Peter Steinfels: Did Judas betray Jesus, or did the National Geographic Society and assorted scholars betray Judas?

Roundup: Talking About History

Did Judas betray Jesus, or did the National Geographic Society and assorted scholars betray Judas?

At issue, of course, is the newly restored and translated Gospel of Judas. If last weekend's news articles were to be believed, it was a kind of police surveillance tape from the Last Supper and Garden of Gethsemane, raising big questions about what occurred between Jesus and Judas.

There is no question that the Gospel of Judas, a third-century Coptic copy of a second-century Greek Gnostic text, is a major contribution to knowledge about Gnosticism and early Christianity.

There is no question that, thanks to generous financing from the National Geographic Society, this papyrus manuscript, damaged by years of bouncing among antiquities dealers, has been rescued, heroically pieced together and translated.

And there is no question that National Geographic's strong promotion of this scholarly achievement, at an April 6 news conference, in an April 9 television documentary and in two books, has stirred some useful reflection about the evolution of early Christianity and the paradoxes of Jesus' willing death on the cross, as well as about one aspect of Christianity's anti-Jewish imagery.

But there is a question whether calculated sensationalism and scholarly complicity in it were justifiable means to achieve these results.

Needless to say, those most closely involved in the Judas gospel project would not accept the premises of that question. The scholars have been careful not to contradict the conclusion that one of them, Gregor Wurtz of the University of Augsburg, reaches in the National Geographic Society's volume containing the translation of the Judas document.

"We cannot find here," Mr. Wurtz writes, "any more accurate historical information about Judas Iscariot than we find" in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.....

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