Judas, it turns out after all, is a good guy. Or so The Gospel of Judas, the ancient text recently (1980's) recovered, pieced together, and translated, claims. I have yet to read it, other than the excerpts in The New York Times. I await the delivery of the latest edition of my wife's National Geographic.
But we have been here before. A similar flap greeted Elaine Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels and her contention that ancient texts, ruled out of the Biblical canon early on, deserve greater respect than nearly two millennia of church orthodoxy has granted them. Dan Brown, author of The DaVinci Code, seems to have been influenced by Pagels; he builds his story-line on the claims of another pseudopigraphical Gnostic account, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene.
They, these extra-Biblical accounts of the life and times of Jesus, make for fascinating reading... once one gets past the loopy, Age of Aquarius language. What they primarily show is that Christianity at its birth was as varied and prolific in the range of its viewpoints as... well, as our present moment.
Back to Judas and the explanation in The Gospel of Judas that he was in his betrayal of Jesus acting in concert with his friend's express orders to do so. Maybe. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John agree on the cross as heaven's strategy for the redemption of the world; and Jesus does suggest that Judas, even in his betrayal, is fulfilling the will of God. But these four witnesses do not absolve Judas of responsibility for his betrayal of a friend. "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" reads Matthew's version (NSRV) of red letter words at the Last Supper. That is, Judas, in the orthodox version, is unwittingly complicit in the greatest boon to mankind ever, the crucifixion.
With more than fifty Good Fridays of preaching behind me I have, after thoughtful wrestling in my mind, come to another conclusion about Judas, that he wears neither a white nor a black hat... say, maybe, a gray fedora like the one I fancied in another century when men wore such things. His crime, familiar to everyone who knows frustration when things don't go the way we want them to, was trying to force the issue. He thought he knew better than God. You know, like Adam and the forbidden fruit. Like you and me whenever we let the ends justify the means... as with violence in the service of a greater peace... as with a little lying to enforce a larger truth... as with a smothering faith in the name of Love. You can almost hear the counterpoint in the Gospels, the voice of Judas against the prayer of Jesus, the latter acquiescing to the role God assigned him, "Thy will, not mine be done"; while the former, the treasurer (!) of the disciples, pleading with heaven, "My will be done."
Judas may, in addition to being one of the Twelve, have been a clandestine member of a revolutionary party, the Sicarri, named for their fondness for short daggers, seeking to overthrow the hated oppression of Rome over the Holy Land. It has been suggested, by Biblical scholars during the heyday of Liberation Theology in the 1970's, that Iscariot derives from this term for zealots. If so, the betrayer's behavior makes more sense.
Judas sought to force Jesus to reveal himself as the messiah, to call down a legion of angels to lay waste the soldiers of Rome, to identify himself as, not the suffering Son of man, but the triumphant Son of God. Poor Judas just didn't get it, just like Bob Howard has a hard time getting it, that the kingdom of God cannot be taken by force, that the human heart cannot be conquered by knives and guns, that the longing for a powerful leader is a longing easily corrupted, that those of a gentle spirit shall indeed have the earth as their possession, and that it is the Victim who at the last is the Victor.
Well, maybe Judas did get it after all, when he gauged the enormity of his offense as the cross rose before his eyes and his friend was impaled upon it, with no angel legions in sight. In abject remorse, he hanged himself, according to Matthew.
Judas, like the rest of us, wanted someone to vindicate him. But Jesus doesn't vindicate us; he gives us something far better, himself, and opens for us a whole new world of love and light.
In the words of a contemporary observer, his disciples, holding to his vision, would turn the world upside down.
That good, eternally-blessed work continues.