June 11th, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; religious language; The Gospel of Judas...

Some time back, there was a very brief mention in this journal of The Gospel of Judas, with a general agreement on everyone's part that the publication had been wildly overhyped. However, hilleviw posted this comment, which I promised to take up after I got back from WisCon:
"Overhyped yes, but I think there are two questions which are of some interest. Firstly: the most important inference some people are drawing is that, in fact, Judas did not betray Jesus but did as Jesus instructed. Is there a sound basis for this inference? Do the text fragments really offer a basis for this conclusion? Secondly, if it is true that Judas did not betray Jesus, does it matter? Does it change Christian theology in any substantive way?"

The first question is the simpler one. In all of the research and reading that I've done on the topic, I have yet to find any indication that the document can be regarded as valid evidence -- historical evidence -- for the idea that "Judas did not betray Jesus, but did as Jesus instructed." The experts for the most part appear to agree -- based on rigorous scientific tests -- that the document really is a text from the third or forth century, written in Coptic and translating an earlier Greek text, and that it is probably a text that had been denounced as a Gnostic heresy by Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons around the year 180. There is general agreement that it's an important historical discovery simply because of its antiquity. But I've seen no claims that it should be accepted as a valid account of an actual historical event in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. I've seen absolutely no indication anywhere suggesting that the "cosmology" presented in the document is anything that should be taken seriously. Do the text fragments really offer a basis for the conclusion that the alleged conversation between Jesus and Judas actually took place? The answer appears to be no -- which throws the rest of the discussion out of the field of history and into the field of theological speculation.

The second question then becomes "If it were true that Judas was only following orders, rather than committing the most evil of betrayals, would it matter? Would it change Christian theology in any substantive way?" Nothing about that question is simple. And all I can offer you in response to it is my opinion.


Traditional Christianity holds that God is all-powerful, able to determine every single thing that happens from the beginning of time through all of eternity. If that is true, then, in my opinion, God personally chose Judas to be the person who betrayed Jesus. Judas was necessary to the divine plan. If free will enters into this at all, then it follows that Judas was free to refuse the role of betrayer, and instead accepted it. [Just as Jesus was free to refuse the role of sacrifice, and instead accepted it.] But there are two things that have to be remembered in this context.

First, there's no way to know how Judas himself perceived the situation. If his perception was that he really wanted the thirty pieces of silver and was willing to betray Jesus to get them, that's profoundly evil, and is in keeping with the traditional Christian account of the matter. If, on the other hand, his perception was that in order to help Jesus fulfill the prophecies he had to sacrifice his reputation for all of time and risk eternal damnation, and he was nevertheless willing to do that, that's profoundly good, and is one of the noblest acts ever carried out in the history of humankind.

Second, none of this is new. I was raised in the one of the most rigid of Baptist churches, and as early as the age of seven I can remember this question being hotly debated in Sunday School and in Bible study classes at that church ... and never being settled. Nothing in The Gospel of Judas, in my opinion, moves us one step closer to settling that question than we ever were.

If, and only if, The Gospel of Judas were accepted by the Christian faith as part of the Biblical canon -- as one of the actual books included in the Bible, then for those Christians who believe that every word of the Bible is literally true there would be a change in Christian theology -- and tthe change would be massive, because it would mean that the rest of the document would also have to be considered true, and that would be a cataclysm. That hasn't happened, and isn't likely to, because most of the document is totally inconsistent with the rest of the Bible. I believe, therefore, that it's safe to say the the document does not change contemporary Christian theology in any substantive way; I don't believe it changes Christian theology even trivially.

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Here's a motley assortment of links you might look at if you want to pursue the subject, none written in impenetrable Academic Regalian or stuffed with theological jargon:

A review of the document by Craig L. Blomberg, at http://www.denverseminary.edu/dj/articles2006/0200/0211.php

An irreverent article titled "Judas: So Hot Right Now!", by Cornel Bonca, at http://www.ocweekly.com/news/news/judas-so-hot-right-now/25219

An article titled "Gospel of Judas: Authentic Fraud," by Jon Christian Ryter, at http://www.newswithviews.com/Ryter/jon131.htm

A post by David Kopel at http://volokh.com/archives/archive_2006_04_02-2006_04_08.shtml

An article titled "Found in translation," by Ann Pepper, at http://www.ocregister.com/ocregister/homepage/abox/article_1092171.php

An off-the-beaten-path article titled " 'Gospel of Judas' Irrelevant in Light of Even More Startling Ancient Text," by (I think) Michael Horn, at http://www.prweb.com/printer.php?prid=369916 -- with a link that takes you even farther off the beaten path