Prayer to St. Judas by Mark Nielsen, 5-19-12
“Look, you have been told everything. Lift up your eyes and look at the cloud and the light within it and the stars surrounding it. The star that leads the way is your star.” – Jesus, to Judas, from the Gospel of Judas
Oh poor Judas, sad Yehuda,
Tool in the hand (on the left, on the left)
In the perfect plan of the Son of Man.
His inner circle’s first outsider,
More the actor than the writer,
Scary monster that we need,
Forever guilty and ungrieved,
Could I have done what you stood tall and planned?
Could I execute executive orders,
Obey a Friend by crossing a border?
The First Double Agent. A secret command.
Ever-compliant company man.
A one-way trip, accepting rejection.
A kiss goodbye, but filled with affection.
For now, surrendered to condemnation,
Saying yes to essential negation.
Object of hate, the rage of nations
Distilled into one tragic man.
Heaven’s trick play. A divinely thrown fight.
Some switch Jesus flipped to set things right,
Against your will, against His tradition,
But according to perfect intuition.
A supra-scientific story:
The rebel as villain, infamy planned,
Jesus receives His much deserved glory,
While Judas is dealt the Dead Man’s Hand:
A mobius map that turns on itself,
A design more puzzling than glorious or grand.
Your gospel was told by some who liked puzzles,
Gnostics, other rebels who braved fires of hell,
And mystics who said that our local Creator
Might not be the God Above All Else–
Who turns heaven’s wheel and first set the stars,
With the Milky Way on His fridge’s shelf—
Creator, not Lord, just middle management,
A complex, conflicted friend, like yourself.
Creator as Gaia, not Y’shua’s Father?
Not “up” in heaven but in-between–
Perhaps an angel with the gift of a potter,
Four hands, instead of two angels’wings?
Grace-made, grace-filled but not the Source,
Her spirit makes blood from mud and water,
(Maybe Holy Spirit, but not the Father,
Yet a member of the King’s court, of course),
Pioneer sent here by the Father’s command,
Promoting His will by grace, not force.
Yet we chose to re-tell the simpler story:
White hats, black deeds, and simple betrayal.
No mysteries or dark honesty
About each human’s complicity
In killing the One sent to save all.
We still make this choice, Saint Judas the Sinner,
To demonize you, to escape the blame,
But with each generation the rope gets thinner
(the one by which you hung for our shame).
by Mark Nielsen
Poem and following essay composed 5-19-12, after my Netflix On-Demand viewing of a National Geographic television special on the “lost” Gospel of Judas.
A Coptic (i.e. Egyptian) language version was recovered in the 1970s, and published circa 2006, but it was most likely not the “original” version of the text. That Coptic papyrus text was, however, radiocarbon dated to a period between 220AD and 340AD, so it is genuinely representative of some of the competing “Christian” ideas that were flying around before the official orthodox version was firmly established. Wikipedia’s got a load of accessible background on this ancient text, too.
The tv program also goes into related archeological, historical, and theological discussions of Judas, not to mention his symbolic role as perhaps the most “Jewish” apostle — thus setting him up as a potential scapegoat for anti-Semitism and the rift between Jews and Christians from the first century onward.
With the poem above, I’m obviously engaging in some pretty experimental or creative conjecture, especially with regard to the Gnostic tradition and its view of the scientific or physical world, of the human soul, the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, Earth’s origins, and of Judas himself. Yet what some have called “New Age” or experimental is really not so new at all, but actually dates to ancient times. The “secret” teachings of Jesus to Judas thus represent a somewhat common but alternative view of God, angels and human existence with very old and deep roots.
More importantly, poetic exploration is uniquely suited to attempt opening certain locked doors, to break taboos, and to invite questions about abstract ideas like the nature of a person’s soul, or what an angel really looks like. Theology and other prose are meant to be explanatory, whereas poetry and certain spiritual narratives are essential in drawing out possible connections between rational ideas, especially to what we might call “transrational” images (the mystical realm), and to the human imagination (to say nothing of the “imagination” of God, which no one could ever comprehend any more than a miniscule portion of!).
Thus, I don’t “believe” in the Gospel of Judas, but I am intuitively instructed by it somehow, especially with regard to the entire mystical tradition of which Gnostic ideas are a unique part. Even before the historical Jesus’ life and teachings, mystical ideas and practices were often pushed to the fringe, and they still are, even when they do stick closely to orthodoxy in their views of divinity and human potential. Mystical experience of God is inherently risky, precisely because it is not dependent upon evidence or measurement or certainty, so much as openness to the great unknown, without judgment.
Furthermore, no one can lay claim to a full understanding of the historical Jesus, let alone Judas Iscariot’s soul, or the relationship between the two men, or Judas’ spiritual, personal and political motivations, or his intended role in the human salvation plan (especially from a merciful God’s perspective).
So let’s just say I’m engaging with the twin Mysteries of creation and salvation, in a questioning way that expands my own soul. It is soul-stretching, to be prepared to forgive even the chief of all sinners. Judas was just a man, but a man like no other by virtue of his position and opportunities. So as a fellow sinner aspiring to be a saint, I have always had a soft spot for the tragic way that Judas was apparently caught in the middle of eternal plans, plans over which he apparently had little or no control.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Despite my “experimental” tendencies, I love the four canonical gospels. God has reached my deepest soul through them in ways that no other written text has (nor probably ever could). I am also a charismatic Christian, so among other things, this lets me believe the Bible is a “living” document in the hands of an active, still-speaking God. (And it’s not the only text or method by which God’s truth is revealed, either.) Nevertheless, I’m a postmodernist, and thus a respecter of science and cold had facts as well. Thus, I firmly believe that a realistic appraisal of history must admit that strictly human biases and faults existed in the writing and translation of biblical texts. So Judas’ role in history and salvation have definitely been oversimplified, if nothing else. The gospel writers most likely gave him more of a “raw deal” than God intended or carried out, but we now only have their own accounts to go by, so we are forever limited in our knowledge of who or what Judas truly was.
For example Mark’s gospel (the earliest of the four), does not even specify that Jesus indicated Judas would be His betrayer at the Last Supper… a rather inconvenient lack of a clear villain, at least in that part of the narrative. Then, later accounts may have tried to remedy this by portraying a “darker” Judas throughout, for the sake of easier teachability to future disciples. But even so, the Judas that I read (and yes, that I interpret through my own forgiving, psychologically curious lens) in all four canonical gospels is not a one-dimensional, inherently bad person, so much as a smart, strong, well-intentioned, passionate, but conflicted one.
The official story is that Judas chose to betray, against Jesus’ wishes, and against the loving and faithful instincts that Yahweh’s followers should adhere to in all of our choices. Yet even a careful reading of the other canonical gospels leaves room for alternative views of Judas:
- unwilling or unwitting tool of Satan? (see John 13:27, any translation you like… for John is the most mystical of the four gospels),
- a faithful or struggling disciple, obedient to Jesus’ pressure to fulfill his prophesied role as the betrayer?,
- an insecure or lesser apostle rejected by Jesus or the others, and then immaturely reactive? (i.e. self-involved, some say power-hungry or greedy, but not intending for Jesus to come to any harm),
- a naive idealist taken hold of by authorities, possibly even trying to build Jesus’ credibility, but then selling out to save his own skin… reduced to becoming a patsy of the chief priests, who “played” Judas in order to get to Jesus?
Whatever the case, the existence and fairly recent rediscovery of the Gospel of Judas may be one of the stranger but more important gifts to Christians within the last thousand years. Sure, we can ignore it. But isn’t it kind of gutless and insecure for us to do so?
The rather pat, willfully ignorant answer that conservative evangelist Robert Schuller gives in the National Geographic television program (Schuller: “What more could we possibly need than the four gospels?”) suggests to me that, while not actively suppressed anymore, this and other non-canonical gospels (for example Thomas’, James’ and Mary Magdalene’s) are typically seen as a threat. Therefore they are then all-too-quietly dismissed in their entirety, without much thought as to what tidbits of truth or insight might still be present due to the legitimate spiritual seeking or intentions of their authors. For example, the idea of a Jesus who laughs a lot (as Judas’ Jesus does) or who appears to disciples occasionally in the form of a child (another supra-scientific “invention” in Judas), might be more than the stuffy “powers that be” can handle, at least if they’re going to keep control of the flock and still appear to be Jesus experts.
So don’t be a be a scapegoat like Judas, or a stubborn goat like Rev. Schuller, and also don’t go chasing after conspiracy theories (be they ancient or modern)… but don’t be the dumbest of sheep, either. If you want to look at the National Geographic Society translation of the Judas Gospel for yourself, it can be found here.
But be forewarned: even their translation is seen as a bit suspect in terms of linguistic accuracy and theology. But you gotta start somewhere, right?
On the other hand, maybe you have no interest in this supposedly heretical text. This is also fine by me, …that type of writing is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, besides being intellectually challenging and often cryptic. Keep it simple if you’d prefer. I just tend to enjoy a more nuanced understanding of the universe, even if I have to risk puzzlement and frustration to achieve it.
Either way, let’s at least get off our high horses and admit that if we had been in Judas’ sandals, caught between a rock and a hard place (or compelled by a demon… another competing theory, though not drawn from the Judas Gospel), we may not have done any differently.
[By the way… just to be clear: Judas is not, in fact, an actual Roman Catholic saint. But a small group of rabble-rousing Jesuits is apparently trying to press his case with the Vatican. Leave it to some doggedly intense German Jesuit to valiantly take on this most lost of lost causes. We rank-and-file believers won’t get a vote on this sainthood thing, as you might expect. If we did, I would vote yes… but with an asterisk.]