Elaine Pagels: Why we may have to rewrite the history of the Gospel of Judas

Roundup: Talking About History

[ELAINE PAGELS is the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University and has published widely on Gnosticism and early Christianity. Her latest book, coauthored with Karen King, in Reading Judas.]

The first time I heard of the Gospel of Judas was about five years ago, when I got a call from someone who said, I have a book for you to edit—the Gospel of Judas. That astonished me, since I knew that the "church father" Irenaeus had mentioned such a gospel nearly 2000 years ago, denouncing it as terrible blasphemy: but no one had ever seen it, or known whether it actually existed.

But this dealer in Cleveland was telling me he had it there. Was he telling the truth? I called the Met, the Getty, and the Frist to ask about him, and they told me that he is a reputable dealer who has important material—but when I called back he suddenly stopped answering the phone. I realized then what already had seemed likely—that the book had been stolen from Egypt, and could not be legally sold.

I located a man who often bought rare books from this dealer, and who also has given many of them to Princeton, hoping that he might buy the Gospel of Judas, give it to Princeton, and then return it formally to Egypt, which would legalize the arrangement. Then we could photograph and publish it—that was the plan.

So I went to Madison Square Garden to meet the dealer, and confronted him: "I'm Elaine Pagels, why won't you talk to me?" Startled, he explained what we had suspected—that the owner of the text had told him not to talk about it, since it had been bought illegally. He then invited me out to Cleveland to see it, and I went, and looked at it. And there was the title—"The Gospel of Judas" in Coptic—and then he showed me the following five pages—which turned out to be five pages of rather uninteresting Coptic text. So I said, Okay, well, they've hyped it, they were hoping to get fifteen million dollars—it's not what they said.

But when suddenly it resurfaced last year, and I was asked to be on the advisory committee presenting it publicly, I learned what had happened: the dealer didn't realize that when you have a Greek or Coptic text, the title is often placed at the end of the text. It turns out that the previous 26 pages were the actual Gospel of Judas—a fascinating dialogue between Jesus and Judas about what happened when Judas handed Jesus over for arrest—and why he did it. Startlingly, this gospel presents Judas Iscariot as Jesus' favorite disciple, the only one whom he trusts with his deepest mysteries. And all the other disciples appear as people who completely missed the message of Jesus, and entirely distorted it—and this is what has come down to us as "Christianity."

Many people see the main message of Jesus as "Jesus died for your sins"—and see Jesus' death as a sacrifice God requires to forgive human sins. This gospel asks, What does that make of God? Is he a bloodthirsty pagan god who demands human sacrifice? The God of Abraham prevented Abraham from offering his son as a sacrifice—does the God of Jesus then require it?

Second, we've all heard of Christian martyrs. This text sees Judas dying as a martyr—because here the other disciples hate him so much that they kill him! But the Gospel of Judas challenges the idea that God wants people to die as martyrs—just as it challenges the idea that God wanted Jesus to die. Whoever wrote this gospel—and the author is anonymous—is challenging church leaders who teach that. It's as if an imam were to challenge the radical imams who encourage "martyrdom operations" and accuse them of complicity in murder—the Gospel of Judas shows "the twelve disciples"—stand-ins for church leaders—offering human sacrifice on the altar—and doing this in the name of Jesus! Conservative Christians hate gospels like this—usually call them fakes and the people who publish them (like us) anti Christian. There was a great deal of censorship in the early Christian movement—especially after the emperor became a Christian, and made it the religion of the empire—and voices like those of this author were silenced and denounced as "heretics" and "liars." The story of Jesus was simplified and cleaned up—made "orthodox."

But what really happened in the early movement is far messier, more intriguing, and more human. These recently discovered sources show us what was censored—and what those who didn't become "orthodox" were saying. For this is the only gospel we've ever seen that shows Jesus laughing at his disciples—because they have distorted his message and gotten it so wrong....

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