Everyone on the planet gets a chance at rehab, no matter what they’ve done. Judas Iscariot, the so-called “Traitor Apostle” is no exception. I remember sitting in a West End London Theater in 1973 with my family as we watched the mega-hit, “Godspell”. In that recounting of the gospel story of Jesus, Judas is cast as a misunderstood maladroit that just wanted everyone to get along…except the Romans of course.
Later that summer, Weber’s “Jesus Christ, Superstar” made it onto the movie screens. In that retelling, Judas is a sympathetic worrier, best friend type, who is actually made the scapegoat of the entire thing by being tricked into thinking Jesus wants him to be the Betrayer.
In 2006, National Geographic published an article on the newly translated “Gospel of Judas”, an ancient Egyptian manuscript that tells a different story of Judas. They released the translation at the same time as a special documentary and a website splash. All of the media told the same story. Judas was Jesus’ best friend who volunteered to be the scapegoat. Jesus liked him better than the rest and as everyone knows, only a good friend will do your dirty work if you need something done.
As soon as the television special ended, many Coptic scholars downloaded the original document and the translation. Most of them were appalled. Listen to this description in the Chronicle-Review concerning April DeConick, a professor of biblical studies at Rice University:
She started the next day on her own translation of the Coptic transcription, also posted on the National Geographic Web site. That’s when she came across what she considered a major, almost unbelievable error. It had to do with the translation of the word “daimon,” which Jesus uses to address Judas. The National Geographic team translates this as “spirit,” an unusual choice and inconsistent with translations of other early Christian texts, where it is usually rendered as “demon.” In this passage, however, Jesus’ calling Judas a demon would completely alter the meaning. “O 13th spirit, why do you try so hard?” becomes “O 13th demon, why do you try so hard?” A gentle inquiry turns into a vicious rebuke.
Then there’s the number 13. The Gospel of Judas is thought to have been written by a sect of Gnostics known as Sethians, for whom the number 13 would indicate a realm ruled by the demon Ialdabaoth. Calling someone a demon from the 13th realm would not be a compliment. In another passage, the National Geographic translation says that Judas “would ascend to the holy generation.” But DeConick says it’s clear from the transcription that a negative has been left out and that Judas will not ascend to the holy generation (this error has been corrected in the second edition). DeConick also objected to a phrase that says Judas has been “set apart for the holy generation.” She argues it should be translated “set apart from the holy generation” — again, the opposite meaning. In the later critical edition, the National Geographic translators offer both as legitimate possibilities.
In subsequent months, it has been shown that this Gospel could not possibly have been written by Judas, for it refers to events in the second century. In fact, no one ever claimed it was written by Judas. It was penned by a group of Gnostics around 150 A.D. and their purpose was to show that Judas was not actually a man, but a spirit force sent to guide Jesus through his spiritual path. In the last year, no one talks much more about this Gospel or the books written to laud it, for it stands as a monument to what the media can do to historical truth.
So why does everyone from Andrew Lloyd Weber to Harvard University want to paint Judas in a better light? As with anything, there is no one theory that stands for all. But here is my take on it. People feel uncomfortable with anyone being the worst bad guy in any situation. Except for the most cruel and hate-filled people of history (Hitler, Genghis Khan, Frank Burns) we react with a certain amount of sympathy for those who mess up but still have much in common with us.
Judas is painted in the Bible as greedy, opinionated, wanting the Romans to be overthrown, and impatient with Jesus’ program. He also doesn’t like others to be in the spotlight apparently. I can survey my life in the last ten years and see greed, a bevy of opinions, wanting megachurches to be overthrown, and impatient with Jesus’ program for my life. In fact, I’m not sure I don’t resemble Judas more than I care to admit, even on a bad day.
However, believe it or not, Judas is not painted as just a Betrayer in the Bible. He actually repented of it later and gave the money back. No, the Bible shows that Judas was destroyed by the belief that he could never come back to God. Think about this: Both Judas and Peter let Jesus down big time. Peter ends up being the leader in the church and Judas has his intestines littering a field. But they both committed equally heinous crimes against their friendship with Jesus. What was the difference?
Judas hung himself because he believed the lie that it could never change. Peter jumped in the water, swam to shore and somehow came back to his friend. This is the difference. Give up hope and there is not much God can do. Keep the door open to God, no matter how badly you fail, and God can still get his stuff done with you.
If we really rehab Judas, he would be Peter.