National Geographic takes a look at The Lost Gospel of Judas.

Coming up this Sunday at 9PM the National Geographic Channel will be airing a show on The Lost Gospel of Judas, which supposedly reveals a hidden aspect of Judas’ relationship to Jesus that seems to indicate that Judas wasn’t betraying Jesus at all, but doing exactly what he’d been asked to do:

As told in the New Testament Gospels, Judas betrayed Jesus for “30 pieces of silver,” identifying him with a kiss in front of Roman soldiers. Later the guilt-ridden Judas returns the bribe and commits suicide, according to the Bible.

The Gospel of Judas, however, gives a very different account.

The text begins by announcing that it is the “secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week, three days before he celebrated Passover.”

It goes on to describe Judas as Jesus’ closest friend, someone who understands Christ’s true message and is singled out for special status among Jesus’ disciples.

In the key passage Jesus tells Judas, “‘you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.’”

Kasser, the translation-project leader, offers an interpretation: “Jesus says it is necessary for someone to free him finally from his human body, and he prefers that this liberation be done by a friend rather than by an enemy.

“So he asks Judas, who is his friend, to sell him out, to betray him. It’s treason to the general public, but between Jesus and Judas it’s not treachery.”

The newfound account challenges one of the most firmly rooted beliefs in Christian tradition.

Bart Ehrman is chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“This gospel,” he said, “has a completely different understanding of God, the world, Christ, salvation, human existence—not to mention of Judas himself—than came to be embodied in the Christian creeds and canon.”

That’s the great thing about works of fiction: You can have inconsistencies and contradictions galore and it doesn’t really matter that much until you try to push it off as being reality. Then you have to sit down and try to sort out which works of fiction are the least inconsistent with each other and discard the rest before you slap them into a book and sell it as the Revealed Word Of God™. Trouble is those other works don’t always fade into history like some folks wish they would.

18 thoughts on “National Geographic takes a look at The Lost Gospel of Judas.

  1. This story has been floating around certain Coptic sects forever (The Copts broke off from the main body of christendom in the fourth century, before the Council at Nicea, where the biblical canon was formally established)

  2. Jorge Luis Borges also plays with this idea in “Three Versions of Judas”, from Ficciones(1944).  He argues that Judas is the true savior, since he paid for his necessary role in the Crucifixion with eternal damnation, whereas Jesus merely died on the Cross and then went to Heaven.

    Btw, anyone who hasn’t read Borges should do so.

  3. So, Judas was sort of the Scooter Libby of the Bible, believing he had highest authorization to betray others for the greater good …

    There are any number of other gospels and epistles from the period (within the first few hundred years A.D.) (the team actually translated several of them, though the Gospel of Judas is the “sexy” one).  According to the timeline at the NG site, the GoJ was written at/before AD 180, the “canonical” gospels showing as being written AD 65-95.  So if the canonical gospels are (rightfully) criticized for being so far after the fact, the GoJ probably should be even moreso.

    That’s the great thing about works of fiction: You can have inconsistencies and contradictions galore and it doesn’t really matter that much until you try to push it off as being reality. Then you have to sit down and try to sort out which works of fiction are the least inconsistent with each other and discard the rest before you slap them into a book and sell it as the Revealed Word Of God™. Trouble is those other works don’t always fade into history like some folks wish they would.

    That’s certainly a problem if you’re trying to define a literal, unquestioned truth of What Actually Happened.  It’s actually kind of interesting that the church councils that decided on the canon (as of AD 367) were willing to take the four separate gospels, rather than create/craft a consensus “final report” (leaving aside the question of the synoptic gospels themselves deriving from a common source).  I don’t know if there was a tradition regarding eyewitness accounts of events (“we expect there to be contradictions”) or if the literal truth, vs. the message, was not considered as important, or what.

    That there was an attempt to then shoehorn these accounts into some sort of live, literal action video of What Really Truly Happened (glossing over where there are contradictions) just isn’t rational.  That doesn’t necessarily make it “fiction” (in terms of it being just a made-up story) (see Rashomon), but it does mean that any attempt to pass the gospels as some sort of unitary and consistent transcript of events is doomed to failure.

  4. I’ve recently recovered a classified photo of Jesus riding his donkey past the grassy knoll, and in the background in the book depository window, Judas is aiming a cross at him.  Proof positive!

  5. I’ve done a lot of research on this text, and even had an opportunity (as someone mentioned they’re the biggest users of this text) to study with some Coptics in Egypt regarding their own exegesis.  It’s an interesting book, and it reflect a style of writing that few today can accurately understand in forum-land.

    This text, and like many of those now considered “biblical” were *not* written with the intent of being wholly non-fiction.  If you think it was, then you are ignoring the literary history of this era and region.

  6. Actually, teasing out the mindset/culture-set, etc., is really the point of most people studying biblical texts in an academic setting. What i find amusing is how, especially in forum-land, most atheists dismiss biblical literature as having any worth.  Their attitudes totally remind me of the fundamentalists i’ve dealt with.  They’re sooooo emotionally upset by the a worldview with which they disagree that they become academically paralyzed.

    This is where atheists and the religious types are true ideological kin in their mindsets, and equally as ugly.

  7. That’s odd. Most of the atheists I’ve interacted with see plenty of worth in Biblical literature, we just don’t accept it as being “divinely inspired” or the “revealed word of God.” Even fiction can have plenty of good ideas/advice in it and using parables and other storytelling methods to impart wisdom goes back to the dawn of language.

  8. I agree – the bible is a cultural and literary treasure, containing voices which echo the same worries people have today.  This is one of the reasons it continues to resonate with the faithful, who identify with the people in it.

    Where do I come from?  How can I make my way in the world?  Why do the wicket prosper?  Is there any hope of justice against the powerful?  How should I face my own shortcomings?  What should I do if I am wronged?  What should I do, period?  Is anyone listening to me?  The universe seems like an awfully cold and vast deep… what does it all mean?  Where are my loved ones who have died?

    The Psalms are not just a literary invention – at their core they are the voice of a real person (likely several real persons) struggling with all that and more.  The woman bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears was overwhelmed by the only religious teacher she ever met who didn’t just send her away in disgust, so the story rings very true.

    People feeling lost today have the same struggles, and if one part of the book rings true, they are likely to defend the rest without looking too closely. 

    Yes, the bible contains much of human value, and also a lot of ancient (and mistaken) ideas about cosmology, geology, physiology, etc. along with some truly awful morality couched as the voice of god. 

    That’s one atheist view of the bible, and a lot of atheists are former Christians. Certainly the view will vary depending on the atheist.

  9. Why do the wicket prosper?

    Lack of better things to do at a snobby garden party than tap balls through small arches, I presume. ; )

  10. Perhaps I stated that a bit baldly, rob.  I agree with Les that there’s plenty of worth in the Bible, and DoF put very nicely why the Bible touches us- even ugly atheists.  I was merely trying to dramatize my dismissal of any special status for the Bible, or any other religious work, above and beyond that of any other great literature, given the fact that there is no God.  I guess the sausage was a bit much.

  11. While I don’t really look at the Bible as being anything more than a piece of Play-doh that has been sculpted by men over the course of thousands of years (which is fascinating in its own right)… the first thing that popped in my mind when I read this was, “Ooooh!  Early form of fan fiction!”

    I’ll watch that N.G. special though because I like knowing and reading about that stuff.  It’s fun.

  12. Growing up in catholic school I always used to wonder how Judas could “betray” Christ if everything went according to a perfect plan concieved before we even exsisted.

  13. Ah, “fan-fiction.”

    Someone actually understands most author’s original mind-set of this literarly genre and era.  Kudos.

    This is a much better understanding of the text than comparisons of Scooter Libby, or (most probably erroneous) any notion that the author considered the text “divinly inspired.”  Both notions are incredibly improbable.

    It’s important to remember that literature of this era is direct ancestor of their verbal-lore.  When people told stories verbally (then, still, the most common means of story transmission) they *knowingly* were understood to fluff up the story-line.  Why? . . .

    [1] Generally speaking, you’re audience was comprised of many different age groups
    [2] People expected some outlandish stunts, scenes, and acts (just like today’s movie-goers)
    [3] It helped keep people engaged, and often the fanciful aspects of the sory told their own tale in itself

    There’s nothing worse than listening to a bunch of people critique a text, all the while ignoring the historical and literary context.

    Fan-fiction, yes, with a moral and message.

  14. Place the Judas text in contrast to something like The Rev-of-John, and you’ll see what i mean about the author most probably not believing his writing to be G-d inspired—never mind that such a notion contradicts the gnostic tones of text.  In contrast, John believed himself to be witness to a divine-sent vision that he was then compelled to redact for edification. The Judas text’s author makes no such assertion, he’s merely telling another attention-grabbing version of what was then a popular, regional story, sans revelation.

    I believe the original author of the Judas text designed his story around the infamous anti-hero of this then well-known regional lore so as to grab attention—with a larger goal of expounding on the idea that the “Kingdom” is within and without our individual beings, not just wholly to be found outside ourselves.  The Kingdom of G-d, to this author, wasn’t wholly trascendant, but knowable as is our own consciousness.

    Who knows…
    Maybe in 1000 years people will be arguing whether the author of “Angles in America” considered himself divinly inspired.  Regardless, such an idea is irrelevent to the text, and the message, and really has no room in sound discussions of it.

  15. Lacking as it is in any mention of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, I can see why the Gospel of Judas was branded heresy by the early Church.  The Gnostic belief seems to be that Jesus’ “immortality” was that he continued to exist in the “spirit world” free of his earthly flesh.  Nothin’ wrong with that!

    I did want to take a sledgehammer to my TV when that asswipe Bob Schuller’s face showed up.  Words cannot convey the disgust I feel for that self-righteous fuckstick and his multi-million dollar monstrosity, the Crystal Cathedral.  He was the first of the fundies that inspired me to fight against the infiltration of government by the Christian Right, closely followed by Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel.  I grew up in Orange County, CA, where both these guys and TBN are based, so I got a front row seat as they sowed the seeds of the right-wing political power grab that’s borne altogether too many “fruits” such as the ID movement, abstinence-only education and the fundies’ use of our government to prop up their worldview.  Ugh.

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