Friday, January 13, 2006

THE COPTIC GOSPEL OF JUDAS is the subject of a somewhat muddled article in the Telegraph. The headline does not inspire confidence:
Forbidden gospel 'will show Judas was acting for God'

"Forbidden?" Well, maybe it was at some point. Certainly there would have been people in antiquity who wanted it to be. Indeed it was lost for a long time, presumably because its content doesn't square well with mainstream Christianity, but "forbidden" is a little melodramatic. But of greater concern, the rest of the headline in quotes implies misleadingly that the Gospel of Judas tells us something about the historical Judas and that theologians are taking it as an authority. To be fair, this is not just a sensational headline: the author, "Hilary Clarke, in Rome," actually does seem to think that this new gospel is being understood in this way:
Although the full details have not yet been made public, snippets discussed in academic circles say it will prove Judas was acting at the behest of God when he sold Jesus to the Romans for 30 pieces of silver.

No one in academic circles says any such thing. At most, that may be what the Gospel of Judas says, which tells us something interesting about nontraditional Christianity in the second to fourth centuries, but nothing about the historical Judas. And I've certainly not heard anyone who worries about such things suggest that the Gospel of Judas should be added to the New Testament canon or should have theological authority.
Its publication will raise fears among traditionalists that efforts may be made to rehabilitate a man whose name is synonymous with betrayal.

Sympathisers with Judas contend that had Jesus not been crucified, he would not have been subsequently resurrected to save humanity.

The first sentence seems to allude to recent efforts within the Catholic Church to rehabilitate Judas. I doubt very much that the Gospel of Judas will have much importance in this discussion (see below). Of course, it doesn't help when articles like this leave nonspecialists with the impression that scholars think that the Gospel of Judas is an eyewitness account by Judas:
Controversy also surrounds the origins of the text, which dates from the fourth century, with some scholars arguing that it was not written by Judas, but by a group of his supporters.

Again, no scholars are arguing that it was written by Judas. Some think that it may have been composed in Greek as early as the second century. I have my doubts even about that.

This sort of thing is irritating and one wonders how it happens. No one is actually quoted and the article speaks in generalities about "academics," "traditionalists," "sympathizers," and "scholars." Did the writer talk to anyone involved with the project or any expert on the apocryphal gospels? It doesn't sound like it. Is the piece based on a badly misread press release? I don't know.

But it is disappointing.

Another story about Judas is making the rounds and it seems to have influenced the Telegraph article. Here is the coverage in the Times of London:
Judas the Misunderstood

From Richard Owen, in Rome

Vatican moves to clear reviled disciple’s name

JUDAS ISCARIOT, the disciple who betrayed Jesus with a kiss, is to be given a makeover by Vatican scholars.


Now, a campaign led by Monsignor Walter Brandmuller, head of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Science, is aimed at persuading believers to look kindly at a man reviled for 2,000 years.

Mgr Brandmuller told fellow scholars it was time for a “re-reading” of the Judas story. He is supported by Vittorio Messori, a prominent Catholic writer close to both Pope Benedict XVI and the late John Paul II.


Some Bible experts say Judas was “a victim of a theological libel which helped to create anti Semitism” by forming an image of him as a “sinister villain” prepared to betray for money.


This move is based on historical, theological, and political considerations that have nothing to do with the Gospel of Judas and only weak potential links with it.
The move to clear Judas’s name coincides with plans to publish the alleged Gospel of Judas for the first time in English, German and French. Though not written by Judas, it is said to reflect the belief among early Christians — now gaining ground in the Vatican — that in betraying Christ Judas was fulfilling a divine mission, which led to the arrest and Crucifixion of Jesus and hence to man’s salvation.

Mgr Brandmuller said that he expected “no new historical evidence” from the supposed gospel, which had been excluded from the canon of accepted Scripture.

But it could “serve to reconstruct the events and context of Christ’s teachings as they were seen by the early Christians”. This included that Jesus had always preached “forgiveness for one’s enemies”.

On the one hand, the Gospel of Judas can be used to show that there is some ancient precedent for rehabilitating Judas. But on the other hand, invoking it could backfire:
Some Vatican scholars have expressed concern over the reconsideration of Judas. Monsignor Giovanni D’Ercole, a Vatican theologian, said it was “dangerous to re-evaulate Judas and muddy the Gospel accounts by reference to apocryphal writings. This can only create confusion in believers.”

I'm happy to sit this one out and watch. Should be an interesting discussion.

UPDATE: Times columnist Ben Macintyre argues the case for rehabilitating Judas. One small substantive point. Macintyre writes:
The chronological progression of the allegations is crucial. St Paul, the earliest Christian writer, never mentions Judas.

True, but incomplete and a little misleading. Here's what Paul says about the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 (RSV):
23: For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed (παρεδίδετο) took bread,
24: and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me."
25: In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me."
26: For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

Now Macintyre is quite right that the word translated "betrayed" in v. 23 can also just mean to be "handed over" (although his suggestion that Judas "may simply have been acting as a go-between" is not well founded and indeed flies in the face of everything in the tradition). But here we have to ask "handed over" to whom -- presumably the authorities who condemned him -- and, more critically, by whom? The implication of Paul's statement is that someone did the handing over. In other words, it not unreasonable to read Paul to be alluding to the tradition about Judas, although it's impossible to be sure.

UPDATE (20 January): The Vatican has denied the claims in the Times article.

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