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April 11, 2006:

Just 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.

This 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.

Now 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.

Maecenas 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.

The 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 century.

The 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.

So, 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 be his.

Jesus 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.

It 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.

It is surely no accident that the various parties involved in promoting this
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.

Commenting 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.

There will be more discovered texts in the years to come. We will be questioningmore 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.

In an interview with explorefaith, Phyllis Tickle, our most profound interpreter of trends in religion today, reflected:

Every manuscript we discover bears that much more testimony to the power of a presence beyond anything we now can either feel or imagine, for we cannot know incarnate God in the same way they did. And discovery means as well that we must stand a bit in awe and a lot in wondering appreciation before the kind of soul-wrenching effort that drove the early Christians to separate wheat from chaff—to force themselves for our sakes to take on the contending and contentious factions swirling about and weld them into near-coherence.

Yes, now, and in the future, the sharp division will be over canonical faith. Do we return faithfully, always, to the canon of the New Testament gospels for the storyline of what happened in that fateful last week? Or, do we add to the tradition?

Jon M. Sweeney is a writer and editor living in Vermont. He is the author of several books including The Lure of Saints: A Protestant Experience of Catholic Tradition. More by Jon Sweeney.

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