Bart Ehrman, author of Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed The Bible and Why, and Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code among many others, has gracefully answered some questions for OUP about his newest book, The Lost Gospels of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed. The book recounts the discovery of the Lost Gospels as well as providing a complete account of what the Gospel of Judas teaches and how it reflects on the historical character Judas Iscariot.
Bart Ehrman: The biggest mistake is to think that he was always the rotten apple in the apostolic barrel. In fact, the best evidence suggests that he became a follower of Jesus because he completely agreed with his message and supported his mission at first, and was as faithfully devoted to “the cause” as anyone. That’s why Jesus chose him to become one of the inner circle, the “twelve.” Only later did he decide – for reasons I spell out in my book – that he had to turn Jesus over to the authorities. But that was much later!
OUP: How have the discoveries of these new gospels shaped or changed your beliefs in Christianity?
Ehrman: They have helped me see that early Christianity was remarkably, almost unbelievably, diverse. There were different Christians all saying different things – about God, Christ, the world, salvation, the Jews, in fact, about just everything. And all these Christians believed they were right and that all others were wrong. And all of them had sacred books to prove their claims, books allegedly written by the disciples of Jesus himself. Only some of these books became the New Testament, and so only some of the beliefs survived down through the ages. The others were eventually ruled out as heresies.
OUP: What is the one lesson laymen can take away from the Gospels and their new teachings?
Ehrman: That just as Christianity today is incredibly diverse (compare the Roman Catholics with the Mormons with the Pentecostals with the Seventh Day Adventists with the Eastern Orthodox… and so on!), it was even more diverse in the early centuries, when the most important aspects of the new faith were debated and fought over.
OUP: What do the gospels show us about Judas’s relationship to gnosticism?
Ehrman: I don’t think they show us anything about what the historical Judas thought about Gnosticism – in part because Gnosticism did not yet exist in Judas’s (or Jesus’) day! Only later did Gnosticism arise, and then the Gnostic Christians retold the stories of Judas (and Jesus) in light of their own beliefs. The newly discovered Gospel of Judas is one of these retellings.
OUP:In your opinion, and knowing what you know from studying these gospels, what place does Judas hold in the history of Christianity? Is he the betrayer? Or has his legacy, like much of the bible, been reconstructed through time?
Ehrman: Yes, he certainly was the betrayer. But the question is what did he betray, and why. In my book I try to show why most Christians today completely misunderstand what was going on in the betrayal. The story is intricate but intriguing. Here I’ll simply give a couple of hints: why would the authorities need Judas to identify Jesus? Wouldn’t they already know who he was? Why would then need him to lead them to Jesus? Couldn’t they just have him followed? Why was Jesus killed for calling himself the King of the Jews if that is not what he called himself? How did the authorities know that he thought he was the (future) king? Answer these historical questions, and you can solve an important historical problem: what did Judas betray, and why?
OUP:When were your first thoughts when you saw the Gospel of Judas in the small room above a pizza parlor in Switzerland?
Ehrman: My first thought was: My God this is amazing!!