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Lost Gospel of Judas rewrites ending of Greatest Story Ever Told

A biblical scholar talks about the meaning of a newly discovered text

Jennifer Knust

The recent discovery of the Lost Gospel of Judas portrays the man who turned Jesus over to the high priest the night before his death in an entirely new light. The newly discovered manuscripts suggest that Judas was not betraying Jesus, but helping him reach his destiny. BU Today talked with Jennifer Knust, an assistant professor of New Testament and Christian origins at the School of Theology, about what this discovery means for Christianity.

BU Today: Is there any question about the authenticity of this discovery?

Knust: There may be, but what I have read and heard about the argument and dating of the manuscript is persuasive to me. What’s persuasive is the caliber of scholars working on it and the situation in which the manuscripts were brought to the attention of those scholars [through an antiques dealer.] Obviously, if Elaine Pagles [author of The Gnostic Gospels] and other scholars are backing this, I would be surprised if it’s not authentic.

What do we know now about Judas that we didn’t know before?

I think it adds to what we already know. The idea that Jesus asked Judas to [sacrifice him] is not new, but in the canonical gospels, Judas is very much the bad guy. He is portrayed as hanging himself, taking money, and in one story, spontaneously bursting and having his guts spill out. In Luke and John, they say that Satan entered Judas before the betrayal, whereas in the Gospel of Judas, Judas is part of God’s plan.

Is this story at odds with Christian teachings?

This was written in the second century, when there was diverse Christian perception about the significance of Jesus. One perspective is that his body housed a divine principle that was able to impart knowledge of the divine realm. For example, the Gospel of Judas says that Jesus says to Judas, “Your star has led you astray.” It’s an idea in the Gnostic gospels that Judas has a star and that other people also have stars. Those who are saved have stars. If I interpret it correctly, we, like Jesus, will escape our own flesh and attain our own star and live in the divine realm with God.

The orthodox point of view that emerged in the second century is that we will attain resurrection bodies which will live in a renewed material cosmos. This is some kind of special resurrection flesh, incorruptible, that won’t get sick or decay. It’s a hope that goes back to Adam, a hellenistic Jewish idea, that we will be like Adam and Eve are supposed to be. In the Dead Sea Scrolls it’s described as “shining bodies.”

In the Gospel of Judas, the emphasis is not necessarily on the death and Resurrection of Jesus. What’s important is not his sacrificial death, but that he brings divine knowledge of the heavenly realm. This gospel says that Jesus said to Judas, “But you will succeed all of them. You will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” Therefore Jesus’ heavenly divine principle will escape and his destiny will be fulfilled. This is different from the [orthodox Christan] idea that the sacrifice of Jesus pays for human sin.

The Lost Gospel of Judas seems to show that political influence may have rivaled the word of God in assembling the New Testament. Is this a new idea?

Christianity didn’t have enough of an institutional structure in the second or third century to conspire to suppress something like the Gospel of Judas. Those who argued against works like it didn’t have the authority or the means to stamp out heresy in any way other than through their rhetoric. I think it would be a false conclusion to reach that there was some kind of systematic attempt to destroy these books by a conspiracy of Christian leaders. What’s interesting is that if it was in fact copied in the fourth century, that suggests that communities were actively reading and revering these books and there probably was no conspiracy to ban them. Translating and copying a book is an expensive proposition.

Today Christians observe Good Friday in honor of Jesus’ death on the cross. Does this discovery shed new light on that event?

During this week, Christians are remembering the events leading up to the Crucifixion, the Crucifixion itself, and the Resurrection. To my mind this provides us with an opportunity to think more deeply about what it means to be Christian and what Christ did. It’s a positive opportunity for us.

Jennifer Knust is the author of Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity (Columbia University Press, 2005).