Drawing Appropriate Conclusions from the Gospel of Judas
It was reported today in a New York Times article of the discovery of a 4th century manuscript copy entitled the Gospel of Judas. Bound to encite much controversy, this Gospel claims to relate “the secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week, three days before he celebrated Passover.” The account indicates that Jesus asked Judas to betray him for the purposes of his spiritual plan, saying “…you [Judas] will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”
I would initially venture to comment that most news media will be either prone to make subtle yet inflammatory statements in regards to the impact of the document for the purposes of readership, or likely to draw inaccurate conclusions themselves based upon a misunderstanding of both Gnosticism and Christian Orthodoxy. But before we are quick to draw conclusions from the reporting that has already occurred among the news media, let’s consider a few points that will clarify the context of the Gospel of Judas.
This document does not recount the ministry and passion of Christ, as do the other Gospels, but singles out a particular doctrinal point. It is qualitatively different.
This should raise eyebrows given the availability of antecedent and better attested accounts of Jesus that are primarily documentary rather than theological. Liberal scholar Elaine Pagels stated, in reference to the Gospel of Judas, “These discoveries are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion, and demonstrating how diverse — and fascinating — the early Christian movement really was,” as if to say that Christian orthodoxy would be anachronistic to the time. This is a patently incorrect and intentionally misleading comment. In fact, scholars initially based their entire search for this document based upon a reference to it in Against Heresies, written in AD 180 by Ireneus, the Bishop of Lyons. Such a treatise would not have been written had orthodoxy not been a significant concern at the time. Ireneus points out that Gnostic Gospels are distortions of an established doctrine, not authentic teachings.
The Gospel of Judas is distinctly Gnostic and speaks little in reference to Christian Orthodoxy.
In addressing the Cainites, the sect responsible for the Gospel of Judas, Ireneus writes that they: “stated that Cain owes his existence to the highest power, while Esau, Korak, the Sodomites and all other men are dependants of each other… They believe that Judas the Betrayer was fully informed of these things and that only he (sic) understanding the truth like no one else fulfilled the secret of betrayal that confused all things, both in heaven and on earth. They invented their own history called the Gospel of Judas. (A.H. I.31.1)” Elsewhere, Ireneus quotes the document: “You will be cursed by the other generations — and you will come to rule over them…You will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”
Themes such as the inherent evil of physical matter and the unlocking of secret knowledge through ritual and relationships are typical of Gnostic thinking, and are often found in the apocryphal works of the 3rd and 4th century, not in the Christian literature of the 1st century. Sadly, Judas did not receive the rulership supposedly promised by Jesus, as it was reported by multiple earlier accounts that he took his own life in grief.
In its article, the New York Times states: “As the findings have trickled down to churches and universities, they have produced a new generation of Christians who now regard the Bible not as the literal word of God, but as a product of historical and political forces that determined which texts should be included in the canon, and which edited out.” I find this to be one of the most troubling aspects of the entire story. Not only is it an underhanded misrepresentation of the current state of the church, it is flatly incorrect in its suggestion regarding the formulation of the canon. While I won’t delve into this subject too deeply, I would like to quickly dispel some confusion regarding the canon.
The council of Nicea, convened in AD 325, was made possible by the freedom granted to Christians by Constantine of Rome. The purpose of this meeting was not to choose the accepted books of the Bible, but to resolve a doctrinal dispute regarding the nature of Christ. In fact, the canon was formed more as a process of excluding heretical teachings as they surfaced, rather than one of selecting from a large group of available scriptures. The Times has overreached in its assessment of the ‘new generation of Christians,’ as it is not the majority thinking of the church, nor is the claim of Biblical errancy and political maneuverings new!
In response to the unveiling of the Gospel of Judas, James M. Robinson, expert in Coptic and Egyptian texts and Professor Emeritus at Claremont (Calif.) Graduate University said, “Does it go back to Judas? No…There are a lot of second-, third- and fourth-century gospels attributed to various apostles. We don’t really assume they give us any first century information.” His statement is a succinct way of pointing out the shortcomings of this document: it’s distance from its subject (both Jesus and Judas), its origin with a sect known to be heretical over a century prior to this manuscript, and its divergence from orthodox teaching, which leaves it suited much more to Gnosticism than Christianity.