This past week, a third-century papyrus manuscript containing the long-lost "Gospel of Judas" was presented to the public in Washington, D.C. amid much media frenzy.
This is certainly interesting for those who study Church history and ancient manuscripts. But it changes nothing about how the Catholic faith views the figure of Judas Iscariot.
Let's get the facts straight: This version of a Gnostic "gospel" appeared about 30 years ago on the Egyptian antiquities market. The text had last been heard of in 180 AD, when St. Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, condemned it as heretical.
Though it still must be authenticated, it is likely a copy of an earlier document produced by a second-century Gnostic sect called the Cainites. This group made a habit of giving a positive value to all the negative figures in Christian scriptures.
The document reportedly argues that Judas Iscariot, known to Christians as the man who betrayed Jesus Christ, was an essential part of God's design - a hero of sorts! Without his betrayal, Jesus would not have been crucified and God's plan to save mankind from its sins would not have been fulfilled.
One of the major differences between Gnostic belief and that of Christianity concerns the origins of evil in the universe. Christians believe that a good God created a good world, and that through the abuse of free will, sin and corruption entered the world and produced disorder and suffering.
The Gnostics blamed God for evil and claimed God created the world in a disordered and flawed way. Hence Christians have always rejected Gnostic Gospels.
Contrary to titillating recent news reports, the publication of the "Gospel of Judas" is not part of any rehabilitation of Judas by the Catholic Church. A key difference between the "Gospel of Judas" and the New Testament accounts concerns the forgiveness. In the apocryphal account, Judas is forgiven, fitting the Gnostic view that God intends evil for the world.
Today, Palm Sunday, Catholics and other Christians listen to Mark's powerful story of Jesus' passion. And on Good Friday, we will hear once again the haunting and moving Passion of John the Evangelist.
In both accounts, Peter and Judas committed very similar faults: Peter denied Jesus three times, and Judas handed him over. And yet now Peter is remembered as a saint and Judas simply as the traitor.
The main difference is not the nature or gravity of their sin, but their willingness to repent and accept God's mercy. Peter wept for his sins, came back to Jesus, and was pardoned.
Judas let himself be carried away by political excitement, personal resentment and bitterness. He sees how his own dream has come to nothing and an innocent man has been condemned to death. He realizes that everything has gone wrong. The Gospel describes Judas as hanging himself in despair.
While historically, many have thought Judas is probably in hell, there is no conclusive evidence. The Catholic Church has a canonization process by which it declares certain persons to be in heaven, but there is no such process for declaring people to be permanent residents of hell. The mercy of God is infinitely greater than our wickedness.
One final note. I often think the descendants of the Cainites are alive and well today, and they spend their time and energy carrying on with the same plan - the only difference is that today they have different names. They have good publicists at big publishing houses; they make lots of money on their fictional novels, and they strike the jackpot when their books are turned into movies!