When I was young, and first beginning to understand the story of the passion of Jesus, and the (apocryphal?) reasons for the term “Good Friday”—that is, the death of Jesus is good insofar as it fulfills salvation history—I began to wonder why, if Judas as betrayer played an apparently vital part in an ultimately “good” end, why he was vilified as much as he was. Didn’t he just do what God had intended him to do? The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot is a book about a recently rediscovered gospel which proposes just such an interpretation.
It’s important to note that lost gospels are nothing new. Most famous among the “straight” gospels were the Dead Sea Scrolls. But many newfound gospels are actually gospels of the Gnostic tradition. I never understood the significance of Gnostic texts before, but they were essentially a heretical (to wit: persecuted by the early Church) branch of Christianity which believed that the Jewish creator god Yahweh is nothing more than a foolish inferior god of a much larger pantheon. Jesus is the human form of a higher god, an Æon, and when he is crucified he is freed from the trappings of flesh. This Gnostic tradition is passed down in the form of complicated, abstruse texts which makes sense only to other Gnostics.
The Gospel of Judas Iscariot was first discovered about 30 years ago, but through a series of mishaps was hidden for years and partially destroyed. A scant few years ago, it was shown for the first time and translated from its original Coptic by a noted academic. The bad news about the gospel of Judas is that it is, in fact, in the Gnostic tradition. While in some ways markedly different from other Gnostic gospels, it very clearly subscribes to the byzantine Gnostic mythology: there is large passage dedicated to laying it all out, in fact. As a historical primary source, then, the new text is of very little good to us, and, as Ehrman says of such gnostic texts, of interest only to academics and Coptic experts.
I should pause to note Ehrman‘s credentials: he’s a noted textual critic and Biblical scholar. He was, in fact, one of a small group chosen to appraise the document when it was “rediscovered” a few years ago. He is pretty well versed on the Gnostic tradition, which, by the way, makes for some interesting—if confusing—reading. He’s perhaps better known for his 2005 book Misquoting Jesus, for which I believed he appeared on The Daily Show
He flaunts his New Testament bona fides by opening the book with a few meaty chapters of context. After an introduction setting the stage (reintroduction of the gospel, &c.), he talks at length about the historical figure of Judas Iscariot first via the four canonical gospels and the books of Acts, and then the writings of early church fathers: some of the latter stories are more obvious exaggerations. Regardless of the new Coptic text, this historical background is fascinating to me: Judas, for being such a villain, actually gets very little attention in any of the books of the Bible.
Then comes the explanation of the new gospel’s text, which, I will admit, is rather long and not a little repetitive. I was disappointed to learn that the new text was Gnostic and not, as such, of much historical relevance; Ehrman tries to make the argument that it was both a Gnostic gospel and a work which specifically informed our understanding of the historical Judas Iscariot, but despite his best efforts to explain it as such, I just couldn’t see it. In the text, Judas is the favored apostle, the only one who comes to understand the Truth-with-a-capital-T (that is, the Gnostic view of it), and how contributing to the physical death of Jesus is the best thing that he can do for him.
I think the only way this new gospel contributes to our understanding is redirecting to our primary sources and making us reexamine how we think about Judas. Is he the misunderstood good guy? No, likely not. But as with many people and things that have gotten canonized into two-dimensionality, there’s more to the stories than we’ve historically ever tried to see, and that is interesting.
There is a new point of contention regarding the translation of the word “daimon,” which could either mean “spirit” in the early Greek/Platonic tradition, or “demon” in the later New Testament tradition. See the National Geographic article for more.