The Judas Gospel

BY: A.R. Schaffer

© 2006

 

 

        The recent translation of the Gospel of Judas is an exciting revelation in the history in the development of the Christian faith. In actually reading the Gospel itself, there is too much missing text from document to get a complete idea of what its author was actually trying to say for it is obvious that the depth of the manuscript goes far beyond the innocence of Judas. What is obvious, is this early Christian sect held far different beliefs from the dogmas and theologies of today, and that tells us that Jesus was far more complex and thought provoking than the pictures we have of him today.  Christianity in its early years, despite being closer to the time of Jesus, was even more diverse in its thought than it has become in this present age. This is a clear indication that Jesus’ teachings were not as clear and concise as many of our Christian ministers declare them to be today.  One might say with a degree of certainty that the writings about Jesus for the first two centuries reflect more the perception of the authors than the facts surrounding this unique individual, and this probably applies to what are accepted writings as well as what is not.  The religious interpretation of the life of Jesus and the spiritual interpretations of his teachings are often the view of the interpreters, not necessarily the intent of Jesus. Over the centuries the writings accepted by the faithful express the agendas of those who accepted them. 

     The orthodox believers of that period seen the Gnostics as heretics and the Gnostics seen the orthodox as unenlightened or blinded to the truth.  The orthodox believers eventually gaining the power of the state behind them in the rule of Constantine won the battle of ideas and effectively wiped out the Gnostic concepts, setting the tone for how Jesus is viewed overall today. The major difference between these two groups (diverse even within themselves in their early concepts) was in one’s relationship with God and pursuit of holiness or salvation.  The orthodox perceived such a journey through Christ and his ministers (an institutional church with clergy) as mediators with the Divine; whereas, the Gnostic approach was a personal journey thorough the Divine within (more mystical in nature).   The Orthodox eventually came to agree upon the concept that the crucifixion was the source of our Redemption, where as the Gnostics seem to conclude that the emulation of Jesus was the road to perfection.  While it is much more complex than this rather simple definition, it would be safe to say that these approaches rooted the diverse and complex faiths evolving within the two groups.

     This relatively newly translated Gospel, added to those which have been discovered in the past 50 years, demonstrates the diverse thoughts which existed about this man from Nazareth in the first and second century after his death.  If nothing else it should serve to remind us that beliefs are evolving concepts and not the clear and concise revelation of absolute truths as so often portrayed by theologians and clergy. 

 

   Much of the controversy surrounding this newly translated text has to do with the idea that Judas was carrying out the instructions of Jesus in the betrayal at Gethsemane.  In many respects one might question ‘Why’ traditional theologians would be so shocked by the idea that Judas was doing what Jesus wanted him to do in the betrayal.  Their own theology teaches that the salvation of mankind was achieved in the crucifixion.  According to their own teachings, this salvation plan was put in place after the sin of Adam and prophesized repeatedly in the Old Testament.  Thus, it would only logically follow that if this plan was preordained in some way since the time of Adam, Judas was only carrying out the will of God ---  as well as the Jews and Romans in crucifying Jesus.  If one were to follow this line of thinking with the crucifixion event a preordained salvation plan; those involved would have little control over their involvement.

       Contrary to many of the traditionalists’ arguments, the four Gospels do not rule out the possibility that Jesus knew and approved of Judas’ mission.  If one reads those Gospels it is evident that Jesus knew he was going to be betrayed and by whom.  And, at least in one canonical gospel during the last supper Jesus tells Judas, “Do quickly what you have to do.” ( John 13:28). As far as the lines in the gospels that proclaim about the betrayer, “…it would be better that that man would have never been born”: Jesus might have been referring to the awful disgrace history would eventually cast upon that man we know as Judas.

       Of course this is all speculation for all the accounts of that week are somewhat differing.  And, if we are to adhere to Jesus’ teachings, none of us have he right to sit in judgment of Judas to begin with.  So why such a stink?  That has to do with challenging what has been taught and accepted for years.  Here we have a group of Christians who seen Judas in a differing light who wrote a manuscript that questions accepted views.  True absolutists would never entertain the idea that they might be in error in their pronouncements no matter what the evidence for that may lead to doubt among their followers about their ability to speak for God.  Keep in mind that there are literalists who proclaim the earth is six thousand years old and that mankind walked with the dinosaur despite all the science which challenges such a fact.  

    One of the awful consequences of casting Judas in this “Christ betraying role” was it put Jesus’ execution directly in the hands of a Jew who conspired with Jewish leaders to have him crucified.  Much of the persecution of the Jewish people has been justified in its time under the rationalization that they were responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion.  The cry to the Romans ‘his blood be upon us and our children’ (Matt 27:25)  became a justification for terrible atrocities against an entire people.  In Nazi Germany Jews were often referred to as Christ killers!  If for no other reason, responsible Christian theology should not be to harsh on this newly discovered Gospel’s assertion that Judas was faithful to Jesus and doing what his master instructed.  Surely there is no harm in taking such a position and giving Judas the benefit of a doubt.  After all, Jesus forgave those who nailed him to the cross from the cross. 

     But there is another threat to established religions in giving any credibility to any ideas expressed in this, or any other  gospel;  it comes from the  content of those rejected works.   While fragmented and missing large blocks of text, it is clear that the author is attacking some of the orthodox views of that period.  And in light of some of the darker periods of Christian history like the Crusade, Inquisition and some of the scandals regarding a few of the clergy today; to some it might almost be prophetic.  For traditionalists to even consider the possible integrity of such work would bring about possible questions to the credibility of their absolutism.  The sad part about this scenario is that any ancient work that may challenge existing theology would be discredited no matter how inspired such a manuscript would be.  Single mindedness is not a quality when it comes to approaching the inspiration or the Nature of God.     

 

 

   So what might an Eclectic Perspective be toward this Gospel as well as other newly discovered documents past and future.  First off such documents give us tremendous insight into the minds of the people during the formation of our religious heritage and the diversity of thought that existed in the period. Understanding the complexities of history is an asset to any social order.    But perhaps one of the better observations about these types of manuscript come from Rodolphe Kasser  one of the translators of the document in an interview with Swissinfo:

   

     “As an archaeologist, the one thing I really find regrettable is when archaeological objects,

      which are always a source of information, are destroyed without being examined.  It’s like

      having a witness that no one wants to listen to.  Even if there is a strong possibility that

      the witness is a liar you have to give them a chance to speak.  And now Judas has been given

      opportunity.                   (Swissinfo-interview:  Adam Beaumont in Geneva April 22,2006)          

 

We cannot ignore the past for it happened.  Writings such as these have a direct bearing on what is believed today in that some of the articles of faith held today are pronouncements made as oppositional statements to writings such as these.

 

     There is yet another angle which comes to mind in all the talk about Judas which this manuscript has stirred. Maybe it should cause us to pause and reflect about the betrayal of the message of Jesus.  One hears so many Christians today calling for revenge upon our enemies, the death penalty, all sorts of judgments about the lifestyles of others, encouraging the cutting of social programs, the condemnations of other people’s religious faiths, calls to battle with preemptive wars: it seems hard to justify such talk in the Name of an individual who commanded us to love one another as he loved us, who told us not to judge, who proclaimed feeding the hungry as a prerequisite to enter the kingdom of God, whose birth was announced by the words “peace on Earth!”.

     Given the state of our society today, the politics and actions of leaders who claim to be Christians and saved by Jesus, the exploitation of human beings by market forces: there seems to be a complete betrayal of the message Jesus preached.  Perhaps writings such as these could help us to find a fuller understanding of Jesus’ message to human kind.  The self salvation message has become so entrenched in our religious thinking we have lost sight of the primacy of Jesus’ message of LOVE!

    Ultimately it is God who judges the actions of Judas, not Pope Benedict, the theologians, evangelists or you and I.  A question more relevant to our lives might be: ‘are we betraying what we profess to believe?’  Hypocrisy is a betrayal to the self, one of the most mentioned faults by Jesus in the traditional Gospels.  Love and compassion were the essence of Jesus’ life and teaching, to claim faith in him and not overtly express these virtues is a betrayal to what he stood for.        

 

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 Link to PDF copy of the The Gospel of Judas from National Geographic