June 7, 2006: A moment with...

Elaine Pagels

Elaine Pagels

Elaine Pagels (John Jameson ’04)

In April the National Geographic Society announced the discovery of an early Christian text, the Gospel of Judas, written in Coptic around 240 to 350 A.D. It is believed to be a copy of the original Greek manuscript from the second century. One of a number of early Christian texts recounting Jesus’ life and teachings, the Gospel of Judas was omitted from the New Testament canon. It paints Judas not as an evil person, but as Jesus’ truest disciple. Scholars of religion like Princeton’s Elaine Pagels knew about the existence of the Gospel of Judas from the writings of a second-century church father, Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon. A consultant to the National Geographic Society, Pagels wrote in a New York Times op-ed that the discovery of the Judas Gospel contributes to “exploding the myth of a monolithic Christianity and showing how diverse and fascinating the early Christian movement really was.” She spoke with PAW associate editor Katherine Federici Greenwood.

What is the major difference between the four Gospels of the New Testament (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John) and the Gospel of Judas?

The four Gospels agree that Jesus was handed over by Judas and that there was a divine purpose. Where they disagree is on the motive. In Mark, the earliest [canonical Gospel], there is no reason given about why Judas betrayed Jesus. Mark just says he decided to betray him and he was going to hand him over, and the chief priests were delighted and offered him money. Luke and Matthew say Judas did it for money. Luke and John say that he did it because he was possessed by Satan.

The Gospel of Judas says Judas did it because Jesus required him to do it, knowing that his death was somehow a sacred mystery. According to the Gospel of Judas, Judas has a dream in which he sees other disciples stoning him to death, because they think he is a traitor. He cries out to Jesus and asks about this dream, and Jesus says that they will misunderstand you and you will suffer, but you will be greater than they. The Gospel of Judas says that Jesus revealed to Judas alone secret mysteries about the universe and about Jesus’ and Judas’ destinies. What that says to me is that the followers of Jesus within a generation of his death are arguing intensely about why Judas did it.

There are other differences. The Gospel of Judas sees questions about good and evil as a more mysterious phenomenon than you see in the New Testament Gospels, where you see a clearer morality play — Judas is bad and Jesus is good. In the Gospel of Judas, the view of morality is more complex and suggests that suffering in the world doesn’t just come out of human sin, but is mysteriously built into the universe. In this Gospel, the 12 disciples don’t understand Jesus very well — Judas understands him better. Now, this is probably what I call a minority report. It was written by somebody who sides with the disciple whom everybody hates.

What is the implication of the Gospel of Judas for Christianity?

The Gospel of Judas helps us examine how what we call Christianity came into being, how it developed, how traditions that are called orthodox annihilated all the other positions. It’s not what you learn about in Sunday school, where one usually hears the moral story that Judas is bad and Judas is punished and he hangs himself. This is a very different perception, a much more complex perception of good and evil. I’m not saying it’s better, it’s just very different.

Why do you think the Gospel of Judas was left out of the New Testament canon by early church leaders?

Irenaeus said the Gospel of Judas was outrageous. It challenges the role of the disciples he considered most important — Peter and Paul — because the Gospel of Judas attributes to Judas the greatest understanding of Jesus. And the Gospel of Judas challenged the authority of the bishops who claim that their authority rests on Peter and Paul, as the founders of the Church of Rome. The Gospel of Judas might have taken a lot of people in another direction.

So noncanonical Gospels like the Gospel of Judas — known as the Gnostic Gospels — provide a more complex view of the early Christian movement?

Yes, but I don’t call them Gnostic Gospels now. I call them Christian Gospels. In saying that, I don’t mean that the Gnostic Gospels and the four Gospels in the New Testament are all equally right or accurate; I just mean there were different ways of being Christian and arguments about what it meant in the first several centuries after Jesus’ death. And unless we’re going to just buy the definitions that were made by church leaders who decided which Gospels to include in the New Testament, we have to look at the different kinds of Christians and teachings at that time. end of article

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