The following is excerpted from the book Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery, a companion to the hit CNN Original Series of the same name that airs its third episode – investigating the historical and theological authenticity of what archaeologists have dubbed the Gospel of Judas – this Sunday at 9 p.m. EDT/PDT.
If believers and skeptics alike know one thing about the New Testament – apart from Jesus’ birth in a manger (Christmas) and death on a cross (Easter) – it’s that Judas is the apostle who betrayed Christ and consigned him to a brutal death by crucifixion.
All four Gospels tell the story, with varying details, recounting how Judas took 30 pieces of silver as the price for turning Jesus over to the authorities after the Last Supper. He then betrayed him with a kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane to seal his infamy, and went out and hanged himself in remorse, an acknowledgement of the guilt that would never be erased.
For centuries it continued thus for Judas. Then, at Easter 2006, came an announcement that made headlines around the world. Judas, it turns out, had his own gospel. So what was this “gospel,” this revolutionary account of the “good news” of Jesus Christ, and what did it say?
The text was written on the front and back of 13 sheets of crumbling papyrus. The writing was in ancient Coptic, composed sometime in the third century, experts said. It was part of the Gnostic school of early Christian thought, those strange texts that died out, or were suppressed by the early church, by the third or fourth century.
The Gospel of Judas is a spiritual manifesto in which Jesus tells Judas to “follow his star” to find salvation. In it, Jesus refers to the other disciples and tells Judas, “But you will exceed all of them, for you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” In other words, rather than turning Jesus over to a fate that would cause him terrible agony, Judas is actually doing Jesus a favor. He is helping kill the body that “clothes” Jesus to enable “the liberation of the spiritual person within.” Indeed, Judas is not only a hero but a victim, his gospel “mercilessly doomed to destruction,” according to Rodolphe Kasser, the Swiss scholar who for years worked in secret to restore and translate the gospel.
Yet Judas, it appeared, had the last word. “The betrayer becomes a hero,” as Herbert Krosney of the National Geographic Society puts it, “and Jesus Christ arranges his own execution.” The Crucifixion of the Son of God is no longer the fault of Judas or the Jews.
Such shocking claims, popping up so suddenly, and just as billions of Christians were preparing to celebrate Easter and the Resurrection of Jesus, were bound to prompt swift reactions, and these weren’t long in coming.
The Gospel of Judas “tells us nothing about the historical Jesus and nothing about the historical Judas,” wrote James M. Robinson, the leading American authority on the Gnostic text from Nag Hammadi—and a scholar who had been outmaneuvered in his quest to break the news of the Judas papyrus. “It tells us only what, 100 years later, Gnostics were doing with that story they found in the canonical gospels.” The claims about the gospel’s significance, Robinson said darkly, were “consciously misleading.”
Or, as New Testament scholar Simon Gathercole put it in a somewhat lighter vein, “The Gospel of Judas is certainly an ancient text, but not ancient enough to tell us anything new … An analogy would be finding a speech claimed to have been written by Queen Victoria” – who reigned in the nineteenth century—“in which she talked about The Lord of the Rings and her CD collection.”
So how should we think about the Gospel of Judas?
Some would still like to follow the route posited by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges in one of his stories about Judas and Gnosticism: “Had Alexandria triumphed and not Rome – that is, the center of Gnosticism versus the headquarters of apostolic Christianity – “the extravagant and muddled stories I have summarized here would be coherent, majestic, and perfectly ordinary.” Or as Herbert Krosney wrote in his official version of the gospel’s discovery, “A reader can disagree with the themes of the Gospel of Judas. Some may think it blasphemy. But what cannot be denied is that the writer (of the gospel) accords Judas a new place in history.”
Others will roll their eyes at this assertion, especially in view of the developments in the years since the gospel was revealed. For them, the Gospel of Judas represents a kind of early Christian cult that deserved to die out – something akin to the latter-day Heaven’s Gate believers who, in 1997, committed suicide together in San Diego, believing they needed to shed their earthly bodies in order to join up with a spaceship trailing the Hale-Bopp comet that was then visible in the night sky.
“It is not a Gospel written by Judas, or even one that claims to be,” said Bart Erman, a leading expert on early Christianity and Gnosticism at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “It is not Gospel written in Judas’ own time by someone who actually knew him or had inside information about his inner motivations. It is not a historically accurate report about the man Judas himself.”
Yet simply rejecting the Gospel of Judas as an ancient heresy that deserved to dry up and blow away in the sands if Egypt does an injustice to the Gospel writers who kept Judas in the story, and preserved the mystery of betrayal, and the real challenge of the faith. If you believe that God writes straight with crooked lines, Judas is one of the crookedness in history.
Perhaps the real value of the Gospel of Judas is that it could prompt everyone to think more deeply – more deeply than the canonical Gospels and church history have – about who Judas was, why he was so central to the Christian story, and above all what he means today for those who are Christians, and even those who are not. Pigeonholing Judas as the “bad guy” of the New Testament or even the “good guy” of the alternative version posited by the Gnostics, is a simplistic response that does not do justice to Judas as a real person in human history.