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Book Review: Reading Judas – The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King

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For thousands of years, Judas Iscariot has been reviled as the betrayer of Christ, the man who purposefully pointed out Jesus, possibly with a kiss, to an armed group of men who had come to take him away. But an archeological find made public by National Geographic provides a different slant on both Jesus and the man who supposedly betrayed him.

Sometime in the 1970s, a gospel according to Judas, translated from its second century Greek into Coptic, was discovered in Middle Egypt near Al Minya. Although damaged considerably, scholars did a remarkable job translating it into English by April 2006.

With Reading Judas one must conclude that the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and now Judas’, portray the betrayal of Jesus as divinely willed by God. Jesus states his foreknowledge of Judas’ act clearly: “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me” (Matthew 26:20-23). If so, then what Judas did to fulfill the will of God and Old Testament prophecies cannot damn the man forever into the annals of history as a mad traitor.

One of the clearest messages in Judas’ Gospel is his disagreement with the apostles and the original church fathers concerning why God became incarnate. Judas believed Christ proclaimed a message of love and life and joy. He believed in forgiveness and the resurrection of the soul after death.

But he adamantly opposed any idea that a good god would ever accept or require blood sacrifice of animals or human beings as martyrs for their faith. Suffering is not an essential ingredient for salvation; God did not need the offerings. In Reading Judas, the tortured, bloodied account of the Son of God being shamefully tortured for his sheep as the “pascal lamb” (I Corinthians 5:7) and then being crucified as a redemptive act “for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:8) horrified Judas Iscariot.

Furthermore, according to other gospels, Jesus had commanded his followers to “…eat my flesh … drink my blood …” (John 6:53-55). This was unthinkable to Judas as something possibly touching on cannibalism. Subsequently, the hideous annals of Christians actively seeking martyrdom so they could die like Jesus and gain instant access through the pearly gates was unconscionable.

One can see why Judas Iscariot stood staunchly at odds with the earliest Christian church. But what was Judas' message for mankind – for worshipping God? Reading Judas claims the Savior took him aside for intimate, personal instruction before his crucifixion. Jesus told Judas that our world is “… a kind of primeval darkness and disorder” similar to that mentioned in the Bible’s opening verses.

In order to rise above darkness, people must follow the teachings of Jesus because “… the image of God they carry deep within makes them superior to the rulers of chaos” (Judas 13:16-17). By following Christ’s exemplary life and his teachings each person "turns upward to the holy race” (Judas 9:26-30). When death comes naturally, the body will die, but the soul will join God in eternity.

Reading Judas is a highly controversial work, not because of its authors, but because of Judas' words. It begins by explaining how Judas was deigned to betray Jesus as part of a divine plan. Yet Judas’ gospel reveals over and over his disbelief that a Divine God would request blood sacrifice of any human being, particularly an incarnate son. Since Judas’ gospel “… ends as he hands Jesus over to the enemies who will kill him,” one wonders about this vicious circle of reasoning.

I would highly recommend Reading Judas to any reader, Bible believer or not, looking for a mind-provoking book, one that will cause some consternation of thought about historical Christianity and its earliest apostles, disciples and gospel writers. It is well written and easy to follow.

For those readers tolerant of religious history beyond the more accepted, traditional gospels, Reading Judas raises issues about the nature of God, Jesus’ incarnation, his death, and the terrible sacrificial deaths of martyrs at the hands of Christian persecutors. No doubt The Gospel of Judas exists, but its words might trouble a reader trying to reconcile how any god could set up a man as sensitive as Judas for a demonic traitor.

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