You may be surprised to hear me say so, but the third episode of Finding Jesus, about the Gospel of Judas, was the most effective of those which have aired thus far. It’s a very fair probing of what we ought to think about Judas (some pros, mostly cons), and the subsequent traditions about Judas, including the late second or early third century document called The Gospel of Judas. Kudos to David, Mark, Candida and others who made it so.
A cautionary word is in order about the entire series. Some may not like the melodramatics of the drama part of the show. Some would just prefer a careful balanced scholarly discussion of the matter, but that is not the nature of a docu-drama which is what this series is, and besides, there are many who would rather see the drama, and not the talking scholarly heads. So we have a balancing act in the presentation and editing.
The Gospel of Judas is, at best a late second or early third century text, which we now have access to in Coptic and in translation, because of a 20th century discovery in Egypt. It is indeed a very interesting document, but it really doesn’t add to our store of knowledge about the historical Jesus or the historical Judas. It does not help with ‘Finding Jesus’ As the show makes quite clear, this Gospel is a polemic directed against the mainstream orthodox Christians of the late second or third centuries who are viewed by the author of the document as not preservers of the Gospel tradition, but betrayers of it, turning Christianity into just another religion of priests, temples and sacrifices, like most ancient religions. The filming of the story about the discovery of the Gospel of Judas, and the shady dealings that led to it passing from an Egyptian to dubious antiquities dealer in Ohio, and finally to Geneva is interesting and does remind one of an Indiana Jones saga.
It is interesting that the show seemed almost deliberately to avoid the word ‘GNOSTIC’ for this Gospel and for the tradition it represents, but that is in fact the nature and orientation of this Gospel. It believes in secret revelations only for the elect, and what is conveyed in those revelations is esoteric knowledge that frankly is not much like the original Gospel traditions about or from Jesus, but is more like some sort of amalgam of Greek philosophy, spirit-matter dualism (with spirit being good and materiality evil), and anti-Semitism creeps in from time to time. This is true of a good deal of the Gnostic documents (see my The Gospel Code for more on this). The sad truth is, it was Gnosticism that was the betrayal of the original thoroughly Jewish Jesus traditions far more than anything the second century orthodox Christians may have done or developed.
One historical point that it would have been useful to have clarified by one of the scholars was the meaning of the name Iscariot. It may well come from the word sicarri… who were the daggermen amongst the Zealots. The show however helpfully offered several theories as to why Judas might have betrayed Jesus, and one plausible one is of course that as a person with Zealotic leanings he became disillusioned when Jesus didn’t decide to lead a coup and drive out Pilate and the Romans and the corrupt Jewish leaders from Jerusalem. This theory is believable.
What is not believable is the notion that Jesus ‘needed’ Judas to betray him, and put him up to it. Jesus could have just turned himself in to the religious authorities who were looking for him especially after Jesus’ Temple tantrum early in Passover week. Jesus did not need to go through the melodrama of prompting and encouraging a faltering disciple to betray him. No, the betrayal of Jesus by Judas cannot be laid at the door of Jesus.
I do however agree that we should have some mercy on Judas. There is evidence that he had remorse after the fact, and tried to give the blood money back. Furthermore, he seems to have believed his act was so shameful and that he had shamed himself so badly, that he felt he would rather die than live perpetually with that shame.
The show suggested there is only one Gospel writer that tells us about the demise of Judas (Matthew), but this is not so since we also have a Lukan story about Judas’ demise as well, which differs from the Matthean account. Another small fact that was gotten wrong in the show was that Jesus sweated drops of blood in the garden of Gethsemane. In the first place, the Lukan verse is textually problematic and may well not be original to Luke’s Gospel. In the second place, even if it is, it says ‘sweat like great drops of blood’ not that he sweated blood. But this is a small detail.
On the whole, both the story telling and the analysis are well done. It was nice to see Dr. April deConnick from Rice explain what the Coptic text of the Gospel of Judas really says about Judas, namely that he was a daimon, a demon. It turns out that not even in the Gospel named for Judas is the man rehabilitated. No, the revisionist history that is going on in that Gospel has more to do with 2nd and 3rd century ecclesiastical in fighting than with the historical Jesus or the historical Judas. In the end the Gospel of Judas doesn’t help us with the task of “Finding Jesus”, but it certainly sheds some rather depressing light on the the sordid business of religious squabbles in later Christian history.