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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Judas [a compilation] by Marvin Meyer

Judas: The Definitive Collection of Gospels and Legends about the Infamous Apostle of Jesus by Marvin Meyer. New York: HarperOne, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-06-134830-3

This is yet another attempt to assist in the rehabilitation of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who famously betrayed Jesus to the authorities. Meyer brings together in one volume all the relevant ancient texts about Judas, allowing the reader to more or less draw his or her own conclusions about the evidence, such as it is. Although not without his (Meyer's) own commentary and views on the various texts.

The book is primarily occasioned by the relatively recent release of the gnostic Gospel of Judas, which turns the traditional story upside down, maintaining that Judas was the disciple closest to Jesus, the only one who truly understood him, and that the betrayal was actually part of Jesus' secret plan, and that Judas was merely following orders.

The bulk of the evidence is against this idea, however attractive it may appear. Still, Meyer points out that the earliest Christian writings, those of Paul, never mention Judas in connection with the death or betrayal of Jesus. Paul merely says of those events that Jesus was "handed over” without naming who was responsible.

See 1 Corinthians 11:23-24, for instance, which Meyer translates as follows: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed over to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night when he was handed over, took bread, and after giving thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in my memory” [emphasis added].

It is worth noting that the two Greek words used in this passage are both derivations of the Greek verb, paradidonai, which although usually translated as “betray” when referring to the act of Judas in the gospels, actually has a broader, more neutral, even positive meaning when used in other contexts.

In other passages, according to Meyer, Paul indicates that it was either Jesus who handed himself over (Galations 2:19-20) or God who handed Jesus over (Romans 8:31-32). Since the four gospels were written some years later than Paul's epistles, Meyer suggests the possibility that they represent a later tradition or addition to the story, as the early Christians attempted to distance themselves from the Jewish faith, and from the Jews.

Judas--the very name is equivalent in sound and meaning to “Jew.” In this theory, the demonization of Judas became part of the anti-Semitic tradition that arose out of later Christianity. This trend is clearly delineated in the later apocryphal writings collected by Meyer. The further away from the actual events you go, the more diabolical and twisted the portrayal of Judas becomes.

The actual Gospel of Judas itself makes for somewhat difficult reading. Much of its gnostic philosophy seems quite alien to the traditional gospels and their message. And even more so are some of the other gnostic writings that are presented here, such as the Dialogue of the Savior, or The Concept of Our Great Power.

More interesting to me, albeit less believable, as Meyer points out, are the versions of the Judas story presented in other, later, apocryphal writings, such as The Arabic Infancy Gospel, the Narrative of Joseph of Arimathea, the gospels of Bartholemew, Nicodemus, and other similar texts. More interesting, because I'd not read most of them, and it is a valuable exercise to read them all in one collection together, pretty much everything written about Judas in these early Christian writings.

In the end, the evidence is fairly inconclusive. Those who believe in some version of Biblical inerrancy will discount any versions of the story not in accordance with the gospels, while those of a more open mind will be intrigued by the new interpretations of the Judas story made at least possible if not entirely plausible by the ideas presented here. In the end, there is no way to know the definitive truth of what happened, but Marvin Meyer presents a useful compendium of texts, along with intriguing commentary on them.

My only real complaint about the book is that the notes, presented at the end of the volume, should, in my view, have been presented as footnotes throughout the text, instead. The notes are often indispensable reading, and having them right on the pages to which they corresponded would have been much more convenient than constantly having to flip between the page one is reading, and the end notes.

The books is definitely recommended for anyone with an interest in the topic. Others might find it slow going.


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