Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

What a delight to see Jeffrey Archer, himself the recipient of some of the largest handouts in the history of British publishing, co-hosting an ITV show called Million Pound Giveaway. Inflate that sum by 1,000 per cent, and you begin to approach the level of largesse Archer grew accustomed to in his mega-deals with HarperCollins and Macmillan. Prison for perjury cramped his style, of course. Yet, soon enough, his jail testaments led to swift rehabilitation. Last spring, the art theft-plus-September 11 romp False Impression implied that schlocky service had resumed. But his latest project suggests that this champion fantasist has been dwelling on the meaning of denial and betrayal in typically hyperbolic terms.

"Archer to co-author fifth gospel," runs the headline on a press release. Well, we knew that Lord A harbours a truly evangelical belief in his own talents, but even so... It turns out that Archer, no doubt keenly aware of the cult of Dan Brown and its craving for suppressed tales from the Jesus movement, has fictionalised the life of Judas Iscariot. Advised by the Vatican theologian Francis J Moloney, The Gospel According to Judas, by Benjamin Iscariot will appear in late March. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, no less, has recorded the audio version of a narrative he finds "riveting and plausible". Tutu's bottomless benevolence is matched by that of Cardinal Martini - retired archbishop of Milan, and the liberals' hot tip for Pope last time - who helpfully steered Archer towards his former student, Professor Moloney.

Readers truly interested in new versions of the story of the 12th apostle need not wait for the Archer bandwagon to roll, laden with rather more than 30 pieces of silver. The eminent New Zealand novelist and poet CK Stead published his lauded novel My Name Was Judas (Harvill Secker) late last year. It dramatises a naturally charismatic, but non-messianic, Jesus through the eyes of his smart and sceptical schoolfriend.

Away from fiction, discoveries about the non-canonical "Gnostic Gospels" have directed much expert attention to Judas and the meanings of his legend. In 2004, the celebrated "Gospel of Judas" was (literally) pieced together in Switzerland. Probably written around 150AD, surviving in a Coptic text carbon-dated to 280AD, it presents Judas as a Gnostic initiate. By informing on Jesus, this Iscariot fulfils his apocalypse-minded teacher's wish to cast off mortal corruption.

The biblical scholar Bart D Ehrman explains the status of this manuscript with cool-headed clarity in The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot (Oxford, £12.99). This gospel "stands alone" among early narratives, "in insisting that Judas was not only closer to Jesus but also was the only one among the disciples who understood who Jesus was and what he wanted". For Ehrman, it adds to the pile of recent evidence to show how deep and lasting were the "enormous struggles" in the early Church over doctrine and scripture.

Given his close guidance from the theological establishment, it's unlikely that Archer will stray far into the terrain of Gnostic heresy with his Judas tale. In their aid to this repentant sinner, Tutu and Martini are doing just as their faith commands. Maybe they should also pay respects to the family and memory of the late Monica Coghlan, the prostitute betrayed and vilified by Archer's lies on oath. "I lost my home, my dignity, my self-respect, and any hope of a future," she later said. Archer's own future, blessed by such princes of the Church, looks as golden as ever. Do these prelates know or care about her fate? The guy who started their business would have done.