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Reading the Gospel of Judas in the Context of Early Christian Literature

PUBLISHED: April 29, 2006

Julien Green, who was born of American parents in Paris in 1900 and wrote prolifically in French, kept a journal for over sixty years. One recurring subject of this extraordinary record of a writer’s interior life is the reading of Scripture. Green was a deeply serious reader and while he did not have an extensive formal education—he attended the University of Virginia for three years—he read very widely in several languages and learned, as an adult, to read not merely New Testament Greek but Hebrew as well. A brief entry in his journal from March 16, 1960 demonstrates how easy it is even for such a reader to assimilate the Gospels to conceptions of history that belong to the reader’s time but not to the earliest centuries of Christianity.

Le Christ n’a jamais si clairement affirmé qu’il était Dieu que losque Thomas l’ayant appelé “Mon Seigneur et mon Dieu,” il ne l’a pas contredit. Cet acquiescement silencieux est très éloquent.
[The Christ never so clearly affirmed that he was God as when Thomas having called him “My lord and my God,” was not contradicted. This silent acquiescence is very eloquent.]
(Julien Green, Journal VIII: Vers l’invisible (1958–1966) in Œuvres complètes V, ed. Jacques Petit [Paris: Gallimard (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade), 1977, page 228).

Green’s comment takes for granted that the famous scene of Thomas’s confession, as it has come to be called, is an historical account in which Thomas’s words have been preserved as has Jesus’s response, as if the writer had been present or had spoken to an eyewitness, or worked from a first-hand account the way a modern historian might work in an archive or a research library. While it is not absolutely impossible, it is most unlikely that a book written more than fifty years after the death of Jesus and perhaps as many as ninety was written by someone who had access to historical material of this sort. Even more important, the author of the Fourth Gospel is not a historian, does not share modern concepts of history or modern conventions of historical scholarship, and is not principally interested in preserving historical details. What we can say with assurance is that the Fourth Gospel offers documentary evidence of a core teaching of early Christianity. The words that Thomas speaks are an expression of the faith of the church in which the gospel was written, not a documentary account of what Thomas said.

In reading such books as the Fourth Gospel, which has been thoroughly assimilated to later western culture, it is easy to forget that the authors of such books did not share the concepts of history that have become part of our mentality. Did Thomas ever speak the words ascribed to him in the gospel scene? To the author, for whom this was not an issue, such a question is a distraction. Thomas was, “one of the Twelve,” and an appropriate spokesman for the faith of the church from which the author writes. Was the story original to the author of the Fourth Gospel, or does it come from an earlier source? It is impossible to determine, but the passage is entirely in the style of the writer, who is distinctive in his narrative presentation and belongs to a literary culture that separates him from the other gospel writers.

Thomas is no more than a name on a list in the synoptic gospels, but he is a character in the climactic narrative of the Fourth Gospel. Does this gospel, chronologically later than the three other canonical gospels, preserve speeches and events of which the others are ignorant? Does it give us a historical knowledge of Thomas that the others do not? Perhaps, but it is far more likely that Thomas speaks the confession of the early church to which the writer belongs because he has been adopted as an appropriate spokesman, not because the writer has a documentary record of what he did and said.

In the recently published English translation of the Gospel of Judas, a third-century Coptic translation of a second-century Greek text, Jesus invites Judas to betray him to his enemies so that he may be freed from his body. Does this speech tell us anything about the historical circumstances of Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion? Does it give us any historical knowledge of Jesus or of Judas? It seems unlikely. What sources would the author of the Gospel of Judas have? Are the historical circumstances of these events what the author even wishes to address? Jesus, in this text, speaks in a way entirely appropriate to a Gnostic, telling Judas that in betraying him, he will “sacrifice the man that clothes me,” but it is almost as unlikely that Jesus was a Gnostic as it is that he was a New Deal Democrat. In this self-described “secret account,” Jesus is a spokesman for second-century Gnostic ideas. It is entirely congruent with a certain side of Gnostic culture that Jesus should be a spokesman for Gnostic sentiments and even that Judas should be the greatest of Jesus’s disciples. Gnostic literature is elitist and greatly attracted to “secret knowledge” because the common understanding of almost anything that touches religious belief is, as far as the Gnostics are concerned, always wrong. It is easy to see why turning the usual understanding of Judas as a traitor on its head would appeal to a Gnostic author, but it is naïve to think that this representation offers an informed or documentary account of how Jesus came to be arrested. It does not, as the New York Times claimed “scholars reported”, give “new insights into the relationship of Jesus and the disciple who betrayed him.” It is just an example of the tendentious imagination of a Gnostic writer at work. In the main, this “secret account” confirms old insights into familiar Gnostic ideas and literary presentation. The Gospel of Judas tells us something about second-century Gnostic thought, just as the Fourth Gospel tells us something about the faith of the early church. It no more gives new insights into the relationship between Jesus and Judas than the Fourth Gospel gives such insights into the relationship between Jesus and Thomas.


Barry Anderson's picture
Barry Anderson · 17 years ago
This seems like a sound assessment of the status of the Gospel of Judas; at least an apt criticism of the assertion that scholars report it as giving new insight into the relationship of Jesus with Judas. This sort of thing has been suggested before. Has anyone - say, Elaine Pagels or Bart Ehrmann - offered such a suggestion about this gospel? I think there’s a typo in the quotation from Julien Green, in the first line. I would suppose it reads “que lorsque Thomas …” I think it’s apt to credit Green as a serious reader, as this entry does, but perhaps it’s a bit of an overstatement to say he did not have an extensive formal education. I think that three years was the norm for pursuing an undergraduate education when he studied at Virginia, and I think it was often the case that students left the University without taking a degree when he was a student. But the observation may intend no more than to observe that he didn’t acquire any postgraduate degrees. In that vein, my understanding is that the University’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa wanted to confer an honorary membership on him, but couldn’t, because he wouldn’t come back to Charlottesville to have that honor bestowed on him. As the only non-French member of the Academie Francaise, he may reasonably have regarded that honor as superfluous.
G.F. Birchard's picture
G.F. Birchard · 17 years ago
Frankly, we don’t know the sources the author of the gospel of Judas. The oral history is long lost. The assertion that the Gospel of Judas is just a work of the imagination of a Gnostic is simply an assertion. The nominalist argument concerning Gnostic attributes is a fine example of circular reasoning. It provides no independent information. We learn nothing by calling the of Judas Gnostic, then rejecting it because it is (presumably) Gnostic. Rather thatn reject the Gospel of Judas I suggest we examine its content. The idea that Judas was doing the will of God is not unreasonable. The writers of the synoptic gospels were quick to blame Judas for being a traitor, but Judas played a role that led to the resurrection. The Gospel of Judas focuses on the resurrection, not the death of Jesus. In doing so, it allows us the possibility of seeing Judas in a more favorable light than shown in the four canonical gospels. The first shall be last and the last shall be first.
David Lee Rubin's picture
David Lee Rubin · 17 years ago
Green’s Phi Beta Kappa key was hand-delivered in Paris by A. James Arnold, a professor in UVa’s Department of French.
Gene Paul Strayer's picture
Gene Paul Strayer · 16 years ago
I very much enjoyed your comment, Frank. When in 1964 I applied for a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship I was examined by a group of three or four questioners about my interests in theology. One asked me what I thought of Judas. I replied, “I rather like the view of Judas in Kazantzakis’ novel, ‘The Last Temptation of Christ,’ in which Jesus forces Judas to bring about the death of Jesus.” The examiners also questioned my interest in Albert Schweitzer. At least, I did receive a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. It was only a year later that I learned that Schweitzer and Kazantzakis were close friends, and that Kazantzakis drew much from Schweitzer’s theology.

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