Monday, April 10, 2006

At Greater Length: The Growing Judas Controversy

The Judas-as-good-guy story is a scam. At bottom, it’s the story marketed shamelessly by a group of so-called religious scholars who can’t stand belief in absolutes, of which one Elaine Pagels of Princeton is key. The “disclosure” of the Judas gospel which was actually part of a treasure trove of ancient Jewish writings found at Nag Hammadi in 1945 was timed to coincide with Easter and a National Geographic TV special for whom Pagel was paid a substantial research fee. Then Pagel writes an Op Ed in The New York Times Saturday extolling the find, disclosing that she researched the documentary. Shameless exploitation with no real religious significance.

Why not? Christianity has always been about absolutes, based on what the religion believes is divine revelation. Early in the game, St. Irenaeus pointed out that certain documents purporting to be secret info written some 200 years after the crucifixion, which he called Gnostic, were either non-authentic or, if legit, irrelevant to the Gospel stories. One was a purported gospel of the apostle Thomas (the same Thomas who was the doubter, after whom I am named, my mother having said that it was appropriate). Another was a gospel of Mary Magdalen which reported that Christ showed his mother Mary some information in a vision. Irenaeus said these were bogus, illegitimate and those who cherished them were heretics, adding “the heretics say that they have more gospels than there actually are; but, really they have no gospel that is not full of blasphemy.”

Nevertheless some early Christians revered them: rather like the Parson Weems tales of George Washington, that he cut down the cherry tree and threw a silver dollar across the Potomac. Then came a greater saint, one of my favorites, Athanasius of Alexandria who rejected “secret, illegitimate books” and instituted what we know as the four gospels as authentic. He said the secret books, containing paradox and mysteries, were not appropriate for Christians. One of them was the farthest out—the Gospel of Judas, purporting that Judas was really a good guy, that Christ knew and even helped along his own execution, giving Judas a role in its fulfillment which would make Judas a good guy. Pagels, a relativist to whom very little is absolute, is thrilled with the gospel because it comes at a time when Dan Brown has made a sizable fortune with a moth-eaten old yarn about Christ marrying Mary Magdalen and their having a child with the Catholic Church succeeding in keeping all this away from the people: The Da Vinci Code. Magdalen is supposed to be the long-haired, languid person sitting next to Christ in Da Vinci’s “Last Supper.”

Brown’s book is a seemingly never-ending best seller, on the hit list of the most popular books of all time, popular because it’s a page-turner but also a feminist thriller. Feminists like to believe they have been held down by many centuries of patriarchal rule beginning principally with the Church, where they have been banned from the priesthood and the long story of male dominance began. So the idea that all of this was held back by the Catholic Church is particularly delicious and ratifies feminists’ suspicions. That’s what makes the book wildly popular. But the story is not of Brown’s origin and is pure Gnostic. Brown just beat a rap of plagiarism and so will continue making his millions. Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton, cares very much that the story of a good Judas “open up the dialogue” so to speak. She’s not writing a novel about it but is cashing in by personal appearances this time in a way her earlier books have not—The Gnostic Gospels and Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas which have been regarded as ho-hum in the trade. She’s ready to go on lecture tours, get big bucks for each appearance for which the National Geographic “documentary” is good prep.

Why is Pagels’ theory bound to fail? Because it flunks the basic tradition of Christianity as did The Da Vinci Code. The difference is that Dan Brown didn’t care. His story presents a Christ who marries and whose secret is perpetuated by a secret cult Opus Dei which has a deranged monk who kills anyone who finds out the “truth.” It’s pure fiction and everybody knows it, although feminists like to dream it has some connection with reality. The Judas theory, presented by Pagels not as fiction but as fact, defies the tradition not just of the passion story but of Christ Himself. Christ is not a man, but God and man, gifted with two natures: divine and human. Of course Christ as God understood that He would have to be betrayed and go the route to the crucifixion. Christ as man prayed that this might not happen to him; indeed, he sweated literal blood at Gethsemane. His prayer to His Father was: “let this chalice pass from me, nevertheless not as I will but as Thou wills it.” The very gospel we heard today at Palm Sunday Mass, written by Mark, has Christ predicting that He will be betrayed. Everyone at the table asks, “is it I, Lord?”

Christ says it will be the one to whom he hands a morsel of food, and gives it to Judas. Judas leaves to begin the betrayal and Christ observes that it is better for that man not to have been born. Pagels and her fellow Gnostics are going to have a devil of a time may I say to sell their contradiction in the face of 2000 years of tradition.

Now what do we know about Judas? That his father was named Simon. That in all probability his hometown was Kerioth, east of the Jordan. That his surname, Iscariot, may well have been a variant of an Aramaic word meaning “assassin.” That his name always appears last in the list of apostles indicting his infamy in the minds of the early Christians to whom the gospel stories were passed by mouth and then written—including those of two eyewitnesses of Christ, Mark and John. That he managed the treasury of the group. That he pilfered from the treasury. That he contracted to turn Christ over to the chief priests for thirty pieces of silver. That he singled out Jesus for the guards by giving him a kiss in the garden of Gethsemane. That he became despondent after the betrayal and went out and hung himself in a field bought with his thirty pieces of silver. That—and Acts 1:18 tells it gruesomely—after death his body “swelled up” and burst, spilling forth his intestines, for which his burial field was called the “Field of Blood.” Pretty dramatic stuff, including Christ’s own identification of him as a traitor and His condemnation of Judas: no 21st century potboiler documentary can possibly ignore these things.

Why did Judas betray Christ? Scriptural scholars list six possible reasons: (1) Judas was a zealous patriot who wished to see Christ overthrow Roman occupation and establish a Jewish state. When he realized Christ was speaking of another kingdom, one not of this world, he grew dissatisfied; when he fully understands Christ’s goal it is too late and Judas kills himself. I tend to buy into this theory. (2) Judas believed Christ was the Messiah all right and wanted to hurry the process along by betraying Him to further the day when Christ ushers in His kingdom. This is probably part of the Pagels theory—but it is wildly contradictory with Christ’s own actions and words in Mark, among other places. (3) Judas was a scoundrel who just had no other motive than to play a role in killing a Good Man. Highly improbable. (4) Prompted by a satanic impulse, Judas betrays Christ; however after recognizing he was deceived, he kills himself. Maybe. (5) With a damaged pride and as result of Jesus’ rebuke, Judas goes out and does the dastardly deed. Naw. (6) Moved by his own greed, not realizing Jesus would be tried and killed, Judas collects the thirty pieces of silver but despairs at his own guilt and commits suicide. Maybe. My guess is largely #1, then #4, then #5. But we won’t know this until the end of time.

The New York Times, clearly fascinated, published yet another theory on Sunday in its editorial section, a piece by one David Gibson who “writes frequently about religion.” Gibson believes Judas has been set up by anti-Semites who want to pin the crucifixion of Christ on all Jews—and if Judas hadn’t been set up as a traitor, the idea wouldn’t have existed. There is no doubt that for centuries the Jewish people have suffered discrimination from Christians for the death of Christ, discrimination that among the Popes, John Paul II stands foremost as one who shatters this misconception. Perhaps the hope here is that just as modern feminists have taken to the story of Magdalen by bearing Christ’s child should have won for women true equality in Christianity, Jews may take up the cause of unjustified abuse now that Judas the good guy is being seen. Maybe—but injustice to the Jewish people isn’t dependent on Judas being a good guy. Christ only quarreled with a subset of the Jewish patriarchy, not the Jews per se.

In any event, this appears to be the status of the Judas Gospel story now. Be ready to see books, feature stories and television commentaries as well as thorough-going ventilation on talk radio. As for me, I’m going to avoid it on my talk radio program and suggest that unless you want to just regard it as entertainment, try to avoid having the real facts garbled by merchandisers after some bucks.


  1. You've got to follow the money in reporting a story like this. If the gospel of Judas gets short shrift from the public because it's reprocessed gnosticism, the a number of people are out some significant bucks. It can't be any surprise, then, that the big news was released close to Easter. Next Christmas, I suspect we'll get a book about the infancy gospel of Thomas which presents Christ as a dennis the menace with divine powers as a young child.

  2. "Christianity has always been about absolutes, based on what the religion believes is divine revelation." Maybe Christianity has always been about absolutes, but – as you and others have noted – the acts and teachings of Jesus seem to be more about paradoxical reactions to the absolutes of social order: loving enemies; worthless wealth; seeds moving mountains; man as God; and God as man.

    Grad school marketing courses ought to include case studies presenting the planning of release schedules for religion based entertainment for Easter. The current vehicles also risk cash and talent, but differ from those of previous generations, such as the old "King of Kings" film, in that they challenge, rather than reinforce, beliefs. I suspect those it may upset would not object to media based challenges presented to Shiite or Sunni beliefs during Ramadan in Iraq. It's a niche to be explored – at great risk (Long live cartoonists!) – by those seeking growth opportunities in religious based entertainment.