The Gospel of Judas

JudasI used to sit in religious studies class as a teenager and wonder why my copy of the New Jerusalem Bible had books I had never seen before.

As a non-denominational Protestant, I grew up with a version of the Bible that excluded Tobit, Judith, Baruch or the Maccabees. Does that strike you as odd? After all, how can a belief system that omits portions of its “divine” history be considered the true faith?

Not surprisingly, Martin Luther’s rejection of these apocryphal (“hidden”) texts is is just one in a series of selective edits to the written word made available to Christians over the millenia. Since the dawn of Christianity, church leaders have routinely condemned volumes of religious texts and beliefs running counter to the orthodox view of Christ’s life. Irenaeus, an early Bishop of Lyons, denounced popular gospels in the second century CE; the First Council of Nicea likewise expelled multiple sects in 325 CE. Chief among them was Arianism, a religious movement that argued that Jesus was a divine spark created by God, not part of a Holy Trinity.

Many Christians today are largely unaware of the changes their religion has withstood over the centuries. Of those that are, many simply don’t care. “I don’t need anything more than I get out of Matthew, Mark, St. Luke and John,” said Dr. Robert Schuller, the founding pastor of the Crystal Cathedral in Southern California. “I mean — wow! Who needs anything more? What else could be added that’s better?”

While I find it remarkable that the leader of one of the largest Christian churches in America willingly ignores the history of the religion he dishes out on a weekly basis, his opinion raises an interesting question: do today’s Christians need the flotsam and jetsam of early Christianity introduced into their life? Would reading non-canonical gospels or studying the dark, bloody path of Jesus’ followers throughout history help the average believer draw strength from their faith?

These questions come on the heels of a recent translation of the ancient Gospel of Judas. Mentioned by Irenaeus in 180 CE as heretical, it venerates a biblical character long reviled as Christ’s betrayer. Instead of an evil-doer, Judas alone understands Jesus’s mission and accepts his fate as the man who sacrifices the body that “clothes” Christ’s spirit. The fragmentary text (the manuscript was too damaged for a full translation) considers Judas as a confidant who rightly questions the relationship between God and spirit. In the end, he is rewarded the keys to enlightenment, but at the great cost of grief and scorn. In other words, Judas is misunderstood and unworthy of the villification placed on his shoulders by later authors.

If that runs contrary to everything you’ve ever heard about Judas, there’s a reason. The Gospel of Judas hibernated in an Egyptian cave for 1,800 years because the Church placed it at odds with accepted teachings. Early orthodoxy was in a constant struggle for its fellowship with the Gnostics, a competing brand of Christianity that singled out the spirit over salvation and preached that knowing oneself completely opened the way to God. Judas’s story, written by the Gnostics, plainly backs up that assertion, so it’s easy to see why the more popular Pauline doctrine of atonement would reject it.

Nonetheless, the Gospel of Judas reintrodces debate to the question of Judas’s fealty. In a way it makes sense that his role in the crucifixion would be pre-ordained; after all, if Jesus was to die on the cross for the sins of humanity, wouldn’t the steps leading up to it be part of that overall plan? If Christ is God, would he not know of deception amongst his closest followers? Judas’ story makes the death of Jesus all the more tragic. There’s no villain afoot and no betrayal, only pawns in a game with larger stakes than the death of a revolutionary and prophet.

Scholars and critics dismiss the Gospel of Judas as a dud, unworthy of the amount of press it’s receiving this week. I won’t deny that the book isn’t the earth-shattering revelation being trumpeted by its translators and the National Geographic Channel, but I celebrate any time a scripture is reborrn from the ashes of antiquity and released to the public. The past century has seen a number of long-thought-lost gospels emerge, chief among them the Gospels of Thomas and Mary. If they don’t appeal to you as a believer, at the very least they present a fascinating historical glimpse into religion as it grows from a fringe movement to worldwide institution. How can that not benefit people who want to experience their faith from every angle?

As we approach the Easter celebration (one of many examples of Christianity consolidating its beliefs with pagan rituals), it’s more important than ever for Christians to embrace what was set down by their forefathers almost 2,000 years ago: a religion based on love, tolerance and service. Sadly, the state of Christianity in the United States espouses few of these things, choosing instead the ignorance of hate, intolerance of bigotry and the service of war. In creating a Christian religion inflexible to other ideas over the centuries, the countervaling message buried in Gnosticism has never been so important.

Christians, love your religion completely for what it is — even the parts that don’t sit right with your elders. Actually follow the parts that charge you to love people with different beliefs, sexualities or mindsets. Learn about the evolution of your religion. Doing so can put your faith in a new and more important light, because then you’re seeking out the truth, not having it handed to you like an illiterate medieval peasant dependant on the friar’s sermons.

Look deep inside yourself and understand your spirit. Heck, that was laid out in the Gospel of Thomas ages ago. Not that you’d know from picking up a Bible.