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In April 2006, the National Geographic Society published an ancient text, the "Gospel of Judas" that had been discovered in the mid-1970s in Egypt. The original Greek text dates from about 150 A.D., although the version recovered was a Coptic translation written several hundred years thereafter. The publication of the "Gospel of Judas" excited a great deal of scholarly and popular interest due, in part, to the light it might cast on the early development of Christianity.

In their recent book, "Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Early Christianity" (2007), Elaine Pagels and Karen King offer early thoughts on the Gospel of Judas and its significance. Pagels is Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University and the author of several books on Gnostic Christianity, including "The Gnostic Gospels". King is Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the Harvard Divinity School, and she has also written several books on Gnosticism.

This short but difficult book is in two parts. The first part, "Reading Judas" consists of four chapters jointly written by Pagels and King examining the Gospel of Judas in the context of the traditional New Testament canon, the history of early Christianity, and other Gnostic texts. The second part of the study consists of an English translation of the Gospel of Judas by King together with her detailed commentary on the translation. Interpretation of this newly published text is difficult. It is obscurely written with names and characters that are unfamiliar. Extensive and important passages of the text have been lost over the years. It should also be remembered that the text of the Gospel of Judas is itself a Coptic translation of an original Greek version that we do not possess.

Pagels and King present their text as casting light on the diverse character of early Christianity before it assumed its canon and orthodox formulation, but the fascination of the Gospel of Judas is at least equally due to the text itself. As Pagels and King point out, the text is the work of an angry author who was critical of the disciples of Jesus and of the form that what would become mainstream Christianity was taking and who was anti-semitic and homophobic as well. But they find the text passing "beyond anger to revelation" (p. 103) as it leaves polemic behind and ventures into the realm of the spirit in considering the nature of God, human character, and the problem of evil.

Pagels and King argue that the Gospel of Judas was written as a response to Christian martyrdom at the hands of the Romans. The author of the Gospel could not believe that a just God would allow His followers to be murdered, tortured, and sacrificed in His name. In place of what the Gospel author saw as a cruel, vengeful God, the author proposed a creation story consisting of a realm of two levels: the higher level the realm of the spirit, and the lower level the realm of the physical world. The persecutions of the Christians were not part of the divine will but were part of the world below. The realm of the spirit could be reached, for the author of the Gospel of Judas, by an effort to "bring forth the perfect human." In the text, Jesus enjoins Judas "to seek [after the] spirit within you."

The Gospel of Judas thus is an attempt to recast what became standard religious religious thought by internalizing God and the spiritual search. This theme, in broad outline, resonates with many people today who find themselves religiously inclined but uncomfortable with what they perceive as traditional religious dogma.

Pagels and King admirably place the Gospel of Judas in the context of the development of Christianity. They offer a nuanced account that recognizes the value and the need for the four traditional Gospels in establishing a foundation for Christianity in its many creeds, from Catholicism and Orthodoxy to evangelical Protestantism. But the fascination with the text is ultimately the fascination with the message. This book, as well as other recent works exploring Gnosticism, casts light on traditional religious belief, but it also encourages the efforts of those contemporary readers who wish to explore alternative forms of spiritual development.

Robin Friedman
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VINE VOICEon March 8, 2007
Elaine Pagels and Karen King are two of the most prolific scholars on early Christianity and more specifically, the Gnostic movement. Separately they have penned nearly a dozen books. So what a gift it is when the two of them collaborate on a new book about the Gospel of Judas.

After last year's circus surrounding the release of the Gospel of Judas (GoJ), Pagels and King turn their attention not to the historical information about the major players, Jesus and Judas, about whom the Gospel tells us very little new, but rather to the purposes of the author of the Gospel. They identify the GoJ as another example of the "Jesus is in charge" theme which increases in emphasis as one moves from Mark to Matthew to Luke and then John. Indeed, they believe that Judas is the most extreme example of Jesus orchestrating his own death. Yet while the catholic Christians did this to keep their Godman all-knowing, Pagels and King submit that the author of Judas is devaluing the physical body and emphasizing the spiritual one, and hence Jesus dies so that he can live. It's a subtle difference but a very meaningful one, and Pagels and King make their point slowly, methodically, and firmly. This fundamental difference in outlook also lies behind what they describe as the "anger" in the GoJ, anger that the catholic Christians are acting against the interests of the true Christ by adopting the suits and trappings of the physical world.

The book is extremely short. It is divided into 2 parts. Part 1 (Pagels and King) barely covers 100 pages, and presents their thesis. Part 2 (King) is a new translation of GoJ with lots of comments on the translation. The comments are particularly useful.

The book is not without flaws. Here's a few:

"...after Jesus's shocking arrest, torture, and slow horrifying public execution...(p. 4)." There was nothing shocking about his arrest. It was anticipated by Jesus and by the high priests for some time. And his death was hardly "slow," at least not from a comparative analysis. Most crucified victims spent days on the cross. Jesus was up and down in three hours.

"Rumors that close companions, like Mary of Magdala...(p. 5)." Her name was Mary called the Magdalene. We expect the newspapers to talk about Mary of Magdala, but scholars should be more exact in their naming traditions. We are fairly certain that the town of Magdala never existed, so Mary of Magdala makes no senses as a person's name.

"Josephus...mentions Jesus as a notorious troublemaker... (p. 12)." Nonsense. Almost every scholar maintains that this is a later Christian addition, and not part of the original text.

"...the Gospel of John had identified Judas as a thieving, greedy man who criticized others to display his own piety (John 12:4-6)...(p. 26)." No. The passage from John identifies Judas as a thief, but never says anything about being "greedy" nor anything about "criticizing others to display his own piety" Check it out yourself.

While these are flaws, they are not germane to the main thesis of the book.

All things considered, this book is the best book to come out of the GoJ discovery. It is well written, informative, and makes a good case. Though short, the comments section in the translation part of the book is a major contribution, as is their theory of the context in which the book is written.

The book is probably too advanced for beginning students, not because of its writing style, but because it assumes a level of understanding of the canonical gospels and Gnosticism that most beginning students don't have.
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on April 2, 2007

This book presents us with a content analysis and the actual translated text of the Gospel of Judas, which was accidentally discovered by peasants in a burial cave in the 1970's in Middle Egypt near al Minya. The archaeological find was finally made public by the National Geographic Society in April 2006. Award-winning authors, Pagels and King, who study, translate and specialize in early Christian writings, estimate that the Gospel "was written sometime around 150 C.E., about a century after Judas would have lived, it is impossible that he wrote it; the real author remains anonymous."

In addition to its outside-the-box spiritual teaching, this Gospel is valued because it clearly shows that the early Christian movement was not characterized by the unified, simplistic and fixed message that we hear today. Rather, it's yet another piece of evidence that demonstrates there were many different and controversial messages, each competing for a position of supremacy, each claiming to be the divine truth, each messenger asserting to be the most special and favored one. While many people are comforted by the idea that the 12 apostles worked together and that they unanimously embraced and delivered the same doctrines, this homogenized and white-washed picture is a distortion of the historical facts, rivalries and power struggles that are now being revealed.


If God is Love and only Love, He cannot be violence. The Gospel of Judas renounces violence, sacrifice, martyrdom and even the cannibalistic practice of symbolically eating the body and blood of Christ as God's Will. This is in direct contrast to one of the central messages of Christianity, where sacrifice and suffering is used as a bargaining tool with God: "With the suffering of just one hour, you can purchase for yourself eternal life!"

The central idea is that "those who imagine human sacrifice pleases God have no understanding of the Father..." And even more, "By teaching that Jesus died in agony for the sins of the world and encouraging his followers to die as he did, certain leaders send them on a path toward destruction - while encouraging them with the false promise that they will be resurrected from death to eternal life in the flesh." The Gospel of Judas teaches that at the moment of death the human body dies and there is no resurrection of the flesh. Eternal life has to do with understanding our spiritual, non-physical connection to God. Judas says that the crucifixion of Jesus demonstrates that the death of the body is not an end of our "real" life. "What dies is only the mortal body, not the living spirit."


Inspiration from this work does not come in the conventional manner, as an emotional surge. Rather, it comes as a subtle opportunity to forgive Judas and to release him from the judgments we hold against him (and thus, against ourselves)

The reader is invited to perceive Judas Iscariot in a new, uplifting and more loving way. Instead of meeting him as the predictable and villainous betrayer, we are re-introduced to him as the only one who really understands and gets the message that Jesus was trying to deliver: that suffering is not necessary; that suffering has no value; that suffering can be transcended. Judas is characterized as the only disciple who is ready and able to hear the mysteries of the kingdom: "...that there is another glorious divine realm above the material world, and an immortal holy race exists above the perishable human race."


Anything that forces us to open the mind and look more closely at fundamental religious beliefs to see if they still make sense is highly relevant. This is because our beliefs guide our actions and our actions determine our life experience. The authors tell us that over the past 40 years "we have gained access to over forty gospels, letters, and other early Christian works." The Gospel of Judas is as important today as it was when it was written.


Reading Judas is scholarly, well-written and well-researched. But that said, the actual reading experience is more like forcing yourself to take medicine or to do a homework assignment. You know it's good for you, but you don't really enjoy it. Because of that, this book would best be suited for those who are more intellectually inclined than those who are looking for a quick and easy read.


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Judas Iscariot has played the role of Christianity's ultimate traitor for centuries. Tradition, as portrayed in the synoptic gospels, claims that he handed Jesus over to the Romans for thirty silver pieces. This vile act led to Jesus' crucifixion and death. So repugnant was this that his name has become synonymous with deceit and betrayal. For example, when Bob Dylan abandoned folk music for electric rock in 1966, an appalled audience member at the Royal Albert Hall yelled "Judas!" Right or wrong, everyone knew what that single name implied. Some cheered, some hissed. Pope Benedict XVI upheld the tradition in 2006 by accusing Judas of greed and power mongering. And why did the leader of the Catholic Church feel the need to reiterate this well-worn point in the twenty-first century? Because the long lost Gospel of Judas had resurfaced. A translation of this document's extant text appears in Part Two of "Reading Judas." Written sometime before 180 CE, the short gospel inverts tradition by depicting Judas as Jesus' most trusted Apostle, as his bosom buddy, his confidante. Not only that, Jesus shares the "mysteries of the Kingdom" with this great deceiver. And only with him. The gospel portrays the other Apostles as weak and conniving dolts who, according to Jesus, worship the wrong God through cruel sacrifice. Jesus' delineation of the "Mysteries" evoke elements similar to Pythagorianism, Platonism, Vedanta, and Buddhism. Certain sections of the gospel read more like Plato's "Timaeus" than the New Testament. In these passages, Jesus outlines a mystical mathematical transcendental cosmology involving a pantheon of lesser imperfect gods, one of which, called Saklas, created humanity, and the all knowing all seeing "Great Invisible Spirit" (the "real God") from which everything emanates. Humans have this Spirit within them, but they must search for it by examining the Self. Jesus' death will serve as an example to humankind that they can escape their physical bodies and enter the Heavenly Kingdom via the discovery of this inner Spirit. Jesus entrusts Judas with initiating this sacred event. Judas then indentifies Jesus to the accusers as instructed, receives some copper coins, and the text ends. Thus does Judas become, in this long lost gospel, the catalyst to humanity's salvation. Judas also sees the vision of his demise. The other Apostles will apparently stone him to death. But, as Jesus points out, such is the price for the "Mysteries of the Kingdom."

Part One of "Reading Judas" analyzes the Gospel in historical context. Drawing from voluminous sources, including the Bible, other Gnostic gospels, and various miscellaneous ancient texts, the essay's authors, Pagels and King, frame the Gospel of Judas as a text infused with anger. What caused this anger? In the second century CE, Christianity as we know it was solidifying under the auspices of bishops and clergy. Recent discoveries show that other interpretations of Jesus' death co-existed with the now dominate view. In other words, Christianity was not as homogenous as tradition suggests. Over time the fringe groups, along with their documents, were suppressed and outlawed as heretical. The Gospel of Judas, argue the authors, represents one of these alternate, or dissenting, ideologies. At the time of its composition Christian persecution was widespread and expanding. Certain founders of the nascent church, such as Tertullian, Ireneaus, and Heracleon, began to glorify the suffering of those who were killed in horrifying and unimaginable ways by the then pagan Roman government. Others Christians followed them "to glory" and met similar ghastly ends. Pagels and King argue that the Gopel of Judas' fervent anger stems from the church's encouragement of martyrdom. The "false venegeful God," according to the Jesus of the Gospel of Judas, demands such needless sacrifice. But the "true God" never would. Jesus demands that the Apostles "cease sacrificing!" So was the Gospel of Judas a protest piece? Maybe. It definitely paints an alternate picture of Jesus and Christianity.

Overall, "Reading Judas" enables general readers to grasp the document's signifigance. Most helpful are the some forty pages of commentary that accompany the translation. Though Pagels and King claim that this gospel doesn't belong in the Christian canon, they argue that it nonetheless demonstrates that the Christianity we have today was written by the winners. And those winners suppressed dissent so effectively that the Gospel of Judas, among others, remained lost for almost two millennia. All together, these ancient texts help scholars piece together the story of Christianity's development. "Reading Judas," though unlikely to alter anyone's faith, provides fascinating and provocative glimpses into the history of western civilization's dominant religion.
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on March 7, 2007
Jesus taught a message of acceptance so it should come as no surprise that Pagels and King present here:

1) inclusive concerns that cuts across the "liberal" versus "conservative" divide that is used to to steer readers away in advance from reading works from a presumably "other camp".

2) a Christian teaching that is neither strictly orthodox nor Gnostic, that does not depend on any argument for an earlier dating of the text, and which addresses issues that Christians faced in the 2nd century including persecution and matyrdom.

3) A work by two knowledgable and gifted women at a time when discrimination by gender still persists, at times blatent, within not only society at large but within Christian denominations, churches and schools.

This book is divided into two parts:

1) A general presentation, "Reading Judas", on which Pagels and King colloborated.

2) King's translation of this gospel and her fine-grained comments on that translation.

Pagels and King help us to understand a time when there were genuine Christian concerns that the theme of sacrifice and appeals for matyrdom were being manipulated by many early church leaders.
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on March 10, 2007
The Big Idea: you can't read the Judas gospel without understanding the hard ball politics among the sects of Christianity after the death of Christ: Paul and Peter at odds, not unlike Hillary and Barack; a group embracing the cult of being a martyr---looking forward to dying for the faith; the manipulating bishops seeking to create order from diverging sects with themselves on top. Enter the judas gospel, an attack on the martyrs, an insult to those who place the body before the spirit., and a repudiation of the risen Christ as the foundation for a religion. We know who won the political war but the judas gospel shows it was a real fight.The book is short. The translation and annotation is interesting but for non scholars like myself, don't try and digest it all at once.
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Taking off where she has left off in her other books about the origins of Christianity, Pagels, with co-author King, has written a terse 150-page analysis accompanied by Judas' Gospel to argue that there are other books, gnostic included, that offer a diverse unorthodox view of the Christian faith. Her main point is that those in political power were motivated to assert control and unity over the land and that the Bible as we know it was formed by that motivation. Of course, this is not a traditional Christian view. Pagels asserts that Judas has a contrarian voice, that he is specifically, appalled by the apostles' betrayal of Jesus' teaching and that Judas, rejecting blood sacrifice, sees Christianity as based on spirit, not the body.

Pagels does an excellent job of showing the tumult that existed during Christianity's origins as splinter groups jockeyed for power and for their interpretation of Jesus to be the one true interpretation. A good companion to this book is Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman.
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Mind-bending drugs should be taken in small doses - which perhaps explains the brevity of this study. It's certainly challenging, yet surprisingly unfulfilling. The authors examine the recently discovered and painstakingly translated gospel, written about the middle of the 2nd Century CE. They include the entire available text plus commentary on the translation as part of this volume. They suggest it provides a fresh image of early Christianity - things not revealed by the other texts such as that from Nag Hammadi - the so-called "Gnostic Gospels". It demonstrates the many conflicts besetting the movement prior to the imposition of Constantine's "orthodoxy" on Christian society. The Gospel of Judas is most significant for its redefinition of the deity. It's an insightful and compelling account, but raises nearly as many questions as it provides answers.

We [should] all know of the "Judas kiss" purportedly betraying the teacher of a new relationship to the Judaic divinity. According to the four Synoptic Gospels, Judas supposedly sold out his teacher for a few coins, later regretting the act and taking his own life in consequence. This gospel demolishes that old story, replacing it with one in which Judas was directed to perform his act by the victim himself. The reasons for this overthrow many commonly accepted ideas of who the deity was and what was desired of its followers. Judas is portrayed as outside the original group of twelve, and given special recognition by his teacher. So detached was his role, that he's shown to be in serious conflict with his colleagues. The strife was intense enough that Judas, instead of a suicide, becomes the victim of murder by his colleagues.

The themes underlying this gospel are the role of martyrdom and the act of sacrifice. What kind of god demands the ultimate sacrifice? The author of The Gospel of Judas is particularly disparaging of those Christians who accepted, indeed willingly embraced, the martyr's role. He viewed this as a violation of a loving deity, the novel idea Jesus had taught. As a short-cut to Paradise, the author of the Gospel of Judas found martyrdom unacceptable. Innumerable questions arose over what kind of martyrdom Jesus had really suffered, resulting in extensive debate about his human aspects. That debate, of course, hasn't ceased, the Trinitarian concept being but a stopgap. The authors see The Gospel of Judas as depicting Jesus as a special entity, capable of reaching beyond the human body even while living. At one point, he's said to leave the group of disciples to enter Paradise directly, and enabling Judas to do the same. Martyrdom need not be endured if the proper faith is exercised. If Judas could achieve it, so could anybody who understood what Jesus' message conveyed.

If martyrdom was a misleading idea, what of the role of sacrifice? Jesus own death, often depicted as a sacrifice, was anathema to many, often blocking potential conversions. Human sacrifice was becoming seen as deplorable even in pagan societies. Animal sacrifice was a substitute, but did the deity view it that way? In their discussion of this and other offering practices, the authors show that the monotheism we consider essential to Jesus' teaching wasn't truly in place in that era. The Great Invisible Spirit referred to in the Judas Gospel was merely the highest in a confusing hierarchy of deities, angels and other spirits. The world wasn't created by Elohim, as the Jews generally taught, but by Saklas, a lesser deity. Another god was in charge of the sun, while yet others guided the planets and stars. The monotheism of Genesis is overturned in this Gospel. Instead of one creator, an array of over 360 "luminaries", each taking a particular role is depicted. Jesus own death is decreed by one of these, a "false god", to which the disciples, excepting Judas, make sacrifices. Jesus' taught Judas to bypass these unreliable spirits to reach the Great Invisible Spirit.

While the authors successfully demonstrate that Christianity was a hotch-potch of beliefs and practices, particularly as the author of The Gospel of Judas recognised, their own statement of how the text should now be considered is little short of staggering. They contend that elevating the text from its historical value to one of theological teaching "is not useful - and beside the point". The long history of the Synoptic Gospels being used in many faiths as the "standard" overrides whatever contribution either the Judas Gospel or the spectrum of "Gnostic" writings might make. Given that each of these has its own version of both Jesus and the deity who supposedly spawned him, this seems bizarre. We are left, after all these centuries of still wondering which deity should command our attention and worship. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on June 25, 2008
Pagels and King have produced a good translation of the Gospel of Judas, despite what some critics have said. One critic in particular has taken pains to cast aspersions on all translations of the Gospel of Judas, claiming that the text actually identifies Judas as a "demon" rather than a "spirit". Well, the original Coptic may have used the word "DAIMWN" rather than "PNEUMA", but that does not mean that Judas is supposed to be an evil spirit! Daimwn was a word that originally referred to "spirits" in a neutral way; for example, Socrates in his trial referred to the (benign) Daimwn that guided him to wisdom. The modern English word "demon" comes from the Greek Daimwn, but only where the Greek refers to an EVIL spirit (i.e. a kakodaimwn, or cacodemon).

That aside, this translation does seem pretty good. I took care to read the text of the Gospel first, and then the commentary, and I would advise all to do the same. My impression was that the text was clearly Gnostic. It is very similar to other Gnostic texts like the Gospel of Thomas and the Letter of Peter to Phillip. That is, a disciple or disciples are given secret teachings by Christ as to the true nature of the universe and of divine affairs - that the universe is a fake created by a mad god, and that penetration to the real universe can be achieved by true knowledge.

The fact that the disciple in question is Judas Iscariot does make this narrative rather unique.

The commentary by Elaine Pagels, in my opinion, downplays the Gnostic element of the Gospel of Judas by putting forward the thesis that the text is primarily to be read as a criticism of the cult of martyrs among Christians. To me, the martyrdom aspect of the Gospel is not very prominent compared with the revelations of the Gnostic universe. The Gospel should rather be seen as another example of a secret Gnostic revelation to a chosen disciple, albeit the one usually seen as the traitor.

The commentary also rambles on a bit. It is designed for the general reader, which makes it a bit too longwinded anyway. But Pagels also insists on comparing and contrasting the attitudes of the Gospel of Judas toward martyrs with every other non-canonical Christian work that mentions them. This, to me, wastes a good deal of space, though I always liked the Round Dance of the Cross.

On the up side, the discussions of Judas in the New Testament are interesting and informative, and the martyrdom aspect is indeed a part of the Gospel of Judas, even though I think Pagels harps on it far too much. On the whole, a fine translation of a newly discovered Gospel with some OK commentary.
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on March 28, 2008
In Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, Pagels and King explore the "Gospel of Judas" and the context in which it was written, to create a framework for the translation of the gospel in the second half of the book. Rather than ignore the gospel as heresy, they ask readers to consider the political forces at work. They argue that the gospel presents Judas not as a betrayer of Jesus, but as his greatest disciple. This challenges readers to reconsider traditional views of Judas, Jesus and the Church, perhaps even to forgive Judas and open their eyes to a larger view of Christianity.

Pagels and King explain that through the "Gospel of Judas" we can see that it is not the suffering of Jesus and the persecution of Christians that brings holiness. Rather, Christians must come to understand that Jesus did not die as a blood sacrifice but as a leader showing the way. The physical life is something to be overcome, not mourned.

Essentially, Pagels and King strive to overcome the bias with which we may approach the "Gospel of Judas." We must understand the context to see that the author is not simply trying to be inflammatory but reacting to the religious wars of his time. The book is very approachable, written for those who are not biblical scholars with a heavily annotated translation to help the reader in digestion of the gospel. Pagels and King offer a thorough explanation of the events leading to the gospel's conception as they explore other Christian works which lend support to its radical statements in the second section.
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