Blogging the Age of Faith

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Christopher Hitchens on Judas

Judas Saves: Why the lost gospel makes sense.
By Christopher Hitchens

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.*


  • At 6:52 PM, Blogger Josh said…

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 6:55 PM, Blogger Josh said…

    (For some reason it's showing my real name instead of nickname (bcpcguy), but anyway.)

    I could be going out on a limb here, and I don’t want to me misinterpreted as the antichrist. However, I must say that I don’t see the horrors in what Judas did. As a matter of fact, I am thankful for the actions of Judas. Now, pick yourself up off the floor. I did just type that.

    My understanding of the Bible has led me to believe that every single event surrounding Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection were prophesied long before the actions ever took place. This being said, Judas had to “betray” Jesus in order for the scriptures to be accurate. There is also the fact that without Judas’ actions that all mankind would be damned to hell because of their sins. So, it’s my honest belief that Judas’ actions were crucial for the salvation of mankind instead of heinous acts of greed and jealousy.

    Also, another personal opinion of mine is that the gospel of Judas would be a great asset to the accepted books of the Bible. As the blog points out “It would dispel the centuries of anti-Semitic paranoia that were among the chief accompaniments of the Easter celebration…” I think this type of anti-Semitism should disappear and the Judas’ text could only help move this process along.

  • At 4:27 PM, Anonymous catface1 said…

    Did this guy miss the memo that Judas was the man who betrayed Jesus and ultimately led to his death? Not only did he deny him once but 3 times!! I mean seriously fool me once shame on you fool me twice shame on me fool me three or more times I deserve to be strung up by my toes! With that said I surprisingly agree with what he says in his opening few paragraphs. It wasn’t totally Judas’s fault as he did only what was foretold he would do, and if you look at it from that view he was “fulfilling a prophecy”. Now based on newly found facts in the Gospel of Judas it seems that Judas was not a bad guy and in all actuality he was close to Jesus and loved him. While all of this may be true the stigma of being a “Judas” is much like Benedict Arnold to Americans. The name has such negative connotations attached to it,I mean think about it, do you have any friends named Judas? No but I would bet you know a George or James or Ben-why? Because noone wants to remember the bad things that happen or the bad people who cause them, only the positive aspects of life. But maybe now Judas will get a second chance, time to clear his name in this new gospel that has been found. You never know who misconceive the facts in the Bible. Judas could have really been an okay person who saved humanity by leading to the action the killed Jesus. Leading to the next blog...

  • At 6:46 PM, Anonymous bittersweetaddiction said…

    The Gospel of Judas, however a new spin on a old story, but is it a spin that goes against everything that Christians believe in. I think that this Gospel certainly tries to turn Christianity 180 degrees around on the story of Jesus’ death. That Judas was obedient and doing only as he was told. Personally I think this is a bunch of bollox for the most part.
    Is this even true love. If one of my parents came up to me and asked me to betray them which would ultimately result in their death and I denied them would that make me less faithful to them. Or love them any less than someone who would do as they said? I think not. A person is completely crazy to think if you don‘t do every single thing a person says you don‘t love them and respect them. What I don’t completely fathom is why is it necessary to have Jesus be betrayed by anyone? Couldn’t he just go walking in front of some soldiers and they would just take him under arrest. Hence nobody would have to betray anybody. Is this supposed to reiterate a point that if you betray Jesus you will be denied the splendors of heaven. (But of course it’s alright if Jesus asks you to ultimately?) It doesn’t seem to make much sense along any lines of logic.

  • At 7:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Going into this article, I was very close-minded, and never imagined that I would change my views on Judas. But for some reason, this newly discovered text, The Gospel of Judas, has me thinking that maybe he was a good guy and even more a friend of Jesus - best of the best, one who enjoyed his master's most intimate confidence. Knowing now that "the New Testament tells us firmly that Jesus went to Jerusalem at Passover to die and to fulfill certain ancient prophecies by doing so." If the actions that were to follow Jesus were prophesied and the pre-plan of Jesus, then there would be absolutely no way to avoid them from happening. So in this way, Judas's actions were carrying out this prophecy, and were inevitable in the first place. Judas was given the job to help Jesus "shed his fleshy mortality." If you were asked to do something to help out your very best friend, would you not go out of your way to help do whatever they needed help with?

    It's hard for me to understand the different interpretations of what people of each religion are supposed to believe, and accept as true. For Christians, they believe that everyone is responsible for Calvary. Whereas Catholics believe that the Jews were responsible for this horrible situation. Why is it that everyone cannot believe the same thing? If everyone believes in the same God, why is it that people believe different things when it comes to this important event in the Bible?

    To me, this article was a very interesting one. The find of the Gospel of Judas is definitely one that is going to change the way Christians view Judas for generations to come.

  • At 10:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Could any of you do it? I know I couldn't. Lets just imagine that maybe he really did do what he was told(although I believe it I'm keeping it open) how could anything worse be asked. You must completely deny the one who has brought you closer to the true message than anyone else, and allow him to die. Think about what kind of request that is. Think about how many people would hate him...oh wait..they do. Does anyone think that any of the other followers could have done it? That is a question to each person. I certainly couldn't have done it. If I had been following him around hanging on his every word and he suddenly said "tell on me," I probably would have tried to talk him out of it. Which is probably what anyone would have done. But JEsus saw Judas as something different.
    Like I said before, don't forget Jesus' teachings. I think that was his main message, not who is responsible for his death. We get caught up in so much drama I wouldn't blame him for slapping his forehead up there wondering if he'll just have to draw a picture in pudding for us to finally get it. yeah, I'm probably offending someone but at this point i don't care. Nothing is the word of God but what Jesus really said, and I don't think anyone got it down right.
    So yeah, we have a wrench in a thousands of years old what. Why would that change my views on religion? I thought Christianity was about the teachings of Christ, not revolved around how he died. Therefore, why would changes in what we know of what happened to him change our belief. It didn't make Jesus's words any different. He still said the same things, he just maybe didn't go like we originally assumed. That doesn't affect my thoughts on anything. Just gives me a chance to think a little differently about what happened then. I like it, because then maybe we don't have to just listen to some guy up on an alter tell us how it is and maybe we get to think for ourselves. I know it's crazy but...

  • At 11:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    You are such an atheist. Judas saves? The Bible tells us that it would have been better for that man to have never been born. However if I have to think like an atheist, I would say that the only reason that statement is in the Bible is because some man put it there in order to portray Judas as the greatest traitor of all time. As far as the Barbelo theory goes I really don't have a comment. People seem to find a new relic, or book of the Bible more often than not, and its starting to get annoying. I really don't care if someone says their is a tomb, with Jesus, Mary and Joseph's bones in it because I know that its crap.


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