'Gospel of Judas' causes worry
Theologians say the ancient account could be misinterpreted
The forthcoming publication of the 'Gospel of Judas' has sparked fears among some Catholic theologians that it could give people wrong ideas about the man who is famous for betraying Jesus Christ .
The second century text, which was believed lost for over a thousand years, reportedly argues that Judas Iscariot was an essential part of God's design and, as such, almost a hero. Without his betrayal, Jesus would not have been crucified and so, the argument goes, God's plan to save mankind from its sins would not have been fulfilled .
This unorthodox account of Christ's life was written by an ancient Gnostic sect called the Cainites, which made a habit of giving a positive value to all the negative figures in Christian scriptures .
The Gospel of Judas, written in Coptic, is one of several accounts of Christ's life which are termed 'apocryphal', meaning they are seen as questionable in some way and so not recognised as part of the Bible .
But, according to several Church experts, this distinction could be lost on many people when the document is published at Easter. "The danger is clearly there, because some people will try to hide the truth and give undue importance to a document written in the 2nd century by people in open opposition to the early Christian Church," said a Rome-based theologian who is an expert on ancient texts .
Although very little is known of the details in the pro-Judas story, news of its coming publication has already led the media to talk about a "rehabilitation" of the hitherto despised disciple. A Vatican official cited in the British press as leading a drive to give Judas a better image was forced to deny last month that this was the case .
Giovanni D'Ercole, an Italian theologian who often appears in the media, stressed that the Gospel of Judas should always be seen in its historical context, otherwise its message could "feed a New Age drift". "We have to avoid creating confusion in the minds of believers with readings and evaluations not formed on the basis of a careful study. The risk is that the truth of the New Testament will be distorted," he said in an interview. After being last heard of in AD180, a manuscript containing the text of the 'gospel' appeared about 30 years ago on the Egyptian antiquities market. It was recently acquired by the Swiss-based Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art and U.S.-based National Geographic magazine, who are behind the imminent publication. The document might appear to pose a serious challenge to traditional Church thinking on Judas. But in fact it will have no theological impact whatsoever, according to Giovanni Maria Vian, professor of patristic philology at Rome's Sapienza university .
"Reflections on the role and meaning of Judas have been going on for centuries. This has no bearing on Catholic theology because the document reflects the doctrinal requirements of certain Gnostic groups," he told ANSA .
He admitted however that the text does raise interesting questions about the role of Judas in the Christ story. Some of these were discussed recently by Italy's top Catholic writer, Vittorio Messori. Interviewed by the Turin daily La Stampa, he noted that a key difference between the Gospel of Judas and the Bible accounts concerns the question of forgiveness .
In the apocryphal account Judas is forgiven, Messori recalled: "He weeps, Jesus forgives him and in order to purify him he sends Judas into the desert to do spiritual exercises." In the New Testament, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is quoted as saying: "Woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born." After the betrayal, they never meet again and, overcome with remorse, Judas commits suicide. Christ atones for the sins of humanity but never specifically forgives Judas .
Messori said the lack of forgiveness in the Bible account appeared strange in a man who preached forgiveness. He also noted that Jesus's choice of Judas as a disciple in the first place seemed to show a marked lack of perspicacity .
But, as someone who wanted to believe the Gospels were true, he said he was glad of Judas's presence. "If the gospels had been invented, the figure of Judas just wouldn't be there because he's so embarrassing," he said .
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