Gospel Paints Judas in Not-So-New Light

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The Gospel of Judas made news last week by casting doubt on a judgment almost twenty centuries old. Commentator Peter Manseau remarks on the similarities between the recently released "Gospel of Judas" and the classic Broadway musical Jesus Christ Superstar. Manseau is the author of the memoir Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. Today is Palm Sunday. This year Christians begin Holy Week with a new perspective offered on the disciple whose betrayal led to the Passion of Christ. We were wondering whether clergy around the country would be speaking today about the Gospel of Judas revealed by scholars last week.

Many said they needed more time to study the document, which portrays Judas as agent of Christ more than his betrayer. But Pastor Jerry Johnston of the First Family Church in Overland Park, Kansas, did speak about it.

Reverend JERRY JOHNSTON (Founder and Senior Pastor, First Family Church): This one fraudulent gospel rejects everything the Gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John does, and so in this age of the Da Vinci Code, we now have just another installment of what early church fathers all patentedly rejected in A.D. 397, that apocryphal gospels have no creditability at all.

ELLIOTT: But commentator Peter Manseau sees the Judas text in a different light.

Mr. PETER MANSEAU (Commentator and Author, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun and Their Son): The Gospel of Judas made news by casting doubt on a judgment almost 20 centuries old. If the text is taken at its word, it would seem the man whose name is synonymous with betrayal has gotten a bad rap.

At one point in the 26-page codex, Jesus himself takes Judas aside and, referring to the other apostles, tells him, you will exceed all of them. None of the scholars involved in bringing the Gospel of Judas to light claim that it is any more reliable than the four accounts of Jesus' life included in the New Testament.

It's importance, they say, is that it suggests that at least a few early Christians believed Judas was not the villain Sunday school kids are taught to revile. Yet, though this recent discovery adds a new wrinkle to the Jesus story for some, to a generation raised on another noncanonical gospel, this is old news. That would be, of course, the gospel according to Jesus Christ Superstar.

I was born to a family of '60s era Catholic radicals, so it was inevitable that I would find my way to this most religious of rock operas. I can remember my older brother convincing our neighbors, who had a very early model videocassette recorder, to tape the movie version when it was broadcast on television one Easter.

A year later, when we finally had a VCR ourselves, we watched the opening scene again and again on the grainy tape. A pensive Judas, played by the fabulous Carl Anderson, stares out over an empty first-century landscape as a sublimely anachronistic electric guitar riffs across the desert.

Watching on our big wooden Zenith, we knew right away that this Judas was not a greedy sneak out to make a quick 30 pieces of silver. He was, actually, a man of reflection and principled action. As for his friend Jesus, Judas sang that he must strip away the myth from the man.

The lyrics remind me of what Jesus tells Judas he will do in the newly discovered gospel. Jesus calls on him to separate the soul of the messiah from the body which clothes it. There's not an exact parallel. In fact, the Judas of Superstar rejects Jesus' divinity, but still, the Judas created by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice for the stage almost 40 years ago has a lot in common with the disciple depicted in the Gospel of Judas.

In each account, there was a volatile relationship between two men that goes beyond the expected roles of evil traitor and innocent victim, and in each man there are hints of very human uncertainty. To kids raised in a faith we didn't always understand, this was compelling stuff, not least of all because it flew in the face of any sermon we'd ever heard.

The idea of a sympathetic Judas offered rebellion and internal torment as legitimate modes of religious expression. The notion that there were other ways to think about the stories of scripture than those which had been passed down to us suggested that the canon wasn't closed after all.

This seems to me to explain the curiosity many people feel whenever a so-called new gospel surfaces. Whether it is the gospel according to Judas, Thomas, Mary Magdalene, or even Andrew Lloyd Webber, each one reminds us, with the shock of an electric guitar in the desert, that both faith and history are more complicated than we imagine.

(Soundbite of music from Jesus Christ Superstar)

ELLIOTT: Commentator Peter Manseau is the author of the memoir Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son.

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