A New Twist On Judas

Panels from National Geographic Society's exhibit on the Gospel of Judas.
Panels from National Geographic Society's exhibit on the Gospel of Judas. (By Mannie Garcia -- Associated Press)
By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, April 14, 2006

It's not exactly the perfect gift for Good Friday or Easter, but the Gospel of Judas does have the virtue of relevance in giving the old, sacred story a dramatic new twist.

The discovery of this gospel, and its publication by the National Geographic Society, seems splendidly appropriate to our culture of confession, rehabilitation and publicity. If Judas can make a comeback after all these years, just about anyone can hope for salvation at the altar of public opinion. The snake in the Garden of Eden must be looking for the Web site and e-mail address of Judas's spin doctors.

Certainly there always has been something poignant about Judas's story. It can be argued that by betraying Jesus, Judas set salvation in motion. These writings, which date to well after the New Testament gospels, tell the story from exactly that point of view.

Judas allows Jesus to shed his human form through death and pass to a higher realm. "For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me," Jesus tells Judas. Jesus acknowledges that Judas "will be cursed by the other generations," but not to worry. "[Y]ou will come to rule over them," Jesus promises.

The buzz surrounding the Gospel of Judas is that it will threaten the faith. Much the same has been said of "The Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown, but the Judas Gospel has the additional benefit of being a genuine historical document. It is the product of the Gnostic wing of early Christianity, eventually condemned as heretical, that claims salvation not by faith or works but by special knowledge.

As Marvin Meyer, a biblical scholar at Chapman University, points out in a helpful essay in the National Geographic volume that includes the Judas Gospel, the "knowledge claimed by these people is not worldly knowledge but mystical knowledge, knowledge of God and self and relationship between God and self."

Judging by the Gospel of Judas, the "knowledge" claim of the book's author or authors is to a rather bizarre cosmology. The detailed description of a divine realm of assorted angels and an emphasis on the stars -- "Stop struggling with me," the Jesus of the story says. "Each of you has his own star." -- reads like a rejected screenplay for a Spielberg movie.

Purely as a matter of style, those who made the choices for the canonical gospels deserve our thanks and praise. Matthew, Mark, Luke and, in a different way, John offer a powerful narrative and present a Jesus who speaks to the world about ethics and justice even as he makes much larger claims.

Garry Wills is correct in his new book, "What Jesus Meant," to insist that Jesus cannot be reduced to being a gentle teacher of principles or of politics. But the Jesus of the Gospel of Judas seems entirely disconnected from human struggles and laughs at human ignorance.

It's entirely fair for nonbelievers to use a document such as the Judas Gospel to point out how faith traditions grow from human sources and from a contest of ideas among believers. It is simple historical fact that early Christians struggled over how to define the faith. They argued about exactly who Jesus was and disagreed over the proper relationship between the emerging Jesus Movement and Judaism.

These struggles and tensions are visible in the official canon of the New Testament. It reflects a time when many believed, as the biblical scholar N.T. Wright put it, "that God was on the move, that a new rescue operation was in the air, that things were going to be put right."

These words come from Wright's new book, "Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense." Its publication coincides accidentally but perhaps providentially with the public unveiling of Judas's Gospel. Wright, an Anglican bishop, offers us a genial, intelligent view of Christianity, and his title invites us to compare his work with C.S. Lewis's classic in the same vein, "Mere Christianity."

Here is Wright's view of the meaning of Easter: "When Jesus emerged from the tomb, justice, spirituality, relationship and beauty rose with him. Something has happened in and through Jesus as a result of which the world is a different place, a place where heaven and earth have been joined forever. God's future has arrived in the present."

This Christian perspective -- hope in "a world full of new potential and possibility," as Wright calls it -- will survive the publication of Judas's Gospel. And if the new document invites us to consider a new perspective on Judas himself, that might be consistent with the season's message of salvation and redemption.

postchat@aol.com


© 2006 The Washington Post Company