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Posted March 28, 2007

Book: Judas and the Gospel of Jesus: Have we missed the truth about Christianity?
Author: N. T. Wright
Baker Books. Grand Rapids, Michigan. 2007. Pp. 155

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

I am writing this little book to make three points. First, this new Gospel of Judas, while a spectacularly interesting archaeological find, tells us nothing about the real Jesus, or for that matter the real Judas. In particular, it doesn’t (as some have claimed) “rehabilitate” Judas over against either the charges laid against him in the New Testament or the anti-Jewish use that was made of the Judas tradition in the Middle Ages.

Second, the enthusiasm for this new “gospel” lays bare the real agenda which has been driving both what we might call the scholarly “Quest for an Alternative Jesus” and also the popular eagerness for such sensational material that we find in books like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

Third, the specific teaching of the Gospel of Judas only serves to highlight certain features about first-century Christianity that need to be drawn out more fully than is sometimes done.

An Excerpt from the Book:

The Judas of Faith and the Iscariot of History

The “Gospel of Judas” purports to be all about one disciple of Jesus in particular: Judas Iscariot. And the main thing that everyone knows about Judas Iscariot is that he betrayed Jesus. But did he? And, if so, why?

We need to take a long step back, right back toward the reasonably solid history of the early first century. The four canonical gospels agree that Jesus of Nazareth chose twelve special followers, presumably intending thereby to signal his reconstituting of the ancient people of God, the family of Israel, the twelve tribes based (at least notionally) on the twelve sons of Jacob.

Among these special floowers, the canonical gospels tell us, were two who bore on of the most famous, the most glorious names in Jewish history: Judah, the name of Jacob’s fourth son. The form “Judas” is simply the Greek version of the same name. The name “Judah” actually means “praise”; Judah’s mother, Jacob’s wife Leah, declared when she bore him that now she would “praise” YHWH, Israel’s God. What’s more, the tribe of Judah came to be seen as the royal family. King David came from Judah. According to ancient prophecy, that was the family from which the true kings of Israel would emerge. One of the most famous Jewish leaders in the centuries before Jesus was Judas Maccabaeus; though he wasn’t actually from the tribe of Judah, he had led an astonishingly successful revolt against the pagan Syrians and cleansed the Temple. That was enough to enable him to establish a dynasty that lasted a hundred years. The name probably helped as well.

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that many families named a son “Judah.” First-century Palestinian Jews, in any case, seem to have had rather a shortage of boy’s names, certainly by modern English or American standards. We know quite a lot about this through the massive researches of the Israeli scholar Tal Ilan, who has trawled through the mountains of evidence from ancient Jewish inscriptions, not least on tombstones and bone-boxes. These researches have been drawn on in turn by Richard Bauckham and others, who have elucidated their significnace within early Christianity. Interestingly, Jewish families tended not to use the names of the twelve original patriarchs, so much as those of the Maccabees (Mattathias, John, Simon, Judas, Eleazar and Jonathan). In the index to the works of the Jewish historian Josephus, there are no fewer than 21 people called “Jesus.” 29 called “Simon” and 15 called “Judas,” with a further 4 called “Judes,” another variation. One of Jesus’ own brothers had the same name; some think he was the author of the “letter of Jude” in the New Testament itself (“Jude” being of course an Anglicized version of the same name, perhaps adopted to avoid saying “the letter of Judas”).

This explains why the particular “Judas” who betrayed Jesus was regularly marked out with a further name, “Iscariot,” though there is no agreement as to what that word means (a member of the “Sicarii,” the “dagger man,” urban terrorists? A man from Keriot? Perhaps even a retrospective word meaning “the betrayer”?). Most people in Palestine wold know several people called “Judas,: and, though the parents who chose the name might have been aware of its historic and patriotic overtones, in everyday life people would be as unlikely to think instantly of Judas Maccabaeus as people today, hearing of a person called “George,” would be to think at once either of the English kings of that same name of George Washington.

Table of Contents:

1. Not another new Gospel?

2. Second-century Gnosticism

3. The Judas of faith and the Iscariot of history

4. When is a Gospel not a Gospel?

5. Lord of the world or escaper from the world?

6. Spinning Judas: the new myth of Christian origins

7. The challenge of “Judas”for today