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The Gospel of Judas

I have watched with some fascination over the last few days, various stories—on "ABC World News Tonight," "Good Morning America," and "Nightline," and today, I read this Elaine Pagels article—all on the subject of the so-called "Gospel of Judas." Once thought lost, the ancient papyrus made its way to the National Geographic, which airs a special on the book tomorrow night.

I am not a theologian, but I have always been a "student" of religion, an interest that goes far beyond my political stance on the separation of church and state, and on the corrupting influences of various forms of fundamentalism on cultural life. Perhaps some of this comes from the fact that I am the grandson of a man who was the founder of the first Greek Orthodox church in Brooklyn, New York. (His name was Vasilios P. Michalopoulos, but he died 7 years before I was born.) The Greek Orthodox certainly know how to put on a ceremony; many of their services are ripe with symbolism and aesthetic beauty. That family upbringing certainly fueled my own interests in grappling with many of these issues.

I have read the Old and New Testaments from cover to cover, and many of the so-called "heretical" Christian gospels of which Pagels speaks in her article. As I said, this hardly makes me an expert in Judeo-Christian religious matters, but the story of Judas Iscariot is one that has always puzzled me.

I know there are many conflicting and contradictory passages in the Bible, and my interest here is not in debating the pros or the cons of theism or atheism or any other -ism. What interests me is how this new "Gospel of Judas" is providing another look at a scorned character in the Christian corpus. Dante placed him on the ninth circle of hell, with Lucifer. It appears that the new gospel projects a Judas who was Jesus's best friend, one who was asked by Jesus to betray him so that the scripture could be fulfilled, so that the Son of Man might be delivered to those who would crucify him, leading to his death, and subsequent Resurrection.

But I don't think this message is entirely lost in the four main Gospels. At the Last Supper, Jesus certainly seems to know that Judas is going to betray him, even if we are left with very little information regarding Judas's motivations, beyond the "thirty pieces of silver." So I've often asked myself: If Judas is needed to tell the story of the Passion, and if his betrayal is predetermined by a divine plan, why on earth, or heaven, should he be condemned to the ninth circle of hell? Without him, there is no betrayal, no crucifixion, no resurrection. He is an essential part of the story, fulfilling a role that is necessary—dare I say, "internally related"—to the whole Christian drama.

In the past, I've asked some theologians why Judas should be condemned for doing what he was "supposed to do." In my own book of ethics, of course, there are no predetermined plans. There is only human choice—contextualized choice, for sure, but choice nonetheless. Some of my religious friends have claimed that Judas suffers that eternal damnation for committing suicide. But surely Jesus would have known that a guilty conscience would have driven his once beloved apostle to hang himself. When he said, from the Cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," he didn't add the proviso: "Except for Judas..."

I know, I know, this must all be a Trickster postmodernist plot to invert heroes and villains, taking us "beyond good and evil."

But I'm truly fascinated by all of this, and I'll be watching the National Geographic special, or at least recording it—while I watch a key episode of "The West Wing," marking the passing of beloved actor John Spencer, who played the character Leo McGarry, and who, last we saw, was awaiting the results of Election Day in the great Santos-Vinick Presidential race. (For those who don't know: McGarry is the Vice Presidential candidate on the Democratic Santos ticket.)

And for those of you who are also interested in religious films, this week offers lots of old and new treats, including a new two-part miniseries of "The Ten Commandments" airing on Monday and Tuesday, and the re-airing of DeMille's classic 1956 version on Saturday, April 10th. Check your local ABC listings.

Comments welcome.

Comments

I saw Ten Commandments shortly after it came out in 1956. I thought it was a great movie. I saw it when I was an adult recently and I thought there was more ham then in a pig farm. Some of Anne Baxter's lines are laugh out loud funny. I don't know if I will watch the remake. Maybe just to get a taste. On the Gospel of Judas has it been throughly autenicated.

A similar version to the the idea of the gospel of Judas was portrayed in the great film, the last Temptation of Christ. Regarding the Ten Commandments, I watch that film frequently and I have no problem with the lines. Everything is high and mighty and overblown, but for me it works very well and still makes the case. The whole story is supposed to be larger than life and that is how it comes across to me.

Chris,

I too have an interest in this subject, though for somewhat different reasons, having held some fairly strong Christian beliefs prior to discovering Ayn Rand.

Though I'm no longer a believer, Christianity's historical development into a cultural force remains of interest to me, and particularly the various works suggesting that the dogmas of the Chrisitian churches are substantially out of synch with Jesus's true teachings (a theory that thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and even Ayn Rand touched on).

In any case, even while I was a believer, the villification of those such as Judas, Pontius Pilate and others held responsible for Jesus' crucifixion never quite made sense to me; for the precise reasons you touch on above.

Overall, I think the increasing "deconstruction" of establish Christian tradition can only be a good thing for secularists.

I'll probably have much more to say after seeing the documentary (which, I'm pleased to say, is airing on National Geographic's British/Irish channel tonight as well!)

MH

Who gets the "keys to the kingdom," who gets the secret revelation, who gets the story in straight talk, not parables, who was given the true authority after Christ, etc., and it's parallel issue, "who's to blame?," are driving issues in the ancient literature. The Coptic Church has long regarded Pilate as a saint, for example. And what's the whole name-game going on the Gospels about anyway?

Just some food for thought.

Hi Chris,

I've been following this also. I have to say, until recently, I was not very interested in learning about religion. Being so, I was ignorant of most religious teachings from Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

I was much more familiar with Buddhism and Taoism, these being more reasonable in my eyes. Whatever one thinks about the different major religions, they all should be read. These teachings have shaped our world for better or worse, in such a massive way, it would be foolish not to learn more about them.

Like Homer, Plato, Aristotle and Shakespeare, they are writings, maybe more then any other, that have shaped, inspired and created minds.

I found this link on the Lew Rockwell Blog you might want to check out:

http://dallasblog.com/tom-pauken/2006/4/7/news-hypes-judas-gospel.html

Take care,

Shane

P.S.- By the way, I think you are making the right choice to not waste your precious time debating on the Solo-Passion site. Life is to short.

I caught a little of the ABC 10 Commandments and what I saw was awful. DeMille's verision is still the best. I still stand by my comments about Anne Baxter's dialog.

Wow, I got so caught up in the JARS/ARI brouhaha that I completely overlooked this.

I am a recovering "born-again" who struggled mightily with discarding the faith, and the subject still fascinates me. It was not an easy transition to discard my emotional investment in my belief in Jesus to go with what my intellect told me was incredible, in the precise meaning of that word. In fact, it was, and is, one of the most profound struggles of my life (for the record--even in my deepest point of unreason, I always believed in a seperation of Church and State and found myself at odds with many other born-agains over politics and dogma. If anything, my faith steered me more towards a lefty-socialist viewpoint than a fundamentalist Religious Right outlook. Couldn't stand them then; can't stand them now. Some things don't change, faith or no faith). I was raised by a woman of profound faith--my mother; and a father who pretty much kept his viewpoints on the subject to himself.

What began to shake my faith? Form criticism! Rudolf Bultmann and other form critics blew over my whole life's outlook like a rush of wind on house of cards and my emotional foundation just scattered into fragments here and there. After being exposed to form criticism, I went back and read the Gospels; it amazes me now how much my emotions were tied up in the meaning I derived from the text. I tried to study my way back to faith--C.S. Lewis and the shameful Josh McDowell, but I could see right through their apologetics.

Most of my adult life has been a search for another philosophy to take faith's place. I was not a philosphy student in college (I have a BA in English), and I am unfamiliar with the terminology (most of the discussion on SOLO, etc. sails over my silly blonde head; but the name-calling and partisanship is depressingly familiar to me--reminds me of some of the debates I had with religious folk back in the day) but...

Well, I digress (and how!). So I'll wrap it up. I look forward to reading this Gospel when it is published. Wonder what the form critics and the Jesus Seminar will make of it.

I always thought Judas got a bum rap.

Peri

James

I look forward to your upcoming book on the New Testament.

Mick

I taped the new TV version of "The Ten Commandments," and have yet to watch it, so I can't yet comment. And while I think some of the 1956 script has that dated feel to it... I am still drawn in by the DeMille film. It's just good storytelling on an epic scale.

And Technomaget, you're right about "Last Temptation of Christ."

Thanks to all the other posters for the really thought-provoking comments here; I've really enjoyed reading this thread.

The religious controversy quotient is liable to increase soon: "The Da Vinci Code" hits theaters on May 19th! (And, no, I've not read that book yet either!!!)

"Without him, there is no betrayal, no crucifixion, no resurrection. He is an essential part of the story, fulfilling a role that is necessary—dare I say, "internally related"—to the whole Christian drama."

Of course. Judas as the "damned" is simply another marketing tool, like everyone not believing in Jesus as God goes to hell.

There is nothing accidental about the construction of religion.

Bill says: "Judas as the "damned" is simply another marketing tool, like everyone not believing in Jesus as God goes to hell.

There is nothing accidental about the construction of religion."

Ah, so sometimes the free market has its pitfalls! ;-)

Snarky comments aside, this brings up another question. I've just begun to read Ayn Rand's "For the New Intellectual" and was struck by the Witch Doctor/Atilla analogies. Certainly, it explains Western Civilization. But...man, Ms. Rand rags and rags on Buddhism as the religion of barefoot savages living in squalid mud huts. But Japan is where Buddhism really took hold, correct? They had an advanced civilization when Western Europeans were dirty and unwashed (and kept that way by promises by the Witch Doctor of a pie in the sky, by and by, and the Atillas).

One thing I find interesting about Buddhism is that as far as I know, there's no efforts to convert others--no "markenting!" My knowledge of its history is skin-deep, so if I'm wrong, I'm willing to be enlightened.

I'm just curious about Rand's antipathy to Buddhism--Zen Buddhism in particular. Why?

I have really strayed off topic, so I will close.

Hey, Peri, I have some differences with Rand on a number of her interpretations in that lead essay in For the New Intellectual. Putting that aside, I think you'd find the following sites of interest, insofar as they attempt a dialogue between Objectivism and Buddhism:

The Mudita Forum

Andrew Schwartz.

I should also note that there have been attempts to view Aristotle through a Buddhist lens, and Aristotle, of course, made a major impact on Rand's work. In this context, I've always been fond of a book by Stephen R. L. Clark, entitled Aristotle's Man: Speculations upon Aristotelian Anthropology. As I state in Total Freedom (page 41 n. 34), Clark places Aristotle

in a "Chinese setting" that focuses on the "yin-and-yang" analysis of reciprocal relations in contrariety ... Readers might be surprised to see Aristotle treated as "something like a Mahayana Buddhist," but Clark's discussion is provocative.