Judas Just the Latest to Get Historical Makeover

Commentator S. Pearl Sharp anticipates that Judas Iscariot may become the latest figure from antiquity to undergo a "whitening" racial makeover.

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ED GORDON, host:

Textbooks and historical documents depict people from the ancient past. Are those images the way they really looked? If seeing is believing, commentator S. Pearl Sharp says our view may be colored by more than historical fact.

Ms. S. PEARL SHARP (Writer, Filmmaker): When I heard about the extraordinary find of the Gospel of Judas, a biblical document reported to be more than 1,700 years old, I was fascinated.

After painstakingly restoring and translating this Gospel, it has been revealed that, apparently Judas, history's most famous and used villain, was really a good guy.

Understandably, the battle camps for and against acceptance of the hidden Gospel have been forming since the delicate papyrus was discovered in 1970. The document has the potential to shakeup the Gospels and Gospel choirs for years. But when I heard biblical scholars describing how Judas was, in fact, now revealed to be Jesus' best friend, I panicked. Judas, you see, is black.

Okay, we understand that race was not a concept back then as we experience it today. The race construct based on skin color, birth, and other physical traits didn't come into play until hundreds of years after Judas existed. But still, the brother was black.

He is pictured as that in many art images created in the 15th and 16th centuries. When the popular musical Jesus Christ Superstar premiered on Broadway in 1971, Ben Vereen created the role of Judas Iscariot, and Carl Anderson dazzled us in the film version.

For centuries, Judas has been, shall we say, the black sheep among Jesus' homeboys. But now that he's a good guy, I think you're going to witness the visual death of another black man.

Or, in Hollywood terms, “Coming Soon, the Judas Extreme Makeover.” Yep. I'm certain Judas is about to become white. You may think this sounds harsh, but I do have a sensitivity about these things. I am, after all, the one who tried to give an NAACP Image Award to E.T. as the first black alien role model. I was voted down.

Am I playing the race card? I don't think so. Remember when Tiger Woods became the front-runner in golf? There was more dissecting of his racial genealogy than his game. Across the ocean, several respected African professors and Egyptologists have been urging us to make the journey to Egypt a priority, because the hundreds of tombs and temples are undergoing restoration. One result of this restoration is that images with distinctly African features are getting a subtle new look. The noses are getting more narrow. The lips, thinner.

And then there's Dr. Moustaffah Heffney, a native of Egypt, who is very proud of his black heritage and his very Nubian, dark skin. In 1987, Heffney received a letter from his employers telling him that he was not black, as he had listed on the required race/ethnic identification card. Apparently, the U.S. Government's Office of Management and Budget decided who from Africa was black and who was not. Heffney was told to change the information white because he came from Egypt, and he was threatened with suspension and charges of insubordination for failing to do so. Ten years later, he was still involved in confrontation with the government over this issue. Yeah. It is still deep.

And now, with the Gospel of Judas papyrus being made public, the built-in notion that the black man is born with criminal intent, not to be trusted, well, all of that has just been turned on its heels. The very psyche of western thought is being challenged.

So, look for Judas to begin the journey toward whiteness. Soon they'll be running the brothers' DNA. And I bet the brilliant makeup artist who helped two races exchange lives in the FX channel series Black, White, is going to get a call. Mm hmm.

Stay tuned.

GORDON: S. Pearl Sharp is a writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles. This is NPR News.

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