A Gospel according to Judas?

I don’t know if I should be admitting I watched the segment on Primetime on ABC tonight about the alleged Gospel according to Judas. But I made a conscious effort to watch it.

You don’t get much depth in television sensationalism, er, news, not even in a 10-minute segment. So my reaction may be a bit unfair. Still, I’ll give it, for what it’s worth.First, although Christian tradition says a lot of things about Judas, the Bible itself says very little about what happened after Judas took the money. Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss. Then, at some later point–I was going to say when Judas realized Jesus was going to be killed, but that’s actually more than the Bible says–Judas was remorseful, and tried to return the money, saying he had betrayed an innocent man. The high priests told him that wsan’t their problem. The Bible then says Judas hanged himself.

That’s all it says. The Bible doesn’t say there’s a special place in Hell for Judas. He hanged himself. Done. End of story. For Judas, at least.

One of the questions the Primetime segment raised was the possibility that Judas could have been forgiven. Well, it didn’t even state it as a question–it’s a "controversy."

There is no controversy. There is one and only one difference between Judas and Peter, the disciple who denied three times that he even knew Jesus (and added profanity for emphasis the third time). Peter asked for forgiveness. Judas didn’t.

There are a couple of places in the four Gospels where Jesus makes comments such as "One of you is a devil," which we interpret as Jesus meaning Judas. From that, we can take it to mean Judas wasn’t penitent.

Now, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John aren’t exactly unbiased sources, of course. Judas killed their hero and friend (assuming Luke knew Jesus–while Christian tradition may have an answer to that question, the Bible itself doesn’t). If one of my friends played a role in the death of another friend, I wouldn’t have nice things to say about him either. Of course those four guys were bitter. And while Christianity teaches that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, the individual personalities and feelings of the writers are still present. That’s the main reason I don’t like Eugene Peterson’s The Message–you can’t tell from reading The Message that Luke was a better writer than Mark, because the only voice you hear in The Message is that of Eugene Peterson. But I digress.

Growing up in the ultraconservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, I remember virtually every year there was a service that dealt with Judas and explored that very possibility.

Betraying Christ wasn’t Judas’ biggest sin. If he hadn’t done it, someone else would have. The forgiveness was there. Judas just didn’t reach out and take it.

The other "controversy," whether Jesus asked Judas to betray him, also isn’t a controversy. It’s right there in John 13:28: "What you must do, do quickly." There is a difference between Jesus knowing beforehand that Judas would betray him, and Jesus wanting Judas to betray him. You and I both know that if my car sits outside long enough, it’s going to rust. That doesn’t mean I want it to rust.

But Jesus knew that the entire reason for His life was His death. The message of the four Gospels can be summed up in this: Since God didn’t want to live without us, He became a man and died, because to Him that was the preferable alternative.

Nothing they said in that 10-minute news segment contradicts that.

So, on to the other questions. Who wrote it? That’s difficult to say. Judas didn’t live all that long. But the book is only 13 pages long. I suppose Judas could have written it before he hanged himself. I can think of two times when something really traumatic has happened to me and I wrote down the whole story right after it happened. It didn’t take me very long to do it. And one of them probably was about 13 pages long in its first draft.

The segment dismissed the possibility of it being a forgery, based on the obscure language it was written in, and the age of the papyrus. But being written in a language Judas might have known, and being approximately the same age as the oldest known Biblical manuscripts doesn’t prove Judas wrote it. It could just as easily be an old forgery, intended to embarass someone.

I can just imagine if someone were to unearth my library in 2000 years. Not every statement in every book on my bookshelf is true. But when you find an old book in isolation with little else to compare to it, it can be difficult to know whether what you’ve found is that day’s equivalent of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, or the Weekly World News.

And "Lost Gospels" aren’t exactly new. The Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas are two examples that have been with us since very close to the beginning of Christianity. What happened to them? They aren’t in the Bible because they weren’t considered reliable by the people who saw what happened.

A Gospel of Judas, hastily written in the hours between the time he betrayed Jesus and the time of his death, would certainly qualify. The Gospels of Matthew and John were carefully considered, after the fact, and undoubtedly the conversations and recollections of the other 10 surviving disciples colored what ultimately went into those books. Mark and Luke weren’t disciples, so they weren’t even there to see firsthand much of what is in their accounts; the books were assembled from eyewitness accounts. Mark was a good friend of Peter, while the introduction to the book of Luke suggests it might have been a commissioned work.

This doesn’t make a possible Gospel of Judas an uninteresting work, nor does it necessarily make it unimportant. And without having read the upcoming books or the big feature in National Geographic, I don’t have enough to say much about it. But from what little I have to go on, even if this book is exactly what it claims to be, I don’t see that it shakes Christianity at all.

The most important thing it brings up is what the news segment didn’t say, of course. If forgiveness was available to Judas, and if God had a plan for Judas, both are true for you and me as well.

3 thoughts on “A Gospel according to Judas?

  • April 8, 2006 at 3:23 pm
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    "No scholar associated with the find argues this is a first century document, or that it derives from Judas. The release says the document was "copied down in Coptic probably around A.D. 300," although later that is changed to "let’s say around the year 400." This amounts to saying that "The Gospel of Judas" is an authentic fabrication produced by a group of Gnostics in Egypt. Gnostics believed that their direct knowledge of heaven permitted them to understand what no one else knew, or could know by historical knowledge. For ancient Gnostics to believe in their own powers of divination is charming; for their flights of imagination to be passed off as historical knowledge in our time is dishonest or self-deceived."

    More at:
    ‘Gospel of Judas’ Called An Authentic Fabrication
    http://www.nysun.com/article/30588

  • April 10, 2006 at 8:19 pm
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    I just watched the one hour program on the National Geographic channel Sunday evening. I appreciated they made the effort to speak in native tongues (was that Aramaic?) and ran subtitles. I enjoyed seeing the efforts taken to preserve, sort, and verify the fragile papyrus. I really appreciated them interviewing Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman (whose research and books I’ve enjoyed reading.)

    As with other apochrypha, I think this document needs to be considered not so much with suspicion, but with a very strong attempt to understand it in the context of its own time. It’s presumed the four accepted gospels of the Bible were written around 70 AD and copied many times over from Greek and Coptic versions. It’s also speculated there were many different localized versions of these gospels. Since Iranaeus spoke so strongly against this particular gospel so early in history, it’s likely an authentic document, but not necessarily truthful.

    Having previously watched on television and read online how technology was used to piece together the fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi libraries, I wonder why it took over thirty years to reveal so much of this document? It was discovered in the early 1970s and sold and stolen a few times, so that probably accounts for many of the years.

    Many of the Dead Sea Scrolls are currently on display here in Charlotte, but I believe tickets for viewing them were sold out weeks ago. I really wished I had known sooner they were coming to Charlotte.

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