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Redemonizing Judas: Gospel Fiction or Gospel Truth?

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"Judas Reconsidered -- Betrayal: Should We Hate Judas Iscariot"? These are the shout lines given the most recent article in the New Yorker magazine (8/3/09) on the Gospel of Judas by Joan Acocella (credentials unknown, though her specialty has mostly been dance), which burst upon the scene in 2006 via a National Geographic TV special and companion book. It had apparently been gathering dust since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices in the late 40's (alongside the spectacular Dead Sea Scrolls), but that it existed had been known since Irenaeus of Lyons pronounced a ban upon it in the late 2nd c. CE -- the probable reason for its disappearance thereafter only to re-emerge in our own time in the sands of the Upper Egypt where, presumably, it had been cached to save it from the effects of just such an interdiction.

While Ms. Acocella's New Yorker piece is tolerable as a quick summary of the twists and turns of the debate for the non-specialist and the books that ensued, it is basically one of the more temporizing, least edifying, and most equivocal of any preceding it, ultimately drifting off into a discussion of Caravaggio (1603), Ludovico Carraci (1590), and Giotto (1305) -- as if these could matter -- and ending with a critical discussion of a recent book by one Susan Gubar (Judas: A Biography, 2009), perhaps the reason for the whole exercise.

Ms. Acocella displays no sense of history or any critical acumen -- and this from a magazine as prestigious as the New Yorker -- being so simplistic as to make even the amateur blush. So naturally she can come to no conclusion about a "Gospel" which early on gave every promise of being interpreted as removing some of the stigma adhering to a character taken as representing the Jewish people. Rather she backtracks to the position, best epitomized a year and a half earlier in a New York Times feature article by Prof. April DeConick of Rice University. For her part, Acocella ends by concluding: "The answer is not to fix the Bible (i. e., don't try to get at the true history concerned, however pernicious its effect), but to fix ourselves."

To come to grips with her ahistorical approach, take the very first sentence: "At the Last Supper, Jesus knew that it would be the last, and that he would be dead by the next day." (She sounds as if she were actually there.) She continues in this vein in the next paragraph: "This is the beginning of Jesus' end, and of Judas's. Jesus is arrested within hours. Judas, stricken with remorse, returns to the priests and tries to give them back their money" (she had already pictured him in the previous paragraph "perhaps before the Last Supper -- "Last Supper," no quotes, no "purported," just absolute truth -- meeting with the priests of the Temple to make arrangements for the arrest and collect his reward, the famous thirty pieces of silver").

This is a perfect example of the dictum I have tried to illumine in all my books, "Poetry is truer than History;" that is, it doesn't matter what really happened only what people think or the literary works upon which they depend say happened. No wonder Plato, who lived closer to these times than many, wanted to bar the poets (whom he felt created the "myths" by which people lived and which he considered to be a world of almost total darkness) from his "Republic."

She goes on without the slightest hesitation as if there were not an iota of doubt about any of these things: "They haughtily refuse it. Judas throws the coins on the floor (hardly, this is a misstated quotation from Zechariah we shall also elucidate further below). He then goes out and hangs himself. He dies before Jesus does." What immediacy -- she states these things as "facts," yet doesn't even seem to know that Luke in Acts has a very different picture of Judas' end, that he "fell headlong into the Akeldama" or "Field of Blood," "his guts bursting open," though for what reason it is impossible to say. This is literature, after all. Nor does she wonder whether there ever was a "Judas Iscariot" or imagine that he might be the literary representation of some retrospective theological invective which, finding a Gospel of completely opposite literary orientation, might suggest.

One should perhaps be grateful, however, to Ms. Acocella because, even in such an exalted forum as the New Yorker, she demonstrates the lack of sophistication and general cloud of unknowing about these things even among those who should know better - scholars, writers, artists, film-makers, Jew or Gentile (in fact, Jews being less knowing, are often more inclined to accept these pretenses than some Gentiles even though they affect them more -- sometimes even mortally). For her part, in the end, giving credit to this Gospel scenario of Judas as the Devil incarnate and ignoring the real significance of a contrary Gospel in his name, Acocella returns to the picture of Judas being the harbinger of both classical and modern anti-Semitism.

That being said, the real climax in this interpretative revision and turn-around was first expressed publicly in print on December 1st, 2007, the beginning of Hanukkah season that year and, of course, a prelude to the Christmas, when the New York Times, obviously purposefully, featured a centrally-positioned article on its editorial page, entitled -- perhaps facetiously, perhaps not -- "Gospel Truth" (my counter to this, "Gospel Truth or Gospel Fiction," ignored by the Times, was published in The Huffington Post about three weeks later -- 12/18/07).

In it, Prof. DeConick alluded (quite flatteringly, one might say) to the monopoly I and some colleagues broke concerning the Dead Sea Scrolls and compared the situation regarding the editing of "The Gospel of Judas" to it. Directly referring to the difficulty of "overturning" entrenched translations and "interpretations...even after they are proved wrong," she also went on to cite the Society of Biblical Literature's "1991 resolution holding that, if the condition of the written manuscript requires that access be restricted, a facsimile reproduction should be the first order of business." This, persons familiar with the sequence of events relating to the freeing of the Scrolls will know, Prof. James Robinson (a party to the present debate over the Gospel of Judas) and myself did in the same year (A Facsimile Edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls, B.A.S., Washington D. C.,1991).

The problem was that Prof. DeConick did not stop there. What she did (abetted by the appearance of this piece, so prominently positioned at such a time and in such a venue) was was to check the heroicization of Judas that had ensued after the National Geographic Society TV program featuring it, seemingly exonerating him, and return to portraying him in the traditional way as the Demon (Daimon) incarnate (in Gnostic terms, "the Thirteenth Apostle").

My own encounter with this situation actually occurred two weeks earlier in San Diego, California at a National Meeting of The Society of Biblical Literature (the premier organization in this field). My visit coincided with the exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls during the same period there, when Ms. DeConick appeared on a panel on the Gospel with some eight other scholars, including James Robinson above (The Secrets of Judas), Elaine Pagels of Princeton (The Gnostic Gospels), Karen King of Harvard (Reading Judas and the Shaping of Christianity), and Marv Meyer of Chapman University (who was allowed a very short response to Prof. DeConick in New York Times Letters a week later, 12/8/07, but nothing of any real substance regarding the points at issue here).

And here is the key point for everyone: the upshot of this necessarily-brief discussion was how few "orthodox Gospels" (meaning, Matthew, Mark, Luke, etc.) had come to light from the Second Century (the single example cited being a possible fragment of the Gospel of John from papyrus trash heaps in Egypt) but, on the other hand, how many heterodox. Did this mean that more people were reading "sectarian Gospels" at that time, not "orthodox" ones? The answer of the more conservative scholars on the Panel (Chair Michael Williams of the University of Washington, DeConick, Robinson, et. al) was, "Not really but that, in any case, the Gospel of Judas was less historical than they" -- a conclusion echoed by Ms. Acocella above.

At that point, as there seemed to be no further questions, I gathered my courage, stood up, and asked, "What makes you think any are historical and not just retrospective and polemical literary endeavors of a kind familiar to the Hellenistic/Greco-Roman world at that time? Why consider one gospel superior to the another and not simply expressions of retrospective theological repartee of the Platonic kind expressed in a literary manner as in Greek tragedy? The Gospel of Judas was clearly a polemical, philosophical text but, probably, so too were most of these others. Why not consider all of them a kind of quasi-Neoplatonic, Mystery Religion-oriented literature that was still developing in the Second Century and beyond, as the Gospel of Judas clearly demonstrates?"

A sort of hushed silence fell on the three hundred or so persons present in the audience, because there was a lot of interest in this Gospel at that time, as I continued: "Why think any of them historical or even representative of anything that really happened in Palestine in the First Century? Why not consider all Greco-Hellenistic romantic fiction or novelizing with an ax-to-grind, incorporating the Pax Romana of the earlier Great Roman Emperor Augustus, as other literature from this period had and, of course, the anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish legal attachments which were the outcome of the suppression of the Jewish War from 66-73 CE?"

"The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans were masters of such man/god fiction and the creation of such characters as Osiris, Dionysus, Asclepius, Hercules, Orpheus, and the like as the works of Hesiod, Euripides, Virgil, Ovid, Petronius, Seneca, Apuleius, et. al. demonstrate. Why not consider all of this literature simply part of this man-God/ personification literature, in this instance incorporating the new Jewish concept of "Salvation" -- "Yeshu'a"?"

At this point Chair Williams finally cut in, gave an answer on behalf of what he claimed to be (and I believe him) "the whole panel" -- that, "Tradition affirmed they were." This he seems to have considered sufficient for me -- one of the few non-Christians in the room who might have enough knowledge to say something meaningful or precise enough to matter.

But the reason I write about these things now is that Jews, in particular, must not just leave them to well-meaning Christians to sort out. In view of the suffering of the last century -- in fact, the last nineteen centuries -- they too should take an interest in and become knowledgeable about these issues. Especially now, in view of the informational turn-around and retreat in the New Yorker, a magazine traditionally aimed at people of sophistication and urbane intellectuality; it is all the more relevant to raise the issue of this "Judas" and not allow it to go by the boards again and, now that we have more tools, incumbent upon one to do so.

Regardless of predictable outcries from "the left" or "the right" or the impact on anyone's "Faith" -- as if this could matter in the face of all the unfortunate and cruel effects that have come from taking the picture of the "Judas" in Scripture seriously as "history" -- especially in the post-Holocaust Era, one must go beyond the inanities and superficialities to the core issue raised by the Gospel and not allow it to be just blandly dismissed -- that is, all are works of literature. None are really historical works in the true sense of the word, which the appearance of Gospels such as this and an earlier one, the Gospel of Thomas, drive home with a vengeance.

Having grasped this, one must move beyond all this artfulness ("the poetry" as it were) and confront the issue of whether there ever was a "Judas Iscariot" per se (to say nothing of all the insidious materials circulating under his name), except in the imagination of these Gospel artificers. Nor is this to say anything about the historicity of "Jesus" himself (another difficult question, though the "Judas" puzzle likely points the way towards a solution to this one as well) or another, largely literary or fictional character, very much -- in view of women's issues -- in vogue these days, "Jesus"'s alleged consort and the supposed mother of his only child, "Mary Magdalene," in whom Ms. Acocella along with Mss. Pagels and King above are very much interested.

But while this latter kind of storytelling did little specifically-identifiable harm, except to confuse literature with history or call into question one's truth sense; the case of "Judas Iscariot" is quite another thing both in kind and effect. It has had a more horrific and, in fact, totally unjustifiable historical effect and, even if it happened the way the Gospels and the Book of Acts describe it, which is doubtful, effects of this kind were and are wholly unjustified and reprehensible.

In fact, there are only a few references to "Judas Iscariot" in orthodox Scripture -- all of which probably tendentious. In John 12:5, he is made to complain about Mary's "anointing Jesus' feet with precious spikenard ointment" (another of these ubiquitous "Mary"s in the Gospels -- this time "Mary the sister of Lazarus" and not "Mary Magdalene" or "Mary the mother of Jesus" or even "Mary the mother of James and John" or "of John Mark") in terms of why was not this "sold for 300 dinars and given to the poor" -- a variation on the "30 pieces of silver" he supposedly took for "betraying" Jesus later in Matthew 27:3-7, and which Ms. Acocella makes so much of.

For their part, Matthew and Mark have the other "Disciples" or "some" do the "complaining," not specifically "Judas Iscariot" (the episode is ignored in Luke in favor of other mythologizations -- see my New Testament Code); but I say "made" because this is certainly not an historical episode, but rather one which one would encounter in the annals of Greek tragedy with various "gods" demanding the obeisance due them.

Moreover, anyone remotely familiar with the vocabulary of this field would immediately recognize the allusion to "the Poor" as but a thinly-veiled attack on "the Ebionites" -- that group of the followers of "Jesus" or his brother "James," according to Eusebius in the Fourth Century, who were probably the aboriginal "Christians" in Palestine who did not follow the doctrine of "the Supernatural Christ," considering "Jesus" as simply a "man"/"a prophet," engendered by natural generation and exceeding other men in the practice of righteousness only.

In fact, Luke's version of Judas Iscariot's death in Acts 1:16-19, as noted, and Matthew's version do not agree at all -- a normal state of affairs where Gospel reportage is concerned. In Matthew, Judas goes out and "hangs himself" (thus) after throwing the "30 pieces of silver" -- "the price of blood" as Matthew terms it -- into the Temple (whatever this means -- more imaginatively, Ms. Acocella has him "throwing the coins on the floor" before the "haughty" priests!) This is supposed to fulfill a passage from "the Prophet Jeremiah" but, in fact, the passage being quoted is a broadly-doctored version of "the Prophet Zechariah" (11:12-13) which does not really have the connotation Matthew is trying to give it anyhow.

To continue -- in Acts, Judas "falls headlong" into "a Field of Blood" ("Akeldama"), reason unexplained. This is the description used in an "Ebionite" document called the Pseudoclementine Recognitions to picture the "headlong fall" James takes down the Temple steps when the "enemy" Paul physically attacks him leaving him for dead; and, as also noted, "he burst open and his bowels gushed out" (thus). Most conflate these two accounts but, as just suggested, they are really only a parody of the death of James as reported in early Church literature (so is the stoning of Stephen in Acts) and the other three Gospels do not mention how "Judas" died at all.

The point, however, is that the entire character of "Judas Iscariot" is generated out of whole cloth and it is meant to be. Moreover, it is done in a totally malevolent way. This, the Gospel of Judas was obviously trying to ameliorate; but now, if we are to take the words of Prof. DeConick in the New York Times' "Gospel Truth" column seriously, and Ms. Acocolla in the New Yorker, about "not fixing history but fixing ourselves" -- after the first blush of excitement over its discovery, the scholarly pendulum has swung back the other way and we are, once again, in the business of "demonizing" Judas, not "heroicizing" him. Moreover, according to both, we should in effect downgrade the Gospel and consider the "orthodox" Gospels, in some manner, superior to it and more historical.

The creators of this character and the traditions related to him knew what it was they were seeking to do and in this they have succeeded in a manner far beyond anything they might have imagined and that would have astonished even their hate-besotted brains. Contrary to what Ms. Acocella imagines, Judas Iscariot was meant to be both hateful and hated -- a diabolical character despised by all mankind and a byword for treachery ("Betrayal" according to the New Yorker) and the opposite of the all-perfection of the perfect Gnosticizing Mystery conceptuality embodied in the person of the "Salvation" figure "Jesus" ("Yeshu'a," of course, meaning "Salvation").

But in creating this character, the authors of these traditions and these Gospels (often, it is difficult to decide which came first, "the Gospels" themselves or the traditions either inspired by or giving inspiration to them) had a dual purpose in mind and, in this, their creation has done its job admirably well. His very name "Judas" in that time and place (forget the fact that it is a byword for "Jew" even to this day) was meant both to parody and heap abuse on two favorite characters of the Jews of the age: "Judas Maccabee," the hero of "Hanukkah" festivities even today, and "Judas the Galilean," the founder (described by the First Century Jewish historian and turncoat, Josephus -- someone who really was a "Traitor") of what one might call either "the Zealot" or "the Galilean Movement" even "the Sicarii."

Moreover, the name "Jew" in all languages actually comes from this Biblical name "Judas" or "Judah" ("Yehudah"), a fact not missed by the people at that time and not misunderstood even today. So, therefore, the pejorative on "Judas" and the symbolic value of all that it signified in the First Century, not only as a by-word for "treachery," but a slur on the whole Jewish people, was not missed either by those who created this particular 'blood libel' or by all other future peoples even down to the present -- and how very successful over the last two thousand years.

But there is another dimension to this particular 'blood libel' which has also not failed to leave its mark, historically speaking, on the peoples of the world. This is "Judas"' cognomen "Iscariot." No one has ever found the linguistic prototype or origin of this curious denominative, but it is not unremarkable that in the Gospel of John he is also called "Judas the son" or "brother of Simon Iscariot" and, at one point, even "the Iscariot" (cf. John 6:71, 14:22, etc.).

Of course, the closest cognate to any of these rephrasings is the well-known term Josephus uses to designate (also pejoratively) the extreme "Zealots" or Revolutionaries of the time, "the Sicarii" -- the 'iota' and the 'sigma' of the Greek having simply been reversed, a common mistake in the transliteration of Semitic orthography into unrelated languages like English and well-known in Arabic -- the 'iota' likewise too generating out of the 'ios' of the singular in Greek,"Sicarios." There is no other tenable approximation that this term could realistically allude to. Plus the attachment to it of the definite article "the," whether mistakenly or by design, just strengthens that conclusion.

Furthermore, Judas' association in these episodes with the concept both of "the poor" as well as that of a suicide of some kind in Matthew -- suicide being one of the tenets of the group Josephus identifies as carrying out just such a mass procedure at the climax of the famous last stand on Masada -- to say nothing of the echo of the cognomen of the founder of this party, the equally famous "Judas the Galilean" (also a "Judas the Zealot" as "Judas Maccabee" certainly would have been), just strengthens this conclusion.

Equally germane is the fact that another "Apostle" of "Jesus" is supposed to have been called -- at least according to Luke's Apostle lists -- "Simon Zelotes"/"Simon the Zealot" which, of course, also translates out in the jargon of the Gospel of John as "Simon Iscariot" or "Simon the Iscariot." Moreover, he was more than likely a 'brother' of the curious Disciple in the same lists called "Judas of James," that is, "Judas the brother of James" (the way the designation is alluded to in the New Testament Letter of Jude/Judas). In a variant manuscript of an early Syriac document known as The Apostolic Constitutions, this individual is also designated "Judas the Zealot" -- thereby completing the circle of all these inter-related terminologies which seem to have been coursing through so many of the early documents in this period.

Of course, all these matters are as difficult for the non-specialist as they have been for the specialist, but once they are weighed together, there is hardly any escaping the fact that "Judas Iscariot "/"the Iscariot"/"the brother" or "son of Simon the Iscariot" in the Gospels and the Book of Acts is a pejorative for many of these other characters, meant to defame and polemically demonize a number of individuals seen as opposing not only the Imperium Romanum but also the new 'Pauline' or more Greco-Roman esotericizing and pacifist doctrine of the "Supernatural Christ." The presentation of this "Judas," polemicizing as it was, was probably never meant to take on the historical and theological dimensions it has, traveling through the last two thousand years and leading up to the present, but with a stubborn toughness it has endured.

Nevertheless, its success as a demonizing pejorative has been monumental, a whole people having suffered the consequences of, not only of seeing its own beloved heroes turned into demonaics, but of being hunted down mercilessly - to some extent the frightening result of its efficacy. If anything were a proof of the aphorism "Poetry is truer than history" with which we started, then this is. It is worth repeating that I believe its original artificers would have been astonished by its incredible success.

Even beyond this, not only is there no historical substance to the presentation or its after-effects, but if "Jesus" were alive today -- whoever he was, human or supernatural, historical or literary, real or unreal -- he would be shocked at such vindictiveness and diabolically-inspired hatred and he, perhaps more even than all others, would have expected his partisans to divest themselves of this historical shibboleth, particularly in view of the harm it has done over the millennia, especially to his own people.

This is what the initial appearance of the Gospel of Judas gave promise of achieving, but now the rehabilitation of the character known to the world as "Judas" -- so greatly in order in the light of the incredible atrocities committed over the last century, some as a consequence of this particular libel -- seems to be reversing itself, particularly among theologically-minded persons, as scholars like DeConick and journalists like Acocella rethink and represent these things; and the process engendered by this historical polemic and its reversal now seems to be ending, the downplaying of its historicity relative to alleged "orthodox Gospels" and the "demonization" of Judas (deserved or undeserved) being evidence of this. It is yet another deleterious case of literature, cartoon, or lampoon being taken as history.

Still, it is time people really started to come to terms with the almost completely literary and ahistorical character of a large number of figures of the kind of this "Judas" in whatever the "Gospel" and in whatever manner he is portrayed -- positively or negatively -- and, in the process, admit the historical malevolence of the original caricature and move forward onto the higher plain of the amelioration of rehabilitation. This is what Christians of good will have always said they were interested in doing and this is what Jews must learn to do for themselves, if they are ever to escape from its pernicious effects and the re-emergence of the traditional picture.

No one else is going to do it for them and ignorance is no excuse. They must first of all stop repeating the platitudes that these things reflect historical truth. One allows this to continue at one's own peril and this the Gospel of Judas illumines with a vengeance, which is why the rush to reinterpret and discredit it. It is ignorance that allows this and Jews must be the first to take off the blinders regarding this particular embodiment of it. As the coming of yet another High Holy Day atonement period approaches, no healthier, happier, or higher hope could be wished for or expressed.

Robert Eisenman is a professor of Middle East Religions and Archaeology at California State University Long Beach. He is the author of James the Brother of Jesus and The New Testament Code.

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