Gospel Fiction and the Redemonization of Judas

The Huffington Post, December 19, 2007.

The New York Times is at work again and the “demonization” of Judas Iscariot is once more in play. The best example of this is the appearance at the beginning of the month of an op-ed piece, “Gospel Truth” by Prof. April DeConick of Rice University (The New York Times, 12/1/07). In it, it was flattering to read of DeConick’s comparison of the situation regarding the editing of “The Gospel of Judas” to the monopoly we broke regarding the Dead Sea Scrolls and the difficulty of “overturning” entrenched translations and “interpretations,” “even after they are proved wrong” – not to mention her alluding to 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 Professor James Robinson, also a party to the present debate, and I did in the same year in A Facsimile Edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls, B.A.S., Washington D. C.,1991.

But Ms. DeConick doesn’t stop there. She wishes to check the heroicization of Judas that ensued and return to portraying him as the Demon (Daimon) incarnate – in Gnostic terms, as she puts it, “the Thirteenth Apostle.” In this regard, I was at the Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature last month in San Diego, California, in which Prof. DeConick appeared on a panel with some eight other published scholars on “The Gospel of Judas” including Robinson (The Secrets of Judas), Elaine Pagels (The Gnostic Gospels), Karen King (Reading Judas and the Shaping of Christianity), Marv Meyer (who responded to Prof. DeConick in Letters, 12/8/07), etc.

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 how many heterodox ones. Did this mean that more people at that time were reading “sectarian Gospels” rather than “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, in any case, “The Gospel of Judas” was less historical than they.

At this point, as there were no other questions, I felt constrained to ask: “What makes you think any of them are historical and not just retrospective and polemical literary endeavors of a kind familiar in the Hellenistic World at that time? Why not consider all part of a Mystery Religion-oriented, quasi-Neoplatonic literature that was still developing in the Second Century and beyond, as the Gospel of Judas itself shows?”

A sort of hushed silence fell on the three hundred or so persons present in the audience, but despite Prof. Williams’ attempt to intervene, I continued: “The Gospel of Judas was clearly a polemical philosophical text, but so too probably were all these others. 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. attest. Why consider any superior to the other and not simply retrospective theological repartee expressed in a literary style?”

“Why think any historical or 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, and, of course, the Anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish legal attachments which were the outcome of the suppression of the First and Second Jewish Revolts in 66-73 and 132-36 CE? Why not consider all simply part of this man-God/personification literature – in this instance, incorporating the new Jewish concept of “Salvation”/ “Yeshu’a” – and nothing more?” At this point Chair Williams finally did succeed in getting an answer in on behalf of what he termed “the whole Panel” – that “Tradition affirmed they were.” This he seems to have considered sufficient for me, one of the only non-Christian persons in the room, who might have enough knowledge to say something meaningful or precise enough to matter.

Nevertheless, in this Hanukkah/Christmas season, it seems particularly relevant to raise the issue of this “Judas” once again and, now that we have more tools, incumbent upon us 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 look at 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 most likely points the way towards solving this one as well) or another, largely literary or fictional character very much now – in view of women’s issues – in vogue, “Jesus”‘ alleged consort and the supposed mother of his only child, “Mary Magdalene.”

But while the 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 the first place, there are only a few references to “Judas Iscariot” in orthodox Scripture, all of which probably tendentious. For example, he is made in John 12:5 to complain about “Mary”‘s (another of these ubiquitous “Mary”s – this time “Mary the sister of Lazarus” not “Mary Magdalene” or “Mary the mother of Jesus” or “of James and John” or “of John Mark”) “anointing Jesus’ feet with precious spikenard ointment” 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” the Master later in Matthew 27:3-7 (and pars. – Matthew and Mark have the other “Disciples” or ‘some” do the “complaining” and not specifially “Judas Iscariot”).

But anyone even 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” or 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 Palstine and 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, the Lukan version of Judas Iscariot’s death in Acts 1:16-19 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 likes to term it – into the Temple (whatever this means). This is supposed to fulfill a passage from “the Prophet Jeremiah,” when 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 he “falls headlong” into “a Field of Blood” (“the Alkeldama” – reason unexplained, although this is the verb used in an “Ebionite” document called the Pseudoclementine Recognitions to describe the “headlong fall” James takes down the Temple steps when the “Enemy” Paul physically attacks him, leaving him for dead) and “he burst open and his bowels gushed out” (thus)! Most conflate these two accounts but, as just signaled, 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 he died at all. (See my James the Brother of Jesus, Penguin, 1998 and in its sequel: The New Testament Code, Barnes and Noble, December, 2006).

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 recently-discovered “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 editorial seriously, after the first blush of excitement over its discovery, the scholarly pendulum is beginning to swing back the other way and we are once again in the business of “demonizing” Judas, not “heroicizing” him. Moreover, according to her and other’s view, we should rather 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. Judas Iscariot is meant to be both hateful and hated – a diabolical character despised by all mankind and a byword for treachery and the opposite of all-perfection – the perfect, Gnosticizing Mystery figure embodied in the person of the “Salvation” figure “Jesus.”

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 Jewish “Hanukkah” Festivities even today, and “Judas the Galilean,” the founder (described by the First-Century Jewish historian and turncoat, Josephus) of what one might call either “the Zealot” or “the Galilean Movement” – even “the Sicarii” (see below).

Moreover, the name “Jew” in all languages, as just signaled, 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” or “Judah” and the symbolic value of all that it signified in the First Century CE, 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, as just signaled, 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 and that 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 simply having 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 the 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” 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 Lukan Apostle lists – “Simon the Zealot”/”Simon Zelotes” 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, already mentioned above and 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, alluded to above too, 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 these early documents in this period.

Of course, all these matters are fraught with difficulty, 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 polemical pejorative for many of these other characters, meant to defame and polemically demonize a number of individuals seen as opposing the new ‘Pauline’ or more Greco-Roman esotericizing 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, coursing 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 (including Judas Maccabee of just-concluded Hanukkah festivities) 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,” then this is. To repeat, 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, literary or historical, real or unreal—he would be shocked at such vindictiveness and diabolically-inspired hatred and he, perhaps even more 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 and the National Geographic Society Program promoting it gave promise of helping to achieve, 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 – predictably seems to be reversing itself, particularly among theologically-minded persons as scholars like April DeConick start to rethink these things and publicize their view in The New York Times; and the process engendered by this historical polemic and reversal now seems to be receding, 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 – positive or negative – 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. In this Hanukkah/Christmas season, no healthier, happier, or higher hope could be wished for or expressed.