Gospel of Judas
It’s highly unlikely, according to scholars of the Bible, that the Gospels of Mark, Luke, John and Matthew were written by those who claimed to be disciples of Jesus Christ. In fact, the authorship of none of these is known or has ever been pinned down. This historical lacuna, in itself, puts a huge question mark over the history of Christianity as it is known today. Christianity, in fact, came into its own when it managed to scale the barrier of the arrogant Roman Empire and Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. From his center of power called Constantinople, today’s Istanbul, the new patron of Christianity commissioned the monumental task of compiling and codifying the dogmas and canons of the religion he had adopted for himself and enforced upon his subjects.
It was at the Council of Nicea (in present-day Turkey) that Christianity’s infrastructure was devised. Constantine patronized only those bishops — from among the myriad jostling for supremacy as true followers of Christ — who were powerful and hailed from regions of strategic importance. The purpose of the exercise was political and pragmatic and, as with other divinely revealed religions, religious stalwarts and pundits rose to the aid of the monarchy. It was a pact crafted to consolidate the hands of both parties; one temporal, the other ecclesiastical. The conclave decreed, for all times to come, that Jesus Christ was the son of God who came to this world to die at the cross in order to expiate for all those who believed in his divinity.
The Roman Church, subsequently to be known as the Catholic Church, was ordained as the only legitimate authority. It was concluded that all of Jesus’ disciples were loyal to him except Judas who, it was decreed, was the one that betrayed him to the Romans and led him to the cross. Nicea also determined that the four Gospels, which served as the agreed canons of Christianity, were the only ones acceptable and all others were discarded because they advocated themes other than what this gathering was ordaining for Christians till eternity. Among the Gospels discarded was the one named after Judas.
But the Gospel of Judas wasn’t destroyed. Like many others not in favour with the Church, it was ‘buried in jars or hidden in graves, preserved for a distant future in which their silenced voices might speak again.’ Professor Karen L. King, Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the HarvardDivinitySchool, and Professor Elaine Pagels, Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at PrincetonUniversity are two respected academics of religion in the US. They think it is time for those ‘silenced voices’ to be heard and analyzed for what they offer by way of dissenting opinion from the litany of the Church.
The Gospel of Judas Iscariot was, apparently, written around 150 CE in the Greek language. The two researchers are certain about the period of its authorship because in 180 CE a Greek Bishop named Irenaeus — a notorious and vindictive man who was a votary of the disciples, minus Judas — discarded Judas’s Gospel as a ‘load of rubbish.’
In 1970, a Coptic translation was found in central Egypt, at a place called Al-Minya. Written on papyrus sheets, the translation was dated circa 4th century, around or soon after the gathering in Nicea. It was made public in April 2006 by the National Geographic Society. The authorship of the Gospel of Judas is unknown. However, thorough a nd laborious research by the two American professors clearly establishes that the Church and its standard bearers rejected this book as a ‘heretical work’ because it knocks the foundation on which the elaborate edifice of the Roman Catholic Church was constructed over the centuries. For instance, Peter has long been presented as the anointed successor of Christ. Judas, however, claims that James, the younger brother of Christ (according to Christian belief) was the real anointed successor.
However, James, who headed one of the earliest groups of Jesus’ followers, was thrown down a parapet in Jerusalem in 62 CE and clubbed to death. Judas’s narrative ridicules the basic tenet that Jesus trusted his 12 disciples. He says instead that Jesus ridiculed them for their ignorance and their habit of human sacrifice to please God — even murdering their own wives and children. Peter, it claims, was harshly denounced as an imposter by Paul who, many believe, is the real architect of Christianity.
It lambastes the belief that Judas betrayed Jesus to the Roman soldiers. It argues that the only disciple whom Jesus trusted and loved was Judas, who understood Jesus’ message like no other and believed in the divine will to which Jesus submitted with élan.
Judas speaks eloquently of the ‘real kingdom,’ the world hereafter, to which the human spirit would depart in order to repose there forever. Jesus confided in him, and no one else, about the sublime beauty of the ‘eternal kingdom.’ The Gospel argues with conviction that the 12 principal church leaders — the 12 disciples of Christ — did not comprehend who Jesus was and who he carried his covenant from. They didn’t understand God and were sadly mistaken in their belief — which they foisted on Christians — that God required suffering or sacrifice from His people.
Theirs was a fatalistic vision and perception of Jesus’ mission from God, according to Judas. It’s obvious that the Gospel of Judas points in a direction diametrically opposed to the one that has been established. No wonder that it was banished with contempt and Judas was consigned to the role of an eternal villain. What the Roman Catholic Church did to Judas isn’t anything novel. Many religions have been monopolized by deeply-entrenched vested interests and corrupted beyond recognition. The question is: will this book — sensational in more ways than one — cut across the thick wall of ‘established truths’ under the powerful wings of the Church? Highly doubtful, considering the centuries it took for a mass of myths to become established as the ‘gospel truth’. But the painstaking research work done by the two eminent professors is impressive to say the least.
[Book Reviews by Karamat Ullah Ghori, Courtesy Dawn 5 July 2009 “Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the shaping of Christianity” By Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King, Penguin Viking, New York ISBN 978-0-670-03845-9, 198pp. $24.95]