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Rehabilitating Judas Iscariot

 

The ‘Gospel of Judas’ published on April 6th by the National Geographic Society has been a subject of media attention throughout the world with claims that it is one of the most significant archaeological discoveries ever.  This Coptic translation of an original Greek text written around AD 150-180 was discovered in Egypt in the 1970s.  It then circulated amongst antiquities dealers before languishing in a safe deposit box in New York until 2000. In a deteriorating condition it was then sent for translation by Rodolphe Kasser, one of the world’s leading Coptic scholars.

 

The text (which has several parts missing) tells of an alleged conversation between Jesus and Judas three days before the Passover when Jesus was crucified.  It fits in with ideas already well known from the second century of the Christian era, known as Gnosticism.  

 

Gnosticism held to the belief that salvation comes through ‘gnosis,’ the Greek word for ‘knowledge.’ It is about becoming an insider on the secrets of the universe.  Gnosticism puts forward a view of the true God in conflict with an evil God, who in some forms of Gnostic teaching is associated with Jehovah of the Old Testament. One of the bad things this evil God did was to create the world with its present imperfections.

 

The pure spiritual realm is where the true God is, but none of us can get to him directly.  The problem, according to Gnosticism, is that we live in a world that is evil and our bodies and everything associated with them are evil.  Certain spiritually superior people were able to escape from the evil influence of the body and discover the spark of divinity within them.  ‘Jesus’ in Gnosticism becomes a facilitator to this discovery by revealing secret knowledge to the elect.  

 

This is exactly what we find in the Gospel of Judas.  ‘Jesus’ says to Judas ‘Come, that I may teach you about secrets no person has ever seen.’  He also laughs at the prayer of the other disciples who are working for the ‘other god’ while Judas has reached a higher level of spirituality than them.  Jesus tells Judas that he ‘will exceed all’ and that he ‘will sacrifice the one that clothes me’.  In doing this Judas makes the release of Jesus’ spirit back to the heavenly realm possible.  

 

In Gnosticism, only the spirit is saved and ascends back to the heavenly realm. The body is destroyed, and there is no physical aspect to the resurrection of the dead and salvation as the Apostles taught (1 Corinthians 15). In much of Gnostic teaching Jesus only appeared to be a man, so he is seen here longing to shed his human skin and return to being a spiritual being.  This contrasts with the New Testament teaching of Jesus as fully God and fully man.  

 

In an age which is always looking for some new reason to disbelieve the Gospel recorded in the New Testament it is not surprising that much of the media has taken all this on board.  The Daily Mail (7/4/06) carried an article Saint Judas?’ which claimed: ‘The extraordinary thing about this new manuscript is that it rehabilitates Judas as one of Christ’s true disciples.  More than that it tells Judas’s own story through his own eyes, documenting conversations he had with Christ and the special relationship the two enjoyed.   And it explains for the first time why the betrayer acted as he did, even calling into question the doctrine of the resurrection which is the basis of the Christian faith.’   

 

Elaine Pagels, author of ‘The Gnostic Gospels’ wrote in the New York Times that the discovery of the Judas Gospel and related Gnostic texts ‘are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion, and demonstrating how diverse—and fascinating—the early Christian movement really was.’

 

Herb Krosney, author of ‘A Lost Gospel’ writes:  ‘Judas is actually Jesus’ best friend. Judas is the one who enables Jesus to fulfil his mission -- to die and to release that inner spark within himself and within all of us that is the divine. And that is the concept of this absolutely rare 2nd-century document, which is just coming to light.’

 

All of these ideas are entering into the popular culture today and causing many to question the message of the New Testament Gospels.  The Gnostic gospels, rejected as heresy by the early church, are now entering the mainstream having received a tremendous boost from the Da Vinci Code.  Turning Judas from the traitor of the Gospels into a misunderstood hero appears to be part of this process which generally contains the following main themes:

 

1. The four Gospels in the New Testament were not the only accounts of the life and teaching of the Lord Jesus.  Other ‘gospels’ written at a later date are equally valid and were suppressed by the authoritarian church.

2. Jesus is not the Son of God sent into the world to redeem humanity by dying on the cross and rising again from the dead, but a teacher of spiritual truth.

3. The problem facing the human race is not sin / disobedience to God’s commandments, but ignorance of the spark of divinity which is to be discovered within us all.

4. Therefore the solution to the human problem is not repentance and faith in the once and for all sacrifice for sin made by the Lord Jesus at the cross, but enlightenment to the secret knowledge which awakens our divinity.

 

Of course there is absolutely nothing new about these ideas at all and the claim that the Gospel of Judas is ‘one of the most significant archaeological discoveries ever’ is absurd.  It is mentioned in Iraeneus’ writings on heresies (around 180 BC) as the product of a group known as the Cainite Gnostics who sought to rehabilitate the evil characters in the Bible, Cain, Esau, the Sodomites etc as well as Judas.  Typical of such sects which abounded in the second century of the Christian era, it puts words into the mouths of Jesus and his disciples which fitted in with their own ideas.  

 

This is in direct contrast to the four Gospels in the New Testament which were written by eye witnesses and record the actual words and deeds of Jesus during His earthly ministry.  In our next edition I will give reasons why the bulk of the New Testament had to be written before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70.  By contrast the vast majority of Gnostic gospels were written between AD 150 and AD 250.  If you wanted your biography written would you want this done by someone who knows you, and lives at the same time as you, or someone who will live 150 years after you and will never meet you and will put their own ideas into your mouth?  

 

I have already written about the Gnostic gospels in the articles published in this magazine on the Da Vinci Code (available on request, containing quotes from these gospels).  Briefly to sum them up:

 

1. Their teaching is anticipated in the New Testament writings which speak of false prophets and teachers leading many astray (Matthew 24.5, 2 Corinthians 11, 2 Peter 2, 1 John 2.18-23, 4.1-6).

2. They deny God as Creator and Supreme Being.

3. They deny either the divinity or the humanity of the Lord Jesus.  

4. They present an alternative spirituality in which ‘gnosis’ or knowledge brings understanding of God, rather than repentance and faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

 

As such they fit in with New Age spirituality which is being presented in myriad forms today.  This applies to the Gospel of Judas as is evidenced by the quote above from Herb Krosney which expresses the view that we have within us a ‘divine spark’ waiting to ‘come to the light.’  By contrast the Gospels teach us that within we have a sinful human nature which is in darkness (Matthew 15.1-20, John 3.16-21, Romans 7.13-25).  Only God coming into our lives by the Holy Spirit as we believe in Jesus as Saviour and Lord can deliver us from this (John 14.16-17, 16.5-15, Revelation 3.20). We do not discover God within ourselves, but we invite Him into our lives from outside by repentance and faith in what Jesus did for us at the cross.

 

What does the New Testament say about Judas Iscariot?

 

Judas’ name in Hebrew is Yehuda or Judah, one of the sons of Jacob, from whose tribe was to come the royal line of David and the Messiah (Genesis 49.10).  The words Judea, Jew and Judaism and their equivalents in other languages derive from Judah.  Where the name Iscariot comes from is more debatable.  One possibility is it means ‘Ish Karioth’, a man of Karioth, a town in Judea, which would have marked Judas out as being different from the Galilean disciples of Jesus.  Another possibility is that it is connected to the ‘Sicarii’, the dagger men, a group of zealots dedicated to driving Romans out of Judea.  

 

The connection by name between Judas and the Jewish people became a source of anti-Semitism by the Middle Ages. Throughout Europe it was common for boys to be given the names of the disciples of Jesus in the form common to their languages – Peter, Andrew, James, John etc.  No Christian boy would ever be called Judas, although Jewish boys would be called Yehuda.  As Christendom left people in gross ignorance of the truth most people assumed that Peter, Andrew, James and John were all nice Gentile Christians, whereas the only Jewish disciple of Jesus was Judas the traitor.  Often paintings depicting the disciples showed only Judas having obviously Jewish features.  In reality all the disciples of Jesus were Jewish and would have been known by their Hebrew names, Kephas, Yakov, Yohannan, etc.  If we can learn anything about treachery from the story of Judas it is that the traitor may be found amongst those who profess to be disciples of Jesus and therefore in the Christian churches.

 

In modern times there has been much speculation about why Judas wanted to betray Jesus.  In Zeffirelli’s ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ film Judas is presented as a zealot who wanted to force Jesus’ hand to present himself as Messiah to the Sanhedrin and lead the Jewish revolt against Rome.  There is nothing of this in the Gospels themselves.  In the list of disciples in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Judas is presented as ‘Judas Iscariot who betrayed him.’  John 6.71 adds the detail that Jesus knew that Judas was of the devil and would betray him.

 

According to John 12.4-6 Judas was in charge of money for the disciples and kept some for himself.  This is an interesting detail because the three things most likely to destroy a Christian ministry are abuse of money, sex or power. In Matthew 26.14-16 Judas betrays Jesus for money, fulfilling Zechariah 11.12-13.  According to Luke 22.3 Satan entered Judas when he went to betray Jesus.  

 

Jesus knew what Judas was about to do at the Last Supper and it was only after Judas had left that He shared the bread and wine with His disciples.  In doing this He changed the meaning of the familiar Passover meal by taking the unleavened bread and wine and applying it to the redemption He was to bring through His death and resurrection (Matthew 26.20-25).    

 

Following his betrayal of Jesus with a kiss, Judas went away and hanged himself in remorse at what he had done (Matthew 26.3-10).  This was not an act of biblical repentance but sorrow at what he had done.  He had not grasped meaning of Jesus’ life and death and he did not live to see resurrection and receive forgiveness.  Therefore we have to conclude that Judas was eternally lost and damned.

 

The question is often asked ‘Why was Judas’ betrayal necessary for the arrest of Jesus?’  The Gospels show that the chief priests were alarmed at the growing popularity of Jesus’ movement and the crowds that were following him, especially as a result of the resurrection of Lazarus and the triumphal entry to Jerusalem.  They were afraid that His movement could really take off during the Passover week (John 11.47-50) when there would be crowds of pilgrims in Jerusalem.  They were also aware that they could not arrest Him publicly for fear of causing a riot (Matthew 26.5). Judas led them to where Jesus was alone with the disciples at night where he would be easy to arrest without drawing the attention of the crowd.  

 

Some modern commentators say that the Gospel account is inaccurate because the Sanhedrin would not be convened for a trial on the night of the Passover.  In fact Jesus’ hearing before Caiaphas was not a formal trial as such but an attempt to find a reason to justify His execution.  The Sanhedrin did not have authority to pass death sentence, so He would have to be passed on to the Roman governor to accomplish this.  They were in a hurry to get it all done before the Passover week began and the hasty proceedings at night were unusual but not unlawful as it was not a formal trial.  

 

Another issue raised is the fact that Matthew 27.9-10 attributes the betrayal of Jesus to the prophecy of Jeremiah not Zechariah.  The explanation of this is to be found in David Baron’s commentary on Zechariah page 409-412.  Matthew’s quote is a composite reference to both Zechariah 11.12-13 and Jeremiah 19.  Jeremiah 19 is a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and the first Temple by the Babylonians.  Jeremiah uses the symbol of the broken pot to connect the Potter’s Field with the Valley of Hinnom which was to be known as the valley of Slaughter.  In so doing he is making a prophecy of the coming destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians when the Valley of Hinnom, which is just outside the walls of Jerusalem, would become the place of slaughter.  

 

Zechariah 11 is a prophecy of the destruction of the second temple by the Romans.  The Valley of Hinnom was again to become a ‘Field of Blood’ (Acel dama).  The two passages in Jeremiah and Zechariah are connected by a common theme – the coming destruction of the temple and the reason for it.  The reason for the fall of the first temple and the Babylonian captivity was the disobedience of Israel to the Torah and the rejection of the message of the prophets.  The reason for the destruction of the second temple and the greater dispersion of Israel was to be the rejection of the Messiah and His message by the religious leaders.  

 

Judas’ act of betrayal and its use by the Sanhedrin in arranging the crucifixion set the stage for this event to take place 40 years later as a judgement of God, after the message of the Gospel had been proclaimed by the disciples of Jesus and rejected by the religious leadership in Jerusalem.  When the Romans broke through the walls of Jerusalem in AD 70 there was such an appalling slaughter that there was no more room to bury the dead in the Valley of Hinnom which became the Field of Blood.  

 

From God’s point of view the reason for this calamity was the consistent rejection of Jesus as Messiah by the Jewish religious leadership.  Judas’ betrayal of Jesus with the connivance of the chief priests was a sign of this.  Significantly the money given to Judas was taken from the fund for buying sacrifices for the Temple.  In fact it bought the final sacrifice for sin through the blood of the Messiah Jesus.  To those who accepted the meaning of this sacrifice, Jewish and Gentile, it became the source of forgiveness and eternal life.  This offer went out even to those who had been responsible for the death of Jesus who could be saved through repentance and faith in His name (Acts 3.11-26).  To those who rejected it, the sacrifice of Jesus became the source of judgement and damnation.  In Hebrew the Valley of Hinnom is gei hinnom from which comes the Greek ‘Gehenna’ which is the word used in the New Testament for hell.

 

Another objection to the Gospel is that Matthew and Acts appear to conflict.  In Matthew 27 Judas throws the 30 pieces of silver into the Temple sanctuary and goes away to hang himself.  The chief priests then buy the potter’s field as a burial place.  In Acts 1.18-19 Judas is described as having purchased the field himself ‘and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his entrails gushed out.’  

 

Arnold Fruchtenbaum explains this apparent discrepancy in his book ‘Messianic Christology’ (page 153-4).  Judas committed suicide at the end of the first night of the Passover, before the first day of the Passover when the Passover sacrifice would be offered.  According to Jewish law if there was a dead body within the walls of Jerusalem then the city would be considered defiled and the morning sacrifice could not be offered.  However if the corpse is taken and thrown into the Valley of Hinnom, then the city would be cleansed and the sacrifice may be offered up.  In order for this to happen Judas’ body was thrown over the walls into the valley as a result of which his entrails gushed out.  So Matthew is right that Judas hanged himself and Acts is right that his body burst open when it was thrown over the walls into the valley below.

 

What were the Chief Priests to do with the 30 pieces of silver?  The money was wrongfully gained so it could not be put back into the Temple treasury.  Such money could either be returned to the owner or used for the public good.  Since Judas was already dead it could not be returned to him so it had to be used for the common good.  So a field was purchased in the name of the deceased Judas Iscariot by the chief priests as a burial place.  The first person to be buried there was Judas himself.   So Matthew is right when he says the chief priests bought the field.  Acts is also right that Judas Iscariot was the legal owner since the field was bought posthumously in his name.  

 

In conclusion the scriptures make it clear that Judas was motivated by giving into the sin nature which lay within him to reject Jesus and betray him.  He was fulfilling prophecy in doing this and his action was part of the necessary sequence of events which ensured that the Lord Jesus was crucified at the time of the Passover.  This was necessary for Him to fulfil the prophecies of the Suffering Servant, the Passover Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.  

 

At the end of this age we are told that there will be one who will come as the ultimate traitor, the Antichrist.   Significantly in John 17.12 Jesus refers to Judas as the son of perdition, and in 2 Thessalonians 2.3 Paul gives the same title to the coming Antichrist.  The connection between Judas and the Antichrist is that both betray the true Lord Jesus and both come to a terrible end.  The attempt to rehabilitate Judas in popular culture is a distortion of truth, calling evil good. Reviving Gnostic teachings from the second century in the so called Gospel of Judas, is another part of the spiritual preparation in our present world to accept the Antichrist as a counterfeit Messiah in the days before the return to the earth of the true Messiah Jesus.

 

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