Daily Archives: 2007-11-20 08:26:45 GMT+0000

“We need a good Judas”

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?