gospel implies that Judas was the only one of Jesus’ followers to fully understand the Gnostic teachings: "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."
Moreover, the Gospel of Judas shows Jesus in various instances criticizing the other disciples for their ignorance and their followers of immorality.
When they tell Jesus about a vision, he points out its true meaning as follows: "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 twelve men you have seen. The cattle you saw brought for sacrifice are the many people you lead astray before that altar. (. . .) will stand and make use of my name in this way, and generations of the pious will remain loyal to Him."
The early conclusions stemming from the find have not gone unchallenged. April D. DeConick, a professor of Biblical studies at Rice University, has emerged as a major critic of the translation sponsored by the National Geographic. She maintains that this version is faulty in many substantial respects. Based on a corrected translation, Judas was actually a demon, truly betraying Jesus, rather than following his orders.
Having retranslating the text, DeConick published “The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says” to assert that Judas was not a daimon in the Greek sense, but that "the universally accepted word for “spirit” is “pneuma ” — in Gnostic literature “daimon” is always taken to mean “demon”, as she wrote in The New York Times, 1 December 2007. "Judas is not set apart 'for' the holy generation, as the National Geographic translation says." Instead, DeConick asserted, "he is separated 'from' it." A negative that was dropped from a crucial sentence, an error National Geographic admits, changes the import.. "Were they genuine errors or was something more deliberate going on?" DeConick asked in the Op-Ed page of the Times.
DeConick has stated her views more fully in her monograph, "The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says" (London: Continuum, 2007 [1st ed.]; 2009 [rev. ed.]).
In the first edition of this book, DeConick challenged the idea that the Gospel of Judas presented the traditionally infamous disciple in a favorable light, as the scholars who published the edition sponsored by the National Geographic maintained. DeConick has concluded that the recently recovered gospel was, in fact, “an ancient Gnostic parody.” The publisher’s website quotes her as saying:
“I didn’t find the sublime Judas, at least not in Coptic. What I found were a series of English translation choices made by the National Geographic team, choices that permitted a different Judas to emerge in the English translation than in the Coptic original. Judas was not only not sublime, he was far more demonic than any Judas I know in any other piece of early Christian literature, Gnostic or otherwise.”
For the second edition, DeConick reports in a personal post:
“I revised this book substantially, including two new chapters - one on Judas and astrology (my paper from the Codex Judas Congress) and another on Judas and ancient magic (I cover the magic gem that I think is related to the ideology put forth in the Gospel of Judas). I also have a new preface, covering what has been happening with the Gospel of Judas since its initial release, and I added a section on Thomasine church in the chapter on early Christianity.”
In short, DeConick has clearly established herself as one of the leading proponents of the “Judas as villain” position. The matter is still disputed, but it is no longer possible simply to maintain the hero view--especially since it seems to be based in part on mistranslation and wishful thinking. Thus the purported heroization of Judas seems to have ground to a halt.
Another issue concerns salvation. The first commentators held that the Gospel of Judas teaches that access to the Kingdom will be widely available. Later consideration, however, shows that this boon will be accorded only to a select few.
Stung by these criticisms the National Geographic editors have seen fit to issue a second edition of their version. This text corrects some, but not all the errors.
In an insightful piece, “Betrayal,” just published in The New Yorker (August 3, 2007), Joan Acocella asks why this battered papyrus book should have generated so much excitement. She sees the interest as reflecting a concern about the persistence of evangelical and fundamentalist views. I would go somewhat further. For some time now a group of dissident Christian intellectuals, with Elaine Pagels at their head, has been seeking to construct a kind of Christianity II from the surviving body of material that did not make it into the New Testament. This new (or they would say old) version of Christianity would be tolerant, pluralistic, proerotic, and feminist (perhaps even progay).
A good example of this selectivity is the purported feminism of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. At the end of this text, however, it says that a woman must become a man in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Another instance comes from the Gospel of Judas itself, where Jesus denounces the priests of the Temple for the sins of murder and homosexuality (“lying with males").
In a nutshell, the problem with this hopeful project is that it is a modern fabrication, not a convincing reconstruction of a lost ancient faith. Granted that the orthodox view embodied in the now-canonical Christian scriptures is the result of a process of selection, why would a different selection enjoy any authority? There could be many such creations. The fact that the current amalgam is modern-friendly would seem to count against it, since one of the enduring characteristics of ancient documents is that they are, in many respects, profoundly alien from our own way of thinking.
My sense is that the Gospel of Judas has proved something of a dead end. Still, the figure of Judas continues to fascinate. As Acocella points out, one reason is that he became a focus for Christian anti-Semitism. Acocella also notes a new book by the feminist scholar Susan Gubar, which attempts to trace the evolution of the Judas figure in Western culture. Apparently, “Judas: A Biography” offers some interesting observations about works of art.
Not having read Gubar's book, I cannot say whether her survey includes the following scabrous episode from a late medieval Jewish work, the Toledot Jusu. According to this account, the miracle-working powers of Jesus derive from his having stolen the Name of God from the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus goes to Galilee, where he brings clay birds to life and makes a millstone float. Jesus is thus a sorcerer. Nefariously, Judas Iscariot learns the Divine Name as well, and so Jesus and Judas fly through the sky engaged in aerial combat. As the winner, Judas sodomizes Jesus, whereupon both fall to the ground. The now powerless Jesus is arrested and put to death by being hung upon a carob tree, and buried.
The past yields many curious relics. A passage from Gubar’s book reveals the far shores onto which this kind of speculation can lead, even in these latter days:
“A male Eve, Judas—rejecting or accepting, promoting or curtailing Jesus’ potency—inhabits a decidedly queer place in the Western imaginary. To the extent that Judas stands for the poser or passer—a person who is not what he seems to be—he reflects anxieties about all sorts of banned or ostracized groups, not just Jews. An apostle in an all-male circle, associated with anality and with the disclosure of secrets, Judas retains his masculinity. . . . 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.”