Window on Israel: The Gospel of Judas

Replacing one set of tendentious stories with another does not make a great deal of intellectual sense.

window88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
The writer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem There is a bit of pathos in the prominence given here to the publication of the Gospel of Judas. The story appeared prominently on the front page of Ha'aretz. Prominent radio talk shows interviewed leading experts and asked time and again, would the revelation work to end the religious basis of anti-Semitism? For those not in the loop, the Gospel of Judas surfaced in a Coptic translation discovered in an Egyptian desert repository. Tests find it to be an ancient document, perhaps from the third century, which tells a story that Judas was the favored disciple; his turning over Jesus to the Roman authorities was in keeping with Jesus' wish to be put to death in order to free his spirit from the encumbrance of his body. What was found was a copy in Coptic of a Gospel composed many years earlier, known to Church fathers, and kept out of the New Testament. Whether the story it tells is historically true or not is lost to us. Scholars recognize that early Christians conceived of numerous ideas not canonized, or accepted by those who put together the New Testament. The assignment of the name Judah (Jew) to the disciple defined as evil may well have been made in order to further the emphasis against the Jews. The modern recognition that the New Testament was composed several decades after Jesus' death, and is something other than true history recorded in real time, is part of the effort made by Catholics and others to discount its accusations against the Jews. It is common among scholars to view the New Testament as designed to tell the story of a new and weak religious community, concerned to justify itself in the eyes of Roman authorities and to cast aspersions on the dominant Jews. Roman Catholic Church leaders have said in recent days that they do not expect the Gospel of Judas to alter Church doctrine. What was categorized with other heresies many centuries ago will not easily win recognition as authentic. Changing the canonized Christian Bible will be especially difficult when there are many Christian churches, each with its own authorities and inclinations, in a period when the issue of authenticity is very much open to question in religious circles as well as elsewhere. A century ago, Albert Schweitzer wrote his doctoral dissertation around the question of finding what is real in the New Testament's material about Jesus. Since then, numerous other scholars have worked the field, typically admitting that there is a great deal of uncertainty. Replacing one set of tendentious stories with another does not make a great deal of intellectual sense. The Hebrew Bible also has its problems as historic text, as is well known to anyone who has entered the endless list of books and articles that wrestle with the problems of finding historic reality in a collection of good literature composed before historians worried about portraying accuracy. As in the case of the New Testament, those who contributed to the accumulation of the Hebrew Bible as we know it decided in favor of some stories, and against others. Scholars see real signs of political conflict between those who wanted to advance one group of priests, or the Temple in Jerusalem, against other claimants of being the true priests, or the site that should have a monopoly of being the Holy Temple. What we read as ancient Jewish history is no more certain in its details than what we read about Jesus and the disciples in the New Testament. We read the stories of the winners: those who wrote the history that came to be accepted as authentic. We should hope for the best in the continuing efforts of the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian leaders to accept Jews as something other than Christ killers. But it may be that the cartoonist of Ha'aretz got the story better than the serious writer of the front-page article. He pictures two worried fathers of the Church, with one of them saying, "That Judah is again causing problems."
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