Sunday, April 09, 2006


So it turns out Judas Iscariot wasn't such a bad guy after all. An ancient document called the Gospel of Judas, a tattered, 26-page pa pyrus text from the second or third century, has now been published after spending the last 20 years cycling through the international antiquities bazaar, and it claims to show that Judas was in fact the greatest hero of the Easter story after Jesus.


According to the National Geographic Society, which secured the rights to the document and will broadcast a two-hour program on its contents this evening, Judas is a victim of history who was only doing Jesus' bidding by betraying him -- a surprising assertion that would seem to upend millennia of Christian teaching, as well as the indelible image of Judas languishing with other traitors in the lowest ring of Dante's "Inferno."

Naturally, any effort to rewrite the Christian story will incite passions on all sides. National Geographic's claim that the document "threatens to change religious history" is sure to fire the imagination of those who already think the New Testament is nothing more than a conspiracy perpetrated on generations of credulous believers (as if "The Da Vinci Code" weren't enough). On the other hand, many traditionalists will see the rehabilitation of Judas as another secular effort to undermine the culpability of a despicable turncoat and the belief in eternal punishment.

In reality, while the Gospel of Judas is undeniably fascinating as a historical document, its ideas are neither as new as its supporters would claim, nor as inimical to the faith as many believers may fear.

That is because Judas is such a confounding figure that believers and scholars and writers have al ways been drawn to find explana tions for his role and responsibility in Christ's death. Even Saint Peter, speaking centuries before the Judas gospel was composed, seems to attentuate his fallen brother's actions by telling the remaining apostles that Jesus was betrayed "according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God." (The Book of Acts that quotes Peter also has Judas dying by hitting his head in a fall; only the Gospel of Matthew has the dominant image of his sui cide by hanging.)

However, Peter's explanation still leaves us with as great a puzzle as any in theology: How could an omniscient and benevolent God allow his divine son Jesus to choose as one of his 12 apostles a man he knew would betray him? In the canonical Gospels, Jesus seems to command Judas to hurry and carry out his treachery. Was this not akin to condemning Judas to eternal damnation for doing something that was in fact necessary to fulfilling salvation history?

The Gospel of Judas that was unveiled last week is on one level in keeping with the contemporary approach to resolving the mystery of Judas, which is to either deconstruct or reconstruct Christ's be trayer into something more intelligible to the modern mind. Thus in recent years biblical scholars and archeologists have offered any number of theories about the "real" Judas, including the hypothesis that he was actually one of the Sicarii, a member of a band of dagger-wielding Jewish freedom fighters who sought the violent overthrow of Roman rule. The Latin for dagger is sicarius, hence the supposed derivation of "Isca riot" (the traditional interpretation is that Judas hailed from the town of Kerioth) as well as an ex planation for his betrayal, in that Judas was embittered when Jesus did not lead an armed re volt. (See "The Last Temptation of Christ" for the cinematic ver sion of this theory.)

Another persistent explana tion is that Judas did not exist at all, but was a later invention by Christian writers who wanted to blame the Jews, their former brethren, for the death of Christ; the name Judas refers to Jews. Christian anti-Semitism is a scandal, but even if this theory had much support, erasing Judas from the historical record would do little to address the root or branch of anti-Semitism.

In fact, artists, rather than historians, seem to have been more successful in exploring the emotional -- and spiritual -- truths about Judas without feeling it necessary to undo the mysterious paradoxes of the Easter story. As Graham Greene wrote in "The End of the Affair," "Hatred seems to operate the same glands as love; it even produces the same actions. If we had not been taught how to interpret the story of the Passion, would we have been able to say from their actions alone whether it was the jealous Judas or the cowardly Peter who loved Christ?"

It is a penetrating question that has no easy answers. Jorge Luis Borges wrote "Three Versions of Judas" in order to plumb the many possibilities, and in his "St. Matthew Passion," Bach's Judas calls himself der verlorne Sohn, a reference to the Prodigal Son who finds his way back to the father and ultimate forgiveness. And in the 1970 rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar," Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice depict Judas as a loyal disciple who reluctantly betrayed Jesus because he feared a Roman backlash against the Jews.

In his 1931 poem "Germinal," George William Russell looked at Judas as an innocent "knit with his doom," almost as Jesus him self was born to die on the Cross:

In ancient shadows and twilights

Where childhood had stray'd,

The world's great sorrows were born

And its heroes were made.

In the lost boyhood of Judas

Christ was betray'd.

A similar theme was explored last year by the playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis in his fierce and provocative drama "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot," which at one point imagines Judas as an innocent boy who was kind to his friends. The dilemma of Judas nagged Guirgis since his days in Catholic school, and in "Last Days" he tries to work out the problem by finally getting Judas a hearing -- in Purgatory -- before a judge and jury.

For me, though, it is the Japanese writer Shusaku Endo who answered the question most convincingly, in his 1969 novel "Si lence," a harrowing account of the 17th-century shogunate's campaign to eradicate the Christian faith. The hero of the story, a missionary named Sebastian Ro drigues, is full of zeal and idealism as he sneaks into Japan, imagining himself as his beloved Jesus, even hoping for the mar tyr's death that seems his inevitable fate. Yet as the priest is steadily broken down by his captors, he comes to see himself as closer to Peter, the apostle who denied Christ three times but who, in spite of his weaknesses, is chosen as the rock on which Christ's church will be built.

Eventually the priest is shorn of even this romantic vision of himself. Devastated by the agonies of Christians being tortured to death because the priest will not reject his faith, Rodrigues finally bows to his jailers' demands and crushes an image of his be loved Jesus under his foot. By the end of the tale, he has made the journey from imitating Christ to becoming another Judas.

But does Rodrigues lose his soul? Was his even a true be trayal? Therein hangs the drama of the novel, and the enduring mystery of the Easter message. All too often Christians want to see themselves as Jesus on the Cross, when in fact the inescapable condition of human weak ness -- and the high ideals of Christian doctrine -- will lead us to betray Christ's teachings. O Felix culpa! as the glorious Exul tet of the Easter vigil proclaims, "O happy fault that gained for us so great a Redeemer!" It is the pilgrimage back to grace that is at the heart of Christianity, and the source of hope embodied in the passion of Judas.

So perhaps, instead of reading the Gospel of Judas as a literal narrative, it is best to consider it as an early marker in a long literary tradition. Maybe the authors of this text were simply trying, in those tumultuous early centuries after Christ, to grapple with the mysteries of the faith rather than claiming, as some today may be tempted to do, to have discovered an alternative account of the deeds and words of Judas. Instead of clinging to a few sheets of tattered papyrus in hopes of absolving the problematic Judas, believers may be more faithful to Christian history if they read themselves into his story, and from there find a path out of despair and toward the redemption that Judas himself may have finally discovered.

David Gibson writes frequently about religion. His latest book is "The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World," to be published this fall.

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