April 27, 2006 • Volume 14 Number 16
Earlier this month, the National Geographic Society unveiled a centuries-old copy of the original Gospel of Judas, believed to have originated from a second-century Christian movement, Gnosticism. The manuscript triggered widespread discussion and debate - in academic institutions, media outlets and Bible study classes alike - notably for its depiction of Judas as a favored disciple who, far from betraying Jesus, in fact carried out his wishes by turning him over to Roman authorities.
But two Boston College theology professors consider the document more interesting as an archeological find than contributing to existing theological knowledge.
"Historians certainly find every text important, but some texts are far more important than others," says Prof. Harvey Egan, SJ. "It no more enlarges our perceptions and assumptions about Jesus than does The Da Vinci Code, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Jesus' Childhood Companion, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, and other fictions."
Adds Prof. Pheme Perkins, who presented a lecture on the Gospel of Judas last week: "This gospel is not exactly a gospel, as it has little 'life and teaching of Jesus' material in it. There's no description of or account of Jesus' passion at all - it begins three days before the Passion and ends with Judas telling the scribes which room or house Jesus has gone into to pray. No Gethsemane garden, no arresting police and troops, no betrayal scene.
"This text is not 'from Judas' perspective': Judas is a disciple, a questioner who turns out to grasp the true reality of Jesus as other Gnostic texts pick such outsider disciples for dialogue; in other texts we find Thomas, James, the brother of the Lord, Mary Magdalene, and even Peter in exactly the same role as Judas Iscariot here."
Those who have shown enthusiasm for the Gnostic gospels fail to understand that these present a view of Jesus and Christianity "as skewed as that of the literature of 'Christian' white supremacists," says Fr. Egan.
"I wonder if these same enthusiasts would agree with the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas's description of the boy Jesus as a vicious, little bully. In that same Gospel, Peter says to the disciples: 'Let Mary [Magdalene] leave us, because women are not worthy of life.' To this, Jesus responds for her consolation: 'Look, I shall lead her so that I will make her male in order that she may also become a living spirit, resembling you males.'
"Would that these enthusiasts would take this to heart."
Whatever the limitations of the Judas Gospel, its presence need not be, nor has been, ignored in the classroom, says Perkins. "Faculty in our area have discussed this text with students as an example of what other Christians made of the gospel traditions they inherited. The story about the fate of the codex in the Egyptian antiquities market is interesting and instructive for the art history and archaeology-minded. And the use of photographic images and computers to put the fragments back together is of interest to those who work in such areas."
To Fr. Egan, the Gospel of Judas episode is instructive for what it reveals about the lack of understanding in the media about theology and Biblical history.
"True Christianity has long suffered from the hands of the media. The hype given to the Judas Gospel underscores this. If an ancient text were found confirming genuine Christianity's claim concerning, say, the empty tomb and the resurrection, I suspect that the media would either ignore or ridicule it.
"One 'scholar' actually said that the Judas Gospel consoles her because it presents a Jesus with a positive attitude toward Judas - as if the Jesus of the canonical Gospels would not have forgiven Judas, if he had repented, the way he had forgiven Peter. Judas could not forgive himself. That is part of his tragedy."
-Sean Smith •