The Judas Code

FR. RAYMOND DE SOUZA

In the year 4006, an enterprising team from Global Geographic announces that experts in late second-millennium languages and data retrieval have pieced together an authentic copy of the longrumoured-to-exist Da Vinci Code.

Religious experts say that the discovery challenges traditional Christian doctrine, as the widely circulated document shows that early-21stcentury Christians believed that Jesus was not divine, had married Mary Magdalene, founded a royal dynasty, etc … It is believed that early fourth-millennium Vatican officials suppressed the sacred text.

That is more or less the story of the much-ballyhooed Gospel of Judas. It is, no doubt, a remarkable historical find — an apparently authentic fourth-century copy of a second-century document. But it tells us no more about Christian doctrine than does Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.

About 180 A.D., St. Irenaeus of Lyons referred to the document in his arguments with the heretics of his day. So likely there was a group in the mid-second-century that was peddling false gospels. It wouldn’t be the last time.

Yesterday, at every Catholic Mass in the world, St. Mark’s account of the passion of Jesus was read. About Judas, Jesus says, “For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Mark 14:21). That addresses rather forthrightly the claim that Judas was not a traitor but a clandestine saint.

For those of a more conspiratorial mindset — then and now — even the most direct statements can be turned inside out against their plain meaning. So leave aside the claims that the Gospel of Judas is supposed to advance. What remains interesting is why there should be such interest in it.

The first reason is that Christianity is a historical religion. It depends on actual events in history. Like our elder brothers the Jews, our faith is not about abstract principles or mythical stories. It is about the gritty stuff of history. From the promise made to Abraham to the empty tomb, the Christian faith depends on what happened to the God who became man and walked among us. That is why the historical record matters; it is why Christians are interested in archaeology and ancient documents.


The Christian faith is not an antiquities obsession, however, pursuing this or that fragment to shed light on the faith. Christians read their scriptures in an ecclesial context; i.e., it is the Church that gives rise to the Scriptures, determines their canonical status, and meditates upon them.


The second reason for Christian interest is that Christianity is a scriptural faith — the sacred texts matter.

Christians are not, strictly speaking, “people of the book,” for our faith is in a person, Jesus Christ, who left no writings whatsoever. Yet the sacred Scriptures are indispensable and venerated precisely as the word of God.

The Christian faith is not an antiquities obsession, however, pursuing this or that fragment to shed light on the faith. Christians read their scriptures in an ecclesial context; i.e., it is the Church that gives rise to the Scriptures, determines their canonical status, and meditates upon them. It could not be otherwise: The Church comes before the Scriptures, for the Church is necessary to recognize the existence of the Scriptures in the first place. It is the faith of the Church that distinguishes between the canonical gospels and the ersatz. Without that ecclesial context, the author of the Gospel of Judas, or Dan Brown, for that matter, could present himself as a instrument of divine revelation.

A third reason — and I suspect the most powerful — to explain Christian interest in the Gospel of Judas is that it addresses a great question: What happened to Judas? The Catholic Church, for her part, does not definitively declare anyone to be in Hell, as she does with the saints in Heaven. Yet the clear weight of the tradition is that Judas is in fact condemned. Such is the horror of condemnation that the believer instinctively recoils from that conclusion.

That conclusion is not obligatory for Christian believers, but the apparent condemnation of Judas underscores another important Christian reality, namely the personal nature of salvation. Judas is not some cog in a providential machine, required to do X so that Jesus could do Y. No one is arbitrarily sacrificed in the plan of salvation, and Judas remains free until the end. The Bible is full of repentant sinners, from King David to Saint Peter. The sin of Judas lies not in his betrayal, which could be repented of, but in his refusal to repent unto the Lord. He insisted on remaining alone with his sin, and his sin destroyed him.

Even at a distance of 20 centuries, the devout Christian wishes that it had been otherwise — not for Jesus’ sake, but for Judas.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Father Raymond J. de Souza, "The Judas Code." National Post, (Canada) April 10, 2006.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.

THE AUTHOR

Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 2006 National Post


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