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Posted April 19, 2006

John Allen Reporting from Rome on

The Gospel of Judas and Benedict on Scripture

Our gratitude to The National Catholic Reporter for making this possible!



Hearing about rival gospels such as "The Gospel of Judas," the average person may think, 'My Gosh, the Bible had it wrong.'

That's simply not true. That's the short answer. Other Gnostic gospels haven't really changed our view of things, and one more isn't going to do that either. This is literature that came from a particular sect, a particular group, which followed this Gnostic philosophy.

One of the things that's important to see, I think, is that we're in the second century. This is really a very short time after the death and resurrection of Jesus. In this period of the early church, Christian theology as we know it today was in its infancy. We shouldn't have the idea that already in the second century we had something developed like the Catechism of the Catholic church. That's the result of 2,000 years of theological reflection. If we try to put ourselves back into the mentality of the second century, the early believers didn't really know yet what to believe, what context to put their belief in, and I think there were a lot of attempts to express the faith and to find a philosophy that fit in with the resurrection faith. Some of these attempts bore fruit and became part of mainstream Christian theology, and some were dead ends. This is one that was a dead end.

The proof of that is that you have Irenaeus writing around the year 180, and already then he is condemning this very approach to Christian theology. If it was condemned and seen as deviant already in the second century, I don't think it's something that is going to come back and be seen as relevant today.

The church's traditional teaching that Judas' betrayal was a sinful act is not going to be challenged by this discovery?

I don't think so.

One interesting question, though, is whether Judas had full knowledge of what he was doing when he betrayed Jesus. From what we can gather from the gospel accounts, he had full knowledge that he was betraying Jesus. But did he have full knowledge that he was betraying the Son of God?

That's more difficult to say. Whether he saw Jesus basically as a political leader, a subversive leader who was going to lead the Jewish people against the Roman yoke, and then realized that wasn't Jesus' intention, is hard to say. We don't really know what he thought about things.

But we do know he betrayed somebody for money, so that at least on the basis of the canonical gospels, it's hard to make him a hero.

That's right, yes, indeed.

Let me ask you briefly about Benedict XVI. Have you been struck by how rich his homilies and other texts have been so far in Scriptural imagery?

I have, very much so. I hope that his constant use of Scripture will help stimulate a renewed interest. In a meeting with young people last week, a young man asked him how to read the Bible, and Benedict encouraged him to pray while he reads the Bible, and also to make use of recent books written along these lines. He referred specifically to the many books by Cardinal [Carlo Maria] Martini.

Do you anticipate any particular impulse from Benedict in scripture studies?

It could well be the whole question of the proper use of the historical-critical method in Biblical studies. When you read the Biblical texts in terms of looking for historical and philological accuracy, some people say this is the wrong approach, because you're not reading the Bible as a book of faith but simply as a book containing historical accounts. My view is that nothing that can help us understand the Biblical text should be excluded, just as long as we keep clear what the purpose of the different approaches are, and what their limits are as well.