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Reviewed by John Wilson


Betrayed Again

The Gospel of Judas Roadshow.

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Let's begin with a multiple-choice question: Which of the passages below is from the Gospel of Judas?

"No blame will be attached to elderly women who do not desire sex, if they take off their outer garments without flaunting their charms, but it is preferable for them not to do this: God is all hearing, all seeing."

"Jesus said, 'Truly I say to you, for all of them the stars bring matters to completion. When Saklas completes the span of time assigned for him, their first star will appear with the generations, and they will finish what they said they would do. Then they will fornicate in my name and slay their children [55] and they will [… ] and [—about six and a half lines missing—] my name, and he will […] your star over the [thir]teenth aeon.'"

Thomas said to them: "If I tell you one of the sayings he said to me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me, and fire will come out of the stones and burn you up."

If you guessed #2, you were right. (#1 is from the Qur'an; #3 is from the Gospel of Thomas.) And you are right, too, if you have inferred that this newly recovered gospel is a bit difficult to follow at times.

The story of the Gospel of Judas has two components. This Gnostic text is one of many apocryphal gospels that circulated in the centuries after Christ's death and resurrection. The eminent scholar James Robinson suggests that it was written sometime between AD 130 and 170 (Irenaeus mentions it around 180 in a work against the heresies of the day). By the fourth century, it had been lost. In our time a fragmentary codex was rediscovered and—by a circuitous route—found its way to publication by the National Geographic Society.

This part of the story is the subject of Krosney's book The Lost Gospel, which gives considerable space to the scholarly work of reconstructing the text, mixed with tales of academic infighting and intrigue. News stories following the publication of this book and its companion volume early in April have suggested that National Geographic has been less than candid in recounting their transactions with artifacts dealer Frieda Tchacos Nussberger, and Robinson's account of the "peddling" of the lost gospel is quite critical, but such is the world of the high-stakes antiquities trade.

The second component of the story is the significance of the Gospel of Judas. Both Robinson's account, in The Secrets of Judas, and the commentary by various hands in The Gospel of Judas, which includes the reconstructed text, are informed by a programmatic hostility to orthodox Christianity and an odd sympathy for heresy. On a number of occasions Robinson quotes Scripture in order to mock it, finding it both absurd and morally repugnant (a tactic that could backfire when readers get a look at the Gnostic counter-texts). But the two books differ in one important respect: whereas the commentators in The Gospel of Judas—including, of course, the egregious Bart Ehrman—make grandiose claims for the significance of this text, Robinson's assessment is much more measured.

Last week, as we have done for many years, our small group met for a seder in Holy Week. One of my friends asked me about the Gospel of Judas, whether it is the sort of thing that is likely to challenge the faith of many people. The best response for anyone who wonders about it is to read The Gospel of Judas and Robinson's book, too. (The stories about the Gospel of Judas don't begin to capture its essential weirdness. You have to experience it firsthand.) Both books are quite short. Then read the familiar accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And if you are motivated, finish up with a book recently published by Eerdmans, Paul Barnett's The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years.

What the Gospel of Judas people really need is a version by Eugene Peterson. The Message: Judas. But don't hold your breath.

Related Elsewhere:

The Gospel of Judas, The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot, and The Secrets of Judas: The Story of the Misunderstood Disciple and His Lost Gospel are available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.

The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.

More CT articles on the Gospel of Judas include:

The Jesus and Judas Papers: A Look at Recent Claims about Jesus | Questions about history may be sincere, but make no mistake: There is an agenda at work. (April 13, 2006)
Weblog: Kisses for Judas | The Gospel of Judas beyond the ecstatic headlines (April 11, 2006)
The Judas We Never Knew | Disgraced disciple actually conspired with Jesus, according to newly released Gospel of Judas. Should we believe it? (April 6, 2006)
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