2007-11-20

“We need a good Judas”

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by Neil Godfrey

April DeConick’s blog has linked to a Macleans.ca article about The Thirteenth Apostle in which two motives underlying the National Geographic’s publication of the “good Judas” translation of the Gospel of Judas.

In my own comments on DeConick’s book I referenced her discussion of reasons why some people want to find a good motive for Judas

  • She suggests with Professor Louis Painchaud that since World War 2 and the Holocaust, and the widespread anti-Semitism preceding those years, there has been a powerful cultural need to absolve our collective guilt over the treatment of the Jews. And this compulsion has led us to reappraise our portrayals of the bad Jew/Judah/Judas embedded in our foundational Christian myth. So much for Maloney and Archer’s collaboration on their fictional cum theological treatise of their Judas gospel!

This point is underscored in the Macleans.ca article:

When she discussed her findings at a conference, one colleague responded, “I don’t see why Judas can’t be good; we need a good Judas.” DeConick says, “I stopped in my tracks. I realized that people were reading Judas positively because they wanted, however unconsciously, a good Judas. Everything that could be tweaked in that direction was. I think our communal psyche, knowing how Judas the betrayer always functioned as a justification for atrocities against Jews, wants to explain him, wants to take the guilt of Christ’s death from him.” Even if we have to make it up.

There should be nothing surprising about this. Albert Schweitzer long ago famously noted that scholars who write about the historical Jesus are writing about the Jesus they want to see. The evidence is so scant that it is quite possible to construct from it a political revolutionary Jesus, a miracle working magician Jesus, a mystical other-wordly Jesus, a Cynic sage, a Pharisee, . . . See Peter Kirby’s Historical Jesus theories site for a good coverage. This fact alone ought to be a flag to tell us that there is something fundamentally wrong with studies about Jesus. What other historical character can raise such opposing arguments as to his purpose and teachings? Does not such extreme and opposing diversities even slightly hint at many self-important onlookers attempting to describe the clothes of the naked emperor?

But the problem is not simply the paucity of the evidence. It is the cultural matrix in which such studies feed and breathe. Can anyone really imagine a scholarly view of Jesus that came down on the side of a view expressed in some of the noncanonical texts — maybe one that went so far as to suggest that the original Jesus was none of the above but as much a metaphorical construct as Adam, a derivation of Wisdom, or an Illuminator who evolved to take on human and historical trappings? Those who do attempt such a model of Christian origins quickly find themselves on the outside of academia’s circled wagons. There is simply too much at stake, it seems, for anything more than bold claims that the evidence is too strong to doubt the basic orthodox (really Lucan-Eusebian) model despite all its scholarly nuances that and mutations. I have not seen any of those bold claims about thorough examination of the evidence for a historical Jesus at the core of any model of Christian origins justified. Each time I have attempted to follow through and examine them I find nothing but simplistic dot-points of arguments that I know have been either found to be circular or without foundation.

It would be nice to think that the controversy that will hopefully avalanche from the clash of the National Geographic’s and April DeConick’s translations of Judas will prise open a wider debate about not just the role of Judas in our culture and scholarship, but the very origins of Christianity itself.

Till then, maybe we need to find a document and a publisher that gives us a good Goliath. Something to redress the post-war bifurcation of anti-Semitism that has transferred the fundamentally bad Semite to the Arab leaving the Jew the fundamentally good one. Why not? The cause is good. The intellectual honesty is no less than that which sees a “need for a good Judas”.

(I’m joking — about the need for a good Goliath thing. We need human David’s and human Goliath’s or human creator of these characters , not actors in a some biblical pantomine.) It appears to me as an outsider that biblical scholarship has, with rare exceptions, failed to accept responsibility for wider cultural enlightenment.

But I should be philosophical. Isn’t this the way history has always worked? Isn’t that the historical job of intellectuals? To support the status quo? And the myths it finds so useful to support all sorts of behaviours?

  • Geoff Hudson
    2007-11-20 20:49:19 UTC - 20:49 | Permalink

    No the ‘good Judas’ thing is simply a red herring. Anyone who says “we need a good Judas” must surely be joking. Most folk know the details of the Jewish holocaust. They may have difficulty understanding how it could have happened, but modern-day guilt is not apparent.

    Because of the late time when the Gospel of Judas was written, it doesn’t really have too much to say about Judas that can be relied heavily upon. In any case, we already have a good Judas in later memory. I refer to the person who the final author had responsible for the Gospel of Thomas, namely Judas Thomas, or Judas the twin.

    As for biblical scholarship failing to accept responsibility for wider cultural enlightenment, I believe there has been a deliberate neglect of the Jewish context, particularly as revealed in the scrolls from the caves near Qumran. The perpetuation of the Essene hypothesis has undoubtedly set progress in biblical studies back fifty years. The scrolls found in the caves near Qumran were the documents of the messianic Jerusalem priests who deposited them for safe keeping at the time of the first century revolt. The milieu in which the earliest ‘Christianity’ came about was that of the scrolls.

    Scholars have consistently failed to recognise the extent to which the writings attributed to Josephus have been garbled and re-arranged by their Flavian editors. I am amazed how historians such as Barbara Levick in her book on Vespasian will in one breath tell us that “there is a particularly thick overlay of propaganda that obscures the truth about the Jewish War”, and then admit that there isn’t much else to go on. So she, like the tongue-in-cheek Martin Goodman in his book Rome and Jerusalem, and like all the rest, merrily quote literally from the extant text, QED.

    And finally, scholars have not faced-up to the challenge as to who the Judas was about whom there is so much noise in the contemporary literature.

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