Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity


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This author team, writing in an engaging, accessible style, is the first to reflect on the recent discovery of the "Gospel of Judas" and how that text provides insight into explaining how Jesus' followers understood his death, why Judas betrayed Jesus, and why God allowed it.

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Oct 12, 2017

Beyond Anger To Revelation

In April 2006, the National Geographic Society published an ancient text, the "Gospel of Judas" that had been discovered in the mid-1970s in Egypt. The original Greek text dates from about 150 A.D., although the version recovered was a Coptic translation written several hundred years thereafter. The publication of the "Gospel of Judas" excited a great deal of scholarly and popular interest due, in part, to the light it might cast on the early development of Christianity.

In their recent book, "Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Early Christianity" (2007), Elaine Pagels and Karen King offer early thoughts on the Gospel of Judas and its significance. Pagels is Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University and the author of several books on Gnostic Christianity, including "The Gnostic Gospels". King is Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the Harvard Divinity School, and she has also written several books on Gnosticism.

This short but difficult book is in two parts. The first part, "Reading Judas" consists of four chapters jointly written by Pagels and King examining the Gospel of Judas in the context of the traditional New Testament canon, the history of early Christianity, and other Gnostic texts. The second part of the study consists of an English translation of the Gospel of Judas by King together with her detailed commentary on the translation. Interpretation of this newly published text is difficult. It is obscurely written with names and characters that are unfamiliar. Extensive and important passages of the text have been lost over the years. It should also be remembered that the text of the Gospel of Judas is itself a Coptic translation of an original Greek version that we do not possess.

Pagels and King present their text as casting light on the diverse character of early Christianity before it assumed its canon and orthodox formulation, but the fascination of the Gospel of Judas is at least equally due to the text itself. As Pagels and King point out, the text is the work of an angry author who was critical of the disciples of Jesus and of the form that what would become mainstream Christianity was taking and who was anti-semitic and homophobic as well. But they find the text passing "beyond anger to revelation" (p. 103) as it leaves polemic behind and ventures into the realm of the spirit in considering the nature of God, human character, and the problem of evil.

Pagels and King argue that the Gospel of Judas was written as a response to Christian martyrdom at the hands of the Romans. The author of the Gospel could not believe that a just God would allow His followers to be murdered, tortured, and sacrificed in His name. In place of what the Gospel author saw as a cruel, vengeful God, the author proposed a creation story consisting of a realm of two levels: the higher level the realm of the spirit, and the lower level the realm of the physical world. The persecutions of the Christians were not part of the divine will but were part of the world below. The realm of the spirit could be reached, for the author of the Gospel of Judas, by an effort to "bring forth the perfect human." In the text, Jesus enjoins Judas "to seek [after the] spirit within you."

The Gospel of Judas thus is an attempt to recast what became standard religious thought by internalizing God and the spiritual search. This theme, in broad outline, resonates with many people today who find themselves religiously inclined but uncomfortable with what they perceive as traditional religious dogma.

Pagels and King admirably place the Gospel of Judas in the context of the development of Christianity. They offer a nuanced account that recognizes the value and the need for the four traditional Gospels in establishing a foundation for Christianity in its many creeds, from Catholicism and Orthodoxy to evangelical Protestantism. But the fascination with the text is ultimately the fascination with the message. This book, as well as other recent works exploring Gnosticism, casts light on traditional religious belief, but it also encourages the efforts of those contemporary readers who wish to explore alternative forms of spiritual development.

Robin Friedman


Feb 26, 2009

Oh Yeah!

This is a great book. I heard a lot about it and decided to read it. We are now studing it in our Church school adult class. Thanks for having it.

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