Just who was Judas?

Poor Judas.

For more than two thousand years he has been held in utter contempt, a man whose very name has become synonymous with betrayal and treachery.

It is hard to imagine a more loathed figure in western culture save, perhaps, for Lucifer himself.

A document released this week however, may yet bring some redemption for this most vilified of biblical figures.

The Gospel of Judas, part of a set of Coptic scrolls translated from the Greek, and thought to date from around AD 180, claims that Judas was singled out by Jesus to receive mystical truths and was actually instructed to betray him.

“Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal….You will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”

Why is it then that this gospel never made it into the version of the Bible we know today?

One of the more sinister reasons put forward for such an emission suggests that early Christians cast Judas (and by default the Jews) as a traitor in an attempt to distinguish Christianity from the Jewish sect from which it is derived.

Christianity acknowledged Jesus as the saviour, as God made man, sent to earth to redeem us, a redemption and salvation which Judas, and Judaism, sought to deny us through the crucifixion.

And it is this need to clearly define Christianity, which may explain how the orthodox gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, came to form the canon of Christian thought, because any religion which cannot clarify its position and establish its doctrine, is doomed to failure

It is a point which was certainly not lost on Bishop Irenaeus, who in A.D. 180 set out to unify the various factions that made up the nascent religion, and to form a cohesive institution we now recognise as the church.

In doing so, various ideas and beliefs came to be regarded as incompatible with the Christian faith.

Gnosticism was one of the sects that would come to be seen as such a heresy.

One of the central tenets of gnosticism holds that the one true God is a purely divine spirit. A spirit that is distinct from the physical (and inferior) God which created the world.

For the Gnostics, the physical realm was very distinct from the spiritual realm. They believed that man contained a divine spirit or knowledge and that the purpose life was the separation from the physical and the attainment of a purely spiritual, or divine state.

Seen in this light, the physical suffering of Jesus takes on a different meaning. His suffering and humanity is lessened.

To Christians of a more orthodox persuasion, who did not share the Gnostics view that God the creator was inferior to God the redeemer, this separation, and distinction was seen as a very dangerous belief.

In an era in which it was illegal to practice Christianity and in which many followers were persecuted, tortured and killed for their beliefs, it isn’t difficult to understand why such a denigration of the physical suffering of Christ could be viewed as problematic.

Why suffer the perils of persecution after all, if it meant so little?

The essential Gnosticism of the gospel of Judas then, containing as it does the ideas that Jesus considered his physical being to be merely “the man that clothes me” and that a mystical knowledge existed which Jesus imparted to Judas, would have been considered highly dangerous and controversial by those within the church that were trying to establish its identity.

And so it is that Judas came to enter history, not as a light that could guide us to redemption, but as a traitor who tried to ensure such salvation was kept from us.

It is unlikely that the new gospel will do much to convert Judas from traitor to hero, but perhaps it can help us better understand how we receive knowledge and history passed down to us as truth?

In these war-torn days of spin, propaganda and political licence with the truth, we may discover that we could do worse than to consider just who it is that writes our history for us and why.

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