229: Reading Judas by Pagels and King

by Gerard


229.8: Pagels, Elaine and Karen L. King. Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity. New York: Viking Penguin, 2007. 165 pp. ISBN 0-6700-3845-8.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 200: Religion
  • 220: The Bible
  • 229: Apocrypha, pseudepigrapha, and other intertestamental works
  • 229.8: Pseudo gospels

In Christian history, Jesus Christ gathered twelve people to his side to be his apostles and spread his beliefs throughout the world. According to The Bible, Judas Iscariot accepts payment of thirty silver coins from the Sanhedrin priests and agrees to point out Jesus to the local authorities so that he can be captured and tried for purporting to be the Son of God. Judas’s betrayal results in the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection as depicted later in the Gospels. The traditional telling of this matter is done by the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—, but what if Judas himself got a say in the matter? In the 1970s, a papyrus codex was discovered near Beni Masah, Egypt which appears to be from Judas’s point of view. In Reading Judas, Elaine Pagels and Karen King tackle the new text to see if it can shed new light on old mythology.

There are a lot of things to learn from a shredded piece of paper from 1,700 years ago. First, Christianity was, is, and will always be an infinitely nuanced and an infinitely personal set of beliefs. Each iteration of the religion in each person begets a new system. In the Bible, each voice has a different Christianity, and in this new text, we hear the voice of the oft-reviled Judas Iscariot. The text is short, but packed with historical details, research, and annotations to the original document. It is a Coptic translation of a 2nd century Greek text, so things can definitely get lost through the years. Judas’s act, seen through Gnostic eyes, is one of love and loyalty, setting in motion the inevitable resurrection of his friend and the salvation of mankind.

Pagels’s and King’s text is nice and tight. They know that not everyone will be pleased to read about the “good” deeds of Judas Iscariot. Traditionalists will see this as a deliberate blurring of the lines between good and evil, but the codex is still a legitimate piece of history. Scholars can debate among themselves about the literal meanings of certain words and phrases, but they are more qualified than I in this matter. Overall, this was a very interesting book that illuminates a rather shady character in the Bible.