Scholar exposes Gospel of Judas, bares own soul

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, April 5, 2006

Amidst all the hullabaloo surrounding Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, another religious bombshell, The Gospel of Judas, is about to steal the headlines, thanks in part to a two-hour feature airing on the National Geographic Channel the evening of April 9.

According to press hype, The Gospel of Judas – a document dating back some 1700 years and discovered in Egypt in the mid-1900s – presents a new account of the life of Jesus from the perspective of the man who betrayed him. Some have even labeled it "one of the most important finds in biblical archaeology."

In the light of all this, how will the gospel of Jesus fare?

One of the world's foremost biblical scholars and an expert on such questions has lived right here in Cochrane for the past three years. He also happens to be a loyal coffee companion.

James M. Robinson – readers of this column should address him simply as "Jim," he says – is Professor Emeritus of Religion, Claremont Graduate University, California. The former director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity has been highly honoured for his part in the scholarly quest for the historical Jesus, and for his definitive work on Q, the collection of sayings attributed to Jesus and found in the synoptic gospels of Matthew and Luke but absent in the Gospel of Mark.

He is best known, however, for his work on the Nag Hammadi Codices and as the General Editor of The Nag Hammadi Library in English, the area of research that bears most directly on the current discussion around The Gospel of Judas. The Nag Hammadi Codices are a collection of fourth-century papyri found in central Egypt and written mostly in the now-extinct Coptic language.

"The Gospel of Judas adds nothing to our knowledge about Judas or Jesus," Jim says. Here's his take on the document:

The Gospel of Judas was not written by Judas Iscariot, and does not even contain what one expects a gospel to contain: stories about Jesus. Instead, The Gospel of Judas is a mid-second century Gnostic treatise. It was named a "gospel" at the time, so as to compete with the four Gospels in the New Testament. But when it was written, Judas Iscariot had been dead for over a century.

In typical Gnostic form, The Gospel of Judas presents most humans as unenlightened, even most Christians. They all lack the spark of the divine capable of being awakened so that they can renounce worldly pleasures and long to return above, from which their souls descended. The twelve apostles are such fleshly Christians that are incapable of salvation, but only Judas, hence called the thirteenth, is from above, and hence like Jesus. Judas understands that Jesus needs to leave his earthly body and return to the realms above, and so Judas helps Jesus in this regard by leading to his arrest and execution.

Gnostic concepts are so foreign to us today, and of course the holes in the papyrus do not help our understanding. But persons will eagerly read it, and then, after the sensation is over, things will return to where they were, basically. We scholars interested in Gnosticism will be delighted to know more about the obscure Gospel of Judas, and those not interested in Gnosticism will continue to have to cope with the ambivalent portrayal of Judas in the New Testament: Basically a bad character who turns Jesus in, but in some regards doing what the Hebrew scriptures predicted, what Jesus knew was needed to save humanity, and what Jesus hence told Judas to go and instigate – and of course it is this latter undercurrent of the New Testament presentation that is alone present and expounded in a Gnostic way in The Gospel of Judas.

Jim has detailed the history, intrigue and significance of The Gospel of Judas in a just-published book, The Secrets of Judas: the Story of the Misunderstood Disciple and His Lost Gospel (HarperSanFrancisco).

Renowned scholar and Cochrane resident James M. Robinson, who says The Gospel of Judas adds nothing to knowledge of Jesus or Judas.
Photo by Warren Harbeck

But it is another book of his, published a few months ago, that is a far better reflection of Jim's life work. The Gospel of Jesus: In Search of the Original Good News (HarperSanFrancisco) encapsulates in a highly readable form his conclusions on the core teachings of Jesus based on his scholarly consideration of the documents and literary forms that underlie the four Gospels.

"The focus of Jesus' gospel was God taking the lead in people's lives, God remaking the world through people who listen to him," Jim writes in the Introduction. This is all about the "kingdom of God," better translated as the "reign of God" or "God reigning."

Jim says "this book is intended less to provide information about Jesus than it is to let you listen to what he had to say back then, so that you can respond to what he may still have to say today."

Writing with such passion as he does has surprised some who are more biblically conservative than Jim, especially in view of his rigorous application of critical methodology to the study of the Bible. I asked him about this, and here's his response:

Often when I have made an academic lecture to a lay audience, the leading question is raised in the discussion period as to what all this scholarship has done to my Christian faith. The expected answer is that it has destroyed my faith, which then justifies the person asking the question not to have anything further to do with the presentation I had made. So I answer them, to wake them up, usually along the following lines:

I grew up in a very traditional Christian home, and of course believed what I was told. If I had moved from that background into some normal business, I would over the years no doubt have realized that it had nothing to do with the real world. It would have come to seem more fiction than fact, more superstition than truth. But since I continued to work on the biblical text for the next fifty years, my faith has changed, it has grown, as it would not have, if I had not been a biblical scholar. Of course I have moved from that childhood theology, but I have moved to Jesus' own trust in God. But I think my faith is all the stronger – and of course more valid – than what I grew up on as a child.

I have more faith in Jesus now, thanks to my scholarship, than if I had gone into a completely different field.

I asked Jim how he'd compare these two recent books of his – The Secrets of Judas and The Gospel of Jesus. He responded:

The Jesus book is much more important to me than the book on Judas, because Jesus is more important than Judas. The book on Jesus is telling the truth; the Judas book is debunking half truths. I hope the Jesus book will be important for a long time, and the Judas book will cease being important as soon as the sensationalism is over.

Interestingly, his view on the Judas sensationalism is not too different from his view on the book and soon-to-be-released movie, The Da Vinci Code, to which I alluded at the beginning.

"The movie will produce a new sensation," Jim says, "but it and the book will have no standing academically and will, I hope, fade from the scene shortly."

© 2006 Warren Harbeck

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