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Is it good for the Jews - this new Gospel of Judas? For scholars, this recently released apocryphal gospel offers significant insights into the arcane world of early Gnostic Christianity, a movement centered in Egypt between the second and fourth centuries C.E. that regarded the world of the flesh as created by an evil deity and believed that secret knowledge (gnosis) could provide the means to escape the material prison of our bodies and ultimately enjoy an elevated spiritual existence in heaven.
The Gospel of Judas also adds to our understanding of the development of early Christianity. As Professor Elaine Pagels of Princeton University has observed, early Christianity was even more diverse in its variety of traditions than the Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, Mormons, etc. of today.
The Christian in the pew, however, wants to know what this gospel divulges about an earlier time, about Judas Iscariot, the Jew who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, who then committed suicide when he could no longer bear his remorse.
In the Gospel of Judas, by contrast, Judas was not after lucre. He was helping Jesus to fulfill his mission that included his crucifixion. In this Gnostic gospel Jesus actually tells Judas to identify him to the authorities.
Judas is the hero, not the traitorous betrayer. Will Christian Sunday school teachers be telling their students a different story about Judas from now on? It would seem that Jews should welcome this new version of the story. Our man Judas is the hero, not the villain.
But that depends on whether this new account is reliable, trustworthy as real history. Is it?
Although scholars will be discussing this, the answer is already clear. Virtually all scholars will say that the story as related in the new apocryphal gospel has little, if any, value as accurate history.
The Gospel of Judas was written 50 to 100 years after the New Testament gospels by a group that was considered heretical even then, a group for whom the God of creation was evil, rather than benevolent. To put it in the vernacular, this gospel is, at best, just a bobbe meisah. It has no value for history - at least for the history of Judas.
ANYONE WHO seeks to defend the historical reliability of the Gospel of Judas will inevitably confront an inescapable contradiction: Either Judas' motivation was evil, or it was good; either he did it for money (as Mathew, Mark and Luke all attest) or because Jesus told him to.
Either the canonical gospels are wrong in this respect, or the Gospel of Judas is wrong. When it comes to a direct confrontation between the canonical gospels and a much later gospel considered heretical by early orthodox Christianity, it is not difficult to predict which version will be preferred, even by scholars who would like to wring some historical truth from the Gospel of Judas.
There is, of course, a third possibility: Neither the Gospel of Judas nor the New Testament account concerning Judas is historically reliable. That is the position of many critical New Testament scholars. And, indeed, there are good reasons to doubt the historicity of the varying accounts of Judas' acts as described in the New Testament gospels. After all, the 30 pieces of silver mentioned in Matthew was a rather paltry sum, even in those days.
As the great Catholic New Testament exegete Raymond Brown observed with respect to different versions of Judas's death, "Many of those who struggle to harmonize these accounts do so on a principle foreign to the Bible itself, i.e., what is narrated must be historical; and so, if there are two differing accounts, they must be able to be harmonized. These two accounts cannot be harmonized; consequently both cannot be historical, and in fact neither may be."
The New Testament portrayal of Judas, who came to represent the consummate Jew, is more theological than historical.
FOR ME AS a Jew, the new gospel, released a week before Easter (just before Pessah, the occasion of the Last Supper) is not particularly good news. The scholarly judgment of the new gospel is going to be that its portrait of Judas as a hero is not historical. Although the canonical portrait of him may not be either, it is the one that is fixed in the popular mind. And that has been the source of some hideous anti-Semitism over the centuries.
As Harvard's Jon Levinson has observed, "The growth of the legend of Judas Iscariot - and perhaps its inception as well - is inextricably linked to the anti-Semitic stereotypes that have appeared wherever Christianity has gone."
The less we're reminded of the New Testament Judas, the better. I don't mean to suggest that there is an anti-Semite under every green leaf, but for Jews there is nothing to be gained from a public focus on Judas.
We'll never win the argument that he was really an OK guy, so it's best just to let it go by as unobtrusively as possible, rather than calling attention to this possibility with a losing argument that he was really a hero.
The writer is editor of Biblical Archaeology Review.