The Scrolls, the James Box and the Gospel of Judas

Jerusalem Post, Dec. 3, 2010.

In this Hanukkah Season, three subjects are again in the news — or at least the first two are. The third, “Judas Iscariot and the Hanukkah Season” or “Was there ever a Judas Iscariot or was He Simply the Product of Retrospective Theological Invective” should always be on the front burner, especially in this Hanukkah Season or how else are we to rescue our children from this ever-recurrent deicide charge and save them from its generational and unceasing two millennia of unbearable effects? This was one of the issues I covered to some degree in my comments about Fidel Castro’s recent remarks in “If Begin Wore Swim Trunks” last month.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are always important — and, by the way, the site of their discovery, so precious to the Jewish People, should not be given away in any projected or, for that matter, even ‘WikiLeaks’-inspired ‘Peace Plan’ — but this issue we already fought out from 1989-92 (see myDead Sea Scrolls Uncovered, Penguin, 1992 and Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh’s The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception, 1991 — the co-authors ofHoly Blood, Holy Grail in 1984, co-opted so effectively in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code), going all the way up to the Israel Supreme Court after the publication by Hershel Shanks’ Biblical Archaeology Society of James Robinson’s (of Claremont University – referred to below) and my Facsimile Edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls, also in 1991. It’s good to see the Israeli Antiquities Authority has finally brought itself up-to-date and into the Google universe by laying them out online some two decades thereafter.

That is not the only thing they should be congratulated for. Their case against “the James Box,” as it is popularly known as, or “Ossuary” — it too, probably being based on my James the Brother of Jesus, Penguin, 1997-98, almost no one (except aficionados) having previously understood or realized there was such a character – will finally be coming to adjudication after some six years of itself making its way through the sometimes seemingly glacial processes of the Israeli Courts.

I originally dealt with this “discovery” on the very first day it appeared or “surfaced” having, as it were, written the book on it, in an op-ed piece in The Los Angeles Times (29/10/02), “A Discovery that’s Just Too Perfect” subtitled “Claims the Stone Box Held Remains of Jesus’ Brother May be Suspect.”; but I shall cover this in a follow-up article next week which will include the  original L.A. Times op-ed piece which is still valid nine years later – “the Box”,  no matter what the Court ultimately decides, being obviously outside the realm of reality since before there could be the “bone box” of “the brother of someone”, there had to be a really historical such a “someone” in the first place. But the Antiquities Authority, despite the justice of its cause, will almost certainly lose this case or why should it have taken so long, since no evidence will rise to what would be deemed as “provable” in a Court of Law.

Which brings us to the third matter I wish to address, particularly on this Hanukkah eve, “The Gospel of Judas and his Redemonization” once again.  I originally submitted a version of this piece in Hanukkah, 2007 under the title: “Judas Iscariot and the Hanukkah Season: Was there ever a Judas Iscariot or was he Simply the Product of Retrospective Theological Invective” after the exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls in San Diego, California in November of that year, where there was also a panel on this newly-discovered Gospel run by the American Society of Biblical Literature as well. The piece finally appeared in December of 2008 in The Huffington Post, where I applied it to both a Jewish and a Christian audience under the title “Gospel Truth or Gospel Fiction and the Redemonization of Judas”.Â

One can immediately see why they would print such an article and for this one must be grateful; so what appears below will basically be an updated form of that article, so important do I consider it to be, not only for well-meaning, believing, and Israel-supporting Christians, of whom there are many (note how the Amish Leaders last week broke all their own rules to fly to Israel and express unreservedly their apologies for their silence during the Holocaust and their present unstinting support); but also for Jews who, to their own detriment, generally know so little about a subject, so basic to this or any Hanukkah season of the year.Â

The best example of this “Redemonization of Judas” after his “undemonization” with the publication of a contrary “Gospel” in his name appeared at this time — the Hanukkah/Christmas Season of the year — in the always ‘fair-minded’ (and liberal) New York Times (12/1/07) in a centrally-featured op-ed piece entitled, “Gospel Truth” by A. DeConick, a Professor at Rice University in Houston, Texas.  In it, while I was flattered to read how she compared the editorial process of “The Gospel of Judas” to the breaking of the monopoly over the Dead Sea Scrolls Prof. Robinson and myself managed to achieve with our Facsimile Edition, referred to above, as well as the difficulty of overturning entrenched translations and interpretations, “even after,” as she put it, “they are proved wrong” –  not to mention her allusion to the Society of Biblical Literature’s 1991 resolution that, even if the condition of  given manuscript required access to be restricted, a facsimile reproduction should be the first order of business.” This Professor James Robinson and I did that same year as just described.

But Ms. DeConick did not stop there. What she wished to do in this op-ed was to check the heroicization of Judas that had ensued following the appearance of the “Gospel” depicting him as a hero and not a treacherous enemy and return to portraying him as the Demon (Daimon) incarnate – “the Thirteenth Apostle” as she put it. This article was preceded the previous month by the Conference of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Diego, California, at which some Israeli academics were also in attendance, in which the main players in the new literature about the recently-surfaced “Gospel of Judas Iscariot” were together on a panel. These included James Robinson above (The Secrets of Judas), Elaine Pagels (The Gnostic Gospels), Karen King (Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity), Gerd Ludemann (Das Judas-Evangelium), Marv Meyer (The Gospel of Judas), April DeConick (The Thirteenth Apostle), etc.

The most interesting points that emerged from the necessarily-curtailed discussion were how few “orthodox Gospels” (Matthew, Mark, Luke, etc.) had come to light from that period (the Second Century — the single example cited being one possibly-identifiable fragment from the papyrus trash heaps of Egypt from the Gospel of John) and how many heterodox ones had, on the other hand, appeared. Did this mean that more people at that time were reading “sectarian” Gospels rather than “orthodox” ones (i.e., those declared “orthodox” at Church Conferences in the Fourth Century starting with Constantine and his Bishop Eusebius and onwards)? The answer of the more conservative members of the Panel (Chair Williams of the U. of Washington, DeConick, and even Robinson, et. al.) was, not really, but that, in any case, the newly-discovered “Gospel of Judas” was less historical than the orthodox.

At this point, since there were no other questions, I raised my hand and asked, “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 consider one superior to the other and not simply retrospective theological repartee expressed in a literary style? The Gospel of Judas was clearly a polemical philosophical text, but so too probably were all the others. Why not consider all a kind of quasi-Neoplatonic, Mystery Religion-oriented literature that was still developing in the Second Century and beyond as the Gospel of Judas itself clearly demonstrates?”

A sort of hushed silence fell on the three hundred or so persons present in the audience, but despite Chair Williams’ attempt to intervene, I continued: “Why think any historical or even 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 – in the case of the “orthodox” anyhow (and to some extent the Gospel of Judas), incorporating the Pax Romana of the earlier great Roman Emperor Augustus, as other literature from this period had; and, of course, the Anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish legal attachments which were the outcome of the suppression of the Jewish War from 66-73 CE?”

“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. also vividly attest. Why not consider all simply part of this man-God/personification literature — in this instance, incorporating the new Jewish concept of “Salvation”/ “Yeshu’a”  in Hebrew – and nothing more?” At this point, Chair Williams finally did succeed in getting in an answer on behalf of what he described as “the whole Panel,” to the effect that “Tradition affirmed they were” which he probably considered sufficient for someone like myself, one of the only non-Christians or persons of Jewish background 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”; and especially in this post-Holocaust Era, one must look at the issue of whether there ever was a “Judas Iscariot” per se, except in the imagination of these Gospel artificers – to say nothing of all the insidious materials circulating under his name.Â

Nor is this to say anything about the historicity of “Jesus” himself (another difficult question, though the “Judas” issue most likely leads the way towards solving the “Jesus” one as well) or another, largely literary or fictional character now – in view of women’s issues – much in vogue, ‘Jesus” alleged consort “Mary Magdalene” and, according to some, the supposed mother of his only child (in the Gypsy Festival in Les Saintes Maries de lat Mer in Southern France, one “Sara” — sic!).

But while this latter kind of storytelling did little specifically-identifiable harm, except to confuse one’s historical sense and sense of truth or confuse Literature with History; 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 because his name has become a by-word for treachery and a slur on the whole Jewish People; and, even if it happened the way the Gospels and the Book of Acts describe it – which is doubtful since the one does not agree with the other – effects of this kind were and are wholly unjustified and reprehensible, particularly in this season of our great Hanukkah hero (for us, as great or greater than Augustus), “Judas Maccabee.”

In the first place, there are only a few references to “Judas Iscariot” in orthodox Scripture, all of which demonstrably 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  even, for instance, “Mary the mother 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.). In Matthew and Mark it is the other “Disciples” or  some people referred to as “some” (always an allusion in the literature to “the James Party” who were also called “the Poor”) who do the “complaining”, not specifically “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”) who were probably “the aboriginal Christians” in Palestine, if we can speak of them in this manner, and who, according to Eusebius in the Fourth Century, did not follow the doctrine of “the Supernatural Christ” and saw Jesus simply as a “man”/”a prophet,” engendered by natural generation and exceeding other men in the practice of Righteousness only.

In fact as just alluded to too, 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 “thirty 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 at all.

In Acts, Judas rather “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 and think they are in all four Gospels when they are not; but, as just implied, this is really only a parody of the death of James as reported in early Church literature. So is the stoning of Stephen (a subject beyond the scope of this article, but see my two books James the Brother of Jesus, Penguin, 1998 and The New Testament Code, Barnes and Noble, 2006) and the other two gospels do not mention either his death or how he died at all.

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 Gospel of Judas” was obviously trying to ameliorate but, after the initial blush of excitement over its discovery, now the pendulum — if we are to take the words of people like Prof. DeConick in The New York Times seriously — has begun to swing back the other way and we are once again in the business of “demonizing” Judas, not “heroicizing” him. Moreover, despite the good it was doing, we should rather downgrade this “Gospel” and consider the “orthodox” Gospels, in some manner, superior to and more historical than it!

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 – to put it cruelly – 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” (the name of whom, as we just saw, even translates out as “Saviour”).

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 demonize two favorite characters of the Jews of the Age: “Judas Maccabee,” the hero of Jewish “Hanukkah” Festivities even to this day, and “Judas the Galilean,” the legendary founder (described by the First-Century Jewish historian and turncoat, Josephus) of what one might call either “the Zealot” or “Galilean Movement” – even “the Sicarii” (see below).

In fact, if the truth were out in the mutual back-and-forth polemics of these characterizations, aside from the whole of the Jewish People itself, he might even be either parallel to or indistinguishable form a third character, known to New Testament tradition in the East as “Judas the Zealot,” and very possibly the third “brother” of “Jesus,” referred to variously as “Judas of James”/”Jude the brother of James”/or “Judas Thomas” (“Judas the Twin’). In fact, if he is “Judas of James” (i.e., “the brother of James”), then he is also very probably “Thaddaeus,” indistinguishable too from him in Gospel tradition and also very likely from another Messianic agitator described by Josephus, whom he calls “Theudas,” who leads a reverse Messianic Exodus like his prototype the biblical “Joshua” and who was beheaded in 44 CE – if all these characters can, in fact, be separated.

To go back to the original point – the name “Jew” in all languages, as should be clear by now, actually comes from this biblical name “Judas” or “Judah,” a fact not missed by the people at that time and not too 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 was not missed either by those who created this particular “blood libel” or by all those following them even to this day and, to reiterate, how very successful over the last two thousand years.

There is, however, one last 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.).Â

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 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 Iscariot,” whether mistakenly or by design, just strengthens the conclusion.

Furthermore, Judas’ association in these episodes with the concept both of “the Poor” (the name of the group led by “Jesus”‘ brother James in First-Century Jerusalem as we saw),  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 action at the climax of the famous last stand on Masada (a coincidence of this kind goes far beyond the realm of  possible accident) – to say nothing of the echo of the cognomen of the founder of this Party or Orientation, the equally famous “Judas the Galilean” (also a “Judas the Zealot” as we have been stressing just as “Judas Maccabee” would have been), just strengthens this conclusion.Â

Equally germane is the fact that another “Apostle” of “Jesus” is supposed to have been called – at least according to Luke’s Apostle lists in the Gospel under his name and Acts attributed to him – “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, mentioned above called “Judas of James” in Luke, that is, “Judas the brother of James” (the way the designation is also framed 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 designated “Judas the Zealot” as well – 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” 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 and sometimes even thrived.Â

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 (one of the most notable of whom being the Judas Maccabee of our Hanukkah Celebrations today) turned into demoniacs, but of being hunted down mercilessly – to some extent the terrifying results of its efficacy. If anything were a proof of the aphorism “Poetry is truer than history,” then this is; and, 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 – human or supernatural, literary or historical, real or unreal – he would surely have been shocked at such vindictiveness and diabolical hatred and he, perhaps even more than any others, would have expected his supporters to divest themselves of this historical shibboleth, particularly in view of the harm it has done over the millennia, most especially to his own People.

This is what the initial appearance of the Gospel of Judas 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 undoubtedly as a consequence of this account – seems to be reversing itself, particularly among more theologically-minded scholars like DeConick in venues as prestigious as The New York Times, 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, in the light shed on these matters by the almost miraculous discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls too; 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 on to the higher plain of amelioration and rehabilitation. This is what Christians of good will have always said they were interested in doing and, in this Hanukkah/Christmas season, no healthier, happier, or higher hope could be wished for or expressed.