For an enjoyably peeved analysis of the April cover story in The Smithsonian, see Mike Aquilina's Smithsonian: Christians? What Christians? from his weblog The Way of the Fathers. Mike has written for us a lot and has several reviews in the hopper.
And for a good example of how not to read the New Testament, see Salon.com's interview with Elaine Pagels, Gospel According to Judas. For example, she explains that although Judas "has become the symbol of treachery and betrayal,"
once you start to look at the gospels one by one, you realize that followers of Jesus were trying to understand what had happened after he was arrested and killed. They knew Judas had handed him over to the people who arrested him.
The earliest gospel, Mark, says Judas handed him over, but it doesn't give any motive at all. The people who wrote after Mark -- Matthew's and Luke's gospels -- apparently felt that what was wrong with the Gospel of Mark was that there was no motive. So Matthew adds a motive. Matthew says Judas went to the chief priests who were Jesus' enemies, and said, "What will you give me if I hand him over to you?" And they agree on a certain sum of money. So in Matthew's view, the motive was greed. In Luke's gospel, it's entirely different. It says the power of evil took over Judas. Satan entered into him.
The point, I think, is to undermine the traditional story by showing that the sources themselves disagree. If Matthew, Mark, and Luke disagree, they can't be trusted to give us the real story about Judas, and if they can't be trusted, perhaps the Gospel of Judas actually gives us the true story. If the tradition conflated their stories into one official authorized version, perhaps it did so for self-interested reasons, which suggests that the repressed dissenting tradition tells us the truth the powers-that-be of the time didn't want anyone to know.
This is really very dim. Remarkably dim. Dim beyond belief.
Dim, I mean, simply as a reading of the story the gospels tell us. A man is so greedy that he betrays a close friend, a man whose disciple he has been for some time, and sends him to an excruciatingly painful death, for money. He does what the crudest morality of the playground ("No squealing!") treats almost as the unforgivable sin.
He had, we know, to decide to do this. At one moment Judas is still a disciple, at the next he's decided to make money by getting his friend and master killed. That decision is certainly an act of greed. That Satan entered into him is both a very good description of such a treacherous decision and a perfectly plausible explanation (and a perfectly good metaphor if you don't believe in Satan).
To be so greedy that you betray your friend and master is to let Satan enter into you. It's the same act, understood in two different ways. Maybe Matthew was more personal (there's a better word for what I mean, but I can't think of it off the top of my head) and Luke more theological in describing the same act.
But Pagels decides that these descriptions are "entirely different." Entirely different. People who read more carefully — and without the establishment scholar's ideological bias against the consistency of the gospels — will say that they look more like two different ways of describing the same act, as one might say (and has said) of a man who left a loving wife and dependent children for a younger woman both that he wanted to get Miss Lollipop into bed and that he lost his mind. It's the same action, described from two different angles, both equally true and the two perfectly consistent with each other.
But we are supposed to take seriously someone who declares Matthew and Luke's descriptions "entirely different," and in response throw over the Christian tradition for the Gospel of Judas, or at least hold open the possibility that the tradition is wrong and the alternative gospel right. All theological considerations aside, before rejecting an ancient consensus I'd rather depend upon someone in whose ability to read I have more trust.
For more on Dr. Pagels, you will want to read Fr. Paul Mankowski's The Pagels Imposture.