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Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Gospel According to Judas

When I was in Perth last week I was browsing the book section of a department store when I came across an interesting looking little book, entitled The Gospel According to Judas by Benjamin Iscariot. When I opened it I saw it was laid out a lot like a biblical text. It was broken into chapters and numbered verse and even had "red letter" sections.

My first thought was it must have been a publication of the Gnostic Gospel of Judas which created a bit of a stir in the media last year. I flicked to the back of the book, past the ribbon book mark - another "biblical" addition to the binding - and saw that it was actually a work of fiction by non-other than British lord and onetime jailbird, Jeffrey Archer.

Archer approaches the "gospel" as the work of Benjamin Iscariot, the fictitious son of Judas and heir to the true story of Jesus. The younger Iscariot recording the gospel during a visit to his father at Khirbet Qumran where the now elderly, Judas fled following Jesus death.

The story starts with Benjamin assuring his readers that Judas did not believe Jesus was the Messiah and that Judas himself was the victim of a smear campaign who did not take his own life or do many of the things claimed of him by the traditional gospel writers.

The blurb in the front cover says that Archer wanted to make the "gospel" as authentic as possible (which probably helps explain the leather-look cover, complete with ancient Christian symbolism and the scripture-like layout of the text, including biblical cross references) and so consulted Catholic scholar and major superior of the Salesians of Don Bosco, Prof. Francis J. Moloney. The end result, according the publisher is "... a project as bold as it is simple. Archer would write a story for twenty-first-century readers, while Moloney would ensure that the result would be credible to a first-century Christian or Jew".

The idea is certainly an interesting one which poses a number of questions. However, Archer doesn't appear to have approached the task in a terribly original way. The Gospel According to Judas is really just a retelling of the accounts of Jesus life recorded in the synoptic gospels. The main difference being Archer's/Iscariot's focus on the thesis that Judas was unfairly treated by later Christian authors, that he did not knowingly or willing betray Jesus but ended up becoming a scapegoat and that he did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah.

The "gospel" ends with Judas living among the Essenes in Khirbet Qumran and finally, at the age of 70, being crucified by the Romans, for which "... he gave thanks to YHWH when he learned that he would suffer the same fate as Jesus" (p. 90 or if you prefer Judas 25:59!).

In terms of practical uses for this book, I guess it could be used to stir up discussion on why we accept the Gospel authors accounts of Jesus life, on some of the so-called contradictions within the gospel accounts, and even as the basis of a comparative study of the quotes and parapharases of the synoptic authors used by Archer/Iscariot to support the claim that Jesus did not want people to view him as the Messiah.

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