"We surely stand at the threshold of a great adventure of the human spirit — a new synthesis of knowledge, a potential integration of art and science, a deeper grasp of human psychology, a deepening of the symbolic representations of our existence and feelings as given in religion and culture, the formation of an international order based on cooperation and nonviolent competition. It seems not too much to hope for these things. The future, as always, belongs to the dreamers."
Heinz R. Pagels

The Gospel of Judas

By Elaine Pagels
Edge, May 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

The Gospel of Judas is a fascinating dialogue between Jesus and Judas about what happened when Judas handed Jesus over for arrest, and why he did it. This gospel presents Judas Iscariot as Jesus' favorite disciple.

Many people see the main message of Jesus as "Jesus died for your sins" — and see Jesus' death as a sacrifice God requires to forgive human sins. This gospel asks, What does that make of God?

The Gospel of Judas says that Jesus not only anticipated that he would die and went into it with his eyes open, so to speak, aware that this somehow had to happen because there was a deep mystery in it, asked Judas to perform this act as a friend, and that Judas was the only one who could and would do it, and the others completely misunderstood it and stoned him to death.

Anyone who joined this movement was aware that he or she could be killed for it. It was very dangerous to be a part of this movement. And one of the most troubling problems was, what do you do if you're arrested? There is a Jewish tradition about persecution and about martyrdom which sees dying for God, as they called it, as a way of witnessing God's power.

When Jesus' followers tried to make sense of how their messiah died, some suggested that Jesus died as a sacrifice. So the worship of Jesus' followers became a sacred meal in which people drank wine and ate bread, ceremonially reenacting the death of Jesus. But whoever wrote the Gospel of Judas has Jesus laughing at the disciples, to say, what you're doing is ludicrous. Turning the death of Jesus into something like an animal sacrifice. This author sees the idea of Jesus dying for our sins as a complete misunderstanding of the whole message of Jesus.

AR  I find myself immediately sympathetic to anything Elaine Pagels writes or says for the idiosyncratic reason that she was married to Heinz Pagels. Heinz was a brilliant physicist who wrote three wonderful books before dying young in a hiking accident in 1988. I loved the two of the books I read, The Cosmic Code (about quantum physics as the code of nature) and Perfect Symmetry (about big bang cosmology and the first moment), but moved to Germany before his third, The Dreams of Reason (about complexity theory), appeared, and spent so much time with other books on chaos and complexity theory that I was sated before discovering it.

Returning to the gospel of Judas, of course we should rethink the foundations of Christianity in the light of this and other recently discovered gospels. Many thinkers in recent years have come to regard the orthodox Christian doctrine of sin as a nasty distraction from anything that Jesus might plausibly have wished to promote.