Are you now a doubting Thomas about the traitor Judas? Steve Tomkins offers some facts behind the headlines.
After the Church apologised for the slave trade, will Judas will be next in line for an apology?
From what we read in the papers, it sounds as if, after 2000 years of badmouthing as the evil disciple, Judas is finally being rehabilitated.
It turns out, apparently, that he was Jesus’s best friend, 'betraying' him at his bidding. And the story of the 30 pieces of silver and spilling his guts in a field of blood is presumably an elaborate hoax involving Mary Magdalene, the Priory of Sion, the faked moon landings and that secret Martian Pope they’ve got hidden in Sacramento.
And if you don’t believe that, they’ve obviously got to you too.
How can you sort out fact from fantasy in this crazy world of conspiracy theory and journalism? Simple. Just read on.
Discovery or scam
First, we need to know whether this is a discovery or scam. And it really seems to be kosher. The National Geographic, who have a lot of eggs poised to land full in the face if this goes all Hitler diaries on them, have arranged extensive tests.
Carbon dating, multi-spectral imaging, handwriting analysis, ink tests, historical theology. Apparently it all points to the manuscript being written around 300 AD in Egypt - which is where it was found in about 1970.
The original writing is somewhat earlier. Irenaus, the Bishop of Lyons, mentioned a Gospel of Judas in an attack on false Christianities in 180, so there was clearly one in circulation by then, and this seems to be it.
How reliable is what it tells us about Jesus and Judas? Speaking not as someone with religious beliefs to defend, but as someone who knows something about church history, it isn’t. It’s the gospel according to Jeffrey Archer.
For a start, forget any idea of this being a 'fifth gospel'. It’s more like the 25th. The second century was a boom time for gospels, much more so than the first. There are fictional gospels of Peter, Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, etc. So there is nothing very special about Judas.
And 150 years after Jesus died is a long time. Imagine publishing a biography of, say, Wordsworth today, that turned the accepted facts on their heads, all on the basis of secret information passed down by word of mouth.
Judas follows a similar gambit to many of these gospels. The writer has some religious truths to teach. They are into Jesus, but are aware that what they have to say is wildly different to what is taught by the leaders of the church and their sacred writings.
So they start with the story of Jesus taking one of the disciples aside - John in one, Mary Magdalene in another. And he says: 'It’s time for you to hear The Mysteries. Don’t tell the others, they couldn’t cope.'
Why make Judas the hero? It helps to know the people who wrote it. Gnosticism, which produced many of these alternative gospels, including Judas, was a broad religious movement, with Christian and non-Christian versions, not so very unlike today’s New Age thingy.
One of the less bizarre things they taught was that Jesus was not flesh and blood but an apparition from the spirit world. Therefore Jesus could not suffer or hunger or die.
They tended to explain the cross as a powerful sign are rather an actual death. So a gospel of Judas would be a good way of showing that Jesus was not unhappy about his crucifixion, but stage managed the whole thing.
I hate to sound like a cornered apologist for religious conservatism, but the simple fact is that if you want the most reliable evidence about the real events surrounding the life and death of Jesus, your best bet is the four gospels in the Bible.
Of all the others that have emerged in the last 200 years, the only one that has any credible claim to date from the first century is the Gospel of Thomas. That’s well worth a read (it’s short) but it won’t tell you anything nice about Judas.