Commentary

Did the Church Betray Judas?

A newly discovered manuscript seeks to rehabilitate Jesus’ betrayer

For the past several months we have been hearing a lot about the Gospel of Judas, a 1,700-year-old manuscript that has been restored, translated and, in some ways, sensationalized by the media. What are we to make of this document, and does it in any way undermine our faith?

To begin with, we need to state that this “gospel” appears to be completely authentic. In the early centuries of the Christian era, there was an enormous amount of religious writing as evidenced by many other books, letters and gospels, including the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter and the Secret Book of James, to say nothing of the Apocryphal writings.

All of this material, including much more recent findings such as the Nag Hammadi Library discovered in Egypt in 1945, and the Qumran (Dead Sea) Scrolls found in 1947, gives us a much fuller and richer understanding of the life and times of the early church.

It was also a time during which a number of heresies were set forth. Indeed, it could be argued that all three of the major creeds of the church were written in response to heresy of one kind or another. One of the most prevalent in the early church was something called Gnosticism. It taught, among other things, that Jesus was not truly human but more of a phantom or an emanation. If Jesus walked down a dusty road, he would have left no footprints, the gnostics would have argued.

Gnosticism grew out of Greek thought, which tended to denigrate the body and elevate the spirit. Gnostics could never accept the notion of a holy god taking on all the weaknesses and frailties of human flesh. But, holding firmly to the idea of a God who was both “true God and true Man,” the early church worked hard to counter the influences of the Gnostics. So, for example, John began his Gospel with a clear declaration that the Word had truly “become flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” (1:14)

And, when the early church fathers set about to codify the 66 books of the canonical Scriptures, it only seemed logical that they would reject that which they knew to be false. Jesus was human in every sense of the word, yet without sin.

The Gospel of Judas, like many other writings from the early centuries of the church, was most likely rejected (if it had been considered at all) because it smacked of Gnosticism. Gnostics would have loved the notion that Judas was helping Jesus with his crucifixion so that Jesus might be liberated from his weak and frail human body to set his spirit free. But the New Testament will have none of this. Jesus, though transformed in some sense, is resurrected in bodily form. He eats a meal with the disciples at the seashore. Thomas touches his wounds and comes to faith. Jesus breaks bread with the Emmaus disciples on the first Easter evening. There is no question: Jesus is both human and divine.

It should be noted that the crucifixion of Jesus would have happened with or without Judas. After Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, both the Sanhedrin and the Roman officials knew who Jesus was. It didn’t take a kiss of betrayal to identify him. After Jesus cleansed the Temple, the Sanhedrin wanted him dead. And the Romans weren’t naïve about identifying those whom they considered troublemakers. Jesus was a marked man with or without Judas. Judas did betray him for 30 pieces of silver — but his greatest sin was not believing that he, too, could be forgiven. After all, despite Peter’s triple denial, never was a word of retribution spoken by Jesus. On the contrary, Peter went on to become one of the greatest of all apostles.

The story of Judas might have had a similar, happier ending had he had more faith in the power of God to forgive.

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Harrington is pastor of Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, Apple Valley, Minnesota, and a member of the Metro Lutheran Board of Directors.