by Robert Eisenman
September 13, 2009
Reconsidered - Betrayal: Should We Hate Judas Iscariot?"
These are the shout lines given the most
recent article in the New Yorker magazine (8/3/09) on the Gospel
of Judas by Joan Acocella (credentials unknown, though
her specialty has mostly been dance), which burst upon the scene in
2006 via a National Geographic TV special and companion book.
It had apparently been gathering dust
since the discovery of the
Nag Hammadi codices in the late
40's (alongside the spectacular
Dead Sea Scrolls), but that it
existed had been known since Irenaeus of Lyons pronounced a ban upon
it in the late 2nd c. CE - the probable reason for its disappearance
thereafter only to re-emerge in our own time in the sands of the
Upper Egypt where, presumably, it had been cached to save it from
the effects of just such an interdiction.
While Ms. Acocella's New Yorker piece is tolerable as a quick
summary of the twists and turns of the debate for the non-specialist
and the books that ensued, it is basically one of the more
temporizing, least edifying, and most equivocal of any preceding it,
ultimately drifting off into a discussion of Caravaggio (1603),
Ludovico Carraci (1590), and Giotto (1305) - as if these could
matter - and ending with a critical discussion of a recent book by
one Susan Gubar (Judas:
A Biography, 2009), perhaps the reason for the whole
Ms. Acocella displays no sense of history or any critical acumen -
and this from a magazine as prestigious as the New Yorker - being so
simplistic as to make even the amateur blush.
So naturally she can come to no
conclusion about a "Gospel" which early on gave every promise of
being interpreted as removing some of the stigma adhering to a
character taken as representing the Jewish people. Rather she
backtracks to the position, best epitomized a year and a half
earlier in a New York Times feature article by Prof. April
DeConick of Rice University.
For her part, Acocella ends by
"The answer is not to fix the Bible
(i.e., don't try to get at the true history concerned, however
pernicious its effect), but to fix ourselves."
To come to grips with her ahistorical
approach, take the very first sentence:
"At the Last Supper, Jesus
knew that it would be the last, and that he would be dead by the
next day." (She sounds as if she were actually there.)
She continues in this vein in the next
"This is the beginning of Jesus'
end, and of Judas's. Jesus is arrested within hours. Judas,
stricken with remorse, returns to the priests and tries to give
them back their money" (she had already pictured him in the
previous paragraph "perhaps before the Last Supper - "Last
Supper," no quotes, no "purported," just absolute truth -
meeting with the priests of the Temple to make arrangements for
the arrest and collect his reward, the famous thirty pieces of
This is a perfect example of the dictum
I have tried to illumine in all my books, "Poetry is truer than
History;" that is, it doesn't matter what really happened only what
people think or the literary works upon which they depend say
No wonder Plato, who lived closer to
these times than many, wanted to bar the poets (whom he felt created
the "myths" by which people lived and which he considered to be a
world of almost total darkness) from his "Republic."
She goes on without the slightest hesitation as if there were not an
iota of doubt about any of these things:
"They haughtily refuse it. Judas
throws the coins on the floor (hardly, this is a misstated
quotation from Zechariah we shall also elucidate further below).
He then goes out and hangs himself. He dies before Jesus does."
What immediacy - she states these things
as "facts," yet doesn't even seem to know that Luke in Acts has a
very different picture of Judas' end, that he "fell headlong into
the Akeldama" or "Field of Blood," "his guts bursting open," though
for what reason it is impossible to say.
This is literature, after
Nor does she wonder whether there ever was a "Judas Iscariot"
or imagine that he might be the literary representation of some
retrospective theological invective which, finding a Gospel of
completely opposite literary orientation, might suggest.
One should perhaps be grateful, however, to Ms. Acocella because,
even in such an exalted forum as the New Yorker, she demonstrates
the lack of sophistication and general cloud of unknowing about
these things even among those who should know better - scholars,
writers, artists, film-makers, Jew or Gentile (in fact, Jews being
less knowing, are often more inclined to accept these pretenses than
some Gentiles even though they affect them more - sometimes even
For her part, in the end, giving credit
to this Gospel scenario of Judas as the Devil incarnate and ignoring
the real significance of a contrary Gospel in his name, Acocella
returns to the picture of Judas being the harbinger of both
classical and modern anti-Semitism.
That being said, the real climax in this interpretative revision and
turn-around was first expressed publicly in print on December 1st,
2007, the beginning of Hanukkah season that year and, of course, a
prelude to the Christmas, when the New York Times, obviously
purposefully, featured a centrally-positioned article on its
editorial page, entitled - perhaps facetiously, perhaps not -
"Gospel Truth" (my counter to this, "Gospel Truth or Gospel
Fiction," ignored by the Times, was published in The Huffington Post
about three weeks later - 12/18/07).
In it, Prof. DeConick alluded (quite flatteringly, one might say) to
the monopoly I and some colleagues broke concerning the Dead Sea
Scrolls and compared the situation regarding the editing of "The
Gospel of Judas" to it.
Directly referring to the difficulty of
"overturning" entrenched translations and "interpretations...even
after they are proved wrong," she also went on to cite the Society
of Biblical Literature's,
"1991 resolution holding that, if
the condition of the written manuscript requires that access be
restricted, a facsimile reproduction should be the first order
This, persons familiar with the sequence
of events relating to the freeing of the Scrolls will know, Prof.
James Robinson (a party to the present debate over the Gospel of
Judas) and myself did in the same year (A Facsimile Edition of the
Dead Sea Scrolls, B.A.S., Washington D. C.,1991).
The problem was that Prof. DeConick did not stop there. What she did
(abetted by the appearance of this piece, so prominently positioned
at such a time and in such a venue) was was to check the
heroicization of Judas that had ensued after the National Geographic
Society TV program featuring it, seemingly exonerating him, and
return to portraying him in the traditional way as the Demon (Daimon)
incarnate (in Gnostic terms, "the Thirteenth Apostle").
My own encounter with this situation actually occurred two weeks
earlier in San Diego, California at a National Meeting of The
Society of Biblical Literature (the premier organization in this
My visit coincided with the exhibition
of the Dead Sea Scrolls during the same period there, when Ms.
DeConick appeared on a panel on the Gospel with some eight other
James Robinson above (The
Secrets of Judas)
Elaine Pagels of Princeton (The
Karen King of Harvard (Reading
Judas and the Shaping of Christianity)
Marv Meyer of Chapman University
(who was allowed a very short response to Prof. DeConick in
New York Times Letters a week later, 12/8/07, but nothing of
any real substance regarding the points at issue here)
And here is the key point for everyone:
the upshot of this necessarily-brief discussion was how few
"orthodox Gospels" (meaning, Matthew, Mark, Luke, etc.) had come to
light from the Second Century (the single example cited being a
possible fragment of the Gospel of John from papyrus trash heaps in
Egypt) but, on the other hand, how many heterodox.
Did this mean that more people were
reading "sectarian Gospels" at that time, not "orthodox" ones?
The answer of the more conservative
scholars on the Panel (Chair Michael Williams of the University of
Washington, DeConick, Robinson, et. al) was,
"Not really but that,
in any case, the Gospel of Judas was less historical than they" - a
conclusion echoed by Ms. Acocella above.
At that point, as there seemed to be no further questions, I
gathered my courage, stood up, and asked,
"What makes you think any are
historical and not just retrospective and polemical literary
endeavors of a kind familiar to the Hellenistic/Greco-Roman
world at that time? Why consider one gospel superior to the
another and not simply expressions of retrospective theological
repartee of the Platonic kind expressed in a literary manner as
in Greek tragedy?
The Gospel of Judas was clearly a
polemical, philosophical text but, probably, so too were most of
these others. Why not consider all of them a kind of quasi-Neoplatonic,
Mystery Religion-oriented literature that was still developing
in the Second Century and beyond, as the Gospel of Judas clearly
A sort of hushed silence fell on the
three hundred or so persons present in the audience, because there
was a lot of interest in this Gospel at that time, as I continued:
"Why think any of them historical or
even representative of anything that really happened in
Palestine in the First Century?
Why not consider all
Greco-Hellenistic romantic fiction or novelizing with an
ax-to-grind, incorporating the Pax Romana of the earlier Great
Roman Emperor Augustus, as other literature from this period had
and, of course, the anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish legal
attachments which were the outcome of the suppression of the
Jewish War from 66-73 CE?"
"The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans
were masters of such man/god fiction and the creation of such
characters as Osiris, Dionysus, Asclepius, Hercules, Orpheus,
and the like as the works of Hesiod, Euripides, Virgil, Ovid,
Petronius, Seneca, Apuleius, et. al. demonstrate. Why not
consider all of this literature simply part of this man-God/
personification literature, in this instance incorporating the
new Jewish concept of "Salvation" - "Yeshu'a"?"
At this point Chair Williams finally cut
in, gave an answer on behalf of what he claimed to be (and I believe
him) "the whole panel" - that,
"Tradition affirmed they were."
This he seems to have considered
sufficient for me - one of the few non-Christians in the room who
might have enough knowledge to say something meaningful or precise
enough to matter.
But the reason I write about these things now is that Jews, in
particular, must not just leave them to well-meaning Christians to
sort out. In view of the suffering of the last century - in fact,
the last nineteen centuries - they too should take an interest in
and become knowledgeable about these issues.
Especially now, in view of the
informational turn-around and retreat in the New Yorker, a magazine
traditionally aimed at people of sophistication and urbane
intellectuality; it is all the more relevant to raise the issue of
this "Judas" and not allow it to go by the boards again and, now
that we have more tools, incumbent upon one to do so.
Regardless of predictable outcries from "the left" or "the right" or
the impact on anyone's "Faith" - as if this could matter in the face
of all the unfortunate and cruel effects that have come from taking
the picture of the "Judas" in Scripture seriously as "history" -
especially in the post-Holocaust Era, one must go beyond the
inanities and superficialities to the core issue raised by the
Gospel and not allow it to be just blandly dismissed - that is, all
are works of literature.
None are really historical works in the
true sense of the word, which the appearance of Gospels such as this
and an earlier one, the Gospel of Thomas, drive home with a
Having grasped this, one must move beyond all this artfulness ("the
poetry" as it were) and confront the issue of whether there ever was
a "Judas Iscariot" per se (to say nothing of all the insidious
materials circulating under his name), except in the imagination of
these Gospel artificers.
Nor is this to say anything about the
historicity of "Jesus" himself (another difficult question, though
the "Judas" puzzle likely points the way towards a solution to this
one as well) or another, largely literary or fictional character,
very much - in view of women's issues - in vogue these days, "Jesus"'s
alleged consort and the supposed mother of his only child, "Mary
Magdalene," in whom Ms. Acocella along with Mss. Pagels and King
above are very much interested.
But while this latter kind of storytelling did little
specifically-identifiable harm, except to confuse literature with
history or call into question one's truth sense; the case of "Judas
Iscariot" is quite another thing both in kind and effect. It has had
a more horrific and, in fact, totally unjustifiable historical
effect and, even if it happened the way the Gospels and the Book of
Acts describe it, which is doubtful, effects of this kind were and
are wholly unjustified and reprehensible.
In fact, there are only a few references to "Judas Iscariot" in
orthodox Scripture - all of which probably tendentious. In John
12:5, he is made to complain about Mary's "anointing Jesus' feet
with precious spikenard ointment" (another of these ubiquitous "Mary"s
in the Gospels - this time "Mary the sister of Lazarus" and not
"Mary Magdalene" or "Mary the mother of Jesus" or even "Mary the
mother of James and John" or "of John Mark") in terms of why was not
this "sold for 300 dinars and given to the poor" - a variation on
the "30 pieces of silver" he supposedly took for "betraying" Jesus
later in Matthew 27:3-7, and which Ms. Acocella makes so much of.
For their part, Matthew and Mark have the other "Disciples" or
"some" do the "complaining," not specifically "Judas Iscariot" (the
episode is ignored in Luke in favor of other mythologizations - see
my New Testament Code); but I say "made" because this is certainly
not an historical episode, but rather one which one would encounter
in the annals of Greek tragedy with various "gods" demanding the
obeisance due them.
Moreover, anyone remotely familiar with the vocabulary of this field
would immediately recognize the allusion to "the Poor" as but a
thinly-veiled attack on "the Ebionites" - that group of the
followers of "Jesus" or his brother "James," according to Eusebius
in the Fourth Century, who were probably the aboriginal "Christians"
in Palestine who did not follow the doctrine of "the Supernatural
Christ," considering "Jesus" as simply a "man"/"a prophet,"
engendered by natural generation and exceeding other men in the
practice of righteousness only.
In fact, Luke's version of Judas Iscariot's death in Acts 1:16-19,
as noted, and Matthew's version do not agree at all - a normal state
of affairs where Gospel reportage is concerned. In Matthew, Judas
goes out and "hangs himself" (thus) after throwing the "30 pieces of
silver" - "the price of blood" as Matthew terms it - into the Temple
(whatever this means - more imaginatively, Ms. Acocella has him
"throwing the coins on the floor" before the "haughty" priests!)
This is supposed to fulfill a passage
from "the Prophet Jeremiah" but, in fact, the passage being quoted
is a broadly-doctored version of "the Prophet Zechariah" (11:12-13)
which does not really have the connotation Matthew is trying to give
To continue - in Acts, Judas "falls headlong" into "a Field of
Blood" ("Akeldama"), reason unexplained. This is the description
used in an "Ebionite" document called the Pseudoclementine
Recognitions to picture the "headlong fall" James takes down the
Temple steps when the "enemy" Paul physically attacks him leaving
him for dead; and, as also noted, "he burst open and his bowels
gushed out" (thus).
Most conflate these two accounts but, as
just suggested, they are really only a parody of the death of James
as reported in early Church literature (so is the stoning of Stephen
in Acts) and the other three Gospels do not mention how "Judas" died
The point, however, is that the entire character of "Judas Iscariot"
is generated out of whole cloth and it is meant to be. Moreover, it
is done in a totally malevolent way.
This, the Gospel of Judas was obviously
trying to ameliorate; but now, if we are to take the words of Prof.
DeConick in the New York Times' "Gospel Truth" column seriously, and
Ms. Acocolla in the New Yorker, about "not fixing history but fixing
ourselves" - after the first blush of excitement over its discovery,
the scholarly pendulum has swung back the other way and we are, once
again, in the business of "demonizing" Judas, not "heroicizing" him.
Moreover, according to both, we should
in effect downgrade the Gospel and consider the "orthodox" Gospels,
in some manner, superior to it and more historical.
The creators of this character and the traditions related to him
knew what it was they were seeking to do and in this they have
succeeded in a manner far beyond anything they might have imagined
and that would have astonished even their hate-besotted brains.
Contrary to what Ms. Acocella imagines,
Judas Iscariot was meant to be both hateful and hated - a diabolical
character despised by all mankind and a byword for treachery
("Betrayal" according to the New Yorker) and the opposite of the
all-perfection of the perfect Gnosticizing Mystery conceptuality
embodied in the person of the "Salvation" figure "Jesus" ("Yeshu'a,"
of course, meaning "Salvation").
But in creating this character, the authors of these traditions and
these Gospels (often, it is difficult to decide which came first,
"the Gospels" themselves or the traditions either inspired by or
giving inspiration to them) had a dual purpose in mind and, in this,
their creation has done its job admirably well.
His very name "Judas" in that time and
place (forget the fact that it is a byword for "Jew" even to this
day) was meant both to parody and heap abuse on two favorite
characters of the Jews of the age:
"Judas Maccabee," the hero of
"Hanukkah" festivities even today, and "Judas the Galilean," the
founder (described by the First Century Jewish historian and
turncoat, Josephus - someone who really was a "Traitor") of what
one might call either "the Zealot" or "the Galilean Movement"
even "the Sicarii."
Moreover, the name "Jew" in all
languages actually comes from this Biblical name "Judas" or "Judah"
("Yehudah"), a fact not missed by the people at that time and not
misunderstood even today.
So, therefore, the pejorative on "Judas"
and the symbolic value of all that it signified in the First
Century, not only as a by-word for "treachery," but a slur on the
whole Jewish people, was not missed either by those who created this
particular 'blood libel' or by all other future peoples even down to
the present - and how very successful over the last two thousand
But there is another dimension to this particular 'blood libel'
which has also not failed to leave its mark, historically speaking,
on the peoples of the world. This is "Judas"' cognomen "Iscariot."
No one has ever found the linguistic prototype or origin of this
curious denominative, but it is not unremarkable that in the Gospel
of John he is also called "Judas the son" or "brother of Simon
Iscariot" and, at one point, even "the Iscariot" (cf. John 6:71,
Of course, the closest cognate to any of these rephrasings is the
well-known term Josephus uses to designate (also pejoratively) the
extreme "Zealots" or Revolutionaries of the time, "the Sicarii" -
the 'iota' and the 'sigma' of the Greek having simply been reversed,
a common mistake in the transliteration of Semitic orthography into
unrelated languages like English and well-known in Arabic - the
'iota' likewise too generating out of the 'ios' of the singular in
There is no other tenable approximation
that this term could realistically allude to. Plus the attachment to
it of the definite article "the," whether mistakenly or by design,
just strengthens that conclusion.
Furthermore, Judas' association in these episodes with the concept
both of "the poor" as well as that of a suicide of some kind in
Matthew - suicide being one of the tenets of the group Josephus
identifies as carrying out just such a mass procedure at the climax
of the famous last stand on Masada - to say nothing of the echo of
the cognomen of the founder of this party, the equally famous "Judas
the Galilean" (also a "Judas the Zealot" as "Judas Maccabee"
certainly would have been), just strengthens this conclusion.
Equally germane is the fact that another "Apostle" of "Jesus" is
supposed to have been called - at least according to Luke's Apostle
lists - "Simon Zelotes"/"Simon the Zealot" which, of course, also
translates out in the jargon of the Gospel of John as "Simon
Iscariot" or "Simon the Iscariot." Moreover, he was more than likely
a 'brother' of the curious Disciple in the same lists called "Judas
of James," that is, "Judas the brother of James" (the way the
designation is alluded to in the New Testament Letter of
In a variant manuscript of an early
Syriac document known as The Apostolic Constitutions, this
individual is also designated "Judas the Zealot" - thereby
completing the circle of all these inter-related terminologies which
seem to have been coursing through so many of the early documents in
Of course, all these matters are as difficult for the non-specialist
as they have been for the specialist, but once they are weighed
together, there is hardly any escaping the fact that "Judas Iscariot
"/"the Iscariot"/"the brother" or "son of Simon the Iscariot" in the
Gospels and the Book of Acts is a pejorative for many of these other
characters, meant to defame and polemically demonize a number of
individuals seen as opposing not only the Imperium Romanum but also
the new 'Pauline' or more Greco-Roman esotericizing and pacifist
doctrine of the "Supernatural Christ."
The presentation of this "Judas,"
polemicizing as it was, was probably never meant to take on the
historical and theological dimensions it has, traveling through the
last two thousand years and leading up to the present, but with a
stubborn toughness it has endured.
Nevertheless, its success as a demonizing pejorative has been
monumental, a whole people having suffered the consequences of, not
only of seeing its own beloved heroes turned into demoniacs, but of
being hunted down mercilessly - to some extent the frightening
result of its efficacy. If anything were a proof of the aphorism
"Poetry is truer than history" with which we started, then this is.
It is worth repeating that I believe its original artificers would
have been astonished by its incredible success.
Even beyond this, not only is there no historical substance to the
presentation or its after-effects, but if "Jesus" were alive today -
whoever he was, human or supernatural, historical or literary, real
or unreal - he would be shocked at such vindictiveness and
diabolically-inspired hatred and he, perhaps more even than all
others, would have expected his partisans to divest themselves of
this historical shibboleth, particularly in view of the harm it has
done over the millennia, especially to his own people.
This is what the initial appearance of the Gospel of Judas gave
promise of achieving, but now the rehabilitation of the character
known to the world as "Judas" - so greatly in order in the light of
the incredible atrocities committed over the last century, some as a
consequence of this particular libel - seems to be reversing itself,
particularly among theologically-minded persons, as scholars like DeConick and journalists like
Acocella rethink and represent these
things; and the process engendered by this historical polemic and
its reversal now seems to be ending, the downplaying of its
historicity relative to alleged "orthodox Gospels" and the "demonization"
of Judas (deserved or undeserved) being evidence of this.
It is yet
another deleterious case of literature, cartoon, or lampoon being
taken as history.
Still, it is time people really started to come to terms with the
almost completely literary and ahistorical character of a large
number of figures of the kind of this "Judas" in whatever the
"Gospel" and in whatever manner he is portrayed - positively or
negatively - and, in the process, admit the historical malevolence
of the original caricature and move forward onto the higher plain of
the amelioration of rehabilitation.
This is what Christians of good will
have always said they were interested in doing and this is what Jews
must learn to do for themselves, if they are ever to escape from its
pernicious effects and the re-emergence of the traditional picture.
No one else is going to do it for them and ignorance is no excuse.
They must first of all stop repeating the platitudes that these
things reflect historical truth. One allows this to continue at
one's own peril and this the Gospel of Judas illumines with a
vengeance, which is why the rush to reinterpret and discredit it. It
is ignorance that allows this and Jews must be the first to take off
the blinders regarding this particular embodiment of it.
As the coming of yet another High Holy
Day atonement period approaches, no healthier, happier, or higher
hope could be wished for or expressed.