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From traitor to hero? Responding to "The Gospel of Judas"
May 01, 2006
By R. Albert Mohler Jr., President, Southern Seminary
Headlines around the world have announced the publication of a "long lost" and "suppressed" ancient document, known as "The Gospel of Judas." The National Geographic Society announced the publication at a major media event April 6, just in time to boost publicity for its April 9 special on the National Geographic Channel.
The document purports to be written by Judas, even though it certainly was written long after Judas's death. Nevertheless, the very existence of this document, rooted in the third century after Christ, indicates something of the struggle Christian leaders confronted in defining and defending the authentic Gospel against heretical groups such as the Gnostics.
A quick look at "The Gospel of Judas" reveals the contrast between this document and the four canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The English version, edited by Rudolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer and Gregor Wurst, presents an accessible and readable version of the portions of the "Codex Tchacos" now available. The most remarkable feature of this text is its thoroughly Gnostic character. The substance of this gospel bears virtually no resemblance to orthodox Christianity — a fact which explains why the early church recognized this writing for what it is, and rejected it as neither authoritative nor authentic.
The concept of secret and mysterious knowledge was central to Gnostic sects. "The Gospel of Judas" purports to reveal conversations between Jesus and Judas that had been kept secret from the rest of humanity. The Gnostics prized their secret knowledge, and taught a profound dualism between the material and spiritual worlds. They understood the material world, including the entire cosmos, to be a trap for the spiritual world. In essence, the Gnostics sought to escape the material world and to enter the world of spirit.
Accordingly, the most revealing statement in the entire text of "The Gospel of Judas" records Jesus saying to Judas, "But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me."
In other words, Judas would perform a service to Jesus by betraying Him to those who would then crucify Him, liberating Jesus from the physical body and freeing Him as spirit. As the editors of "The Gospel of Judas" indicate in a footnote, "The death of Jesus, with the assistance of Judas, is taken to be the liberation of the spiritual person within."
Needless to say, this is in direct conflict with the Christian Gospel and the New Testament. The consistent witness of the New Testament is that Jesus came in order to die for sinners — willingly accepting the cross and dying as the substitutionary sacrifice for sin.
What are Christians to make of all this? The publication of "The Gospel of Judas" is a matter of genuine interest. After all, it is important for Christians to understand the context of early Christianity — a context in which the church was required to exercise tremendous discernment in confronting heretical teachings and rejecting spurious texts.
The scholarly research behind the publication of "The Gospel of Judas" appears to be sound and responsible. The codex manuscript was submitted to the most rigorous historical process in terms of dating, chemical composition and similar questions. In the end, it appears that the document is most likely authentic, in terms of its origin from within a heretical sect in the third century.
Nevertheless, extravagant claims about the theological significance of "The Gospel of Judas" are unwarranted, ridiculous and driven by those who themselves call for a reformulation of Christianity.
The resurgence of interest in Gnostic texts such as "The Gospel of Thomas" and "The Gospel of Judas" is driven by an effort, at least on the part of some figures, to argue that early Christianity had no essential theological core. Instead, scholars such as Elaine Pagels of Princeton University want to argue that, "These discoveries are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion, and demonstrating how diverse — and fascinating — the early Christian movement really was." What Pagels and many other figures argue is that early Christianity was a cauldron of competing theologies, and that ideological and political factors explain why an "orthodox" tradition eventually won, suppressing all competing theologies. Accordingly, these same figures argue that today's Christians should be open to these variant teachings that had long been suppressed and hidden from view.
Simon Gathercole, a New Testament professor at Aberdeen University, defended the text as authentic, but relatively unimportant. "It is certainly an ancient text, but not ancient enough to tell us anything new," Gathercole explains. "It contains themes which are alien to the first-century world of Jesus and Judas, but which became popular later."
Indeed, those Gnostic ideas did become popular later, and they are becoming increasingly popular now. The truth of the Gospel stands, and Christians will retain firm confidence in the authenticity of the New Testament and, in particular, of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Nevertheless, old Gnosticisms are continually repackaged and "rediscovered" even as new forms of Gnostic thought emerge in our postmodern culture.
Informed Christians will be watchful and aware when confronting churches or institutions that present spurious writings, rejected as heretical by the early church, on the same plane as the New Testament.
The verdict of Athanasius, one of the greatest leaders of the early church, still stands: "Let no man add to these, neither let him take out from these, for concerning these the Lord put to shame the Sadducees, and said, 'Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures.' And He reproved the Jews, saying, 'Search the Scriptures, for these are they that testify of Me.'"