This is Part 2 of comments on Bart Ehrman's new book, The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot (OUP, 2006). [See Part 1] It's worth reflecting on just why a book about a gnostic manuscript full of speculative musings about Judas and Jesus which almost certainly have no historical basis can be successfully marketed to a general audience. Answer: The Da Vinci Code ("DVC"). The wildly successful novel has created not just one but two new genres: the religious thriller genre and the non-canonical Christian writings genre. There were books in the second genre before DVC (such as Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels) but it has exploded since, with half of them being expressly designed as refutations of DVC itself. Just imagine what Dan Brown's next book will do for the Mormon Studies market!
Lest anyone get worried that this new Judas manuscript is going to upset the Christian applecart, have no fear. Gospel of Judas is just another gnostic gospel. The fascination of modern scholars with the newer gnostic documents often overshadows the fact that the best attested and most historically reliable texts that we have in the "gospel" genre are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which date to the latter third of the first century AD. The gnostic gospels date to, at the earliest, the second century and invariably play off the canonical gospels, claiming to give one or another version of secret teachings that Jesus supposedly delivered to this or that disciple when no one else was around. They tend to be long dialogue pieces rather than narrative treatments like the four canonical gospels.
In Chapter 7, "The Gospel of Judas and Early Christian Gnosticism," Ehrman uses the new Judas text to talk about Christian Gnosticism. There is much dispute about the general topic, but Ehrman endorses the view that Gnosticism springs from failed Jewish Apocalypticism (of which the Book of Daniel is the best example, with echoes in Matthew 24 and in the Book of Revelation):
Jewish apocalypticism itself came from failed prophecy. The prophets had said that suffering came as a punishment for sin; they urged the people of Israel to return to God's ways so that their suffering would end. But the suffering didn't end, even when the people of God repented. This led to a radical shift in thinking: maybe God wasn't really in control. ... In this view, God didn't cause suffering; the Devil and his forces did. But God would soon intervene, overthrow these forces of evil, and bring in a good Kingdom on earth (p. 119).
Then, in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem around 70 AD (and again around 135 AD), the apocalyptic paradigm itself became problematic, leading to "a radical rethinking of apocalytpic theology." In the resulting Gnostic formulation, God is even more removed from the world we live in. The world itself, the created material world we live in and suffer through, is seen as "a cosmic disaster," created by an errant demiurge rather than God Almighty. In this Gnostic cosmology, salvation is getting the divine, spiritual spark — the real you — out of this evil, material body and back to God's somewhat remote spiritual kingdom or fulness.
This is an interesting analysis of Gnosticism, although it doesn't account for non-Christian or Sethian Gnosticism very well.
What Judas Did
With that background, it is easy to see how a Gnostic might recast the story of Judas. He wasn't a betrayer, he instead helped Jesus (or the divine spirit within Jesus) escape his body by turning him over to the Jewish leaders and the Romans. That's essentially the theme of the Gospel of Judas, as summarized by Ehrman in Chapter 4. The other members of the Twelve never understood the real meaning of Jesus' teachings, only Judas did. When Judas demonstrates his superior understanding, Jesus singles Judas out for advanced instruction — private, of course. There are several visions recounted in the text, as well as a long Gnostic creation account. The narrative ends at the betrayal of Jesus: in the Gnostic view, the Crucifixion is a minor event and the Resurrection is simply wrongheaded.
In Chapter 10, Ehrman gets down to brass tacks: What exactly did Judas convey that betrayed Jesus? Relying here on the four canonical gospels and on the best scholarship we have, Ehrman lays out the scenario that Jesus taught his disciples privately, late in his ministry, that he was to be king in the future Kingdom of God to be ushered in by apocalyptic events (i.e., that he was the Messiah as understood by many Jews at the time). But as that was not taught publicly, Jewish leaders could not use that teaching as a basis for arresting him. Judas, by communicating to Jewish leaders the substance of that private teaching, gave them what they needed to arrest Jesus and, later, to accuse him before the Romans.
If it doesn't sound like Gospel of Judas is for you, there's always Ehrman's own Da Vinci rebuttal: Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know About Jesus, Mary Magdelene, and Constantine. Quite a title. I'll have to read the The Da Vinci Code first, I suppose. I know there's a copy floating around the house somewhere ...