Judas' good news

April 09, 2006

Doing the Lord's work. That's the easiest way to sum up the actions of Judas Iscariot conveyed in a new translation of an ancient gospel named for the infamous disciple who betrayed Jesus Christ. The Gospel of Judas, considered heresy in the early days of the church, is a provocative twist on the traditional Christian narrative. It is, simply put, the other side of the story.

Portrayed for centuries as the villain who gave up Jesus to his enemies for money, Judas becomes something else in the 26-page manuscript. He is the willing accomplice to Jesus' command to "sacrifice the man that clothes me" - in other words, turn him over to his enemies. It's not quite an exoneration, but it does offer another explanation for events preceding the crucifixion. As with any historical retelling, you have to consider the source. And scholars believe the Judas Gospel was probably written by a member of a Christian Gnostic cult a century after the four Gospels of the other disciples.

Revisionist history? Not quite. Some scholars say the text reveals more the thinking of its author than actual facts about its subjects. But as these stories go, it's got the makings of a blockbuster. Best-sellers on other subjects have been written from this same perspective, retelling a classic from the point of view of the spoiler.

Think Grendel, Mr. Rochester's crazy wife Bertha in Jane Eyre, or, more recently, the Wicked Witch of West. They challenge readers to confront their assumptions and biases. Should it be any different for a believer?

The Gospel of Judas is unlikely to challenge the primacy of mainstream Christianity, but it sure will have people talking. The text, discovered in Egypt in the 1970s, is authentic and has been verified through scientific tests. Its introduction to the public last week should be no mystery: It comes a week before Passover, the Jewish holiday celebrated by Christ as the "last supper," and Easter, and a month before the film premier of The Da Vinci Code, in which Gnostics figure prominently. Translate that as "good marketing."

Despite the manuscript's humble origins, the National Geographic Society, which helped underwrite the translation, stands to earn a tidy sum from books and publications. Thirty pieces of silver will seem like small change then.

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