I don't normally mind offending holy men, but I can remember feeling absolutely aghast at the injured look that spread across the fine features of the Coptic Archbishop of Eritrea as we sat in his quarters in Asmara in 1993. Was it true, I had asked him, that in the Coptic Christian tradition Judas was considered to be a saint? He jumped like a pea on a hot shovel and, when he had regained his composure, demanded to know how I could possibly have heard such a wicked rumor. Nothing more profane could be imagined than this perversion of the Easter story. (Looking back, I think I may have misunderstood something I read in Graham Greene.)
Nonetheless, the idea of a sacred Judas always seemed rational to me, at least in Christian terms. The New Testament tells us firmly that Jesus went to Jerusalem at Passover to die and to fulfill certain ancient prophecies by doing so. How could any agent of this process, witting or unwitting, be acting other than according to the divine will? It did seem odd to me that the Jewish elders and the Romans required someone to identify Jesus for them, since according to the story he was already a rather well-known figure, but that was a secondary objection.
Now we have, recovered from the desert of Egypt, a 26-page "Gospel of Judas," written in Coptic script about 300 years after the events it purportedly describes. This fragment may or may not be related to the "Nag Hammadi library"—a collection of gospels, including those of Thomas and Mary Magdalene, that were unearthed near an ancient Egyptian monastery in 1945. Sometimes known as the "Gnostic" texts, they are the ones that were rejected as noncanonical when the early church made its vain attempt to standardize Christian dogma. Given how many discrepancies there are between the four remaining Gospels of the New Testament, one can almost sympathize with Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, who in an Easter letter in the fourth century tried to boil down the number of approved books to 27.
The Judas gospel puts legend's most notorious traitor in a new light—as the man who enjoyed his master's most intimate confidence, and who was given the crucial task of helping him shed his fleshly mortality. And you can see why the early Christian fathers were leery of such texts. This book has the same cast but a very arcane interpretation. Right before Passover, as the disciples are praying, Jesus sneers at their innocence. Only Judas has guessed the master aright—and has discerned that he comes from the heavenly realm of the god "Barbelo." In the realm of Barbelo, it seems, earthly pains are unknown and the fortunate inhabitants are free from the attentions of the God of the Old Testament. Jesus himself is descended in some fashion from Adam's third son, Seth. With Judas' help, he hopes to guide the seed of Seth back to the realm of Barbelo. * (Is it possible that C.S. Lewis always had a copy of this esoteric text in one of his wardrobes? Or perhaps it fell into the hands of the Heaven's Gate sect-maniacs, as they castratedly awaited the satellite that lurked behind the comet?)
I don't think any summarizing sentence on all this could be more wrong than the one written by Adam Gopnik in the latest New Yorker. He states:
The finding of the new Gospel, though obviously remarkable as a bit of textual history, no more challenges the basis of the Church's faith than the discovery of a document from the nineteenth century written in Ohio and defending King George would be a challenge to the basis of American democracy.
Can Gopnik not discern the difference between George III and Benedict Arnold, let alone the difference between a man-made screed and a series of texts sometimes claimed to be inerrant and divinely inspired? But never mind these trifling failures of analogy. The Judas gospel would make one huge difference if it was accepted. It would dispel the centuries of anti-Semitic paranoia that were among the chief accompaniments of the Easter celebration until approximately 30 years after 1945, when the Vatican finally acquitted the Jews of the charge of Christ-killing. But if Jesus had been acting consistently and seeking a trusted companion who could facilitate his necessary martyrdom, then all the mental and moral garbage about the Jewish frame-up of the Redeemer goes straight over the side.
Remember that Christians are supposed to believe that everybody is responsible for the loneliness and torture of Calvary, and for the failure to appreciate the awful blood sacrifice until it was too late. In living memory, the Catholic Church invoked the verses where the Jews called for this very blood to be, not just upon their own heads, but upon their every succeeding generation. (This sinister fable occurs in only one of the four authorized Gospels, but it was enough—and Mel Gibson recently coined himself 40 million pieces of silver by attempting to revive it.)
Now ask yourself, why did the church take so long to exculpate the Jews as a whole from the collective and heritable charge of "deicide"? It ought to have been simple enough to determine that the Sanhedrin of the time, whatever it may have done, could not have bound all Jews for all eternity. The answer is equally simple: If Christianity had to excuse one group of humans from everlasting blood-guilt, how could it avoid excusing them all? Two millennia of stupidity and cruelty and superstition dissolve in an instant when we notice that even some early believers were shrewd enough to see though the whole sham. On this weekend of official piety, let us all therefore give thanks for our deliverance from religion, and raise high the wafer that summons us to the wonders and bliss of the faraway realm of Barbelo and brings us the joyous and long-awaited news that Judas saves.*
* Correction, April 13, 2006: This article originally and incorrectly identified a legendary realm discussed in the "Gospel of Judas" as "Barbelo," which is actually the name of a god said to inhabit it. The place should have been identified as the "realm of Barbello." Click here to return to the corrected sentences.