in Time for Good Friday—The Conversion of Judas
by Jon M. Sweeney
There was talk of Jesus—and Judas—on the front page
of most major newspapers throughout the world last Friday. These,
following a news conference the day before, were announcing a
major, new, Dan Brown-like find: the lost Gospel of Judas.
is no hoax. But reading the opening sentence of the front page
of The New York Times, one might have been tempted to
think that this new gospel had been found only days earlier. “An
early Christian manuscript, including the only known text of the
Gospel of Judas, has surfaced after 1,700 years, and it portrays
Judas Iscariot not as a betrayer of Jesus but as his favored disciple
and willing collaborator.” In fact, the 26-page papyrus
text bound in leather was discovered in a cave south of Cairo,
Egypt in the 1970s.
this detail really is Dan Brown-like: After moving from
dealer to dealer in Egypt, Europe, and the United States, the
ancient codex actually sat for sixteen years in a safe-deposit
box in a bank in Hicksville (Long Island), New York. It was waiting
to be sold, and was finally purchased by an antiquities dealer
in Zurich in 2000. Six months later it was given by the Swiss
dealer to the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Basel.
undertook to restore the manuscript and translate it, with financial
help from the National Geographic Society. Now, there are television
specials (National Geographic Channel, Sunday, April 9), a special
exhibition of portions of the codex (National Geographic Society
headquarters, Washington, D.C., began Friday, April 7), articles,
and at least two books in the works.
same lab in Tucson, Arizona, that once radiocarbon dated the Dead
Sea Scrolls has also dated this Coptic Gospel of Judas. Their
conclusion? The papyruses could be as old as A.D. 220, and are
no younger than A.D. 340. The earliest reference to the Gospel
of Judas comes in the writings of Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon, France,
who condemned the original Greek version of it in the late second
copy of this controversial document just revealed is a Coptic
translation of the Greek text. It was translated at a time when
bishops around the Christian world were debating which early Christian
texts should become part of the New Testament.
what does this new gospel have to say? Plenty.
It is a short tale—shorter than the Gospel of Mark, which
is the shortest of the four gospels in the New Testament. It tells
the story of Good Friday in very different terms from how it will
be told in churches around the Western world this Holy Week. The
Gospel of Judas is not purported to be written by the disciple
himself, but it is told from a perspective that is supposed to
speaks privately to Judas in this gospel. It is a “Gnostic”
gospel in that it is full of “secret knowledge.” Jesus
tells Judas: “Step away from the other [disciples] and I
shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for
you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal.” Jesus
explains to Judas that he must turn him over to the Romans. By
so doing, Judas was fulfilling the wishes of Christ. Jesus tells
Judas: “You will be cursed by other generations—and
you will come to rule over them.” [These quotes come from
the complete, translated text, currently available as a pdf
on the New York Times website.
is doubtful that, as a result of this find, many clergy will be
rewriting their Good Friday sermons—or, at least, not just
yet. However, this discovery must be taken seriously. Just as
finding the Gospel of Thomas more than a half century ago has
changed how we view Jesus as a wisdom teacher, we should now begin
to question the underlying suggestion of conspiracy or greed or
ambition that threads through our current interpretations of Judas’s
actions in the Gospel narratives.
is surely no accident that the various parties involved in promoting
important find made the announcement about it just before Holy
Week. The attention of much of the world is focused on the events
of the last days of Jesus Christ this week. Western Christians
celebrated Passion (or Palm) Sunday on April 9, and every day
this week is of great importance to Christians.
on the obvious way in which marketing has dictated the timing
of the announcement, one religious expert interviewed by explorefaith
said: “Doing a Dan Brown is smart in the world of secular
culture, but it is close to bad taste, if not downright suspect,
in the world of academic and theological investigation.”
Nevertheless, no one seems to be denying that this is a find that
must be taken seriously.
will be more discovered texts in the years to come. We will be
of our assumptions in the decades ahead. Judas
now joins Thomas and Mary Magdalene as witnesses to the events
of the last week of Jesus that may, or may not, be believed. We
stand far-removed from the events of those days. Compare our feelings
about our understanding of Abraham Lincoln to how our ancestors
will puzzle about him 1800 years from now.
an interview with explorefaith, Phyllis
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