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Friday, April 21, 2006

No Good News Here

A recent sensation in the world of New Testament studies is the "presentation to the world" of the supposed "Gospel of Judas." National Geographic, an organization renowned for its progressive views on social, environmental, historical, and even religious subjects, gave the 1,700-year-old papyrus document a lavish premier with an hour-long and heavily advertised special and its own interactive mini-website. Considering all the hoopla, one would have to be forgiven if he thought an original autograph had been found, written in the disciple's own blood. However, this "Gospel" is nothing of the sort.

The docudrama special, shown in prime time on the National Geographic Channel, unfolded the mystery of the ancient codex's journey from Egypt through a maze of antiquities dealers to its modern discovery in the New York bank vault. In poor condition due to neglect, the document was rigorously tested to determine its authenticity as a second- or third-century manuscript. Carbon dating placed it well within those parameters, proving it was not a forgery. Then, of course, a team of top Greek scholars painstakingly translated it, although, because the papyrus is in such bad shape in places, only a partial translation is possible. (If interested, one can read it here.)

Several of the scholars National Geographic chose to comment on the "discovery" of this document are well known within theological circles to be religiously open-minded. Perhaps foremost among them is Elaine H. Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton University. She has written numerous books, most of which focus on Gnosticism in relation to early Christianity. This quotation provides the flavor of her views on the "Gospel of Judas":

Whether or not one agrees with it, it's an enormously interesting perspective. Like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and other ancient texts that remained virtually unknown for nearly 2,000 years, the gospel of Judas offers startling new perspectives on familiar gospel stories: These discoveries are changing the way we understand the beginnings of Christianity.

Another major contributor to the special's academic lineup is Bart D. Ehrman, Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His specialty is ancient Christian history, emphasizing the clash between orthodoxy and heresy. Here is a long quotation from him on this new manuscript.

The reappearance of the Gospel of Judas will rank among the greatest finds from Christian antiquity and is without doubt the most important archaeological discovery of the past 60 years. What will make this gospel famous—or infamous, perhaps—is that it portrays Judas quite differently from anything we previously knew. Here he is not the evil, corrupt, devil-inspired follower of Jesus who betrayed his master; he is instead Jesus' closest intimate and friend, the one who understood Jesus better than anyone else, who turned Jesus over to the authorities because Jesus wanted him to do so. This gospel has a completely different understanding of God, the world, Christ, salvation, human existence—not to mention of Judas himself—than came to be embodied in the Christian creeds and canon. It will open up new vistas for understanding Jesus and the religious movement he founded.

Note that he calls this a "reappearance of the Gospel of Judas," which is exactly right. As the television special itself mentioned:

Around A.D. 180, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon in what was then Roman Gaul, wrote a massive treatise called Against Heresies. The book was a fierce denunciation of all those whose views about Jesus and his message differed from those of the mainstream church. Among those he attacked was a group who revered Judas, "the traitor," and had produced a "fictitious history," which "they style the Gospel of Judas."

Irenaeus is thought to have been a student of Polycarp, who himself was a disciple of the apostle John in Ephesus. Among the more conservative of those considered to be "Church Fathers," Irenaeus argued that only the Four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—were authoritative, and the so-called Gospel of Judas, which he had evidently read, was not only clearly heresy but also absolutely apocryphal. Judas had killed himself before committing anything about himself to papyrus.

A skim through the translated text makes it plain that the teaching of this purported Gospel is far from Christian. It contains elements from Christianity—Christ, the disciples, the Last Supper, the betrayal—but its main themes are entirely Gnostic and pagan. It includes references to a number of Gnosticism's pantheon of emanations, gods, and demiurges, as well as allusions to the "god" within. In fact, the bulk of the text teaches the "mysteries" of gnosis.

The "Gospel of Judas" is no Gospel; it is not even Christian. As for being "good news," it fails on that score too. It turns the revelation of God in Christ through His disciples' writings on its head, making good evil and evil good (Isaiah 5:20). It entirely ignores the true message of the gospel of the Kingdom of God, touting instead the corrupt mystery religion of spiritual self-actualization through mystic knowledge. It is frankly profane.

The early church soundly rejected it as heresy in the late second century, and the true church today heartily concurs. It should have been left to disintegrate completely to dust in that New York bank vault.