Posted April 14, 2006
Interview with Jesuit Fr. Stephen Pisano, Rector, Pontifical Biblical Institute
April 10, 2006
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
What is the Gospel of Judas?
… It apparently is a copy of a Gnostic gospel. The text of this 'Gospel of Judas' is in Coptic, which is the language of Egypt. The manuscript itself, at least according to the National Geographic website and the articles I've read, is to be dated to the third or fourth century AD. If this is the same 'Gospel of Judas' that Irenaeus refers to, it would have been written sometime before the year 180 AD, probably in Greek.
You said 'if.' How confident are we this is the same text Irenaeus refers to?
I can't answer that, because I haven't seen the text that has just been brought to light. As far as I know, Irenaeus doesn't really quote from it, he just refers to it and talks about it. It will be difficult to say if it's the same text. That is certainly one of the things that will be the object of study over the years.
From what you've seen, what does this document tell us?
It apparently contains conversations between Jesus and Judas. Jesus reassures Judas that he is not to be considered a traitor, but he is to be considered the most faithful of his apostles. Because of the knowledge he's been given, and this is really the tip-off that this is a Gnostic document … this whole idea of knowledge, secret knowledge … that he will be given a higher place than the other apostles.
This has been packaged as a dramatic retelling of the Jesus story. How should average people understand what this document means, and what it doesn't mean?
Before the discovery of this gospel, we already knew there were several other Gnostic gospels that apparently date from around the same time. This is probably one more in that series. One of them that's the best known is the 'Gospel of Thomas.' It was discovered in the 1940s at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. The two are a bit different, because the 'Gospel of Thomas' for the most part contains sayings that Jesus is supposed to have said, whereas this is more a narrative document.
Hearing about these rival gospels, the average person may think, 'My Gosh, the gospels [in the Bible] had it wrong.' How should we understand claims like that?
They're simply not true. That's the short answer. These other Gnostic gospels haven't really changed our view of things, and one more isn't going to do that either. This is literature that came from a particular sect, a particular group, which followed this Gnostic philosophy. One of the things that is important to see, I think, is that we're in the second century. This is really a very short time after the death and resurrection of Jesus. In this period of the early church, Christian theology as we know it today was really in its infancy. We shouldn't have the idea that already in the second century we had something developed like the Catechism of the Catholic Church. That's something that is the result of thousands of years of theological reflection. If we try to put ourselves back into the mentality of the second century, the early believers didn't really know yet what to believe, what context to put their belief in, and I think there were a lot of attempts to express the faith and to find a philosophy that fit in with the resurrection faith. Some of these attempts bore fruit and became part of mainstream Christian theology, and some were dead ends. This is one that was a dead end. The proof of that, or the indication of it at least, is that you have Irenaeus writing around the year 180, and already then he is condemning this very approach to Christian theology. If it was condemned and seen as deviant already in the second century, I don't think it's something that is going to come back and be seen as relevant today.
We live in a season in which creative retellings of the Jesus story, from the Da Vinci Code to the 'Gospel of Judas,' seem to fascinate people. Is this always the case, or is this there something particular about this historical moment?
I think it's probably a little bit of both. This is something that always goes on. Even in Medieval times, there are a lot of texts that are 'off-beat,' you might say. It seems like there's always a fascination with something that isn't part of mainstream theology. This is not something new. Maybe the particular age we're in today fosters that. The whole 'New Age' thing, for example, is a phenomenon of today. People are fascinated by it.
As a Scripture Scholar, do you get frustrated when people herald as a 'new breakthrough' texts that have specialists have been aware of for a long time?
First of all, the existence of this text may have been known in the 1970s, but it wasn't translated or read. There wasn't even any attempt to put the thing together. Relying on what I see on the National Geographic website, it seems it was about five years ago that this team of international scholars was brought in to work on the manuscript. Rodolphe Kasser, who is an extremely reputable scholar in Switzerland, and the head of the team, said the manuscript was in the worst shape of any manuscript he's ever seen. I don't think that you could say that it was really known back in the 1970s, even that its contents were known. Maybe just the fact that it existed, nothing more than that. Apparently this group has been working for about five years, preparing the manuscript and then doing the translation and so on.
People seem often to be surprised when they hear about the existence of alternative gospels. At one stage, activists such as Herschel Shanks had the desire to get the work of Biblical scholars out to the people in the pews. Does the response to the 'Gospel of Judas' suggest that still hasn't happened?
I think so, it hasn't happened. People aren't aware of these things, just as most people aren't really aware of what's in the Bible either. The general level of knowledge of the Bible itself is fairly low. I think there's a very positive thing about making these alternative gospels known, in that it may stimulate people to study these questions more, hopefully in a way that they come to see what the relative value of these different writings is. From that point of view, I find that this is a very positive thing. If it's presented in a sensationalist way, saying that this document - and apparently some people are already doing this - that this document is going to change our whole view of Christianity, this is irresponsible. But if it's presented in a different way, which doesn't have to be overly scholarly, but just to tell people that these things exist and to show what the context was they came out of, what their value is, and at the same time to present the value of the canonical Biblical texts, then it seems to me this is all to the good.
Would it be fair to say that the 'Gospel of Judas' gives us new insight into second century Christianity, and the varieties of theological reflection that were going on, as opposed to any new insight into the historical Jesus or the historical Judas?
Very much so, certainly it would be the former. One of the things that is really a big lacuna is our knowledge of the second century. We do have these Gnostic gospels and some other writings from around that time, but really we don't have all that much that tells us about the second century, so anything that comes to light pertaining to that period is all to the good from the point of view of our historical knowledge. It's very helpful.
Prior to the Nag Hammadi discoveries and others, most of what we knew about Gnostic Christian texts in the second century came from denunciations in mainstream authors such as Irenaeus and Origen, yes?
So while this is an exciting find in terms of the history of the second century, it really doesn't shed any light on who Judas actually was.
I don't think so. I don't think there would be any basis for saying that. One of the things I find interesting it that these, call them what you will, 'alternative gospels,' tend to appear in the second century, in any event sometime after the canonical books of the New Testament were written. Most of them are named after people who figure in the New Testament itself. You have the 'Gospel of Peter,' the 'Gospel of Thomas,' now the 'Gospel of Judas.' These groups took those names from the earlier writings, the canonical gospels, which were already known.
Scholars will often try to identify the communities in which these early texts were produced. Do we know anything about the community that produced the 'Gospel of Judas'?
I can't say for sure. I'm not really an expert in that field. Several of the newspaper articles have referred to this group called the 'Cainites."
Which is the vocabulary that comes from Irenaeus?
Yes, from Irenaeus himself. Several of these Gnostic groups took their names from characters who are very negative in the Bible, so you have people who are followers of the serpent and so on.
It's part of the inversion of values that flows from seeing Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, as an evil force.
This was one of the tenets of the Gnostics. They saw the God of the Bible as a negative force, the creator of evil in the world. Seen in that light, you can see how it would be impossible for any of these Gnostic texts, in so far as they follow that line, to be incorporated into any kid of genuine Christian theology, just by the definition of terms.
How do you respond when people ask: 'How do we know the Gnostics were wrong and the canon is right?'
It comes down to faith, basically. If you look at the canon of Scripture and ask why these other works aren't included, this goes back to historical reasons. The reason why the 27 books of the New Testament found their way into the canon is that these were the books that were accepted by all the churches of early Christianity, probably by the second century. The indications for that are scarce, but certainly moving into the third and fourth centuries, it's pretty clear what the canon was.
So the historical explanation is that within the first three centuries or so, the early church came to consensus about what belonged in the canon. From a faith point of view, we would say that this consensus was guided by the Holy Spirit.
Ultimately, yes. The whole question of inspiration and canonicity go hand in hand. The two work together.
Some historians of Christianity believe that one can explain the persistence of Gnosticism by a chain of causation - the early Gnostics survived in Bulgaria and Macedonia in the seventh century, who in turn influenced the Albigensians and the Cathars in the Middle Ages, who gave birth to later movements and so on. Do you accept that, or would you follow Ioan Culianu in the Tree of Gnosis, who argued that Gnosticism is simply a structural possibility in any religious system, the idea of an esoteric and hidden knowledge just for elites, and thus there will always be a Gnostic undertone in some forms of Christianity?
I suspect the latter. It's just a possible tendency within human beings that's always going to be the case. As far as trying to trace any specific connections among the Gnostic movements down through the centuries, I think that's had to do. You really don't know what earlier documents the later ones had available to them.
Bottom line: No one's faith should feel threatened by the 'Gospel of Judas'?
No, by no means.
Sometimes there is a mythology that primitive Christianity was entirely unified, and diversity is a later corruption of that Urkatholizismus. What texts like this reveal is that diversity was there from the beginning, and the task of the church was more like pruning it than creating it.
Pruning it, yes. In the intense reflection and writing we find in the Fathers of the Church in the early centuries, we see theology in the making. They had very little to go on in the beginning other than the Biblical text itself, and it's really their reflection on the Biblical text that led them to explain things the way they did. As their writings either did or did not gain consensus, then various doctrines and dogmas of the church came into effect, along with the various councils of the church. They're very important too for the gradual establishment of Christian theology.
The church's traditional teaching that Judas' betrayal of Jesus was a sinful act is not going to be challenged by this discovery?
I don't think so. One interesting question, though, is whether Judas had full knowledge of what he was doing when he betrayed Jesus. From what we can gather from the gospel accounts, he had full knowledge that he was betraying Jesus. But did he have full knowledge that he was betraying the Son of God? That's more difficult to say. If you look at the way all the apostles are portrayed in the gospels, during the earthly life of Jesus, they appear not to get it. They ran hot and cold … how they saw Jesus, and what they believed Jesus to be during his earthly life with them, is very difficult to discern. After the experience of the risen Lord, whatever that experience was, and after Pentecost, then the apostles seemed to be begin to really understand what was going on. We have to understand that the gospels themselves were written in light of that experience of the resurrected Jesus and the experience of the Spirit at Pentecost. So, did Judas know he was betraying the Son of God? I don't know that we could say that. … Whether he saw Jesus basically as a political leader, a subversive leader who was going to lead the Jewish people against the Roman yoke, and then realized that wasn't Jesus' intention, is hard to say. We don't really know what he thought about things.
But we do know he betrayed somebody for money, so that at least on the basis of the canonical gospels, it's hard to make a hero out of him.
That's right, yes, indeed.
Let me ask you briefly about Benedict XVI. Have you been struck by how rich his homilies and other texts have been so far in Scriptural imagery?
I have, very much so. I'm delighted to see that. I hope that his constant use of Scripture, his constant references to Scripture in the talks that he gives at the audiences and so forth, will help stimulate a renewed interest in Scripture. In a meeting with young people last week, this was one of the questions that came out. A young man asked him how to read the Bible, and Pope Benedict encouraged him to pray while he reads the Bible, and also to make use of recent books written along these lines. He referred specifically to the many books by Cardinal [Carlo Maria] Martini.
Do you anticipate any particular impulse from him in Scripture Studies?
It could well be the whole question of the proper use of the historical-critical method in Biblical studies. This is a question that came out in his talks and writings before he became pope, and it could be that he would like that area explored more.
What do you mean?
When you read the Biblical texts in terms of looking for historical and philological accuracy, some people say this is the wrong approach, because you're not reading the Bible as a book of faith but simply as a book containing historical accounts.
Like the Code of Hammurabi.
This is a great oversimplification, but yes. I think that it's pretty well recognized today that the strict historical-critical method itself cannot produce theological or faith statements about the Biblical texts. So the question is to what extent this method or other methods should be used, as opposed to a more spiritual reading of the Bible. My view is that nothing that can help us understand the Biblical text should be excluded, just as long as we keep clear what the purpose of the different approaches are, and what their limits are as well.
Benedict also seems interested in the relationship between the Old and New Covenants.
It's a subject that's very close to his heart. He seems to want to foster Jewish/Christian dialogue. He's accepted an invitation, in principle, to visit the Holy Land, and in itself that's a positive thing. It's an area he wants very much to explore. Precisely what the terms of it will be, it's hard to say. It's such a broad question, that includes interpretation of the Biblical text, understanding the centuries of relations between Christians and Jews … it's hard to know where to begin.
It also brings into view some of the most difficult passages of the New Testament. In the Letter to the Romans, for example, Paul clearly wants to say two things: first, that God's covenant with the Jews is eternal and irrevocable; second, that Christ is for all, including the Jews. In some ways, the last 2,000 years of theological reflection could be seen as an attempt to figure out how those two claims go together.
Yes, indeed. It's interesting that just this past week we had a lecture here at the Biblical Institute by Professor Karl Donfried on new approaches to the study of Paul. One of the main points he made is that nowadays everybody emphasizes the Jewishness of Paul, that he was a Jew and always considered himself to be a Jew. He himself struggled with the question of what does it mean for him, a Jew, to be a follower of Christ? At different places in his writings you see him struggling with the question, and coming up with different answers. … Different writings of the New Testament take different approaches. The Letter to the Hebrews, for example, seems to suggest very clearly that the new covenant has taken the place of the old covenant. Not everyone agrees with that, and there's a great deal of debate on it, but that seems to be the thrust of that particular writing. Paul is more nuanced. It depends on which book of the Bible you're reading. There isn't just one 'line' that goes through all the Biblical books.
We tend to forget that the Bible is more like a library than a single book.
That's true, yes.
To bring this full-circle, one of the ways in which the Judas story has fueled anti-Jewish prejudice over the years is that he was the original traitor, and some feel that if you can rehabilitate Judas, you would reduce Christian anti-Semitism.
There is an extended debate about the responsibility, or the culpability, of the Jewish people in the death of the Jesus. I think that two things have to be noted there. One is simply a fact from the early expressions of faith, in both the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed, that in both of these texts it says Jesus suffered 'under Pontius Pilate,' and there's no reference to the Jews at all. From a broader theological point of view, which has always been, I think, the point of view of Christian theology and Christian faith, the ultimate answer to the question, 'Who is responsible for the death of Jesus?' is, 'Every person who is a sinner.' No matter what their particular religious affiliation is, Jesus came to free all people from sin. One can say that the cause of Jesus' death is really the sinfulness of the human race.
In other words, attempts to rehabilitate Judas are not going to have any particular impact?
I don't think so, no. That's in addition to it being an impossible task.
National Catholic Reporter, Posted April 14,