But thanks to National Geographic, here comes Judas’s Gospel, which seems to do to Judas what Hugh Hefner did to the porn industry—make the whole thing soft enough for the masses.
The first thing that hit my head on hearing about the Gospel of Judas was Martin Scorsese.
You see, Scorsese—Martin to his friends and probably Il Capo Di Tutti Capi to some influential Italians who must love him—made the film version of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel, The Last Temptation in 1988. The film pissed off Pope John Paul II so much that the Pope went to Martin Scorsese's home, spat in the director's face, and muttered the famous line: "You know what, Martin, I kinda liked Taxi Driver. But this... But this... This is just full of shit."
Okay, I’m just kidding about that one. What really happened was that after the release of the highly controversial film, Cardinals Fang, Ximinez, and Biggles, and a dozen of those other guys who had happily burned folks like Giordano Bruno and Joan of Arc dragged Scorsese to Rome, gagged his tongue, stripped him naked, and burned him at the stake, with Scorsese reported to have screamed: “Robert de Niro will avenge me! He’ll kick your pampered Catholic arses…till you beg for your MOTHERS!”
All right, I’ll be serious now.
In both the 1955 novel and in the film, Judas is not really “bad;” in fact, he’s not only rational, revolutionary, and sensitive, but he’s also smart and principled—he’s a better specimen of humanity than the rest of the disciples who are nothing but a bunch of superstitious yes men.
Judas questions everything, and he has a firm belief in the ability of Jesus to emancipate the Jews that he acts as Jesus’ bodyguard and is usually the first to present logical strategies. Judas is convinced that Jesus’ future is in politics—that ultimately, Jesus will free all Jews from the Romans. But Jesus realizes later that his purpose on Earth is to be the “lamb of God,” which means sacrificing himself on the cross.
In one of the most unforgettable scenes in Scorsese’s film, Jesus urges Judas to betray him to accomplish the “divine mission,” but Judas gets annoyed with the “change of plan.”
“Die?” Judas asks. “You mean, you’re not the Messiah?”
Jesus says, “I am.”
“That can’t be. If you’re the Messiah, why do you have to die?”
“Listen,” Jesus says, “At first, I didn’t understand myself…”
“No, you listen,” Judas cuts him. “Every day, you have a different plan. First it's love, then the ax, and now you have to die. What good could that do?”
“God only talks to me a little at a time and tells me as much as I need to know,” Jesus says.
“We need you alive!”
“Now I finally understand!” Jesus says. “All my life—all my life, I've been followed by voices, by footsteps, by shadows. And do you know what that shadow is? The cross. I have to die on the cross, and I have to die willingly. We have to go back to the temple.”
“And after you die on the cross, what happens then?” Judas asks.
“I come back to judge the living and the dead.”
I have loved that film for years; it cemented my admiration for Scorsese and made me discover Kazantzakis and his works. As noted by critic David Ehrenstein, the film presents “divinity not as a given, but rather as a process Christ explores through his humanity.”
And personally, maybe it meant more to me because when Jesus blames himself that Mary Magdalene has become a prostitute when he could have married her, his sadness, his confusion is so excruciating that the physical pain later on the cross seems like a joke—it showed me how this is a Jesus I can feel, I can believe, I can sympathize with—and this is me speaking as an atheist.
And now, this Gospel, which somehow has the same role for Judas as conceived by Kazantzakis—or is it the other way around? I’m not really sure if Kazantzakis ever had any idea about the Gospel of Judas and its general drift. By many accounts, Kazantzakis was a spiritually restless thinker; he didn’t take comfort in the canned answers of his religion. He explored with his fiction. He hit on things. And he probably read about St. Irenaeus and got the idea.
But the point is, the Gospel of Judas somehow reaffirms what some of us have suspected: that the whole thing about the betrayal as told in the official canon of the four Gospels somehow lacked what Wendy Wasserstein would call “the third punch.” Yes, that kind of betrayal is believable; human history is full of that shit, from Julius Caesar’s “Et tu, Brute?” to Evander Holyfield’s “Fuck, Mike, did you just bite off my ear? I thought we were…friends?” But somehow, it has always felt lacking of something.
Let’s pretend I believe in the Passion; let’s pretend I’m buying it at all. Now, in my book, there’s something so unexciting about how the end came for somebody like Jesus; the whole thing has always felt like a soap opera, where the villains and the heroes are as clearly cut as cardboards. If you’d ask me, and if I may tell you frankly, there are no “human beings” in the four Gospels; what we find and what we read are caricatures, stick figures, bleeding puppets. But now, with the Gospel of Judas, or with stories like that of Kazantzakis, we’re offered an alternative, “more believable” story that even nonbelievers like me are seduced to like it.
I wonder how it’s going to go down the road. How the entire orthodox world would nibble on this thing. Anyhow, if Kazantzakis were here today, he’d probably write a sequel to The Last Temptation. He might give it the title, Judas and the She-Goats. Or Judas: The Disciple Who Shagged Me.
But I don’t know; that’s just a wild guess.
For similar posts, see Random Acts of Strangeness.