Book review: Reading Judas

by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King


This is a fun one. Short and sweet, Karen and Elaine share their unique interpretation of this fascinating discovery. Scholars of the gospel of Judas would never consider it mainstream Christianity … can any book who paints a Christian villian as a hero be mainstream? … and yet, there remains a lot of controversy about exactly how to classify  that ancient Gospel. Part of the problem, of course, is that it’s far from complete; and while that’s certainly not the fault of Pagels and King, it does disrupt the readability of their book when pieces of the manuscript are missing.

The subtitle of the book is “The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity.” This discussion of early Christianity is, precisely, what makes the Pagels/King book interesting. They delve into the conflict between Paul and Peter, and how later writers (such as the book of Acts) purposefully glossed over this conflict in an attempt to bring unison.

The book is in two parts: First, a discussion of the gospel and it setting, and second, an interpretation of the gospel itself with commentary. Karen King translates it herself, and their understanding is unique, quite different from other coverage of the gospel of Judas, as they are unafraid to give serious attention to alternative strands of Christianity and their meaning of the cross, the suffering of martyrs, and of Jesus’ divinity. These were important topics in the early years of Christianity, and Christians today are, for the most part, quite unaware of the divisive strands that existed in those days.

Pagels and King do present controversial views (I found myself often disagreeing), but regardless of your beliefs or opinions, this is a fascinating read about an equally fascinating topic.