Saturday, April 08, 2006

Thoughts on Judas

This week, an English translation of the recently discovered Gospel of Judas was made public for the first time. The document was found in Egypt, in a Coptic translation made around 300 A.D., about 100 years or so later than the original Greek version is believed to have been written. It is the only extant copy of this text, which has been assumed to exist based upon references to it in the writings of the second-century Bishop Irenaeus, who played the most prominent role in the early Christian church in deciding which texts about the life of Christ could be considered genuine and which heretical.

The document, bound in leather and written on papyrus, is damaged in places and missing some chunks of the text, but the overall significance appears to be that, in this version, Judas was a favored disciple of Christ, to whom was revealed certain secrets about the nature of heaven, the origin of the world, the end of time, and the human soul. Most shockingly, the gospel seems to suggest that Judas’ “betrayal” was actually done at Jesus’ request for the furthering of the divine plan.

I first began to consider Judas and his role in the passion when I was a teenager, after I came across that great theological treatise, Jesus Christ Superstar. To this day, I wonder about the relationship between the “Divine Plan” and free will, and to what extent each limits the other. I used to lean more toward a pre-ordained vision of everything, but the more I read of theology, the more I understand the importance of free will in relationship to true faith.

Still, the passion brings up questions that are difficult for my simple brain to grapple with. Obviously, it is through Christ’s death and resurrection that we are redeemed, and the four New Testament Gospels repeatedly show Christ foreshadowing and hinting at his own end, thereby suggesting the inevitable fulfillment of ancient prophecy. But where does Judas fit into this? Was he part of the plan? Did he betray Christ of his own free will? Or was he compelled by the Spirit? If Jesus needed to be betrayed in order to be killed, then do we owe Judas credit or scorn?

The New Testament is pretty clear. Before His death, Matthew records Jesus saying, “The Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born." Judas, who betrayed him, said, "Is it I, Master?" He said to him, "You have said so." Matthew then says Judas took his thirty pieces of silver and threw them down in the temple, and then went and hanged himself. The Book of Acts says Judas took the money and “bought a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.” (Another major obstacle for people who claim belief in the literal veracity of Scripture.)

I make no pretense whatsoever at theological expertise, so I won’t attempt any analysis of what the Judas gospel might mean or whether it sheds any authoritative light on Christ. At one point Jesus refers to “Your god who is within you,” which echoes Luke 17:21, “The Kingdom of God is within you,” which also seems to share some relationship to the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, which says, “Rather, the Kingdom of God is inside you and outside you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are the children of the living Father.”

The Christ of the Judas gospel laughs a lot, which would I like, since Jesus is often depicted as rather dour, sad and serious, and I like to think he was maybe (at least sometimes) a little more fun than that, except that here He seems to be specifically laughing at his disciples, mocking them for their lack of understanding, and interpreting part of a vision they shared by saying, “The cattle you have seen brought for sacrifice are the many people you lead astray.”

The Judas Gospel doesn’t appear to be very gay friendly, either, as Christ seems to foretell a priesthood of false prophets made up of “slayers of children, and…those who sleep with men, and those who abstain, and the rest of the people of pollution and lawlessness and error.” There’s some other weird stuff: Judas says Jesus is “from the immortal realm of Barbelo,” which is Greek for “forethought,” and Jesus talks about a lot of different angels and “corruptible Sophia.” Is Sophia a person? In Greek “sophia” means “wisdom,” and in the Gnostic tradition, specifically “the final and lowest emanation of God.” I’m not going to pretend I understand any of that.

Is there anything of definitive value in the Gospel of Judas for Christians to learn?

Yes, indirectly, by its mere existence.

I recall during the confirmation process of Bishop V. Gene Robinson a member of the opposition balked at the voting process by saying, “The Bible wasn’t decided by committee.”

Well, yes, in fact, it was. We really don’t “know” anything about the historical Jesus; what we do know for certain is that in the early days of Christianity there were dozens of “gospel” texts, some with competing, contradictory ideas about who Jesus was and what He said. The four gospels which found their way into the New Testament were the ones favored by Irenaeus and approved by the Nicene Council in 325 A.D., but the Bible’s present contents and the order in which they appear were not ratified until the 1500’s. Many, many, many texts were read and rejected…voted on by committee.

I think it’s defensible to say that the spirit of the Lord was at work in these committees, guiding their votes to select which texts would survive and form the basis of His church, in the same manner Catholics believe voting for Pope reveals God’s own choice. It is irresponsible, however, to ignore that the Bible is a collection of diverse historical writings assembled by groups of men throughout history, many centuries removed from the events described therein.


Anthony said...

From what I've understood, the four Gospels which found their way into the accepted New Testament are known to be the oldest texts, written by eye-witnesses, which does lend them a greater degree of credibility.

For all that, we ignore other texts at our peril: after all, the later date of this newly-discovered Gospel of Judas does not mean it's an original, as it could be a reproduction of an older document. Besides, the sort of complacency that comes about by taking into account no more than the standard canon of texts does anything but broaden the mind.

If we wish to understand Christ and His ministry here on earth to the best of our ability, why should we continue to disregard other (possibly contemporary) texts just because they were suppressed centuries ago by the early church?

Anonymous said...

Good blog-entry.

I think it's important that this text, and those that are now slowly coming to the attention of the general-media, be understood for what it is, and is not. Too often we look at ancient texts, considered supernaturally inspired/dictated/written or not, and too quickly lump them into either the fiction or non-fiction genre. This isn't how this author, or most authors of his era, viewed their writings.

I don't have any theological problems with the sometimes contradictory accounts of the Christian Bible. These are all stories with a message. They are not histories in the contemporary sense. I frequently try to drive home the notion that these stories emanated from a far larger culture of oral storytelling, a culture that was still very much alive during this time. Many authors of this era employed the same techniques and attributes then found in the storytelling-culture that they knew so well:

[] the story must be engaging to people of all ages and educational backgrounds
[] create, embellish and/or weave events within the story to emphasize the message, but to also keep the multi-demographic audience soundly engaged
[] borrow motifs and favorite events from other stories your audience might know well to keep them engaged

The Judas text reflects a particular author's own efforts to relate a specific message. And, he uses a fantastic device to engage his audience, of both eras.

Anonymous said...

(Sorry to double-dip)

Ever see "MadMax: Beyond Thunderdome"?

Remember the scene where, amongst the group of feral children in the desert, a (hot) teenage boy describes the events of their own brief history? It was a sing-song-story of a Captain Walker and "Tomorrow-morrow land".

That scene very, very, very accurately illustrates the oral storytelling culture that the biblical texts originated from. In fact, much of the original Hebrew text still has traces of the rhyming-sing-song style of this original lore.

If you can sing it, you can remember it.

Anonymous said...

From Book of Cap' Walka (C1.V1-12)
This you knows: the years travel fast and time after time I done the tell. But this ain't one body's tell; it's the tell of us all, and you've got to listen it and [re]member, 'cause what you hears today you gotta tell the birthed tomorrow. I's lookin behind us now, into history back. I sees those of us that got the luck and started the haul for home and I 'members how it led us here and how we was heartbroke cause we seen what they once was. One look and we knew'd we'd got it straight. Those what had gone before had the knowin' and the doin' of things beyond our reckonin', even beyond our dreamin'. Time counts and keeps countin' and we knows now, findin' the trick of what's been and lost ain't no easy ride. But that's our trek. We gotta travel it and there ain't nobody knows where it's gonna lead. Still, in all, every night we does the tell so that we member who we was and where we came from. But most of all we 'members the man who finded us, him that came the salvage, and we lights the city not just for him but for all of 'em that are still out there, cause we knows there'll come a night when they sees the distant light and they'll be comin' home.
Now let us pray...


Andy said...

borrow motifs and favorite events from other stories your audience might know well to keep them engaged

Rob! I was just thinking about you this morning, as I was working on a long-planned Parsifal post for Holy Week. This idea above is important to my thesis. Glad you're still around!

Marty said...

I've always felt that Jesus knew he would be betrayed, and by Judas. It's in Matthew 21-25. I don't see where this idea that Judas was a part of the plan is a new one. At least not to me? I've always believed that he was just taking his part in the plan. Jesus was God...he knew the whole plan all along. Not sure about the other things this new book might reveal. I just wish all of the books written had been included in the canon.

Jess said...

Excellent post. Not that that's anything new for you, but I found this quite well done.

Andy said...

My question is, if Judas was destined from time before time to betray Christ, then was it really his fault? Can he be blamed for doing what he was destined to do, especially since it facilitated a necessary act? And if it was all part of "the plan," then what of free will?

I have no answers to these questions.'re too kind. : )

Anonymous said...

The concept of the eternally damned soul is one that is fast being destroyed by, of all things, science.

[] Man has a head injury, his personality changes to angry, bitter, and anti-social, destroying his marriage/relationships
[] Twins growing up, unknown to each other, choose the same names for pets, children, car colors and even specific drug-habits.
[] All sorts of genetic matrixs induce very specific behaviors in humans (angry, calm, friendly), as do certain chemicals that can cross the blood/brain-barrier.
Every soul is redeamable,
and every soul shall be redeamed,
in Time.
I tend to take the Moll Flanders view of society.

Trickish Knave said...

Yet another great post that would have taken me at least a week to write.

Judas is always portrayed as this shifty character, like he was a spy of the devil sent in to infiltrate the apostolistic brotherhood Jesus had setup. Judas has become the symbol, like Benedict Arnold, of the ultimate betrayal. Even Dante puts him at the bottom of Hell with Julius Cesear.

Your last response, Andy, sounds like you are treading on the premise of predestination, predetermination, or fate, or whatever you want to call it. I dopn't know whether I can subscribe to fate. That starts to delve into and area that sets us up for a social free-for-all; "Since we are all predestined to do such-and-such then who cares what happens?"

Greater philosophers than I have batted that argument around but I think what people forget is that although the Bible is full of these great men of God, who did great things to expand His teachings, they are all still human and therefore fallible and prone to mistakes.

I believe Jesus knew who was his betrayer was all along (He's God for Crissakes!) but that didn't keep him from nurturing Judas as a disciple and letting what was going to happen take its course. Judas was tempted as we all are and he failed miserably. He knew what he was doing was wrong and what a collossal error in judgment he had made so he hung himself. Although even that is up to debate depending on who you talk to. But the point is that he wasn't this Judean shapeshifter who came into the group to kill Jesus. Although I remember reading somewhere that John called Judas a thief but that doesn't make sense.

I can't wait to see the NGC special on this. I hate when I start to feel comfortable in my religion and relationship with God and then something comes along and slaps me in the face and then I have to start all over again.

Andy said...

Knave, well said. I agree. That is pretty much where I have come to over the years concerning Judas. I used to believe in pre-destination, but I don't anymore...and yet I still believe in The Plan, whatever that is. Is that a paradox?

Obviously, I, too, am waiting for further commentary on the Judas gospel from people who know what they're talking about it. Personally, I don't feel I can regard it as an authentic view to Christ, because, as I said, this Jesus seems very disdainful of his disciples. Knowing what we know about the schisms in the early church, most likely this document is the result of a sectarian struggle aimed at discrediting the authority of other gospel versions. Yes, even the Fab Four talk about Jesus having favored disciples, but I really can't see Jesus and Judas involved in some kind of conspiracy -- which is what it would have to be -- to deliberately deceive the other disciples into thinking that Jesus had been betrayed. I believe that God doesn't always share with us the whole truth of everything, but I can't accept that He would ever deceive us in that way.

Stephen said...

There are reasons beyond the apparant reasons that Judas betrayed Christ. Judas was chosen knowing he was as Jesus said a 'chosen devil'. Well, He said 'I have chosen twelve of you and one of you is a devil.' What comfort that was to the other eleven for they all said, 'Is it I?'

There is a law of the tithe that says you can exchange the tithe for money. I have spent the past fifteen years researching the question, Does tithe money represent thirty pieces of silver?

In Revelations it says that the serpent reaches out to grab a third of the stars of heaven. Then a voice comes from heaven and says 'Now......' The same voice that said 'Now.....' after Judas went out.

To put it bluntly, we have thousands of ministers collecting tithes that represents thirty pieces of silver who are chosen devils that are being grabed by the great serpent, the devil.

This is a great drama unfolding for the last days.

Time said...

Easter Story

A simplistic, basic understanding of the philosophy Jesus preached, is to be kinder to each other; don't kill each other, don't steal from each other, adultry, ect...

Pre - Christ, was a society that did not treat each other kindly. Their level of conscience was low. A primative society where murder, theft, sexual promiscuity, sloth, drunkeness, ect..was common.

So how do you change a culture? How do you change peoples behavior? What do you say or do to change them?

Besides pure penalty, you must get them to believe, themselves, that their lifestyles are wrong.

A super-natural god that knows all and created all. Then that God declares your lifestyle bad and sets his laws on how you should behave.

Your motivation for following his rules and changing your behavior is to live eternally even after you die physically.

If you don't follow the rules - after you die - you will - live eternally in pain for your Earthly behavior.

Prove this God is real - the only way you can - by having him arise alive, after having been certainly dead.

That was the final scare - people started to change their ways. They started to listen to the preachings of this God and then insisted to their neighbors; that God is real and this is how God wants you to live, or you forfit peaceful eternity.

Kindness towards each other takes hold because it proves a better life on earth. People's belief in God grows stronger and they worship this God for making their lives better.

Stories are told and passed down. As usuall when stories are passed, the facts are lost, embelished, changed, and made up.

A book is written that tells the whole story of this supreme creator. Answers to all things are in the book.

People organize to spread the word. Money is gathered to help the word spread far and wide. Monuments are built to this God and a human flock is born.

The people in charge of the money and spreading the word; start making rules to mold the flock and keep them in line with God.

When facts come along that disprove the Word or go against the rules; the flock is lied to, or the facts are hidden, or called blaspheme.

Over the centuries the rules are changed because different leaders believe in different kinds of behavior and beliefs.

The orginazation splits over these differences. We have different sects worshiping the same God , but with different accepted personal behaviors for members.

The sects start arguing over these different kinds of behaviors. They charge each others sects with blaspheme.

Some leaders say there is only one way to worship God, and the murders (in Gods name) start.

Because a majority of the people believe in God, the church becomes the most powerful and richest orginazation of any kind in the world.

The church gets farther and farther away from the preachings of this God. They don't help the sick, the poor, the hungry.

They help themselves to land and money. They protect each other from the public flock. Kings and dictators do as they are told by the church for fear of mass revolt by the flock.

Man, this is a good story!

Continued next (Easter) Sunday

Anonymous said...

Good blog,

I just downloaded the PDF of the "Gospel" of Judas off of the National Geographic website. Interesting stuff in that it in no way has anything even remotely similar to the Gospels. I find it extremely unlikely that Jesus had anything to do with it. It was obviously written by the Gnostics to fuel their out of body thinking. It is also ironic that of all the weeks to put this out there it was done this week.

kr pdx said...

No, not ironic. If someone wants Christians to sit up and take notice (or offense), they consciously choose to release on or near Holy week. Several media outlets have opened specifically Christian-offending (especially Catholic-offending) shows and films for Good Friday ... a boycott last year got a particularly egregious one cancelled, actually.

kr pdx said...

(Time: I'm seeing this problem all over this year: "blasphemy" is the noun, "to blaspheme" is a verb.)

Andy said...

KR...I've been waiting. Nothing illuminating to add to the conversation?

kr pdx said...

Not really :). I haven't read the text yet; your discussion seems to be more thoughtful than others I have been subjected to (as the staunchest Catholic in most of my circles, I get pinged on this sort of thing).

As I told a relative who was happy to accept this Gospel based purely on the proposition that it absolves Judas of guilt (she is very into nobody being truly guilty of anything), I rather appreciate that the traditional presentations show us Judas--the Apostle apparently sharing Jesus' finger-bowl at the Last Supper, if the Gospel last SUnday is to be believed, can choose so poorly. Like Peter's three denials, I thnk it is terribly key that the Bible presents these "saints" as fully human--fully able to make horrible mistakes and fully culpable. Since theoretically each of us is chosen individually, by Jesus, to follow Him, what despair(!) if our ultimate examples of Chosen Followers were protrayed as sinless-once-chosen.

Oops. I think that might have been illuminating. So much for "not much" ;).

Anonymous said...

Who is Sophia? - I asked that question too after reading the english translation of judas' gospel. search engine for "corruptible sophia" = your blog which entertains me. (what was LGBT civil rights? i found out! horray for you,) still, who is sophia? i research more:

Pistis Sophia
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Nature and Structure of Gnosticism
Important terms and concepts
Brief History of Gnosticism
Detailed History of Gnosticism
What is Gnosticism?
Modern Gnosticism

Persian Gnosticism

Syrian-Egyptic Gnosticism

Fathers of Christian Gnosticism
Simon Magus

Early Gnosticism

Mediaeval Gnosticism

Gnostic Texts
Nag Hammadi Library
Acts of Thomas
1 Apocalypse of James
2 Apocalypse of James
Apocryphon of John
Books of Jeu
Dialogue of the Saviour
Coptic Apocalypse of Paul
Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians
Gospel of Judas
Gospel of Mary Magdalene
Gospel of Philip
Gospel of Thomas
Gospel of Truth
Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter
Ophite Diagrams
Pistis Sophia
The Sophia of Jesus Christ
Thought of Norea
Trimorphic Protennoia

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Esoteric Christianity

Pistis Sophia is an important Gnostic text. The five remaining copies, which scholars date c. 250–300 AD, relate the Gnostic teachings of the transfigured Jesus to the apostles assembled (including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Martha), when the risen Christ had accomplished eleven years speaking with his disciples. In it the complex structures and hierarchies of heaven familiar in Gnostic teachings are revealed.

The title Pistis Sophia is obscure, and is sometimes translated Faith wisdom or Wisdom in faith or Faith in wisdom. A more accurate translation taking into account its gnostic context, is the faith of Sophia, as Sophia to the gnostics was a divine syzygy of Christ, rather than simply a word meaing wisdom. In an earlier, simpler version of a Sophia, in the Berlin Codex and also found in a papyrus at Nag Hammadi, the transfigured Christ explains Pistis in a rather obscure manner:

Again, his disciples said: Tell us clearly how they came down from the invisibilities, from the immortal to the world that dies?
The perfect Saviour said: Son of Man consented with Sophia, his consort, and revealed a great androgynous light. Its male name is designated 'Saviour, begetter of all things'. Its female name is designated 'All-begettress Sophia'. Some call her 'Pistis'.

chiron said...

I have lots of questions for you...things I'd like to think about together...I'll get to those soon...In the mean time, you said, "I think it’s defensible to say that the spirit of the Lord was at work in these committees..." How could you defend such a position. Isn't the essense of faith it's complete groundlessness, of choosing to believe in the face of no evidence? Faith coincides with doubt, else it is no feat of love.

Andy said...

Chiron...isn't it something of an act of faith to believe that a "committee" vote, whether it be to authorize an ancient text, install a bishop or pick a pope, reflects in some way God's will? I mean, I don't see how one could really provide evidence one way or another. I'd definitely be interested in your further thoughts.

kr pdx said...

There is a Wisdom (presented as female) tradition in the OT as well. It pives modern Judeo-Christians some difficulties, as it seems like it might be setting up a female diety ... and probably some worshippers took it to that, just as some today mistakenly diefy the Virgin Mary (and, now, Mary Magdalene) ... but all three were/are creations of the One God, like we are, not co-creators (according to mainline thought, at least ;) ).

chiron--you can only defend it (logically argue it) using theology, of course ... faith would be a prerequisite to giving credence to the discussion points, starting with the concept of "the spirit of the Lord" :). Faith should be argued and logically applied,otherwise it will lack coherence (be "built on sand). Part of that arguement will legitimately come from Creation (empirical science); in the case of Divine Guidance, the argument would be (primarily) one of internal logic (although empircial/textual evidence might certainly be applied.

Faith is certainly wound up with doubt ... I would see arguing "defensibility" as a confrontation with doubt, rather than a refutation of doubt.

chiron said...

Andy, I think I understand my disconnect. I'm unfamiliar with Catholicism. Being radically individualist and protestant, I make no effort to apply faith to the workings of human institutions, including the Church, nor of its complilation or interpretation of scripture. Though I understand Providence is at work in history, I make no pretense of understanding how. About "building faith on sand," I don't think that our God-given conscience is quick sand, rather I think that the socio-political apparatus - and its induction of conscience - is quicksand. About theological argument, I understand now that by defensibility, you mean building a plausible argument for your conclusions supported by existing canonical scripture that meets tests of construct and internal validity. And now I'm just splitting hairs in a rush between work assignments. In the end, I see that kr pdx agrees that the doubt remains in the absence of conclusive and experiential proof. My attitude toward the Catholic Church (forgive me because it's so casual) is that I'm glad it's around. Despite its human stains, it seems to be one of the ways God has chosen to preserve part of the Christian tradition.

kr pdx said...

chiron--your attitude is so much more positive than most I would be hard pressed to be offended ;).

By foundation of sand, I meant that people who don't have logically coherent faith systems have a harder time when someone comes along with something that challenges their faith--they won't have enough tools to rationally compare the new evidence with their established belief system.

This is Andy's blog, so I won't expound upon the Church's teachings on conscience (which parallel yours but take up more space ;) ).