It’s Easter time, when I always dedicate a column or two to theological matters related to Jesus. A few weeks ago we talked about Fred Phelps as an unintended hero. Here’s another…
Am I possessed? Evil? Damned for even considering the possibility?
As Easter closes in like a cross slowly being dragged to Calvary, I have been pondering Judas. Could Judas have been one of the heroes of the story, intentional or not? What does Judas have to tell us, or to add to the story? Before the “betrayal” the story is mostly sans Judas. After the “betrayal” he disappears, perhaps because in storytelling if our hero is to win the day keeping the villain around is simply bad form.
But without Judas what do we have for a story? A somewhat controversial street preacher claiming to be many things, performing miracles: not actually unusual in those days. There were a few miracle-claiming messiah wannabes. If not for Judas would there even have been a movement called Christianity?
Once again I have been reading Bart Ehrman, this time his book, The Gospel of Judas. Bart Ehrman was given the job, with several other biblical scholars, of authenticating The Gospel of Judas. The Gospel of Judas is a Gnostic gospel that comes to us in bits and pieces, Being heretical it was burned if found, and not well kept after it’s discovery in the 1970s because those who traffic in ancient manuscripts are too often more interested in money than preservation.
The Gospel of Judas was probably written over 100-200 years post Calvary, like some of the books of the New Testament. The Gnostics, for those unfamiliar, were one of many groups who had their own, unique take, on Christianity. And even Gnosticism was split into many factions. Just post Calvary the history of Christianity was not one of a group of followers who all agreed on the nature of Jesus, or what his true message was, or even what actually happened. That’s true even among the group that many Christians would now consider would have been the traditional, orthodox, Christians of the time. All one has to do is consider different takes on what happened in the Bible between the different books: like who went to the rock that had been rolled back, what happened, and what was said after… or not: just to provide one example.
The Gnostics, to be as succinct as one can be, believed in secret knowledge, and many believed the world was created by an inferior deity. Only a few would ever attain all the secret knowledge, or be able to comprehend it. It is from the Gnostic gospels from which the phrase, “Look under a stone and I’ll be there,” arrives on the theological scene. But all this is not even close to describe the vast array of groups who considered themselves Gnostic Christians.
Oh, and many believed our lives here were punishment, something to be escaped, left behind… so Judas actually did Jesus a favor, if we were to accept some Gnostics skew on the matter. And if you look even at the accepted books each author had their own skew, which often explains the differences between stories like who discovered the tomb was empty, what they said about it after to others… just to provide one eample.
People tend to tell stories they tell, stories they write, in ways that fit the narrative they like, or prefer… and certainly not just the Gnostics. One might even accuse some who wrote gospels of the same. For example at least one gospel talks about massive changes, ripping of sacred curtains, destruction and such after shortly after he died, but the Romans who wrote everything down mentioned nothing of this, or Jesus, in their writings. We also must remember, from birth, the Jesus we are familiar with was not hunted by the Romans as some would have us believe. The reason Mary and Joseph took Jesus to Egypt was King Herod was out to kill all babies: an attempt to kill the messiah as the Jews thought of the messiah back then, and Herod certainly wasn’t expecting some “turn the other cheek, I’ll go willingly to the cross: render unto Caesar” future messiah-wannabe contender.
Herod considered himself a Jew, and of course it didn’t help Herod considered himself “king of the Jews:” he was hoping to kill off the competition. And it doesn’t help he was an utter mad man who murder folks in his own family, as well as many others. “Paranoid to the extreme” would be an apt description. He made Richard Nixon look like Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama combined.
During the time of Jesus Jews thought the Messiah would take the throne, rule, overthrow the Empire: many thought it would be a violently. This is why Jesus was executed. The Roman Empire didn’t execute folks for not being polytheistic. It executed them for being a threat to the Empire: and a true “king of the Jews;” as the Jews thought this “king” would behave, would have been a threat to the Empire. It was more than a little ironic Jesus was never that kind of savior, he never climbed off the cross and slaughtered Romans, never got in Herod’s face. “Render unto Caesar” was not what the Jews were expecting. Otherwise, events like the tipping of the tables, stopping the stoning of an adulteress, were consider Jewish affairs. Essentially: their problem.
Claiming to be the Messiah was a threat to the Empire precisely because Jews thought it meant a revolution. This is one reason why Jesus so often spoke in parables.
But if we are to believe Jesus had to be executed, then rise again to fulfill his destiny, then Judas did exactly what was needed. Indeed, one might argue this “messiah” did overthrow the old order: just not as expected, because years later the Empire became Christian due to Constantine.
There’s also something else to consider. When Jesus was led away: and there are slight variations on what Judas said depending on which Bible you are reading, he asked that those arresting him do it securely, or safely. Why? Well one could say with so many people in town due to Passover certainly there was a risk. These are not the words of a man who didn’t care, only wanted the money, or was possessed by a demon.There was love, and concern there: no matter how misdirected.
According to The Gospel of Judas just before what most Christians consider the “betrayal,” Jesus took Judas aside and told him what he must do, and that only he of the disciples understood his teachings, had the secret knowledge. Judas was told his name would be reviled: stained throughout history, but that he was the only one of the 12 who would enter the Kingdom.
To be clear I am not a Gnostic, though I do find some of their more minor teachings interesting. How much of any of this is true, or actually happened, well… I accept maybe little exactly as told by all those who told the story to suit their needs, their skew on these events.
Christopher Moore in his marvelous comedy, Lamb, has Judas betray Jesus because Judas had hoped as messiah he would fulfill the more violent version some Jews thought a messiah would fulfill: he didn’t and was behaving in ways that contradicted that belief. That, in the mind of Judas, made Jesus dangerous for not doing so… yet while still performing crowd attracting, follower motivating, miracles. One book in the Bible claims Judas’ motivation was greed, another he was possessed.
Bart Ehrman concludes there may be other motivations: Jesus was gaining a lot of attention and acting more an more like the messiah. Perhaps Judas mistakenly thought taking him away “safely” would prevent exactly what happened… which would explain his angst after.
But I find The Gospel of Judas provides yet another possible explanation. Perhaps Judas really did think he was in possession of secret knowledge, or more likely the one chosen to bring about the rule of Jesus with him by his side. Maybe the execution would fail because he was so powerful, could perform miracles so easily… or that he would arise and strike down the Empire. It wouldn’t be the first time in history those who understand more than others still screwed things up even worse than those who knew less.
These reasons certainly explain his angst after.
But no matter what, without Judas, the story of Jesus would not carry the theological weight it does up until today. We discuss Jesus in our churches and on the net, but Judas is left a cliche’: a one dimensional character in comparison.
So, this Easter time, pick up a copy of The Gospel of Judas by Bart Ehrman, or find other ways to consider his story too. Because without Judas, no matter what you believe, you may not have come to believe what you do. And non-believers may have had far less to challenge, to debate or think about. A Jesus who had tried to grasp the reins of power from the Romans violently would have simply just been another revolutionary: if he had succeeded. Without divine intervention: doubtful. But once crucified, then the claims of resurrection that followed, then the many of martyrs who died in his name until Constantine? That made all the difference.
Thanks to Judas.
Inspection is a column that has been written by Ken Carman for over 30 years. Inspection is dedicated to looking at odd angles, under all the rocks and into the unseen cracks and crevasses that constitute the issues and philosophical constructs of our day: places few think, or even dare, to venture.
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