Published April 27, 2006
The devil is a tricky guy. We think his temptations come clearly marked as such, and thus we can easily avoid them, but he is much more clever than that.
We often picture him with horns and a tail, but he may dress in a nice business suit with a pin-stripe tie.
And I imagine him chortling in glee over recent newspaper headlines that ask: “Was Judas really Jesus’ best friend?”
It seems an ancient manuscript called “The Gospel of Judas” has come to light, and some pundits claim it casts doubt on what actually happened during Jesus’ final days.
In it, Judas is portrayed as a loyal disciple who did not betray Jesus but rather was just doing what Jesus wanted when he turned Him over to the Roman authorities.
As Catholics, we have to be on our toes when such headlines appear.
Because, obviously, if Judas were a loyal disciple, rather than a man who gave in to Satan, that would mean that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John had it all wrong.
And anytime someone tries to poke holes in the Gospels that guide our faith, we must be ready with a rebuttal.
Fortunately, in the case of Judas, this is not difficult.
Now it is highly possible that the document in question will turn out to be an authentic historic find, which means that this particular copy would be about 1,600 years old.
But would that make Christians feel that they should mistrust the portrayal of Judas in the New Testament? Definitely not.
First, the content in the document called “The Gospel of Judas” isn’t new. The earliest reference to such a manuscript was around 180 A.D., when the Christian bishop, St. Irenaeus, denounced it as a heresy.
Also, Judas could not have authored the piece, since it was written long after his death. Instead, some scholars think the authors were among a sect known as the Gnostics. Gnostics were rivals to Christianity and taught that the material world is a trap from which the spirit must liberate itself.
They also taught that Judas’ action in turning Jesus over to the authorities somehow helped “free” Jesus from His physical body.
This is interesting philosophy, but completely opposed to what our faith teaches us, which is why it was called a heresy in the first place.
Early followers of Christ certainly didn’t believe that the material world was evil, nor did they believe that Jesus was a spirit entrapped in a physical body.
Instead, they believed what Jesus Himself had taught: that He was both human and divine.
As for why Jesus died, He told his followers that He had come to lay down His life out of love for the world. He had come to redeem mankind.
And what about Judas? He is clearly marked, in the eyewitness accounts by the Gospel writers who knew him—and Jesus—personally, as one who betrayed Jesus, not as one who helped Jesus in any way.
Two writers of the Gospels in the New Testament were present at the Last Supper. They heard Jesus Himself talking about one who would betray Him.
They also saw Judas walk up to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and identify Him with a kiss.
The men who knew Judas personally would no doubt be horrified by any account of him as somehow helping Jesus. After all, they describe Judas in no uncertain terms as a thief, who would steal money that had been contributed to the poor.
The four Gospels all agree that what Judas did was wrong because after Jesus feeds him a morsel of bread, St. John tells us, “Satan entered him.” Further, some of the harshest words ever spoken by Jesus are said about Judas, at the Last Supper: “It would be better for that man if he had never been born.”
And Judas himself knew that what he’d done was wrong, which is why he went to the chief priests and said, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.”
So St. Irenaeus had good reason to reject the narrative of Judas. It was in direct contrast to what eyewitnesses had taught about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
And they were the ones commissioned by Jesus to spread his message, even before the New Testament existed.
It is tempting to believe the New Testament somehow showed up, fully bound and with footnotes, right after Jesus ascended into heaven, but obviously that wasn’t the case.
“As essential as the Bible is to Christians,” writes Amy Welborn in “De-Coding Da Vinci,” it’s good … to remember that during those first decades, Christians lived, learned and worshipped as Christians—without the New Testament.”
Welborn notes that the apostles and other disciples who had witnessed Jesus’ teaching, miracles, death and resurrection preserved what they saw and passed it on.
Then, as other texts were written down, church leaders compared them to the ancient story that the original witnesses told.
Along the way, there were numerous accounts of Jesus’ life, besides the one connected with Judas, which were compared to the eyewitness accounts and judged as either authentic or not.
Church leaders didn’t make decisions arbitrarily, since Christ himself had promised an advocate to guide His church. Which was, of course, the Holy Spirit.
Jesus also had told Peter, when He instituted the church, “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
The mention of the gates of hell suggests that the devil would do his best to overcome the church. Spreading lies through heresies and trying to create doubts in believers’ minds are ways to do that.
The devil is still on the prowl today, as seen in headlines that try to suggest Judas was not an evil man, but a good one.
Fortunately, there is one tool that always vanquishes Satan, who is known as the master of deceit.
That tool is the truth. Because, as Christ said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
Lorraine Murray is the author of “Grace Notes. Embracing the Joy of Christ in a Broken World,” and “How Shall We Celebrate? Embracing Jesus in Every Season.” Her Web site is www.lorrainevmurray.com. Artwork is by Jef Murray.