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Posted Thursday, April 13, 2006 at 11:13 a.m. CDT

'Gospel' sheds more light on early church than on Judas


Despite splashy headlines touting a potential exoneration of Christianity's most notorious villain, most experts say the newly published "Gospel of Judas" reveals far more about the pluralism of the second-century church than it does about the historical Judas Iscariot or his role in the death of Christ.

In reality, the text "adds nothing" historically reliable to the picture of Judas in the New Testament, Passionist Fr. Donald Senior told NCR. Senior is a member of the scholarly advisory board assembled by National Geographic to publish the "Gospel of Judas," as well as president of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

In the roughly 3,000-word text, of which large chunks are missing or indecipherable, Judas emerges as a hero. Jesus says Judas "will exceed all of them" who are baptized, because Judas "will sacrifice the man that clothes me," a reference to the Gnostic belief that the body is a mere set of clothes, and the essence of the person is the immortal soul.

Jesus also presents Judas with an elaborate, secret account of cosmic mysteries.

Those musings, according to Jesuit Fr. Stephen Pisano, rector of Rome's prestigious Pontifical Biblical Institute, reflect the theology of a group of ancient Christian Gnostics, a movement based on alleged secret revelation that takes its name from the Greek word gnosis, meaning "knowledge."

In broad strokes, the Gnostics saw a cosmos sharply divided between good and evil, which they identified with spirit and matter. They read scripture in light of that dualism, often seeing the God of the Old Testament as an evil force. Many of the traditional Biblical villains, such as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, became heroes in the Gnostic retelling. Experts say that seeing Judas as the one Christ chose for secret knowledge, rather than as his betrayer, is thus consistent with Gnostic logic.

While the text is of negligible value for understanding Judas, Pisano said it holds great interest for historians of the early church.

"We shouldn't have the idea that already in the second century we had something like the Catechism of the Catholic Church," Pisano said. "The early believers didn't really know yet what to believe, and there were a lot of attempts to find a philosophy that fit in with resurrection faith. Some of these attempts bore fruit and became part of mainstream Christian theology, and some were dead ends," he said.

"This was one of those dead ends."

The "Gospel of Judas" is based on a manuscript found in the 1970s, and recently brought to light by the group of nine scholars commissioned by National Geographic. The manuscript, which made its way to the National Geographic team after a circuitous path of sales, countersales and alleged pilfering, is written in Coptic, the language of Egyptian Christianity, and was radio-carbon-dated to between 220 and 340 A.D. Scholars believe it's a translation of an earlier Greek text that probably dates to between 130 and 180 A.D.

Some critics have condemned the hoopla surrounding the "Gospel of Judas" as a publicity stunt.

"This is above all an economic, and, probably, ideological operation," said Vittorio Messori, a widely respected Italian Catholic writer. Messori collaborated with Pope John Paul II on 1984's Crossing the Threshold of Hope.

Messori, who said the gospel's existence has been known among specialists for 1,800 years, complained of a "strong odor of money" surrounding the hype of the "Gospel of Judas" by National Geographic. He also said he suspects an ideological desire to make anyone who accepts the "official" version of Christian origins, especially that presented by the Catholic church, look "brainless."

Elaine Pagels of Princeton University, an expert in Gnosticism, took a more positive view.

Writing in The New York Times, she said the text "has joined the other spectacular discoveries that are exploding the myth of a monolithic Christianity, and showing how diverse and fascinating the early Christian movement really was."

Pagels also said there are hints in the canonical Gospels of Mark and John that "Jesus knew and even initiated the events of his passion, seeing them as part of a divine plan," so in that sense, the "Gospel of Judas" may not be as far-fetched as it sounds.

François Gaudard, an Egyptologist at the University of Chicago and, like Pagels, a National Geographic consultant, has even argued that the text could improve Christianity's historically troubled relationship with Judaism.

"Through the rehabilitation of Judas, by presenting him as the closest disciple of Christ and as the one he chose to 'betray' him in order to fulfill God's will, this text … reduces one of the favorite themes of anti-Semitism to nothing," Gaudard said.

Messori said it's improbable that contemporary Jewish-Christian relations can get any help from an ancient Gnostic text, given the dim view Gnostics took of the Jewish God.

Some Muslims have also welcomed the "Gospel of Judas" as consistent with an Islamic tradition that Christ did not die on the Cross, but was replaced by his faithful disciple Judas. That tradition finds expression in a text called the "Gospel of Barnabas," the earliest manuscript of which comes from the 17th century, and is seen by most scholars as a late Muslim attempt to rewrite the Gospel story.

Finally, the release of the "Gospel of Judas" comes amid stirrings among some mainstream Catholic theologians and essayists for a "reexamination" of Judas. In February, Msgr. Walter Brandmuller, head of the Vatican's Pontifical Committee for Historical Science, made headlines by hinting that Judas may not have been deliberately evil, but merely playing his part in God's plan.

Ironically, Brandmuller's comments were supported at the time by Messori, who told the Italian daily La Stampa that such reconsideration could "resolve the problem of an apparent lack of mercy by Jesus toward one of his closest collaborators," and cited a Christian tradition that held that Judas was forgiven by Jesus and ordered to purify himself with "spiritual exercises" in the desert.

Scripture scholars such as Senior and Pisano cautioned that however well-intentioned such reexaminations may be, the "Gospel of Judas" is of no historical use in supporting them. Because of its second-century date and its mythic character, it simply cannot cast new light on Judas himself or on Jesus.

Taken in tandem with the global success of the Da Vinci Code, fascination with the "Gospel of Judas" nevertheless illustrates that alternative versions of the Jesus story are much in fashion.

Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sandra Schneiders, a Biblical scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., identified several factors underlying this trend, including general public skepticism about "official" accounts, the impact of the sexual abuse scandals in undercutting the credibility of the institutional church, the scientific naiveté of much of the American public, and the impact of new textual finds and new methods of literary analysis.

"People who have been disappointed by the religion and religious establishment they believe in … hope against hope that something will come along to widen the boundaries, to create a little more breathing room, to suggest some alternative possibilities," Schneiders told NCR.

"People want to believe there is more to the story, that it is more flexible, richer, less closed than they thought," she said.

However legitimate such impulses may be, Australian Jesuit Fr. Gerald O'Collins, who teaches Christology at Rome's Gregorian University, was emphatic that the "Gospel of Judas" won't offer much help.

"It was junk then, and it's junk now," O'Collins told Catholic News Service.

[John L. Allen Jr. is Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. His e-mail address is]

April 13, 2006, National Catholic Reporter

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