Two leading, best-selling experts on the Gnostic gospels weigh in on the meaning of the controversial, newly discovered Gospel of Judas. When the Gospel of Judas was published by the National Geographic Society in April 2006, it received extraordinary media attention and was immediately heralded as a major biblical discovery that rocked the world of scholars and laypeople alike. Elaine Pagels and Karen King are the first to reflect on this newfound text and its ramifications for the story of early Christianity. In Reading Judas, the two celebrated scholars illustrate how the newly discovered text provides a window into understanding how Jesus' followers understood his death, why Judas betrayed Jesus, and why God allowed it. Most contemporary readers will find passages in the ancient Gospel of Judas difficult to comprehend outside of its context in the ancient world. Reading Judas illuminates the intellectual assumptions behind Jesus' teaching to Judas and shows how conflict among the disciples was a tool frequently used by early Christian authors to explore matters of doubt and disagreement. Presented with the elegance, insight, and accessibility that has made Pagels and King the leading voices in this field, this is a book for academics and popular audiences alike.
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Upon listening to this audiobook, I was impressed by the care and sensitivity of the authors in both their scholarship and respect for current Christian faith. They point out that the value of documents like Gospel of Judas is that they shed light into how Christianity was practiced in the early centuries of the faith. The knowledge of these diverse views can help modern Christians appreciate depth in history and understand different ways of thinking.
Elaine Pagels, a chaired Professor of Religion at Princeton, joined by Karen King, a chaired Professor at the the Harvard Divinity School, share their insights on "The Gospel of Judas," a 2nd century Christian document, part of the Tchacos Codex discovered in middle Egypt in the 1970s, and subsequently irresponsibly stored for several decades, rediscovered in 2001, and finally made available for general study in 2006.
I will not repeat my general comments on Elaine Pagels' work which can be found in my review of her book on Revelations. Suffice it to say that, once again, Pagels, this time with King, helps the modern reader gain some insight into a puzzling, even alienating, early Christian text and the context in which it was written.
The authors make clear that the text was NOT authored by Judas Iscariot, but rather was written around 150 BCE following a tradition in which it was common practice to write under the name of a prophet, disciple or other notable figure as an indication of a school of thought. The document was not intended, nor was it understood, to reflect a literal description of historical events in the life of Jesus.
So what is the value of such of a document to a modern Christian or student of religion? And why, of all people, would the author of the document have chosen Judas Iscariot as the masthead for the writing? In the best tradition of historical analysis, Pagels/King show us how the Gospel, and other concurrent Christian texts, such as the the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Truth, Treatise on the Resurrection and the Apocalypse of Peter, can reveal much about the social and theological crises confronted by 2nd century Christianity which, at that time, was far from a unified body of belief.
Thus, among the questions raised by the author of the Gospel of Judas are: 1) Why does a loving God allow suffering? 2) What was the meaning of Jesus' death? Was it really a sacrificial offering to appease a vengeful God for the sins of the people, or was it something else altogether? 3) Is it really God's will that believers suffer and die as martyrs to bring glory to His name? 4) Is the bodily resurrection of Christ a crucial component of Christian faith or does belief in the resurrection have quite a different meaning?
These questions might seem startlingly modern and it may come as a bit of surprise to learn that followers of Jesus have been struggling with them from the start. Asking such questions does not suggest that those believers were rejecting their faith but rather evidences their commitment to searching for its true meaning. It may be that many modern Christians will choose to follow the lead of the 2nd century church father, Irenaeus, in condemning writings such as The Gospel of Judas as blasphemous heresy. However, for those who have difficulty in a blanket acceptance of modern Church doctrine but are still drawn to the Christian faith, it may be an inspiration to know that the tradition of questioning and seeking has been a vital part of Christianity from its inception.
Note: The text of the Gospel of Judas is included in the last chapter of the audiobook for those who might wish to listen to it before the rest of the book.