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The Judas Gospel

APRIL 2006 Follow the discovery and translation of the Gospel of Judas with our books and DVD.

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By Andrew Cockburn
Photographs by Kenneth Garrett


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In fact it is unclear whether the authors of any of the gospels—even the familiar four— actually witnessed the events they described. Evangelical biblical scholar Craig Evans of Acadia Divinity College says the canonical Gospels ultimately eclipsed the others because their version of Christ’s teachings and passion had the ring of truth. “Those early Christian groups were generally poor; they couldn’t afford to have more than a few books copied, so the members would say, ‘I want the Apostle John’s gospel, and so on,’” he argues. “The canonical Gospels are the ones that they themselves considered the most authentic.” Or perhaps the alternatives were simply outmaneuvered in the battle for the Christian mind.

The Judas gospel vividly reflects the struggle waged long ago between the Gnostics and the hierarchical church. In the very first scene Jesus laughs at the disciples for praying to “your god,” meaning the disastrous god who created the world. He compares the disciples to a priest in the temple (almost certainly a reference to the mainstream church), whom he calls “a minister of error” planting “trees without fruit, in my name, in a shameful manner.” He challenges the disciples to look at him and understand what he really is, but they turn away.

The key passage comes when Jesus tells Judas: “ You will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” In plain English, or Coptic, Judas is going to kill Jesus—and thus do him a favor. “That really isn’t Jesus at all,” says Meyer. “He will at last get rid of his material, physical flesh, thereby liberating the real Christ, the divine being inside.”

That Judas is entrusted with this task is a sign of his special status. “ Lift up your eyes and look at the cloud and the light within it and the stars surrounding it,” Jesus tells him encouragingly. “ The star that leads the way is your star.” Ultimately, Judas has a revelation in which he enters a “ luminous cloud.” People on the ground hear a voice from the cloud, though what it says may be forever unknown due to a tear in the papyrus.

The gospel ends abruptly with a brief note reporting that Judas “received some money” and handed Jesus over to the arresting party.

To Craig Evans, this tale is a meaningless fiction, written long ago in support of a dead-end belief system. “There is nothing in the Gospel of Judas,” he says, “that tells us anything we could consider historically reliable.”

But other scholars believe it is an important new window into the minds of early Christians. “This changes the history of early Christianity,” says Elaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton University. “We don’t look to the gospels for historical information, but for the fundamentals of the Christian faith.”

“This is big,” agrees Bart Ehrman. “A lot of people are going to be upset.”

Father Ruwais Antony is one. For the past 27 years, the venerable white-bearded monk has lived at St. Anthony’s Monastery, an outpost in Egypt’s Eastern Desert. On a visit there I asked the kindly monk what he thought of the notion that Judas was merely acting at Jesus’ request in handing him over, and that Judas was therefore a good man. Ruwais was so shocked at the idea that he staggered against the door he was in the act of closing. Then he shook his head in disgusted wonderment, muttering, “Not recommended.”

His fervor echoed the outrage of Bishop Irenaeus—a reminder that here, in the shadow of the stark Red Sea Mountains, the early Christian world is close at hand. Earlier, Father Ruwais took me into the Church of the Apostles. Beneath our feet, recently unearthed, were the long-buried cells, complete with kitchen and bakery, built by St. Anthony himself when he founded his community early in the fourth century.

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