My recent post on Judas Iscariot generated more interest than I expected, and a lot of readers wanted to hear more. I’ve posted on Judas a number of times over the years, but maybe it’s a good time to give the full scoop. If you want a lot more information, you might want to check out my book The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot. That book was prompted by the discovery of the Gospel of Judas; I was not involved with the discovery or the restoration of the Gospel, but I was part of a small team of scholars asked by National Geographic to study it as they decided whether it was authentic and important. Uh, yeah. But one has to look carefully at these things before deciding (as pointed out in yesterday’s post an recent academic fraud).
I may talk about my involvement with the project later on the blog, but for now: my book on Judas arose out of it, and does indeed talk about the Gospel of Judas based on my preliminary study of it. But I use it as an occasion to talk about Judas Iscariot himself, who he was, what we can know about him, what he did, and why he might have done it.
The first issue — one that has been raised by a number of readers over the past few days — is a very basic one. Did he really exist? Or was he “made up” by Christian story tellers who wanted to explain how Jesus ended up in the hands of his enemies? Often it is pointed out that “Judas” sounds like “Jew”: did Christian story tellers come up with the “Jew” who “betrayed Jesus” in order to make a theological point?
I have a definite view about that. I think he was a real person. Actually one of Jesus’ disciples. And the one who betrayed him to the authorities leading to his arrest and crucifixion.
Why should I think so? The following explanation is based on the discussion in my book.
First, in general: What kinds of sources of information do historians look for, when dealing with persons – such as Jesus or Judas – from the distant past? The best sources, of course, will be from the person’s own time, preferably a contemporary who actually knew the person. If you have a lot of eyewitness accounts, you are in relatively good shape. If the accounts are not actually by eyewitnesses but by later authors who knew eyewitnesses, that’s not as good, but still not so bad. If they are by later authors who talked with people who once knew someone who claimed to have once heard an eyewitness, well, that’s not nearly so good.
What historians want are lots of contemporary reports, if possible. It helps if these reports are independent of one another. If you have two sources of information about a figure from the past, but one of these sources got his information from the other one, then in effect you don’t have two sources but one. If you have two independent sources, that is obviously better than having to rely on one, especially if these sources corroborate what the other has to say. Moreover, it is useful if the sources of information are not overly biased in their reporting. If a source has an obvious agenda, and if the information that it conveys embodies that agenda, then you have to reconstruct the real historical situation, the actual historical data that lie behind the slanted account.
In short, historians want numerous sources close to the events themselves, which are independent of one another, yet agree on the information they provide, while not being biased in their reports.
How do our sources of information about Judas stack up against this wish list? Unfortunately …
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