A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 3, 2012
Matthew 26:14-16; 27:3-5
One of the shows I used to watch on television is Cold Case Files. Cold Case Files is about detectives who follow up leads on crimes—most often homicides—that may be several years, or even decades, old. Through the use of state-of-the-art forensic science, keen detective work, and personal interviews, they solve cases that have grown cold and been boxed away somewhere in a dusty warehouse.
Well, the recently discovered Gospel of Judas propelled biblical scholars back in time almost 2,000 years as the cold case against one Judas Iscariot has been reopened. A number of questions are raised with this renewed look at Judas. Questions such as, Could Judas have been forgiven for what he did in betraying Jesus? Some biblical references seem to indicate no, whereas others leave it open. Was Judas’s sin of betrayal really as abhorrent as it was reported to have been? Was Judas, along with his motives, perhaps misunderstood? Or, has history been unkind to Judas, misunderstanding who he really was and what his real motive might have been?
Judas Iscariot is a name that stands out in history. Imagine being Judas and having your name in every age and every country be synonymous with betrayal. The name of this particular Judas occurs 22 times in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts. A few others times he is made reference to indirectly. Judas has been pictured as being in hell (at least according to popular opinion) about 1,982 years, if we approximate the date of Jesus’ crucifixion to be 30 C.E. Dante, in his classic work Inferno, assigned Judas to the “lowest region and the darkest [of hell], And farthest from . . . heaven.” And popular opinion by and large has kept him there.
The Bible itself—the five books of the New Testament where Judas is named—presents somewhat conflicting evidence about him. In other words, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus in the early church about Judas. The other eleven disciples were as conflicted and confused about what to make of Judas and his actions as biblical scholars are today. As we read the accounts of Judas in the gospels and Acts (which was written by Luke), we see different pictures of Judas and what he did. Most often Judas is identified as the “betrayer,” or the “one who was to betray” Jesus. A couple of exceptions are when Luke refers to him as a “traitor” (Luke 6:16) or the one who “turned aside” (Acts 1:25). But the reference that I find most interesting is in the gospel of John where the writer pictures Jesus praying and thanking God that not one of his disciples had been lost “except the one destined [bound, GNT] to be lost [meaning Judas], so that the scripture might be fulfilled” (John 17:12). In other words, it is as though Judas was given a destiny to play the role that he played, and it happened in fulfillment of the Hebrew scriptures. Peter, as quoted in the book of Acts, seems to agree. Peter explains that Judas was numbered among the disciples and allotted a share in the ministry. His untimely death, according to Peter, was bound up in the divine purpose. As biblical commentator Robert Wall points out, “The verbs used [in Acts chapter 1] place Judas under the provident care of a sovereign God.”1
To thicken the plot even further, Matthew records that when Judas realized what he had done in betraying Jesus, “he repented and took back the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders. ‘I have sinned [Judas confessed] by betraying an innocent man to death!’” (Matthew 27:3-4). Peter had denied Jesus, repented, and became a pillar in the early church. Should not Judas, who also repented, be afforded the same measure of grace? These are some of the questions that are raised by the evidence about Judas that doesn’t always seem to agree.
Well, it is not my intention to preach Judas into heaven. My purpose is just to present the evidence. But as contemporary preacher John Killinger observes, “The truth is, we will never really know the truth [about Judas] because history is written by winners, and Judas, in this case, was a loser.”2
However, the recently discovered Gospel of Judas has caused the world of biblical scholarship to take a second look at him. In case you missed this story, in 1978 a small book of papyrus sheets bound in leather called a Codex was discovered by a farmer in Egypt. For a long while no one really knew what it was. The book passed through several hands, disappeared for awhile, and was sold to someone who locked it up in a bank safe deposit box in Hicksville, New York, where for 16 years it deteriorated badly. In 2004 the National Geographic Society got hold of the book and was able to authenticate it and translate it.
The book was written between 300-400 C.E. by Christians living in Egypt who copied it from an earlier text that dates to at least 150 and no later than 180 C.E. The Gospel of Judas is one of the so-called “Gnostic Gospels,” in company with other Gnostic Gospels like the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Phillip, Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and others that purport to have secret knowledge that Jesus shared with his disciples.
Now, obviously, the disciple Judas didn’t write the gospel, but it gets its name because Judas is the primary character next to Jesus. The thing about the Gospel of Judas is it presents Judas in a whole different light. Instead of Judas being the worst of all the disciples, he is the best because Judas understood Jesus, his message, and mission better than the other disciples. And that mission, the book proposes, was to lead those enlightened ones into the infinite spiritual life beyond this life. And Judas was handpicked to help Jesus with this mission. It is said to Judas in this gospel, “As for you, you will surpass them all. . . And the star that leads the way, that is your star.” In short, Judas’s role in betraying Jesus was a part of the Divine Plan. According to this work, Jesus died, not to atone for sins, but to lead his true followers to the infinite realm of the spirit beyond. So, if Judas was a part of God’s Divine Plan, how could he be condemned? Should he not be given a place of honor? These are some of the questions, ramifications, and natural conclusions, that the Gospel of Judas seems to point to.
But the real question for our purposes is, What are some of the things about the Gospel of Judas that make it worthy of our attention today? Well, for one, it gives us another window into the early Christian movement. It reveals some of the controversy that surrounded Judas, what kind of person he was, what motivated him, and the differences of opinion about him in the early church.
The book also lends support (along with other Gnostic Gospels) to the theory that early Christian thought was much more diverse and disharmonious than we sometimes imagine. Second century Church Father Irenaeus was distressed and appalled by the diversity of belief he found among Christian groups living in Rome. And he is really the one responsible for choosing the four gospels that we have and condemning the others as being heretical.
The Gospel of Judas, along with other Gnostic gospels, shows us that not all early Christians followed the sacrificial atonement doctrine, but rather, saw in Jesus a spiritual teacher whose role was to help his followers attain enlightenment. The Gospel of Judas looked upon the idea of God requiring a bloody sacrificial death to atone for sin as being pagan and barbaric. Many of the early Christians focused not on Jesus’ death on the cross, but rather, on what he taught and a vision of seeking God within the human heart. In fact, as commentators Karen King and Elaine Pagels point out, “It would appear [from the Gospel of Judas] that the fate of one’s soul depends upon whether one turns inward to discover the Spirit within or whether one lives according to the standards of the world.”3
Also, in the day in which the Gospel was written, church leaders were calling for martyrdom as the way to be guaranteed of salvation. And the message of this Gospel was in direct opposition to that practice. Whoever wrote the Gospel of Judas probably was seeing members of his own family and friends either seeking or submitting to martyrdom as the sure way to attain salvation, and he was appalled. Salvation, the Judas writer contended, comes not from martyrdom, but from inner enlightenment which comes from understanding Jesus and the way that he taught.
So, what are some of the lessons that we can take from all of this? Well, in the early days of the Christian movement, there was a wide range of diversity and more than one way to be a Christian. And there still are today. We do well to be open to diversity and differences in belief. We also learn that there is still much about early Christianity, spirituality, and religious practice that we don’t know. So we should never become smug and think that we have all the answers. And finally, I think we are reminded to not be judgmental, because (as in the case of Judas) we are not always able to see inside the human heart and the motives behind what people do.
The Gospel of Judas may not change the way we believe or the way we put our Christian faith into practice. But maybe, just maybe, what I have shared will lead all of us to be a little more tolerant and open-minded to other ways of thinking. Because in the early days of Christianity there was a wide diversity of belief and practice. Amen.
1New Interpreters Bible Commentary, vol. X, p. 49.
2Christian Century, May 16, 2006, p. 19.
3 Pagels, Elaine, and Karen L. King. Reading Judas. New York: Viking, 2007, p. 139.