Unorthodox Pair Converts Judas Tale Into a Page-Turner

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By Sarah Delaney
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

ROME, March 20 -- A very odd couple has teamed up to spread the word of the Gospel -- in this case, the Gospel of Judas, in a fictional but, according to the authors, theologically plausible explanation of why Christianity's most maligned personality did what he did.

They hope it will inspire people to pay more attention to the Bible.

Lord Jeffrey Archer, author of best-selling thrillers, former member of the British Parliament and convicted perjurer, has written "The Gospel According to Judas" with the academic help of the Rev. Francis J. Moloney, a world-class biblical scholar and former theological adviser to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.

Not to be confused with the Gospel of Judas on display last year at the National Geographic Society, this small, gilt-edged book is narrated by Benjamin Iscariot, the hypothetical eldest son of the disciple who betrayed Jesus. Not, however, for 30 pieces of silver.

Although it has not been officially Vatican-endorsed, Vatican Radio devoted a segment to it today, and the Pontifical Biblical Institute held a lecture on the book. The authors hope to attract people to the Bible and renew examination of the life of Jesus and his relationship to Judas Iscariot.

In a news conference here on Tuesday, Moloney, professor of biblical studies at the Catholic University of America, former president of the Catholic Biblical Association of America and an 18-year member of the Vatican's International Theological Commission, said that he was motivated to participate in Archer's story in part because "deeply flawed and uninformed works" such as "The Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown and "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins have become bestsellers. "Are we to stand by silently to allow the Gospel message of Jesus of Nazareth to be trivialized by Brown and ridiculed by Dawkins?" he asked.

The Archer-Moloney work is written in the style of the Gospels by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and in fact incorporates their accounts of the life of Jesus Christ. But it recounts Jesus's story through the eyes of Judas. And it offers not a few surprises.

In this account, Judas, who deeply loves Jesus but is skeptical of his role as Messiah, debunks the primary miracles attributed to him, including his walking on water and turning water into wine. He even says that Jesus was born in a natural union between Joseph and Mary. And Moloney said most biblical scholars in fact believe that the early church "began to articulate stories that made Jesus's presence among us more akin to the presence of God to Israel" and don't believe literally in these miracles.

He also said that the story of Judas accepting 30 silver pieces, and his suicidal death, appeared only in Matthew, which he called "tendentious." Judas accepting the bribe to identify Jesus to Roman soldiers "never happened," Moloney said. The arrest led to the Crucifixion at Gethsemane.

In the book, Judas does not mean to send Jesus to his death; rather, he hopes to persuade him, with the aid of a scribe, to return to the safety of Galilee. The scribe, however, betrays Judas and, consequently, Jesus.

Moloney said he did not know whether the pope had read the work but suspected that people "close to him" had read it. And while he said that if the pope didn't like it "I suspect we will hear about it," he felt that the pope shared his curiosity about the "mystery" of Judas. Moloney quoted words from the pope on Oct. 18, 2006, that "to understand the life of Judas means to understand decisive aspects of the mystery of man's relationship to God."

Archer, best known in the United States for his books "Kane and Abel" and "Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less," was elected to Parliament in 1969 at the age of 29 and was named deputy chairman of the Conservative Party by Margaret Thatcher in 1985. In 2001, he was sent to prison for two years on a perjury charge regarding 1987 libel proceedings about his purported liaison with a prostitute.

At the news conference, Archer said he had been interested for 15 years in recounting the story of Judas. He said Judas had been treated unjustly throughout history. He declared himself a devoted Anglican but said he had been helped on his project by Catholics. He was introduced to Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, former Milan archbishop, papal contender and former rector of both the Pontifical Biblical Institute and Pontifical Gregorian University. Martini steered him to Moloney, a theological heavyweight, to give his book the scholarly authority he sought.

The book has been translated in nine languages and will be distributed in a CD read by South Africa's retired Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said he agreed to take part in the project because "it's quite authentic. . . . It seems to ring true."

Tuesday's presentation was presided over by the Rev. Stephen Pisano, head of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, who said that the book was not officially endorsed by the institute or the Vatican. His interest, he said, "is the Bible itself, and if the discussion encourages people to read the Bible, carefully and intelligently . . . then it may be that permitting the presentation of this book can be justified."

The book was also discussed by Pisano on Vatican Radio, despite disclaimers regarding Vatican endorsement.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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