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The discovery of a previously lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot has electrified the Christian community. What Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell us about Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, is inconsistent and biased. Therefore, the revelation of an ancient gospel that portrays this despised man as someone who saw his role in the Passion of Christ as integral to a larger plan—a divine plan—brings new clarity to the old story. If Judas had not betrayed Jesus, Jesus would not have been handed over to the ...
The discovery of a previously lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot has electrified the Christian community. What Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell us about Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, is inconsistent and biased. Therefore, the revelation of an ancient gospel that portrays this despised man as someone who saw his role in the Passion of Christ as integral to a larger plan—a divine plan—brings new clarity to the old story. If Judas had not betrayed Jesus, Jesus would not have been handed over to the authorities, crucified, buried, and raised from the dead. Could it be that without Judas, the Easter miracle would never have happened?
In The Secrets of Judas, James M. Robinson, an expert historian of early Christianity, examines the Bible and other ancient texts and reveals what we can and cannot know about the life of the historical Judas, his role in Jesus's crucifixion, and whether the Christian church should reevaluate his intentions and possible innocence. Robinson tells the sensational story of the discovery of a gospel attributed to Judas, and shows how this affects Judas's newfound meaning for history and for the Christian faith.
Judas Iscariot is, if not the most famous, then surely the most infamous, of the inner circle of Jesus's disciples. He was one of the twelve apostles who stuck with him through thick and thin to the bitter end, until it became time to deny him three times before the cock crew twice, or tuck one's tail between one's legs and run for life back to Galilee, or, if you must, betray him. Is Judas just fulfilling biblical prophecy, implementing the plan of God for Jesus to die for our sins, doing what Jesus told him to do? Why else does he identify Jesus to the Jewish authorities with a kiss, just for thirty pieces of silver? What do the Gospels inside the New Testament -- and then what does The Gospel of Judas outside the New Testament -- tell us about all this?
Jewish and Gentile Confessions
In order to be able to understand the presentation of Judas in the Gospels of the New Testament, it is first necessary to understand the Gospels themselves, as products of their own time, serving the purposes of churches in the last third of the first century. They were not primarilyhistorical records, but rather were Christian witnesses to Jesus, "Gospels," "Good News." They were written for evangelizing rather than simply to inform. The Evangelists worked hard to formulate the traditions they recorded in such a way as to convey the evangelizing point they had in mind.
Since most of what we know about Judas is found in these Gospels, we must first become familiar with this evangelizing procedure of the Evangelists, before we can move back behind them half a century to talk about the historical Judas himself.
Jesus's own "public ministry" was largely confined to Jews, and his disciples were Jews. Those who had the Pentecost experience of receiving the Spirit after Easter were Jews from all over the ancient world. They had gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate a Jewish festival. And Judas was a part of this very Jewish context out of which Christianity was born.
Judaism was (and is) a very impressive ethical monotheistic religion, appealing not only to Jews, but also to Gentiles. They admired the high ethical standards of the Jewish community, and appreciated the form of worship they practiced throughout the Roman Empire: a religious ser-vice without the outdated trappings of a temple with animal sacrifice (confined to the temple in Jerusalem), but rather with an edifying, uplifting reading from their holy scriptures in Hebrew, followed by its interpretation in the everyday language of the audience. Gentiles liked to attend these ser-vices in Jewish synagogues, a Greek word that means "assemblies." But few of them were actually willing to convert to Judaism, to become Jews, "proselytes," by undergoing circumcision and accepting strict conformity to the Jewish lifestyle. Judaism meant abstaining from much of the desirable social life of their community! They preferred to attend the synagogue on the Sabbath, but live their normal lives the rest of the week. These Gentiles who attended the synagogue were called "God-fearers," but not "Jews."
In the Jewish synagogues where Paul preached, these God-fearers were those who were most sympathetic to his message, for he offered them precisely what they wanted from Judaism: the high ethical ideal without animal sacrifice or outdated restrictions on their social relations. Baptism was much better than circumcision! And so the Gentile Christian Church blossomed, far surpassing in numbers what was left of Jesus's disciples in Galilee, the withering Jewish Christian Church.
Barnabas had enlisted for his mission in Antioch the most prominent convert from Judaism since Easter: the Pharisee Paul, from Tarsus on the southern coast of modern Turkey, a Jew raised out there in the Gentile world (Acts 11:25-26).
Paul and Barnabas took Titus, a Gentile convert to Christianity, with them to Jerusalem to convince the "pillars" of the Jewish Christian Church there that this Gentile, though uncircumcised, should be recognized as a fully accredited Christian (Gal. 2:3). The Jerusalem Church conceded the point (Acts 15:19-21), and reached a working arrangement with Paul and Barnabas: the original disciples would continue their mission limited to Jews, but gave the right hand of fellowship to Paul and Barnabas to continue converting uncircumcised Gentiles (Gal. 2:7-9). Paul in turn agreed to make a collection in Gentile churches for the poor of the Jerusalem Church (Gal. 2:10; Acts 11:29-30).
This fine ecumenical solution ratified by the Jerusalem Council proved difficult to implement back in the mixed congregation of Antioch, for Paul and Barnabas had in practice given up their Jewish custom of eating only among Jews to retain their ceremonial purity. Instead they ate together with all members of their mixed congregation. The Lord's Supper could not be segregated! Even Peter, there for a visit from Jerusalem, went along with this tolerant Christian practice. But Jesus's brother James, who by then had taken over the leadership of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13), sent delegates to Antioch to insist that Jewish Christians should eat only at a table with Jews, to retain their ceremonial purity, even if the congregation included Gentiles (Gal. 2:12). So Peter himself withdrew to a Jews-only table, and even Barnabas went along with this segregation (Gal. 2:11-13). But Paul stood his ground, denouncing this reliance on Jewish purity as a condition for salvation (Gal. 2:14-21), and from then on did his missionary work without the support of the church of Antioch or of Jewish Christianity.
From Paul's time on, this alienation between the Jewish and Gentile branches of Christianity only got worse. The ecumenicity of the Jerusalem Council gave way to the dominance of the more numerous and prosperous Gentile Christian Church, which "returned the favor" by rejecting the small Jewish Christian Church as heretical.
Excerpted from The Secrets of Judas by James M. Robinson Copyright ©2006 by James M. Robinson. Excerpted by permission.
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