The New York Times had a story today about the “Gospel of Judas.” As you can see from the story below, it is being sensationalized. I’ve interspersed the text with some of my own comments.

Note: This is not my field of expertise. I have no access to the original manuscript – and it wouldn’t do any good if I did since I’ve never studied Coptic. My comments are based on general knowledge of biblical literature, history, and rhetoric.

Note also: Though called the Gospel of Judas, it was not written by Judas.

New York Times, April 6, 2006

‘Gospel of Judas’ Surfaces After 1,700 Years


An early Christian manuscript, including the only known text of what is known as the Gospel of Judas, has surfaced after 1,700 years. The text gives new insights into the relationship of Jesus and the disciple who betrayed him, scholars reported today.

Already the assumption is that this is a historical document.

In this version, Jesus asked Judas, as a close friend, to sell him out to the authorities, telling Judas he will “exceed” the other disciples by doing so.

Though some theologians have hypothesized this, scholars who have studied the new-found text said, this is the first time an ancient document defends the idea.

What we’ll likely see in the document is not “an ancient document defend[ing] the idea” but an ancient theologizing stating a hypothesis.

The discovery in the desert of Egypt of the leather-bound papyrus manuscript, and now its translation, was announced by the National Geographic Society at a news conference in Washington. The 26-page Judas text is said to be a copy in Coptic, made around A. D. 300, of the original Gospel of Judas, written in Greek the century before.

If it truly originated around 200 A.D. then it’s pretty old. But keep in mind that the canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) are over a century earlier in origin. Mark was written as early as the mid 60s; John, likely the last written, was written by about 95. Coptic was the language of Egypt at the time. Still today the native Christians of Egypt are known as the Copts.

Terry Garcia, an executive vice president of the geographic society, said the manuscript, or codex, is considered by scholars and scientists to be the most significant ancient, nonbiblical text to be found in the past 60 years.

He means since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948.

“The codex has been authenticated as a genuine work of ancient Christian apocryphal literature,” Mr. Garcia said, citing extensive tests of radiocarbon dating, ink analysis and multispectral imaging and studies of the script and linguistic style. The ink, for example, was consistent with ink of that era, and there was no evidence of multiple rewriting.

Translation: the manuscript is really as old as they say. It is called “apocyphal” because that’s the name for literature (from that period) whose form is similar to scripture but was not accepted by the church as canonical. Note: The vast majority of writings of the period were NOT accepted as canonical (i.e., included in the bible).

“This is absolutely typical of ancient Coptic manuscripts,” said Stephen Emmel, professor of Coptic studies at the University of Munster in Germany. “I am completely convinced.”

The authentication of the date is not only from the physical aspects of the manuscripts, but from the text and style.

The most revealing passages in the Judas manuscript begins, “The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week, three days before he celebrated Passover.”

Apocryphal literature – particularly that originating with the Gnostics – typically offered “secret accounts” of events commonly known.

The account goes on to relate that Jesus refers to the other disciples, telling Judas “you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” By that, scholars familiar with Gnostic thinking said, Jesus meant that by helping him get rid of his physical flesh, Judas will act to liberate the true spiritual self or divine being within Jesus.

The Gnostics, like some variants of Greek philosophy, thought of the body as evil, inasmuch as it is part of the physical world. Note that this is very much in contrast to the Jewish view that sees the world as God’s good creation. The Gnostics didn’t care for the Jews & Jewish influence so it was common for them to throw out the OT. In the NT we don’t see Jesus “liberated” from his body. We see him resurrected in a new kind of body, a new kind of physicality, not a denial or rejection of physicality.

With the film version of The Da Vinci Code coming out soon, it may also be worth noting that while that best seller presents the true message of Jesus as more in accord with Gnosticism than the canonical texts, it also claims that the real Jesus was more open to the “feminine.” If you actually read the gnostic documents you’ll find that’s mostly hogwash. In one of them in fact, Jesus speaks of saving Mary by helping her become a man.

Unlike the accounts in the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the anonymous author of the Gospel of Judas believed that Judas Iscariot alone among the 12 disciples understood the meaning of Jesus’ teachings and acceded to his will. In the diversity of early Christian thought, a group known as Gnostics believed in a secret knowledge of how people could escape the prisons of their material bodies and return to the spiritual realm from which they came.

The Gnostics, like some currents in Greek thought and Hindiusim, thought in terms of reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. They thought our souls were divine, but fallen into this physical world they acquired bodies. “Gnostic” refers to knowledge. Note that Judas is credited here with scret knowledge.

Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton who specializes in studies of the Gnostics, said in a statement, “These discoveries are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion, and demonstrating how diverse — and fascinating — the early Christian movement really was.”

There was diversity in early Christianity – just like there is diversity in modern Christianity. I’m not of the opinion that everything that goes by the name Christian IS Christian.

The Gospel of Judas is only one of many texts discovered in the last 65 years, including the gospels of Thomas, Mary Magdalene and Philip, believed to be written by Gnostics.

These other gospels were also found in Egypt, at a place called Nag Hamadi.

The Gnostics’ beliefs were often viewed by bishops and early church leaders as unorthodox, and they were frequently denounced as heretics. The discoveries of Gnostic texts have shaken up Biblical scholarship by revealing the diversity of beliefs and practices among early followers of Jesus.

This “shaken up” rhetoric is reminiscent of the Da Vinci Code. Diversity within Christianity (and movements along the edges) has long been recognized. Surely if the ancient leaders denounced the gnostics they had to have known about them. What is different now is that the value of orthodoxy is held by fewer people. If it’s wrong to speak of truth in the realm of religion, then surely we can revel in this ancient diversity. We just mustn’t pretend the idea is a new one from ancient Christianity.

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.

Not exactly. The final claim of this paragraph is really a variant of Nietzscheanism: “There is no such thing as truth, just power. If you see a truth claim, what you’re really seeing is an assertion of power.”

What might be meant by saying “the bible is the literal word of God?” When we read the bible we do come across portions where it appears that God is speaking directly. Other portions (the majority of the text) is not in the form of direct quotation of God. When NT characters refer to the OT (inside the text of the NT) it appears that they believed God was speaking through the human writers who produced scripture. Such a belief has been common in the church from the beginning. While some have adopted the Islamic view of the Koran to apply to Scripture – the notion that God literally dictated every word of the bible – most christian scholars deny such a view.

Another thing one might be thinking when one hears “literal word of God” is the notion that everything in the bible is to be taken literally. I don’t think this position even makes sense (though many seem to hold it). In the NT we see many occasions where the OT is quoted and treated in a non-literal sense (if you need an example consider how Peter handled the quotation of Joel 2 in Acts 2).

For that reason, the discoveries have proved deeply troubling for many believers. The Gospel of Judas portrays Judas Iscariot not as a betrayer of Jesus, but as his most favored disciple and willing collaborator.

I can’t think why I’d find the discoveries troubling. It’s interesting to know what strange ideas some people had back then – and to see how they parallel some of the strange ideas people have today. But I’m not troubled in the least.

Scholars say that they have long been on the lookout for the Gospel of Judas because of a reference to what was probably an early version of it in a text called Against Heresies, written by Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, about the year 180.

Irenaeus was a hunter of heretics, and no friend of the Gnostics. He wrote, “They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.”

When we hear “hunter of heretics” we’re made to think of someone with a big gun – or at least big piles of wood, a can of gasoline and a box of matches. As a bishop (overseer) of the church, Irenaeus had the job of watching out for his people. When he saw ideas coming down the road that might lead people astray, it was his job to point them out and warn the people. That’s still the job of the pastor today (though performed too rarely in this age).

Karen L. King, a professor of the history of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, and an expert in Gnosticism who has not yet read the manuscript released today, said that the Gospel of Judas may well reflect the kinds of debates that arose in the second and third century among Christians.

“You can see how early Christians could say, if Jesus’s death was all part of God’s plan, then Judas’s betrayal was part of God’s plan,” said Ms. King, the author of several books on the Gospel of Mary. “So what does that make Judas? Is he the betrayer, or the facilitator of salvation, the guy who makes the crucifixion possible?”

Yes, people wonder about this issue. The canonical texts raise more questions than answers when it comes to Judas. Gnosticism, however, offers more than a new view of Judas. It offers a completely different view of salvation than we find in the canonical texts. So the salvation that he “facilitates” is a different salvation than that attested to in scripture.

At least one scholar said the new manuscript does not contain anything dramatic that would change or undermine traditional understanding of the Bible. James M. Robinson, a retired professor of Coptic studies at Claremont Graduate University, was the general editor of the English edition of the Nag Hammadi library, a collection of Gnostic documents discovered in Egypt in 1945.

Robinson is right.

“Correctly understood, there’s nothing undermining about the Gospel of Judas,” Mr. Robinson said in a telephone interview. He said that the New Testament gospels of John and Mark both contain passages that suggest that Jesus not only picked Judas to betray him, but actually encouraged Judas to hand him over to those he knew would crucify him.

I’m not sure how far I’d take this last statement. I’d certainly try to contextualize it differently.

Mr. Robinson’s book, “The Secrets of Judas: The Story of the Misunderstood Disciple and his Lost Gospel” (Harper San Francisco, April 2006), predicts the contents of the Gospel of Judas based on his knowledge of Gnostic and Coptic texts, even though he was not part of the team of researchers working on the document.

The Egyptian copy of the gospel was written on 13 sheets of papyrus, both front and back, and found in a multitude of brittle fragments.

Rudolphe Kasser, a Swiss scholar of Coptic studies, directed the team that reconstructed and translated the script. The effort, organized by the National Geographic, was supported by Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art, in Basel, Switzerland, and the Waitt Institute for Historical Discovery, an American nonprofit organization for the application of technology in historical and scientific projects.

The entire 66-page codex also contains a text titled James (also known as First Apocalypse of James), a letter by Peter and a text of what scholars are provisionally calling Book of Allogenes.

Discovered in the 1970’s in a cavern near El Minya, Egypt, the document circulated for years among antiquities dealers in Egypt, then Europe and finally in the United States. It moldered in a safe-deposit box at a bank in Hicksville, N. Y., for 16 years before being bought in 2000 by a Zurich dealer, Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos. The manuscript was given the name Codex Tchacos.

When attempts to resell the codex failed, Ms. Nussberger-Tchacos turned it over to the Maecenas Foundation for conservation and translation.

Mr. Robinson said that an Egyptian antiquities dealer offered to sell him the document in 1983 for $3 million, but that he could not raise the money. He criticized the scholars now associated with the project, some of whom are his former students, because he said they violated an agreement made years ago by Coptic scholars that new discoveries should be made accessible to all qualified scholars.

$3 millions dollars. That’s pretty sensational in itself. Sometimes it’s worth while to ask who stands to profit from the publishing of ancient manuscripts. While not a decisive factor, it can be worth considering.

The manuscript will ultimately be returned to Egypt, where it was discovered, and housed in the Coptic Museum in Cairo.

Ted Waitt, the founder and former chief executive of Gateway, said that his foundation, the Waitt Institute for Historical Discovery, gave the National Geographic Society a grant of more than $1 million to restore and preserve the manuscript and make it available to the public.

“I didn’t know a whole lot until I got into this about the early days of Christianity. It was just extremely fascinating to me,” Mr. Waitt said in a telephone interview. He said he had no motivation other than being fascinated by the finding. He said that after the document was carbon dated and the ink tested, procedures his foundation paid for, he had no question about its authenticity. “You can potentially question the translation and the interpretation, he said, but you can’t fake something like this. It would be impossible.”

You’re going to have to read a lot more than the Gospel of Judas to understand the era and its movements.

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2 Responses to 114437578003441691

  1. I certainly am not bothered by this apocryphal gospel. There are many such manuscripts, and our church “fathers” (yes, they were all men) acted wisely when they determined the canon as we know it today.

    There may have been some horse-trading, and all such gatherings are often political, but I nevertheless believe that God’s Spirit was at work in that process, just as God’s Spirit was at work throughout church history, and even today.

    A saying of Joseph comes to mind: “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”

  2. steve o says:

    I studied the gospels of the codex Nag Hamadi in some detail, both in translation and in coptic. I found them refreshingly relevant to the time they were written, unlike the much edited and dogmatic irrelevance of the King James bible, which I have always regarded as rubbish. The excised texts neither add nor detract from my utter disbelief. I note with great interest that Judas Iscariot’s version has publically surfaced and that like Thomas’ gospel does not mention the invented crucifiction (my spelling and note my meaning, pure fiction)

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