As I mentioned previously, I was actually intrigued and enthusiastic at the idea of a prominent biblical scholar collaborating with a well-known novelist in the writing of the Gospel according to Judas. One must admit, Judas Iscariot is a fascinating figure, one whose evil behaviour led to the greatest crime ever committed and whose influence on human history is hard to underestimate. How did he see Jesus? What would his account of the Gospel-story be like? What new perspective would his words add to our understanding of the Story of Salvation?
As I pondered these questions, and wondered what a fictional re-creation of Judas's memoirs would be like, it occurred to me that I would probably learn very little about Jesus from such an account. Certainly, I would learn what Christ looked like to one who was willing to sell Him for 30 pieces of silver. I would learn what Christ looked like to one who did not know Christ at all. I would learn what Christ looked like to one who did not properly hear the message of God's fatherly forgiveness and did not realise that even the greatest of all sins could have been forgiven.
A Quest for the Historical Jesus
I suspect that much of the enthusiasm for The Gospel According to Judas by Benjamin Iscariot is the idea that such a work could provide an unbiased account of the life of Jesus. The desire for such an account is nothing new. For the past couple of centuries there have been attempts to see past the pious accretions of the faith (and those of the writers of the canonical gospels!) in order to see the so-called ‘real Jesus’. To be honest, it would be fascinating to have a journalistic account of the day-by-day activities of Jesus of Nazareth as written by a first century reporter from the Nazareth Daily Telegraph. However, no such document exists and the history of research into the 'Historical Jesus' shows that there are certain inescapable limits to any attempt to reconstruct such an account. Now, in saying this, I do not in the least wish to denigrate the work of scholars in their research into the life of Jesus. Their research and their insights have supplemented our knowledge of Christ and His actions. However, despite the work of good and faithful scholars, there have been too many attempts to replace the canonical Gospels with an alternative, and supposedly more accurate, picture of Jesus. The writers of these biographies are generally taking the canonical Gospels and making judgements about what is plausible and implausible in their contents. Such determinations are extremely risky judgements and are invariably coloured by the prejudices and outlooks of those who are doing the writing. Thus, as has been frequently noted, the picture of the 'historical Jesus' which emerges there is a striking resemblance to the scholar who wrote the work. It has been said that these writers look into the well of history in an attempt to see Christ, and instead receive a faint reflection of themselves.
This does not mean that Christ is unknowable to us today. Nothing could be further from the truth, he is nearer to us and more accessible to us than any other figure in human history. Just as he made himself present 2,000 years ago in his physical body, he is accessible to those who believe in him by means of His ecclesial body (the Church) and His sacramental body (the Eucharist). Those of us who have faith realise that He reveals Himself and makes Himself present to those who approached him by means of his ‘three bodies.’ By this, I do not mean that historical attempts to learn about Jesus are totally useless, or that non-believing historians can know nothing about Him. What I do assert, however, is that anyone who is aware of the continued presence of Christ will know that there is something about Him that is wholly inaccessible outside of the experience of Ecclesial and Sacramental Communion with him. As Pope Benedict notes in the preface to his forthcoming book about the life of Christ, the historical picture of Jesus as presented by the Gospels, “is an historically sensible and convincing figure. His crucifixion and the impact that he had can only be explained if something extraordinary happened, if the figure and the words of Jesus radically exceeded the hopes and expectations of his time.” The incarnate Christ makes himself accessible to historians by entering into human history. However, he enters history in such a way as to become a huge question mark – posing a challenge to the disinterested observer about the possibility of making sense of Himself in a manner that goes beyond the purely historical.
It is in this context that we understand the Gospels. The Church has always understood them as historical, albeit freely admitting that they are not written from the supposedly unbiased prospective of our imaginary first century journalist. It is worthwhile looking at what the second Vatican Council teaches about the historical character of the Gospels and their composition:
Dei Verbum 19 Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven (see Acts 1:1). Indeed, after the Ascension of the Lord the Apostles handed on to their hearers what He had said and done. This they did with that clearer understanding which they enjoyed after they had been instructed by the glorious events of Christ's life and taught by the light of the Spirit of truth. The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explaining some things in view of the situation of their churches and preserving the form of proclamation but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus. For their intention in writing was that either from their own memory and recollections, or from the witness of those who "themselves from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word" we might know "the truth" concerning those matters about which we have been instructed (see Luke 1:2-4).
For the secular historian, the Gospel accounts have value in as much as the methods of historical science can assess when they were written, by whom they were written and the approach taken by the original authors to their subject. In general, judgements of this type about ancient documents can be pretty speculative. The Church receives them as historical documents, but not in any naive manner. She acknowledges frankly that they were written by men who worshipped Christ as the Son of God and who told their story in such a way as to give testimony to Christ. This they did whilst still telling the honest truth about Jesus. To sceptics this seems like a form of bias that hopelessly compromises the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts. However, let's think about this little. The fact that he was worshipped and proclaimed as the Son of God before the Gospels were written would suggest that there was something extraordinary about Christ that did not need embellishment in order to provoke faith amongst those who knew Him. The second thing to bear in mind is that unbiased accounts are not necessarily the best way to get to know a person. Certainly historical science would benefit from having a neutral observer’s description of what Christ did. The inescapable fact is that no such source exists, it is useless to bemoan the fact that it doesn't exist and it is impossible to try and recreate such an account. What we do have are the recollections of some of those who knew him, recollections which were valued by the communities who were most interested in keeping the memory of Jesus alive. These might not be the ideal sources for a historian, but they cannot be dismissed as useless either. For someone who wants to gain a knowledge of Jesus Christ which goes beyond the purely historical, for someone who wants to know the person of Jesus Christ, these Gospel accounts are precious. If we want to know who a person really is, especially a truly sympathetic person, we will ask their friends and those who love them best. Those who are intimate with another are able to convey the truth about their friend because, loving them they have achieved a form of knowledge that goes beyond the merely external and superficial. We think, for example, of the things that Archbishop Dziwisz and Pope Benedict have to say about Pope John Paul II. Their accounts are not unbiased, they are not cold chronicles of each and every significant event in the late pontiff's life, but they are valued by historian and ordinary person alike for the way in which they conveys something about the ‘who’ of Pope John Paul II, rather than a mere description of ‘what he did.’ Therefore, we can recognize the ‘bias’ of the Gospel writers as not being something negative. Again, if we are asked by someone to tell him about a friend who is dead or far away, how would we do it? Like the Gospel writers we will choose particular events and happenings about our friend that particularly characteristic. We will recount particular anecdotes and recall particular phrases that seem to bring out particularly clearly the personality of our friend. We will allow what we know of our friend today to influence we think was important about his past. We will recall details that seemed unimportant when they first happened if they shed light on our friend’s present. Such an account need be no less truthful than the report of a neutral observer and this form of storytelling about our friend will tell the listener much more about who our friend really is than a private investigator’s dossier or an investigative journalist’s account.
Therefore, a Christian will never value any account of Christ's life above the Four Gospels. Quite apart from the Church's insistence on the historical nature of the Gospels and the truthfulness of everything written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, a believer will realise that the Gospels are precious. They are recollections of the Lord written with love. They are written with the awareness that He is the Messiah and the Son of God. This love and this knowledge informed by faith is not inferior to the account of a disengaged observer, indeed it is much more valuable. The believer will also realise that knowledge of Christ is also inextricably linked to His Church and His sacraments. Knowing Christ demands of us the willingness to grow in the same love of Christ that seduced the sacred writers, and gave them their particular knowledge of Him.
This poses a problem for the unbeliever, and the Christian who would want to make the Person of Christ known to unbelievers. Despite our belief in the historicity of the Gospels, we must accept that to one without faith the truth of these ancient documents is legitimately open to question. Again, even if we did have iron-clad proof of the miracles, for example, it would not be enough to prove that Christ is the Son of God and our Saviour. The credibility of the Gospels and of Jesus Christ is tied up, not in the demonstrable reality of the Gospel accounts, but on the power of His message and His grace working on men's hearts.
The Unreliability of Judas’s Account
It should therefore become evident to us that Judas, despite His closeness to the events of the Gospel and the deeds of our Lord, would be singularly unable to tell us anything about Christ. Ultimately, he did not understand Christ and did not have that love in his heart that makes a true knowledge of Christ possible. In his betrayal of Christ he showed that He misunderstood Christ's mission. In his refusal to repent of this heinous deed he showed that he did not truly hear Christ’s message of God's forgiving paternal love.
Judas would certainly have been able to give us a chronology of Christ's earthly mission. Would he have denied the miracles? I suspect he would not. Indeed, I suspect he would be even more awed by the miracles than the writers of the canonical Gospels, and may even have wanted to exaggerate them. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell us about miracles and that really happened, but for the purpose, not only of showing us Christ's divine power, but of helping us to understand the nature of Christ's kingdom. Judas would not have been blind to the power evident in the miracles worked by Christ, but ultimately shows us that he never attained an understanding of the mystery these miracles were to have revealed. One of the more plausible explanations of Judas’s betrayal is that seeing Christ's supernatural power he betrayed Him in order to provoke Our Lord into an act of rebellion. If this were the case he would have understood the miracles as being acts of brute power, rather than manifestations of the loving kindness of God and the inauguration of a new kind of Kingdom. Thus, in order to justify his behaviour, he would seek to lessen his guilt by exaggerating the power of the one he sought to trick into leading an uprising.
Setting this speculation aside, we can say that by his ultimate act of despair, Judas shows his incapacity to teach us about the Son of God. An account of Christ's life written by this most wretched of apostles would end up telling us more about the power of doubt and hatred. The distorted image of Christ visible in such an account would testify rather to the darkest dimensions of our fallen human nature, would tell us about power of the devil to make men blind and the terrifying mystery of man's refusal of grace and his unwillingness to cooperate with God.
Judas’s account would not, as some seem to think, be the sort of neutral historical description which might supplement our understanding of the historical events which lead to salvation. The word Gospel means Good News. Any so called Gospel of Judas would be no such thing, what would be the darkest and most upsetting work of literature imaginable.