Friday, May 22, 2015

Redeeming Judas

Book Review

One of the puzzling aspects of the New Testament is why Judas early on became such a despised figure among Christians; why wasn’t he given a place of honor? Prof. George Jochnowitz writes: “The cross, the tool used to execute Jesus, symbolizes Christianity. Then why isn‘t Judas honored for identifying Jesus to the Romans who captured and crucified him?” We can never know the answer for sure, because the Christian canon is thin on this question and seems in any case to contradict itself. The answer can, perhaps, be found in the formation of the early Church and of the New Testament, which contains 27 books. Like all new movements, and more so with religious ones, there was much debate on what direction it would take and what writings would be considered authoritative, inspired; various factions were formed. By the late fourth century of the Common Era, however, the canon was considered complete and closed by Church authorities. This meant that certain books were included, and many others not, such as the Gospel of Judas, which came out of the Gnostic tradition of the early church. The Gnostics lost the battle, but the questions surrounding the place of Judas have never really gone away.

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by George Jochnowitz
The Gospel of Judas
Edited by Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst,
with additional commentary by Bart D. Ehrman. National Geographic
2006, 185 pages.

According to Christian doctrine, Jesus came to earth to redeem humanity through his suffering. “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world,” says the Gospel According to John (1:29). The crucifixion is thus the central miracle in Christianity. The Friday when it occurred is called Good Friday. The cross, the tool used to execute Jesus, symbolizes Christianity. Then why isn‘t Judas honored for identifying Jesus to the Romans who captured and crucified him?

There is no question that in the New Testament, Judas is part of the Divine plan. “Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?” asks Jesus (John 6:70). The Gospel of Judas is based on the idea that Judas was indeed chosen, but that he is not at all a devil. “But you will exceed all of them. You will sacrifice the man that clothes me” says Jesus to Judas (p. 43). “All of them” refers to the other disciples, who are portrayed negatively in this gospel. Jesus tells them “Truly I say to you, no generation of the people that are among you will know me” (p. 22). These words created a negative reaction. “When his disciples heard this, they started getting angry and infuriated and began blaspheming against him in their hearts” (p. 23).

If The Gospel of Judas were part of the Christian tradition that accepted the idea that the suffering of Jesus was necessary to redeem humanity from sin, then it would make sense for Judas to be recognized as the most virtuous of the disciples. However, sin and redemption are not part of this story. The Gospel of Judas is part of an entirely different religious tradition—one that is utterly unfamiliar to those of us who are not scholars of the religions of the early centuries of the Common Era. This tradition is a branch of Gnosticism, known as Sethian Gnosticism to its adherents and as Cainian Gnosticism to its enemies. In the Gospel, we read about twelve angels, “The first is Seth, who is called Christ” (p. 38). Seth was the third son of Adam and Eve, and the gospel is identifying him with Jesus. When Judas talks to Jesus, he says, “I know who you are and where you have come from. You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo” (pp. 22-23).

The Gospel of Judas doesn’t tell us who Barbelo is. However, most of the pages in the book are not part of the Gospel but explanations by scholars. One of these, Marvin Meyer, tells us that, according to Sethian Gnostic belief, God merely created the world. The world is merely a part of a greater universe created by the Great One (pp. 143-44). In a different Sethian text called the Secret Book of John, “the appearance of the Child is portrayed in such a way as to suggest an act of spiritual intercourse between the transcendent Father and Barbelo the Mother” (p. 147). Nowhere is the Virgin Mary mentioned. Seth is the child of Adam and Eve; at the same time, Seth is Jesus, the child of two eternal, all-powerful beings, the Father and Barbelo. There apparently are contradictions in the writings of the Sethians. Meyer explains, “The Secret Book of John is another Sethian text that seems to have been composed as a Jewish gnostic document and lightly Christianized into the teaching and revelation of Jesus” (p. 168).

Bart D. Ehrman, one of the scholars whose comments help us to understand what is going on in this unfamiliar religious environment, has entitled his analysis “Christianity Turned on Its Head.” He points out that without the betrayal of Jesus, “there would be no arrest, without the arrest there would be no trial, without the trial there would be no crucifixion, without the crucifixion there would be no resurrection-and in short, we still wouldn't be saved from our sins. So why were Judas's actions such a bad thing?” He then goes on to add, “Our gospel writers never address this speculative question” (p. 93).

Gnostic writers weren’t interested in the question because they weren’t interested in the world. Ehrman explains that for gnostics, “the god who created this world is not the only god ... No, this world is a cosmic disaster, and salvation comes only to those who learn how to escape the world and its material trappings” (p. 85). Perhaps the Gnostics viewed salvation as akin to the Buddhist idea of nirvana.

The Gospel of Judas was part of a codex (an ancient manuscript bound like a book) found in Egypt, perhaps in 1978. It is written in Coptic, the variety of ancient Egyptian used in the early centuries of the first millennium, before Egypt was conquered by Muslims who introduced their own language, Arabic. Rodolphe Kasser tells us that between 1978 and 2001, the 1600-year-old codex “had been damaged by so many misfortunes, many of which could have been avoided. It was a stark victim of cupidity and ambition” (p. 47). Kasser tells us about the theft, recovery, sale, and restoration of this damaged treasure. The version we have is not complete because of erosion and mistreatment, but the message is nevertheless there. We now have an English translation of a Coptic text that is itself a translation from the original Greek.

The codex that we have dates from around the last quarter of the third century C.E. The Greek original, however, must have been written after 177 C.E., since it is the subject of a lengthy attack by a bishop named Irenaeus of Lyon who took office in that year. Gregor Wurst is the author of a summary of the arguments used by Irenaeus against the people he calls “Cainites,” although as Wurst tells us, “in the newly discovered text there is no mention of Cain or the other antiheroes from the Jewish Scriptures mentioned by Irenaeus” (p. 126). Wurst says “we would have to assume the existence of more than one Gospel of Judas circulating within gnostic communities of antiquity” (pp. 126-27).

The second century C.E. is a long time ago, but it is nevertheless a long time after the Crucifixion. We don’t know who wrote it, but it couldn’t possibly have been Judas. It tells us nothing historical about the events leading up to the death of Jesus. Its interpretation of the role of Judas and of the message of Jesus is irrelevant, since Bishop Irenaeus won. Christianity is the religion of the Christian Bible, which does not include the Gospel of Judas or any other Gnostic texts.

The fact that Judas is considered utterly wicked in the New Testament has for two millennia been a threat to Jews. This threat has abated, although threats may come from different sources. Will The Gospel of Judas lead Christians to recognize the paradox that Judas enabled Jesus to suffer and become the lamb “which taketh away the sin of the world”? Perhaps it will, perhaps it won’t, but in any event, that’s not what the Gospel is about. What is important is that an ancient text has been discovered and translated, a text that scholars of early Christianity knew about because of the writings of Irenaeus of Lyon. All of us can now look at a document that sheds light on the period when the nature of the Christian religion was being determined.

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George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937. He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects. As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached atgeorge@jochnowitz.net.

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Copyright ©2015. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. A version of this review appeared in the July-August, 2008 issue of Jewish Currents.The article is republished here with the author’s permission.

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