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“Reading Judas”: A Review

Should the New Testament canon as we know it be reconfigured to include some of the recently discovered gospels, including The Gospel of Judas? The authors of Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King, say no. Though they argue the importance of reading this gospel for the light it sheds on second-century struggles in the Christian church and for its spiritual message, they maintain that “Church leaders established the canon at a specific and crucial time in history and for a specific purpose: to endorse a list of books ‘approved’ for reading in public worship in order to unify the movement under their leadership” (103). To help today’s readers understand its historical and spiritual significance, Pagels and King have written together an astute analysis of the gospel, and with it have included a carefully explained English translation by King.

The Gospel of Judas, not written by Judas but by an unknown author around 150 C.E., goes right to the heart of the major arguments among second-century Christians. The Christians who prevailed in the second century maintained that Jesus was the son of God; he died and was resurrected in the body through the plan of a loving God who allowed his son to die for the sins of the world; the disciples who remained after the death of the betrayer Judas were the true carriers of the good news, and this good news was portrayed accurately in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. One of the best known of the prevailing side is Irenaeus, a second-century bishop of Lyons, who helped drive the other gospels quite literally underground. The Gospel of Judas was discovered in Egypt in a limestone box in 1978 and did not become available until the beginning of this century (xi).

For centuries, Christians only knew about this gospel through the disparaging comments made by Irenaeus. He called its supporters heretics. In a conversation created by Pagels and King between him and the author of the Judas gospel, Irenaeus excoriates the heretics for claiming that the spirit of Christ had left his body before his crucifixion and had ascended to God in heaven, thus making his bodily resurrection a moot point, and he warned these people that their rejection of the bodily Christ would condemn them forever (7-8).

In the imaginary retort, the author of The Gospel of Judas slams Irenaeus and his followers as being “grossly mistaken” about the false “jealous, violent, and vengeful” god they worship. In fact, he is not even God. The true God is “purely goodness, light, and truth,” and by willfully misunderstanding the nature of the true God, “[i]t is you who will perish forever” (8). Twenty-first century readers can now explore the full argument in the Judas gospel. Without taking sides with either the Irenaeus or the Judas camps, Pagels and King point out that the true value of this gospel, as well as The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of Mary of Magdala, lies in our ability to hear the long-suppressed voices of other second-century Christian groups (101). We can now understand that the Christian church could have gone in different directions except for the greater political strength of the side that prevailed, and naturally the side that did prevail asserts that they did so because God was on their side.

What about Judas himself? Does the gospel written in his name take away the stigma of his act in the Garden of Gethsemane? In Chapter One, “Judas: Betrayer or Favored Disciple?” Pagels and King examine the Judas gospel for evidence that Judas may have been Christ’s most trusted friend, and having decided that the time for his death had arrived, Christ instructed Judas to do as he had told him. Thus rather than betraying Christ, he might have simply been carrying out Christ’s plan. In this gospel, Judas does not commit suicide; instead, the remaining disciples stone him, and thus he becomes the first Christian martyr. In this telling Judas, not the other disciples, understands “the mysteries of the kingdom” (26), one that is much more spiritual than the one described in the New Testament gospels. Pagels and King do not claim that this gospel finally sets the record straight. Rather, it is “only one more retelling of a much-told tale, but it gives this story a radical new twist, one that turns the tables on ‘the twelve'” (31).

Pagels and King devote their last chapter, “The Mysteries of the Kingdom,” to explaining how the author of the Judas gospel argues for a more spiritual kingdom than the New Testament gospels. “Jesus teaches Judas that at death, the bodies of all human beings will perish—there is no resurrection of the flesh. Only the souls of the great and holy race will be lifted up when their spirits separate from them (Judas 8:3-4)” (77). Thus, eternal life comes through understanding God’s true nature and man’s relationship to it, not through the resurrection of the body. Every human has this spiritual nature “hidden deep within…” (81), and those who search within to find the divine source will achieve eternal life. When traditional Christians “try to imagine eternal life, they imagine it only as living on forever in the flesh, just as Justin, Irenaeus, and Tertullian say. But Jesus insists they are wrong” (80-81). The arguments among various Christian groups regarding the literalness of Christ’s resurrection persisted throughout most of the first and second-century; however, those who argued for bodily resurrection prevailed. The mysteries as Judas believed Christ explained them, languished as the literalists gained ascendency.

What do we as modern Christians steeped in traditional views of the gospels have to do with trying to understand Judas’s alternate view? I agree with Pagels and King that it is important to hear the multiplicity of voices from the early church and to understand the political nature of the second-century arguments. More importantly we need to meditate on the nature of Christ and feel his influence in our lives.

Marilyn Glaim is professor emeritus of English at Pacific Union College, Angwin, California.

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