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An Apology for Judas Volume 59 Number 4, July/August 2006
by Sandra Scham

[image]The Gospel of Judas was found near these caves outside of El Minya, Egypt. (Courtesy National Geographic Society) [LARGER IMAGE]

If the recent unveiling of the Gospel of Judas had lived up to the splashy superlatives of National Geographic's publicity machine, it would have shaken the Earth. Instead, the 1,600-year-old text, accompanying television documentary, and book describing the gospel's history and discovery has provoked nothing near the "crisis of faith" Geographic promised. Audiences were rewarded only with some second-century A.D. spin, a version of the crucifixion story in which Judas does Jesus a favor by giving him up to the Romans. It adds little to our knowledge of early Christianity, and the fact it carries Judas's name is ultimately the only thing that distinguishes it.

The television program The Gospel of Judas, airing on the National Geographic Channel, does a good job of providing historical context. A bishop named Irenaeus removed the Judas gospel from official Church scriptures along with other Gnostic gospels during the second century A.D. in an effort to unify the splintering young religion and make it more appealing to potential converts.

The Gnostic writings are documents that represent an early "mystical" trend in Christianity. Irenaeus chose the gospels that he felt emphasized Jesus' divinity and teachings--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--to be canonized in the Bible, leaving the other gospels to molder in the desert for roughly 1,600 years until their discovery in the late 1960s near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. The Judas gospel was allegedly discovered by a local farmer in a cave probably in the area where the other Gnostic texts were found.

The program, however, fails to convey the variety of Christian beliefs about the life of Jesus that existed in the first and second centuries, before the Council at Nicaea was convened by Constantine to combat heretical Christian cults and to establish that Jesus was divine and equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel of Judas is almost certainly genuine. Radiocarbon dates establish it was a fourth-century A.D. copy of a text that probably first appeared in the second-century A.D. The experts who translated it from the original Coptic and created the English print translation The Gospel of Judas (National Geographic Society; $22) leave little doubt about its accuracy.

A close reading of the gospel, with its references to the mythical realm of Barbelo and extensive angel geneaology, offers little to appeal to the religious sensibilities of modern Christians. Instead, it seems to explore the ancient Greek "dualist" philosophy, the belief that the body was the prison of the soul. According to this document, Judas, closest to Jesus of all the disciples, is selected by either fate or Jesus himself to be the betrayer. "You will exceed all of them," Jesus confides to him, "for you will sacrifice the man that clothes me." Judas's fate as "the chosen one" is discussed at length, and Jesus clearly implies that Judas will be condemned for this betrayal regardless of its necessity. That an act of betrayal is needed to free Jesus' divinity from the "tomb" of his human form seems to be the stuff of ancient Greek tragedy. Judas's hubris is that he revels in his unique mission--and thereby fails to understand the retribution he will suffer for it.

If the gospel itself is disappointing, the story of the document since its initial discovery is something else altogether. Herbert Krosney's The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot (National Geographic Society; $27) is an interesting tale that is rightly packaged as a popular book. Unfortunately, it ends up being an awkward hybrid of research into the beginnings of early Christianity and a tedious newspaper account.

[image]Conservator Florence Darbre assembles fragments of the document with the help of Coptic expert Gregor Wurst. (Courtesy National Geographic Society) [LARGER IMAGE]

Krosney, a documentary filmmaker and investigative reporter, follows the gospel from its discovery, to its incompetent marketing by an Egyptian antiquities dealer (who had a group of scholars examine the text and asked for $3 million, which none of them could pay) to its theft and return to the same dealer, to its rotting in a bank vault until it was bought by antiquities collector Frieda Tchacos in 2000.

Tchacos is extolled as a "hero" and given more than equal time with scholars. Krosney glosses over her attempt to sell the manuscript to her contact at Yale University, who had declared the document to be authentic. The book also leaves out Yale's refusal to buy the gospel because of legal concerns about the transaction. She later sold it to an American dealer for $2.5 million, regretting the deal only when she thought his check would bounce--although Krosney makes it look like a crisis of conscience.

Later, Tchacos's lawyer, who was representing her and a group of antiquities dealers (in a case unrelated to the gospel brought against them by the Italian Government, see "Raiding the Tomb Raiders"), persuaded her to donate the document to the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art. The foundation immediately began restoring and translating it and brought in the National Geographic Society. No one stands to lose money on the deal. Tchacos will likely gain back her investment and then some. Eventually, the gospel will be returned to the Egypt. Thus, a text by all accounts illegally acquired several times over goes back to its land of origin, and everyone makes money.

The blasé attitude adopted by Krosney and his informants toward what he characterizes as "the trade" in Egyptian antiquities is more painful still. His observations that "the reason many antiquities are sold in Cairo is simple: It is one of the biggest markets in the world, for all sorts of goods" and that "Switzerland has become a primary home for a number of the biggest and best antiquities dealers. The mountain republic is an art aficionado's paradise" only serve to increase one's unease.

As some Christians seek a more personal relationship with a savior who seems like a remote and shadowy figure in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, gnostic texts like the Gospel of Judas will remain popular. But, given the hype surrounding the gospel, it's hard not to feel betrayed by Judas.

Sandra Scham is a contributing editor for ARCHAEOLOGY.

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© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America