About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Did Jesus commit assisted suicide?

Well, I can’t be out of the country for a few days and what happens? News hit the media that the Gospel of Judas has been made public! Moreover, the manuscript had been sitting in a bank vault in Hicksville, NY, a few miles from where I live!! (OK, that last bit was rather irrelevant.)

This is a big deal, folks. It’s one of the most important archaeological findings related to the early history of Christianity, and one that will (or rather, should) change views about Jesus and his thought. The new gospel was actually unearthed in Egypt back in the 1970’s, but was turned over for study only recently. Let’s get one thing straight immediately: the experts that have examined the manuscript have absolutely no doubts about its authenticity. It is in Coptic, probably written around the year 300, but it is a translation of an original Greek that goes back to the early second century (the gospel is referred to by Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, in 180). That makes it only slightly older than some of the “canonical” gospels (none of which was probably written by an actual apostle).

The Gospel of Judas is also not the only manuscript emerged recently that challenges standard views of Jesus and his disciples. Just think of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene found also in Egypt in 1945, and you have plenty of material for sequels to The da Vinci Code.

What’s interesting – though it had been hypothesized by scholars before – is the new character that Judas takes on in the gospel by his name. In a radical departure from the role of the quintessential traitor, the gospel claims that Jesus asked Judas to betray him to the Romans, to “sacrifice the man that clothes me [Jesus],” thereby helping to unfold God’s plan (indeed, plenty of scholars had already considered the so-called “theory of the good Judas,” since God surely must have known what would have happened to Jesus and planned accordingly).

What the comments I have read so far have missed, though, it seems to me, is that if Jesus actually asked Judas to betray him in order to be crucified, escape his physical body, and liberate his spiritual self, doesn’t that mean that – in effect – Jesus committed assisted suicide? Wow, the theological consequences are staggering...


  1. Before getting too excited about the Gospel of Judas, I'd suggest reading this:


  2. I really don't think it changes anything either way, since Jesus knew he was going to die and already predicted Judas betrayal at the last supper. If Judas was a participant rather than a betrayer, I don't think it would change the relevence of the crucifixtion. If the document is authentic (in truth), it wouldn't explain why Judas commited suicide. We would have to say he commited suicide for some other reason than guilt. Why would a man that just helped complete his lords plan commit suicide?

  3. Jim, Judas could still have committed suicide out of guilt. Just because you agree to something that you think is right, it doesn't mean you won't have a conflicted conscience afterwards (or even doubts that the action was right to begin with). Life is more complicated than "he asked me, I did it."

  4. Perhaps you are right. I would still argue that he would only feel guilty enough for suicide if one of two things were true.
    1. He was not actually asked by Jesus.
    2. He was asked, but must not have understood the relevence of the crucifixtion in order for the guilt to be there.
    I would think that if he was asked and he understood the total meaning behind the crucifixtion that his concience would be at peace. But it was also a different time, and perhaps people had different views than our own. My wife told me that it may have even been customary for some to commit suicide after their masters death at that time. I guess I will never know (until its my turn anyway).

    I gather from reading your blogs that you are an athiest? Is this correct? I am just curious on your personal religous views. I don't mean to pry and it is not relevent nor important, just curious. You can disreguard the question if you want.

  5. Jim,

    it is not a secret that I'm an atheist. Just read some of the stuff on my skeptic web site (www.rationallyspeaking.org).

    Usually, however, I hasten to add that I'm an atheist not in the sense that I know for certain that there is no god. I'm an a-theist in the same sense in which, I'm sure, you (and even Cal!) are a a-unicornist. I don't believe in unicorns because there is no positive evidence for them, and because they are best explained within the fabric of human mythology.

  6. Origins and evidence for the "Gospel of Judas"

    I'm not sure that this is the best place to find info on the documents in question, but many of the findings on the site that I am examining here are at least well established and seem to be studied as thoroughly as possible.


    The prevailing, most sensible view here, by an expert, is that the documents were Gnostic in origin. What was the best evidence, btw, that the documents were thought to be Coptic? It would have to be more substantial than that they had merely originated out of Egypt, I hope.

    Establishing who wrote it and why, is absolutely crucial to understanding if the person or persons are truly casual observers, or one's who were all about willfully living a life of dissent towards anything Christian.

    from the above mentioned site:
    "..The owner of the text, who only wants to make money from it, has carefully timed the publicity surrounding what is called the Gospel of Judas. That is the opinion of Prof. Hans van Oort, who specialises in Gnosticism, Manichaeism, Nag Hammadi and Augustine. He called a press conference on his own initiative, to counter "all the nonsense" being written at the moment about the Gospel of Judas; for example that the Vatican has an interest in the document's not being published.

    Van Oort is attached to the Faculty of Theology of the University of Utrecht and is Professor of Christianity and Gnosticism at the Radboud University.

    "It was known from ancient times that there had to be a Gospel of Judas. Irenaeus of Lyons spoke about it in his Adversus haereses (Against Heresies) in around 180 A.D., but his real source is Justin Martyr, and that takes us to around 140 A.D. I would guess that the Gospel of Judas would have to be dated at about 120 A.D." The original, at least. The papyri that appeared in the hands of shady dealers at the end of the last century (see photo) were probably a copy from the end of the fourth century. What is spectacular for science is that the Gospel of Judas has at last been found, or at least a part of it. Van Oort does not rule out that it involves the missing codex from the Nag Hammadi codices. What he does rule out is that Judas himself wrote it. "There is no reason whatsoever to assume that he did this. Nothing points to that."

    The Gospel of Judas is a codex from the Gnostics, a movement that was denounced by the Church in the early days. "They set themselves against the established order, and thus also against the Creator. That's why Judas was their hero."

    Van Oort is one of the few people who knows the contents of the Gospel of Judas, but does not want any trouble with its owner, the Swiss Maecenas Foundation." If I did, I would be killed." (KN)

  7. Massimo
    as for our being anti-unicornist and whatnot..

    Well, leastwise you are one of the more effective reps for your cause. More often than not, persons who do what you do don't have the common sense to at least put on an appearance of caring about what other parties think.

    Was watching a study the other day about how empathy helps us compete. I have noted that sometimes even highly intelligent people can be also be incredibly self-referencing, implying in this manner of thinking that that they cannot be fooled by others (this incidentally places them back to childhood in some of their essential skills), thus losing their ability to exchange ideas and compete in a way that is useful and genuine. So no matter what our belief system happens to be, we are all more inclined, I think, to believe that it is at least worth the effort when another individual has those sort of complex, matured, empathetic abilities.

    Aside from being a-uncornists, I think most people that frequent or comment on your site, including yourself, do care about how we arrive at 'truth'.

  8. I am not a unicornist! I am a unicornarian. In fact I have rode on one. He was just missing his horn. Sorry couldn't resist.

  9. Cal, I appreciate your comment. Thanks.

  10. Interesting take, the one on "assisted suicide"... Heel will freeze over before that, if you pardon the image, but it would be interesting to see the right wing preaching that "euthanasia is the way of the Lord", or something to that effect. Or not - maybe it's only valid if that would save humanity. So there go your hopes down the drain, Massimo.

    Anyway, the Judas thing. Damn it! Does that man we don't get to destroy the Judas on Saturday before Easter Sunday anymore!? We had a blast doing it as kids... The Americans (Italians too?) here might be confused by what I'm saying...

    In Brazil, we have this tradition called "malhação do Judas" (freely translated by me as "spanking of Judas"). We make a scarecrow-like puppet out of old clothes, bags, then stuff if with newspaper or whatever. It's also customary to give the Judas a "local" name, with a "well-loved" politician being an all-time favorite, for example. Then, on Saturday, the people hang these Judas on poles, and then beat the scarecrow "to death", put fire on it (we also used to put some fire crackers inside him for added effect during the fire part). Big party.

    How loving and forgiving of us, wouldn't you say? ;-)


  11. "Then, on Saturday, the people hang these Judas on poles, and then beat the scarecrow "to death", put fire on it (we also used to put some fire crackers inside him for added effect during the fire part). Big party.

    How loving and forgiving of us, wouldn't you say? ;-)"

    A hard truth which alludes a little bit to do with the post on bias:

    There is an interesting tendency of humans, no matter what stated beliefs are, to want to place the blame, sin, guilt on another person. (or sometimes even on to a collective people group) So while we readily recognize Judas's actions of traitor as being a real and serious problem for any society, there simply isn't a person alive who isn't capable of becoming a traitor to others (or God) themselves.

    That's what we have in common.

    And tho knowing it likely will not start a trend in ass. suicide, it may keep us from killing, warring with, or living in constant strife with others who are generally as weak as we are.

    Knowing about what Judas was capable of, should make us all a little bit more humble.


    ps. And yes, you're right. Never have heard of the tradition. apparently, Minnesoteans are down right boring. :) but also, I think, less superstitious

  12. Yeah, I don't know where that tradition comes from, but it's most probably from Portugal - I don't know if hispanic countries, or other predominantly Catholic countries, have it either. Anyway...

    A very senior newspaper columnist from Brazil sometimes say that even when we profit from a treachery/betrayal itself, we still hate the traitor. Of course he repeated this after the Gospel of Judas came out. The Braz. Catholics believe they were saved by Jesus death, "caused" by Judas' betrayal. But they despise the traitor.


  13. No, thats totally wrong... jesus did not ask him.. It was his choice his choice from the start... read about peter an judah they both started out the same with jesus but made diff. choices.

  14. An essay posted at this site :


    suggests Jesus deliberately selected Judas to turn himself over to the authorites, probably with the full expectation he would be executed by the Romans. The essay suggests Jesus was a revolutionary, and not the originator of a pacific nanmbly-pambly doctrine suitable for slaves.

  15. I know htis post is old, but...

    You said the Gospel fo Judas is slightly older than the canonical Gospels, but the earleist date for Judas is 120 AD. All four Cannonical Gospels where written before 100 AD, by anyones datign standards.(Well, maybe not Earl Doughtery's.)

    Current consensus says Mark was written about 68 AD, and MAthew and Luke within a ten year frame of that base don MArk and Q. ( I have problems with Q theory, btu I'll go with the concensus for a moment.)

    So, around 80-85 AD for them.

    John was written about 100 AD.

    So how is Judas, written rpesumabely in 120 AD, slightly older?



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