The earliest accounts of the betrayal of Jesus are tantalizingly spare. The Gospel of Mark narrates that Judas “went to the chief priests in order to betray him,” but why would Judas do that, and who was this person who turned Jesus over to the authorities? Starting from these earliest accounts, the authors of new gospels, letters, and revelations wrote and rewrote the story of Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus. The Gospel of Judas, recently discovered in the desert but dating from the first centuries of Christianity, adds a striking new voice to this collection. In this gospel, Jesus imparts his true teaching to Judas, and he instructs Judas to hand him over. For the Christians who read this gospel, it was Judas Iscariot who passed down to them the Christian message. As Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King explain, the Gospel of Judas does not tell us who Judas really was. Instead, the lost gospel helps us to see how Christians have always been reading Judas, retelling the story of the betrayal in different ways for different reasons.
But in the history of Christianity not all retellings have been viewed as equal. The bishop of Lyon in the second century condemned the Gospel of Judas as heretical and a “fictitious history.” While the New Testament gospels and letters were recopied through the ages, only this one text of the Gospel of Judas has been preserved for us today. What do we get from this new gospel? Why should we read it today? Pagels and King say that the point is not to reopen the Christian canon but to engage with the diversity of ways that Christians have lived and have understood their world.
In particular, the Gospel of Judas shows us a group of Christians who reacted against the spread of religious violence in God’s name and who rebelled against what they saw as the false piety of other Christians. The interpretation of the text inReading Judas brings cutting-edge historical methods and data to bear on a gospel that could otherwise appear deeply obscure. The Gospel of Judas shockingly depicts the twelve disciples as priests committing idolatry by offering human sacrifice, probably an allusion to bishops who exhorted their followers to die as martyrs at the hands of the Romans. Pagels and King explain that in the parlance of the first centuries of Christianity, this story attacked Christian leaders who claimed authority for their beliefs and practices by claiming they had been handed down from the twelve disciples. By depicting the twelve disciples in such a negative light, the Gospel of Judas reacts against this violence with anger; anyone who encourages others to martyrdom, it implies, might as well offer human sacrifice upon an unholy altar.
Such conflict and imagery may still seem far distant from a modern reader, but Pagels and King offer a few ways that we might read Judas today. The full-throated denunciation of the twelve disciples and the churches that honored them shows us how debate and disagreement characterized early Christian communities as much as they do modern ones. Coming out of an experience of religious violence, the anger of the Gospel of Judas is frightening, and it manifests both anti-Judaism and homophobia. In today’s world, when religious violence appears a global phenomenon, the Gospel of Judas shows us the impact of such violence on one community—and shows one Christian response to it: a message of hopefulness in the life of the soul that is the gospel’s conclusion.
Karen L. King is Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard University and the author of four previous books, including The Gospel of Mary of Magdala and What is Gnosticism?. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Elaine Pagels is Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University and the author of six previous books, including The Gnostic Gospels (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award) and the New York Times bestseller Beyond Belief. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
A. Only a few days after National Geographic Society released the text of the Gospel of Judas, Elaine and I were having breakfast together in Boston. The initial information the Society put out didn’t really get at the core issues, and so we thought, let’s do a book together. We’ve known each other for years. Elaine was first a mentor to me, now a colleague and friend. Right now, we are both busy with other projects and haven’t talked about any further collaborative work.
Q. Even though the Gospel of Judas was lost for centuries, historians knew that it existed at one time, because it was mentioned in an ancient book about heresies. There are surely other books out there that you know existed but have been lost and that could be found again with a stroke of luck. Are there any books you particularly hope might be discovered, and why?
A. Over the last centuries, more than thirty early Christian writings have been found that were previously unknown. Many of these were uncovered in one sensational discovery near the town of Nag Hammadi in 1945, but others continue to come to light. Not only the Gospel of Judas and the other works in the Tchachos Codex, but an unknown gospel called the Gospel of the Savior was published only recently. Given these fortuitous finds, we can almost surely expect that other early Christian writings are yet to be discovered.
Is there any book I would particularly like us to find? I would never have dreamed that a gospel attributed to Mary of Magdala would surface—and yet it did. Perhaps we might find other writings written by or attributed to women; these would restore to us yet more of the contributions that ancient women made to forming Christianity.
Q. Though people knew this gospel existed, no one really knew what it said. Is there anything in it that particularly surprised you?
A. From the brief mention made by the early heresy-hunter Irenaeus we expected the gospel to portray Judas as the hero. But he is, at best, an ambiguous hero. What was most surprising was the angry condemnation of Jesus’ twelve male disciples, and the reason that they were portrayed that way. The book is not really about the events of Jesus’ arrest and death&mash;we learn nothing new there—but about Christian struggles to understand the meaning of Jesus’ death in the face of Roman persecution of Christians in the second century. The author is furious with Christian leaders who are encouraging believers to die by arguing that God requires sacrifice to atone for sin. Instead, the author argues that people who portray God that way are worshipping false gods. The truth is that the God of Jesus dwells in the heavenly heights beyond this world of chaos and oblivion. Jesus’ teaching leads people to a spiritual relation to God, not to atoning sacrifice.
Q. Do you have a favorite passage from the Gospel of Judas? Which one, and why?
A. There is much in this gospel that I dislike rather heartily—its violence, anti-Judaism, and homophobia. But I do like the way it interprets the name of Eve, which translates into Greek as Zoe, and in both Greek and Hebrew means “life.” In the Gospel of Judas 13.1¬–4, Jesus teaches Judas that the lower creator said to his angels: “ ‘Let us create a human being [ac]cording to the likeness and according to the image.’ Then they formed Adam and his wife, Eve. But in the cloud, she was called ‘Zoe’ (‘Life’). For in this name all the races shall seek after it (life).” The translators of the National Geographic version interpret the passage differently, claiming that by Eve’s name “all the generations seek him (Adam).” This makes no sense to me—why would anyone seek Adam with Eve’s name? Rather it is life that they are seeking, and for the Gospel of Judas this higher life of the spirit is represented by the figure of Eve. Although unfamiliar to many readers, this interpretation is not at all unique. It is very close to interpretations of Genesis found in other early Christian literature, like the Secret Revelation of John or theHypostasis of the Archons (a revelation ascribed to Eve’s daughter Norea), in which Eve is portrayed as the spiritual mother of the living and superior to Adam. These stories let us see that the reading of Genesis that blames Eve—and women generally—for all human suffering and death was not the only meaning that early Christians saw in the creation story. They could also regard her role as “mother of the living” to be primary.
Q. Reading Judas tells the story of early Christians who were left out of the historical record, people who lost in the struggle to determine who would run the Christian church. Why do you believe it is important to bring their story to light, and what can it teach readers today?
A. History is always told from the perspective of the winners. Recovering alternative voices that were lost can restore a deeper understanding of the tradition we have by showing the paths that were not taken. In the case of the Gospel of Judas, we learn that some Christians strongly objected to the idea that God desired the death of his son and his followers as a sacrifice. In the end they lost out, and the developing orthodoxies came to center more and more on a theology of sin, guilt, and atonement. I don’t think we should abandon that part of the Christian heritage, but I think it needs to be significantly critiqued and balanced by other modes of Christian theology also found in the Bible. The new gospels have the potential to let us hear the many voices already within the canonical tradition: a renewed emphasis on the teachings of Jesus; prophetic proclamation of justice and the kingdom of God; appreciation for the fact that all humanity is created in the image of God; theologies that stress that the human body is the site of God’s presence in the world; and wisdom theology which asks believers to take a stand at the resurrection in emphasizing life and goodness. All these and more can be found inside the tradition once one begins to look.
All religious traditions contain within them plural possibilities for a range of belief and action. History shows us that communities select from within that tradition what they will appropriate and enact—and therefore I believe it is important for people to accept responsibility for what they do in the name of religion. In my opinion, no text or teaching, no dogma or practice, is always “safe” such that following it will lead automatically to doing good. There is too much evidence of the Bible being used for violence and evil. As an educator, my view is that it is crucially important to develop the skills to engage and appropriate tradition in ways that are both critical and informed in order to address responsibly the complex roles of religion in our complex world.
Q. You argue that in the Gospel of Judas, the disciple Judas is the good guy, the one disciple who receives Jesus’ true message. Some people have said that in this gospel Judas is actually the bad guy. When Jesus tells him, “You will surpass them all,” these scholars say, that means that Judas will be the most wicked of all the disciples. How do you respond to this criticism? Why do they read the Gospel of Judas differently?
A. The Gospel of Judas is struggling with some very difficult issues, and its author is very angry. In trying to oppose the views of bishops who claimed the authority of the twelve apostles, the author attacks the disciples as idolaters. To do that he needs a figure inside the story who can convey Jesus’ true teaching—and the obvious choice is Judas. Yet Judas is at best an ambiguous figure; even in the Gospel of Judas he is the one who will hand Jesus over to his executioners. That conclusion to the story alone is enough to make readers ask if Judas is really being portrayed as the hero of the gospel. And there are other places as well where Judas doesn’t seem to understand Jesus’ teaching, Jesus himself laughs at him and tells him that his star is leading him astray, and Judas is repeatedly told that he will suffer. The damaged condition of the manuscript doesn’t help either, since crucial passages are missing. One piece of grammar in particular is difficult, an odd construction of a verb that could be translated either as Judas asking Jesus “What benefit have I received because you separated me for that (heavenly) race?” or “because you separated me from that (heavenly) race?” (GosJudas 9:26). According to the second reading, Judas never makes it to eternal life in the heavenly realms at all. I have two basic problems with this reading. The first is that it means no one is ever saved; Jesus apparently comes down merely to mock everyone. Who would write such a gospel, and why would it be translated and preserved for at least three centuries? The second problem is that many Christian texts portray the disciples as not understanding, so there is nothing odd about Judas being portrayed that way. The best example is the Gospel of Mark, which scholars believe originally ended at 16:8 “They (the women who discovered the empty tomb) went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.” Later scribes “fixed” this astonishing conclusion by attaching various endings clarifying the situation. My point is that Judas’ misunderstandings serve the author’s purposes very well. Making Judas the willing but ignorant disciple who needs to be instructed provides opportunities for Jesus to instruct readers about his true teaching. In the end, the author follows the well-known gospel plot and has Judas hand Jesus over, but just as the readers of the Gospel of Mark know that Jesus has risen from the dead as he foretold, so too readers of the Gospel of Judas know that Jesus has ascended above and that they too can ascend to the heavenly realms if they accept the teachings of Jesus about the true God and turn away from idolatry and sacrifice to false gods.
Q. Some other scholars say that the Gospel of Judas was written by Gnostics, a known group of early Christian heretics. In Reading Judas, you do not talk about the writer as a Gnostic or a heretic. How did you decide not to use those words in talking about the newly discovered gospel?
A. In my book What is Gnosticism? I argue at length that the term “Gnosticism” is a late invention that has more to do with keeping the boundaries of orthodoxy in place than with describing the history of early Christian controversies. Indeed just listing the ways in which the Gospel of Judas is “heresy” from the viewpoint of triumphant “orthodoxy” only repeats what we already know—that it was on the side of those who lost the battle to define Christianity. But avoiding the terms “Gnostic” or “heretic” can help readers imaginatively place themselves back in the time when Christians were dying for God and issues about martyrdom, idolatry, and sacrifice were hot topics of debate. These early Christians were struggling to understand why God allowed Jesus to die, and why even after his resurrection believers continue to be persecuted. We lose our perspective on these issues if we don’t first try to understand this gospel in its historical context before we evaluate its theological value or lack of value.
Q. You talk about being disturbed by the anger, homophobia, and anti-Judaism of the Gospel of Judas. Did coming to understand the position of the Gospel of Judas give you any new ways of thinking about these continuing problems in the present day?
A. I think the Gospel of Judas helped me understand better how the violence, persecution, and oppression that is perpetrated against a group has consequences for relationships within the group itself. How do those who suffer persecution and oppression avoid giving that violence a place within their thinking and practice—or can they? I think the Gospel of Judas is both an example of how anger can be turned inward and directed toward other members of one’s group and also an attempt to stand against such violence, even if it is ultimately a deeply flawed attempt. But perhaps most important, the gospel exposes how Christian theology was forged in fundamental ways in a context of violence and persecution. That gives me pause.
Q. You talk about the modern significance of the Gospel of Judas in terms of religious violence. In the Roman empire, Christians were being killed by the government because of their religion. Modern religious violence often looks quite different, in clashes of different religious groups within and between states. What connections do you see between the religious violence to which Judas responds and the violence that is so widespread in the world today? What can we learn about our present situation from reading this ancient book?
A. I think we can learn to look more closely at violence being done in the name of religion, and in the name of God, if we do so through the lenses of violence within our own tradition. If we know that wherever there is violence and oppression there is also resistance to violence and oppression, we can understand better that people not only resist those who oppress them, but they also have to deal with the violence that enters their own communities. We can assume, too, that within any community there are those who are angry and frustrated with members of their own communities who commit acts of violence in the name of God.
Q. Reading Judas has debuted as a bestseller. How do you account for the popularity of this book? Why do you think the reading public has such an appetite for books about the first centuries of Christianity?
A. I think quite simply that people are looking for the truth. They want to deepen their spiritual lives. Learning about the alternative voices within the tradition allows people to see that early Christians were struggling with many of the issues people face today about sexuality and violence, and death and redemption. In many ways the new gospels give people permission to ask, to seek, to move beyond those who declare that religion is fixed, that one can only accept or reject it. They understand that spiritual growth is a matter of questioning and growing—which means questioning the new gospels as well.
Q. What are the next projects you are working on?
A. My larger project is to write a fuller and more accurate account of early Christian history, one which incorporates the newly discovered early Christian texts in order to show the dynamics of how Christianity was formed in the first centuries. Probably it is an overly ambitious goal, but I think it is important to have a larger vision of what one wants to achieve. Currently I am working on ancient notions of the human body, including sexuality, emotions, aging, and death. The question is how are assumptions about what it means to be human tied to the formulation of (and controversies over) fundamental Christian theological notions about incarnation, resurrection, sin, and salvation. I want to know how such beliefs were put into practice, where the controversies were, what was at stake, and for whom. How are shifting views of bodily nature in our own time, not least medical views, linked to contemporary Christian controversies?