Wednesday 4 April 2007
As almost every child knows, Judas was the disciple who betrayed Jesus; selling his life for 30 pieces of silver. If there’s an arch villain in the story of Jesus, it’s Judas Iscariot. Or is it? The newly discovered Gospel of Judas suggests that Judas was, in fact, the favourite disciple, the only one Jesus trusted to carry out his final command to hand him over to the Romans.
Rumours about the gospel have circulated for centuries. Early church fathers called it a “very dangerous, blasphemous, horrendous gospel”, according to historian Elaine Pagels. We now know that the manuscript was passed around the shadowy world of antiquities dealers, at one point sitting in a safe deposit box in a small town in New York for 17 years. Pagels herself was once asked by a dealer in Cleveland to examine it, but he only showed her the last few pages, which revealed little more than the title page. She assumed there was nothing of significance. Finally, the manuscript was acquired by the National Geographic Society, which hired Pagels as a consultant to study it.
More than any other scholar, Pagels has brought the lost texts of early Christianity to public attention. A Princeton historian of religion, she wrote the 1979 bestseller The Gnostic Gospels — the book that launched the popular fascination with the Nag Hammadi manuscripts found by Egyptian peasants in 1945. That book, which won both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, was later chosen by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best non-fiction books of the 20th century. Pagels went on to write a series of acclaimed books about early Christianity and, along the way, recounted her own personal tragedies — her young son’s death after a long illness and, just a year later, her first husband’s death in a hiking accident. It’s no surprise that Pagels has felt compelled to wrestle with some of religion’s thorniest subjects, like how to make sense of suffering and evil.
For much of her career, Pagels has straddled two worlds — the academic and the popular. She’s often the go-to expert when a magazine needs a comment on the latest theory about Mary Magdalene or some other bit of revisionist Christian history. But her standing among the scholars who study early Christianity is more complicated. Conservative scholars tend to dismiss the Gnostic texts as a footnote in Christian history, hardly worth all the hype that’s been generated by The Da Vinci Code and other racy stories. Not surprisingly, these scholars have questioned Pagels’ interpretations of early Christian texts.
With Harvard historian Karen L. King, Pagels has written a new book, Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity. The authors argue that this recently discovered gospel offers a new understanding of the death of Jesus. I spoke with Pagels by phone about the bitter quarrels among early Christians, why it’s a bad idea to read the Bible literally, and the importance of this new discovery. ...