Holy Week with Judas

Thanks to National Geographic, many of us who work at churches had to pay a little more attention to Judas this past week. Their cover story and the media storm they’ve been trying to stir over a new translation of the “Gospel of Judas” have church goers curious and interested, some ready to jump on this latest apocryphal craze.

I almost skirted the issue completely: my Holy Week preaching assignment was John 12: 1-11 for the Monday noonday service at my church. And there was Judas, criticizing Mary for her excessive perfume-pouring. I managed the entire sermon without reference to the “new” gospel, but at lunch afterward, the questions about it started. On Wednesday, in her sermon, my colleague Elizabeth dealt beautifully with the questions people were asking.

But a book review by Adam Gopnik said it all for me. New gospels come and go, but they never measure up to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The early Christians knew what they were doing when they chose these three:

And then the new Gospel casts a spell—for sympathetic freethinkers, especially—because it reminds us of the literary strength of the canonic Gospels, exactly for their marriage of the celestial and the commonplace. We want a bit of Hicksville and a bit of Heaven in our sacred texts, matter and man and magic together. Simply as editors, the early Church fathers did a fine job of leaving the strong stories in and the weird ones out. The orthodox canon gives us a Christ who is convincing as a character in a way that this Gnostic one is not: angry and impatient and ethically engaged, easily exasperated at the limitations and nagging of his dim disciples and dimmer family relations, brilliantly concrete in his parables and human in his pain. Whether one agrees with Jefferson that this man lived, taught, and died, or with St. Paul that he lived and died and was born again, it is hard not to prefer him to the Jesus of the new Gospel, with his stage laughter and significant winks and coded messages. Making Judas more human makes Jesus oddly less so, less a man with a divine and horrible burden than one more know-it-all with a nimbus. As metaphor or truth, we’re sticking with the old story. Give us that old-time religion—but, to borrow a phrase from St. Augustine, maybe not quite yet.