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April 25, 2006

Can the Gospel of Judas
Say Anything to Jews?


So what, if anything, might it matter to Jews if the recently discovered Gospel of Judas reports a different account of the one who allegedly betrayed Jesus? Isn't this really just something of interest to biblical scholars and curious Christians?

As the media has already noted, the ancient text now given new life by the National Geographic Society reports that Judas, one of Jesus' 12 disciples, may not have betrayed his leader after all. Contrary to the Christian accounts in the gospels authored by Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, the Jesus of Nazareth in this recent find may actually have colluded with Judas before his arrest in Jerusalem . If that really were the case one might consider it “good news” to co-opt a Christian phrase, because the complicity could liberate Judas, whose name means “Jew,” from an entrenched and detested role in the history of modern anti-Semitism.

However, can knowledge of such loyalty to his teacher really do anything to finally erase Judas' prior record? Probably not until the day scholars agree that he's innocent of being “the betrayer” beyond a reasonable doubt. After all, his is a rap sheet so ugly that the enmity it has spawned at the hands of extremists has caused millions of Jews to suffer horrific deaths over the last 2000 years. Even today, Judas is maligned in sermons, movies, religious school classes, and revisionist broadsides.

Another reason the Gospel of Judas won't override the longstanding accounts of Judas in the Christian texts bound together as the New or Second Testament is that it was written approximately 150 years after Jesus's reported death. No matter what the discovered document says and how convincingly it might say it, this new portrayal of Judas has the odds for credibility stacked against it.

So why, then, should Jews outside of ivory towers and far from archeological digs be interested in this alternative account?

First, on the heels of The Da Vinci Code and The Jesus Papers, a new book suggesting Jesus didn't die on a cross in Jerusalem and that he even fathered a child, this newest ancient document has already kindled conversations amongst Jews, amongst Christians, and, between Christians and Jews. I overheard one such conversation on a Friday night at a dinner table with Christian, Jewish, and atheist friends whose comments centered on possibilities, not dogma. “What do you think?” “Oh, I didn't know that,” and “Perhaps it's time to get more information.

On Saturday during kiddush at my synagogue, a few groups of twos and threes asked each other what they thought about Judas. “I don't know much about this or what to believe,” said some. “Neither do I,” responded others. Few said, “Who cares?” and several mentioned, “I think I'm going to watch the Geographic special explaining it.” Then at my husband's church the next day, similar exchanges picked up dangling conversations started elsewhere. “As I was telling my wife (or husband, child, friend), I guess you can't come to any conclusions about what this means until we learn more about it,” was a constant comment.

Second, “Just because it didn't happen, doesn't mean it isn't true,” or so goes a line attributed to novelist Tim O'Brien. For more millennia than the last two, Jews, as people of The Book, have wrestled with the literal and metaphorical meanings of their foundational stories. They return to the text not to question whether or not those events happened exactly as recorded, but because they know that stories about their ancestors are alive in the world around them as well as in their psyches and souls.

The overarching question Biblical stories can potentially raise is not whether or not these texts are literally true. Instead, for all who love and struggle with what is written on the page and what is also said between the lines, the questions to live are: “What does it mean?” “How is this story alive in the world around me?” And, “How is this story an event in my life?” As Rabbi ben Bag Bag says in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), "Turn it, and turn it over again, for everything is in it. Scrutinize, let it be with you."

Third, many American Jews treat the “J' word—meaning Jesus—as though they are forbidden to say it, think it, or study it. I know, because I was raised that way. For an inquisitive people who know the value of living in the tension that questions can stir instead of running to answers, such a limited worldview does not make sense. In the case of who do we say that Jesus is, a little knowledge can, perhaps, be a healing thing. As Jews, we do not have to tie the words Jesus and Christ together. We can accept this historical Jesus for who he was during his lifetime instead of feeling wounded by atrocities perpetrated in his name after his death.

Indeed, even disturbing and controversial portrayals of Jesus by Mel Gibson and other extreme Christians do not deny that he was a man who was born a Jew, who lived his life as a Jew, and who died a Jew. Whenever I speak about Jesus the Jew in churches and synagogues and focus on his journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem and his abiding relationship to and love of the one G-d of all Jews, I see eyes open, heads nod, and mending walls being built as narrow gates open wide and crooked paths in a wilderness of ignorance and denial begin to straighten.

As Jews, when we choose to peek at and possibly enter into the stories about a Jewish human being named Jesus with curious eyes, open ears, and a respect for our own authority, we step on a path of educated, personal choice-making about who he may or may not have been. All that's required is that we take time to read the stories about him carefully to see and listen to what the texts might really say versus making assumptions based upon what others have said. We need never take stories about Jesus literally unless we choose to. Jews have always read their Bible that way. If we had not, phrases such as, “two Jews, three opinions” or “three Jews, five opinions,” would not resonate and bring forth smiles.

This April, Jews celebrated Passover and commemorated Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). Christians celebrated Easter. At meals and services each honored and remembered the pain of the past as a prelude to the promise of spring and Promised Lands. In the days to come, this ancient text known as the Gospel of Judas will not only be a window that gives us another view of second-century Judaism and Christianity, but possibly a doorway that can invite the followers of both religions into healing conversations and new relationships, too.


Caren Goldman is a Jewish author, senior editor of Bible Workbench, a former assistant editor of the Cleveland Jewish News, and a conflict resolution consultant. Her latest book, Finding Jesus, Discovering Self: Passages To Healing And Wholeness (Morehouse 2006) is co-authored with William Dols, an Episcopal clergyman. She lives in Massachusetts and West Virginia.


Copyright ©2006 Caren Goldman

Finding Jesus

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