WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

The enigma of Judas

Kieran Fenn fms

From the days of Irenaeus it was known that a Gospel of Judas existed, and that it pre-dated the year 180 CE. It was one of the Gnostic gospels emanating from a group of ancient religions, some of them closely related to Christianity. Gnosticism maintained that elements of the divine had become entrapped in this evil world of matter. These could be released only when they acquired the secret gnosis (Gk ‘knowledge’) of who they were and of how they could escape. A messenger from the divine realm was thought to be the bearer of such knowledge, the bearer of the message of salvation, hence the appeal of Jesus as messenger from God.

Gnosticism was a widely diverse set of beliefs, with radical differences within different groups. Some believed Jesus was totally divine and not at all human, representing a different God from the creator God of the Old Testament. Others claimed Jesus was two beings, a human Jesus and a divine Christ.

Various Gnostics had their own favourite books. Especially popular was the Gospel of John. A Gnostic, Cerinthus, wrote the first commentary on that gospel. Of the four gospels, John had the longest struggle to gain acceptance into the canon. Other groups cherished gospels that most modern people have never heard of: the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Truth, and pretty well a gospel for every one of the apostles. Periodically some of these books are discovered, and each of them is presented as thought to convey the true teaching of Jesus and his apostles, the most recent being the Gospel of Judas.

I suspect the work is a genuine Gnostic document from the second century, perhaps even earlier than the latest New Testament writing, II Peter, which may well be as early as 120-130. The tendency to exonerate Judas, to present him as ‘the good guy’ has a long history. But the canonical gospels of the Christian community have insisted from the beginning on two important elements with regard to Judas. First, he betrayed Jesus to his enemies, freely and willingly, for money. Second, he did not live long to enjoy the reward of his betrayal.

Gnostics wanted nothing more than ‘to be in the know’ and Judas is presented as ‘the only apostle who understands Jesus’. To present Jesus as wishing to shed his earthly body (to release the divine spark within) is a typical Gnostic inclination, but is suicide in sensible terms. Such a position is denied by the agony of Jesus, who, as a good Jew, knew that human life was given for this world. But Gnosticism could accommodate the human agony because one branch saw Jesus as becoming a divine being at his baptism, empowered for his healing and especially his teaching ministry, but the divinity abandoning him at the end of his life, thus causing Jesus to cry out, ‘My God, my God, why have you left me behind?’ (Mk 15:34).

What did become of Judas? Our two New Testament sources differ widely. In Matthew we have the price as thirty pieces of silver, the price of a slave in Exod 21:32, or the wage of the shepherd in Zech 11:12, who throws the coins back into the treasury. In Acts, we are told that Judas is paid a considerable sum, enough to buy a farm, an expensive piece of real estate, and while inspecting it, falls either from a tower or over a cliff.

The pitching headlong of the wicked is found in Wisdom 4:19. Judas is even depicted as dying in a third horrible way, in Papias, crushed by a wagon. Historical probability cannot be assigned to any one account, but a sudden and violent death was seen as punishment. The rest of his story we can only leave to the mercy and goodness of God.