April 16, 2006

The Gospel of Judas - An Exercise in Proving Too Much

The much-hyped, recently discovered and translated "Gospel of Judas" has certainly given the Christian heresy hungry media fuel for their spin engines. But is there really anything that this manuscript can add to the critique of classical Christian? I suggest not, and taking this thing too seriously would actually be counterproductive to the stance of most skeptics.

The first thing to point out is that this is not an unknown piece of literature. It was referenced by Irenaeus around 180 AD, who wrote against it as an example of heretical Gnostic thinking. Having a copy of the document in our possession adds nothing to its authority. In fact, it only confirms its Gnostic character and demonstrates that Irenaeus was accurate in his assessment of it.

The second thing to note is that this manuscript dates to around 300 AD, and the original, from which it is assumed to originate, cannot be placed much before 180 AD. This hardly makes this "testimony" of Jesus a credible competitor to the canonical Gospels, which even most critical scholars place in the first century.

But let's pretend for the moment that the Gospel of Judas does represent a more authentic portrait of what Jesus was about and what Judas' role was in all this. Isn't this the idea being proposed? But if this is so, why stop at vindicating Judas as a good guy, why not look at what else this book claims Jesus taught as the truth about reality?

Let's just review a few excerpts from the so called Gospel of Judas.
The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week three days before he celebrated Passover.
Right off the bat this document distinguishes itself as Gnostic. Gnosticism teaches that there are deeper, hidden truths that only those in the know can comprehend or are worthy to receive. The mainstream Gospels document only the truth fit for the average man. Not a very egalitarian belief system, and kind of hard to falsify when it's based on sayings that are too private to make it into common oral and written tradition.
When Jesus appeared on earth, he performed miracles and great wonders for the salvation of humanity.
Uh oh, miracles and "salvation" talk. Even the Gnostics claim that Jesus was something beyond a merely inspired teacher. Liberals will have to look elsewhere for their support of the notion of a non-supernatural Jesus.
[Jesus] began to speak with them about the mysteries beyond the world and what would take place at the end. Often he did not appear to his disciples as himself, but he was found among them as a child.
This goes even beyond what the four Gospels teach regarding the humanity of Jesus. Gnosticism has real issues with a genuinely human Jesus, since it holds matter to be evil. Often I see the Gnostic competition of orthodox Christianity referenced as though it lends support for a more palatable Jesus. Certain Gnostic conceptions, such as our having the "divine spark," are attractive and the main point of focus, but what is forgotten in the shuffle is that the Gnostics did not craft a more human Jesus, they rejected His humanity and had Him fully divine. He might be described by some Gnostics more as a spirit having only the appearance of human form.
Judas [said] to him, “I know who you are and where you have come from. You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo. And I am not worthy to utter the name of the one who has sent you.”
The Gnostics had Jesus preexisting this earthly visitation and arriving from the heavens. In many essential points of data they agreed with the orthodox writings. It was often simply a matter of detail and interpretation of what that meant. For example, here they would differ on where and who Jesus was prior to being "sent" to earth and in what manner and form He was sent.
[Jesus said], “What are [the priests] like?”

They [said, “Some …] two weeks; [some] sacrifice their own children, others their wives, in praise [and] humility with each other; some sleep with men; some are involved in [slaughter]; some commit a multitude of sins and deeds of lawlessness. And the men who stand [before] the altar invoke your [name], [39] and in all the deeds of their deficiency, the sacrifices are brought to completion […].”
Strong words against the priests! They seem to be committing sins and lawless deeds. Unfortunately, even this Gnostic writer has issues with men (the priests) sleeping with other men. No help here for the pro-homosexual crowd.
Jesus said, “[Come], that I may teach you about [secrets] no person [has] ever seen. . . . A great angel, the enlightened divine Self-Generated, emerged from the cloud. Because of him, four other angels came into being from another cloud, and they became attendants for the angelic Self-Generated. The Self-Generated said, [48] ‘Let […] come into being […],’ and it came into being […]. And he [created] the first luminary to reign over him. He said, ‘Let angels come into being to serve [him],’ and myriads without number came into being. He said, ‘[Let] an enlightened aeon come into being,’ and he came into being. He created the second luminary [to] reign over him, together with myriads of angels without number, to offer service. That is how he created the rest of the enlightened aeons. He made them reign over them, and he created for them myriads of angels without number, to assist them."
It goes on to discuss luminaries and angels creating more like themselves, with Christ (called Seth here) being somewhere down the chain, and that humans are merely the creation of one of the lower-order angels, Saklas. This metaphysic is no better than the Christian model for those who are inclined toward liberalism. It is far more convoluted, in fact, and demonstrates only the radical difference between the Gnostic and canon documents, which have Christ being eternal and co-creator of ALL things in the universe. Gnosticism isn't a "deeper" truth; it is a different truth.

So, what does this "Gospel" prove? I think the most that can be said of it is what was expressed in this National Geographic News article.
"To today's biblical scholars, the Gospel of Judas illustrates the multitude of opinions and beliefs in the early Christian church."
While this is certainly true, it is not as though diversity was previously unknown to informed Christians. One has only to read the Church Fathers to see their writings against the various heresies. But the early date of the canon Gospels, their apostolic pedigree, their overwhelming support by the global church, and the fact that even most heretics used them as their starting point makes the eventual rise and defeat of diversity a mere historical curiosity.

It is truly ironic that skeptics will receive with open arms even the most spurious and eccentric of materials while going above and beyond the normal means of discernment for anything that smacks of orthodoxy.



At 4/17/2006 2:56 AM, Anonymous CB said...

Hi Paul,

Nice work on this post. I agree with you that this 'Judas' excitement will surely subside without having done any critical damage to the integrity of the historicity of the Christian faith. In the meantime, it has certainly given the Christian (and non) blogging community something to chew on, and for the faithful an additional means by which to enter into common conversation with a ready opportunity to share the Gospel! Stop by and leave a comment on my blog anytime.


At 4/17/2006 7:50 AM, Blogger ephphatha said...


I agree with you that it seems like skeptics (and maybe people in general) so willingly latch on to anything that isn't orthodox even if it happens to be against a lot of things they believe. As long as it's against mainstream Christianity, it's welcomed with open arms.

I only have one quibble with what you wrote. You said:

"Gnosticism teaches that there are deeper, hidden truths that only those in the know can comprehend or are worthy to receive. The mainstream Gospels document only the truth fit for the average man."

While I think this may be a good generalization, it is not without exceptions. For example, when the disciples questioned Jesus about why he spoke to the crowds in parables, Jesus said, "To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted" (Matthew 13:11). Jesus was speak parables to the crowds and then explain them privately to his inner circle. In Mark 4:34, it says, "...and he did not speak to them without a parable; but he was explaining everything privately to his own disciples."


At 4/17/2006 12:12 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Great point Sam. I like being challenged by Christians. Demonstrates our intellectual honesty in spite of what our detractors may believe about us.

It is true that Jesus reserved certain things for the Apostles alone, but this only seems to be for the scope of his pre-resurrection ministry. As we can see from these "hidden" truths being included in the Gospels themselves, they were not intended to be kept from the masses for all time. All of the teachings of orthodoxy are there for the taking. When we disciple a Christian convert, we do not withhold the really juicy stuff from them until they are either ready (like Scientology) or are confirmed as one of the gnosticoi (sp?). (Of course, there are some topics that take some background to be able to effectively engage, like the Calvinist/Arminian debate.) This is as opposed to the Gnostic foundational idea of secret knowledge, which they held to in an elitist fashion over the simple, common Christians.

At 4/17/2006 10:08 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

As we can see from these "hidden" truths being included in the Gospels themselves, they were not intended to be kept from the masses for all time.

That is a very good point.

At 4/18/2006 1:52 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

If Dan Brown wanted to craft a work of fiction around a plausible conspiracy theory he would have been better served to consider secret texts and secret societies flowing out of 2nd century gnosticism.

He could trace their goal of perverting Biblical Christianity by forging documents and spawning various 'mystery' religions. Even planting conspiracy theories out there about the Catholic Church, or about the 'real' purpose of the council of Nicea. :)

At 4/22/2006 3:56 PM, Blogger Vman said...

If this can be scientifically proven to be true then it would cast some doubt on the bible because it contradicts the word of god and since the bible is supposed to be completely true.

At 4/22/2006 10:33 PM, Blogger Paul said...

This does seem to be an authentic ancient document, which most are dating only to the 300's. And it does seem to be a copy of the Gospel of Judas that Irenaeus wrote against in the late Second Century. The connection that's missing is to put this or any Gnostic document like it into the middle of the First Century, when we have good evidence and broad agreement that the canon documents were beginning to appear.

But even if we could place something like this during the lifetime of the apostles, it would not mean that it was true. Since you've got contradictory and competing stories someone must be off-base, maybe both, but they can't both be right. The question would still stand regarding which tradition was more faithfully capturing the real events. I think orthodoxy can and has won that debate, and for anyone who questions that, I would begin by simply recommending that they read some Gnostic materials in comparison to the canon texts.

At 4/23/2006 5:52 PM, Anonymous whyomar said...

Good rundown on the Gospel of Judas. It is typically gnostic, and really nothing to raise any eyebrows. As with most of the apocryphal writings, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. You only have to read the thing to check whether it's genuine or not; and like most of the apocryphal writings it is quite a chore to get through it. By contrast, try reading any of the canonical Gospels and the difference becomes obvious.


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