cover image Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity

Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity

Elaine Pagels, Karen L. King. Viking Books, $24.95 (198pp) ISBN 978-0-670-03845-9

This accessible, engaging book has Princeton religion professor Pagels (The Gnostic Gospels; Beyond Belief) in a dream team pairing with King (The Gospel of Mary of Magdala), who teaches ecclesiastical history at Harvard Divinity School. Together they take on the controversial Gospel of Judas, published in April 2006 after some years of languishing in a safety deposit box after its initial discovery in the 1970s. In their hundred-page introductory essay, Pagels and King date the gospel to the middle of the second century and situate it amidst the deadly persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Such persecution, they say, drove the author of the Gospel of Judas, who could not reconcile his belief in a deeply loving, good God with a particular idea other Christians held at the time: that God desired the bloody sacrificial death of Jesus and his followers. The key to understanding this gospel, they argue, is its relentless unmasking of the triumphant rhetoric of martyrdom. Though the gospel text appears angry and polarizing, Pagels and King have come to realize that they cannot easily dismiss this author as either a madman or a lunatic. Instead, they delve deeply into his theological view that a pure, spiritual realm exists beyond the physical world that we seea Gnostic chestnut that recurs in other second-century texts. Alive to irony and historical nuance, this remarkably concise primer opens readers to a plausible and often persuasive interpretation of the disquieting Gospel of Judas.