I don't know whether National Geographic deliberately timed its announcement of the dramatic discovery of an early Christian "Gospel of Judas Iscariot" for the Pesach season.
It's a nice touch, in any case, because it was on the night of the seder that Judas, according to the New Testament, betrayed Jesus to his captors and set in motion the events leading to his crucifixion.
Indeed, as elsewhere in the New Testament, only a reader with some knowledge of Jewish customs can fully follow its description of this "last supper," as Christianity calls it.
When one reads, for example, how, at the seder's start, Jesus "took the cup, and gave thanks and he took the bread, and gave thanks," the Jewish reader recognizes the kiddush and the motzi immediately. When the Gospels tell us that, at the meal's end, the disciples "sang a hymn," what was sung was clearly the Birkat Hamazon. When it is related that Jesus "took likewise the cup after supper," the reference is obviously to the fourth and last cup of wine, drunk at the seder's end.
This is the paradox of reading the New Testament as a Jew. One feels its poignant intimacies more than anyone – and recoils more than anyone at the uses to which they were later put.
So, of course, there is also something in a Jew that responds to the discovery of an ancient Christian text in which Judas Iscariot, the satanic betrayer of God incarnate, the archetypical Christian symbol of Jewish evil throughout the ages, turns out to have been a good guy.
Judas, it seems, being the sole disciple with the Jewish brains to have understood all along that Jesus intended to martyr himself, and that being crucified, with all its horrible suffering, was precisely the death that would give his master's life its ultimate meaning, agreed to sacrifice himself as well; for what greater sacrifice could there be than for a disciple who loved his master to turn him over to his executioners at the seder's end because someone had to do it?
It's an intriguing notion, and one with sufficient logic behind it to have appealed to more than one modern author – among them the Hebrew novelist A.A. Kabak, whose historical novel about Jesus, The Narrow Path, published in 1950, has Judas and Jesus agreeing on such a course of action between them.
In fact, even in one of the four New Testament Gospels (the Gospel According to John), Judas, though not volunteering for his role, is chosen for it by Jesus. Well, better a victim than a villain.
Of course, since the text of the "Gospel According to Judas" has not yet been released by the National Geographic Society, we may yet be in for unpleasant surprises. This gospel, so the advance publicity has informed us, is, like a number of other noncanonical early Christian accounts of Jesus' life and death, a Gnostic document – and in its attitude toward Jews, Christian Gnosticism was on the whole even more hostile than mainstream Christianity. The fact that the "Gospel According to Judas" vindicates Judas does not necessarily mean that it will prove to be a vindication of the Jews or Judaism.
But never mind that.
An early, second-century C.E. exoneration of Judas Iscariot is sufficient unto itself. And although it obviously has great historical significance for scholars, such an exoneration will speak especially to those Jews (of whom I confess to be one) who have always felt both close to the figure of Jesus and unforgiving toward a Christian world that persecuted us viciously in his name. With such a Judas, one can identify.
I sometimes think of that seder that is called "the last supper." There was no Haggadah to read yet, no "Chad Gadya" or "Echad Mi Yodea" to sing – all that came later.
There were just 13 men around a Jerusalem table with matzah and wine, doing their best to talk (for they had other things on their minds) of the exodus from Egypt as tradition commanded them, three of whom (if John's account is to be trusted) knew, and 10 of whom did not, that the nights and days ahead of them were going to be terrible.
According to the Gospels, for Jesus these nights and days did not last long.
For Judas, they have lasted until the present. That's the difference.
Hillel Halkin is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.