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.