Essay: Reading the New Testament as a Jew

Christian Gnosticism was even more hostile toward Jews than mainstream Christianity.

hillel halkin 88 (photo credit: )
hillel halkin 88
(photo credit: )
I don't know whether National Geographic Magazine deliberately timed its announcement of the dramatic discovery of an early Christian "Gospel of Judas Iscariot" for the Pessah season. It's a nice touch, in any case, because it was on the night of the Seder that Judas, according to the New Testament, betrayed Jesus to his captors and set in motion the events leading to his crucifixion. Indeed, as elsewhere in the New Testament, only a reader with some knowledge of Jewish customs can fully follow its description of this "last supper," as Christianity calls it. When one reads, for example, how, at the Seder's start, Jesus "took the cup, and gave thanks, and said [to his disciples], 'Take this and divide it among yourselves, for I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God shall come'; and he took the bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, 'This is my body which is given for you; this do in remembrance for me,'" the Jewish reader recognizes the Kiddush and the Hamotsi immediately. When the Gospels tell us that, at the meal's end, the disciples "sang a hymn," what was sung was clearly the Birkat hamazon. When it is related that Jesus "took likewise the cup after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you,'" the reference is obviously to the fourth and last cup of wine, drunk at the Seder's end. This is the paradox of reading the New Testament as a Jew. One feels its poignant intimacies more than anyone - and recoils more than anyone at the uses to which they were later put. It is a strange and not entirely unamusing experience to watch, through Jewish eyes, a Catholic mass with its Communion and to know that all that grandiose pageantry, all the endless medieval theological debates about whether the "body of Christ" is literally or only "virtually" in the Eucharist's wafer and wine, all started with a humble piece of matza and an ordinary borei pri hagafen. Leave it to the goyim to turn something so simple into something so absurd! SO OF course, there is also something in a Jew that responds to the discovery of an ancient Christian text in which Judas Iscariot, our very own Yehuda Ish-Krayot, the satanic betrayer of God incarnate, the archetypical Christian symbol of Jewish evil throughout the ages, turns out to have been a good guy. Judas, it seems, being the sole disciple with the Jewish brains to have understood all along that Jesus intended to martyr himself, and that being crucified, with all its horrible suffering, was precisely the death that would give his master's life its ultimate meaning, agreed to sacrifice himself as well; for what greater sacrifice could there be than for a disciple who loved his master to turn him over to his executioners at the Seder's end because someone had to do it and because he was willing to bear the scorn and hatred of his comrades - of humanity! - in order to be that someone? It is an intriguing notion, and one with sufficient logic behind it to have appealed to more than one modern author - among them the Hebrew novelist A.A. Kabak, whose historical novel about Jesus The Narrow Path, published in 1950, has Judas and Jesus agreeing on such a course of action between them. After all, it is clear from the New Testament account that Jesus saw his death at the hands of the authorities as both inevitable and necessary - and if he did, he needed help in arranging it. In fact, even in one of the four New Testament Gospels, the Gospel According to John, Judas, though not volunteering for his role, is chosen for it by Jesus. In John's account, Jesus whispers to one of his disciples (by implication, John himself) that he will dip his matza in some sauce and hand it to his future betrayer - and he then hands it to Judas, whereupon "Satan entered into him [Judas]" and Jesus says, "That that thou doest, do quickly." Quite obviously, poor Judas is a victim in this version of forces beyond his control. WELL, BETTER a victim than a villain. But to think of Judas not as a victim either, but as Jesus' most loyal and understanding follower, the only one who could be entrusted with the excruciating task of being a traitor - this is sublime! Of course, since at the moment of my writing these lines the text of the "Gospel According to Judas" has not yet been released by the National Geographic Society (it apparently will be shortly), we may yet be in for unpleasant surprises. This gospel, so the advance publicity has informed us, is, like a number of other non-canonical early Christian accounts of Jesus' life and death, a Gnostic document - and in its attitude toward Jews, Christian Gnosticism was on the whole even more hostile than mainstream Christianity. The fact that the "Gospel According to Judas" vindicates Judas does not necessarily mean that it will prove to be a vindication of the Jews or Judaism. But never mind that. An early, second-century C.E. exoneration of Judas Iscariot is sufficient unto itself. And although it obviously has great historical significance for scholars, such an exoneration will speak especially to those Jews (of whom I confess to be one) who have always felt both close to the figure of Jesus and unforgiving toward a Christian world that persecuted us viciously in his name. With such a Judas one can identify. I sometimes think of that Seder that is called "the last supper." There was no Haggada to read yet, no Had Gadya or Echad Mi Yode'a to sing - all that came later. There were just 13 men around a Jerusalem table with matza and wine on it, doing their best to talk (for they had other things on their minds) of the exodus from Egypt as tradition commanded them, three of whom (if John's account is to be trusted) knew, and 10 of whom did not, that the nights and days ahead of them were going to be terrible. But for Jesus these nights and days did not last long. For Judas they have lasted until the present. That's the difference.