Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Gospel of Judas Iscariot?

I know everyone out there is getting all involved with critiquing The Davinci Code. But there’s something else that’s coming down the pike you ought to know about. National Geographic is about to publish The Gospel of Judas Iscariot—an ancient manuscript of this book just resurfaced in Egypt. They are going to be doing wall-to-wall coverage on this; publishing a book, promoting it in their magazine and even filming a documentary about it. Is it written by Jesus’ betrayer? Does it disprove the accounts of Jesus found in the four canonical Gospels? The headlines are already popping up: Gospel of Judas Has Church Leaders worried. Church leaders are said to be worried because, it is alleged, the book is going to somehow destroy Christianity.

Now, this is really timely isn’t it? Isn’t it an amazing coincidence that this book is going to be published just as The Davinci Code movie hits the big screen? An amazing coincidence, right? Of course, this is no coincidence—this is about business. The Davinci Code "reveals" that the biblical gospels are actually distortions of the original teaching of Jesus. His true message is contained in other books not found in the bible – books like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Philip. Here we have yet another. Clearly this release is trying to ride the wave of The Davinci Code.

Now some of my non-academic readers may be unfamiliar with the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip. These books may sound new to you but they are really not new at all. They go back to the second and third century (at the earliest)—which, of course, means that they were absolutely not written by Thomas, Philip, or, in the most recent case, Judas. They were a product of a group condemned as heretics called “Gnostics.” "Gnostic" comes from the word for “knowledge.” The idea was that they had the secret knowledge about the world. What did they claim to know? Gnostics believed that the physical world was evil—only the spirit is good. They believed, in fact, that the world was not created by the God of the New Testament—it was created by a lower god, an evil god. Since matter and the flesh are evil, Jesus did not truly become a man. He could not do such a thing; that would be beneath him. According to one incarnation (pardon the pun) of this heresy, the Son of God only appeared to die on the cross. The heresy took different forms—but that’s the gist of it. These gospels were written to support this idea of who Jesus was.

By the way, if you read The Davinci Code, you’ll actually find that Dan Brown, the author, doesn’t really understand what Gnosticism was all about. Brown makes it sound like Gnosticism was concerned with denying the deity of Jesus—it wasn’t; if anything, the Gnostics stressed the “spirituality” of Jesus to the neglect of his humanity. But that’s just another example of why that book has no historical credibility whatsoever.

Anyway, like I said, the Gospel of Judas is one of these Gnostic gospels. The great early Church writer, Saint Irenaeus, mentions it in one of his writings. He writes in Against Heresis 1.31.1: “[Judas] alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They [the heretic] produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.”

This gospel was rejected so vehemently, it quickly disappeared—copies of it were not made. That explains why people got all excited a couple of decades ago when an ancient copy of the book resurfaced in Egypt. Actually, it resurfaced and then was stolen from its rightful owners. In fact, that’s the dirty little secret behind this whole story. Before any scholars could look at it, the ancient manuscript was sold unlawfully. As far as I know, National Geographic—who is publishing this book—has made no protest to this charge. They apparently are fully aware that it was stolen from Egypt.

In addition, the document has only been viewed by a handful of people. It seems that only scholars who agree with the motives of those publishing it have had a chance to look at it.

Clearly, there are a lot of problems here.

So, aside from the extremist authors who will appear on television to support the Gospel of Judas—most respected scholars are simply dismissing its relevance to the discussion of the historical Jesus. In fact, USA Today and other newspapers have already run stories that this gospel is being rejected by many biblical experts. Here’s a story from ABC NEWS:

“An expert on ancient Egyptian texts is predicting that the ‘Gospel of Judas’ a manuscript from early Christian times that's nearing release amid widespread interest from scholars will be a dud in terms of learning anything new about Judas.

James M. Robinson, America's leading expert on such ancient religious texts from Egypt, predicts in a new book that the text won't offer any insights into the disciple who betrayed Jesus. His reason: While it's old, it's not old enough.

‘Does it go back to Judas? No,’ Robinson told The Associated Press on Thursday.

The text, in Egypt's Coptic language, dates from the third or fourth century and is a copy of an earlier document.

That’s really the issue. Those, like Dan Brown, who have tried to say that the Gnostic gospels preserve the real message of Jesus, which was corrupted by the biblical books, have got a real problem—it seems as though the biblical books came before the Gnostic books—in most cases, long before them.

The other day, I saw this program on the History Channel that made it sound like Constantine threw these so-called “lost books”—e.g., the Gospel of Thomas—out of the bible in the 4th century. Well, that’s ridiculous—it’s outrageous. Whoever says that is just playing fast and loose with the historical data. The acceptance of the four gospels emerged extremely early on. For example, the Muratorian Fragment, the earliest list of biblical books, which dates to the late second century, speaks of the four gospels. This is also true in Irenaeus’ writings.

Let’s discuss some of the problems with these books. First of all, it is very likely that these books derive their sayings from the biblical sources (or “Q”).[1] Tuckett has made a very convincing case in this matter. For example, the Gospel of Thomas 16 reads:

“Many people think that I have come to throw peace upon the world; and they do not know that I have come to throw division upon the earth, fire sword, war. For there shall be five in a house, three against two and two against three, the father against the son and the son against the father, and they shall stand as solitaries.”
This appears to be a redaction of Luke 12:51, which many scholars view as a redaction of Matt 10:34f. Tuckett lays out a number of other examples.[2]

John Meier also looks at Gospel of Thomas 78, where we have the saying, “Why have you [plural] come out into the countryside? To see a reed shaken by the wind? And to see a person dressed in fine apparel [like your] governors and members of court, who wear fine apparel and cannot recognize the truth.” Meier writes,
“In my view this saying is a prime example of why the saying tradition in the Gospel of Thomas often, if not always, seems secondary vis-à-vis the canonical Gospels. The direct historical reference to John the Baptist preaching in the desert is given up in favor of a vague polemic against the rich and powerful of this world, who lack the true knowledge enjoyed by the Gnostic. Likewise, lost is the neat, taut three-step rhetorical structure of question and conterquestion. The fact that a concrete saying about John the Baptist has been recycled to inculcate Gnostic teaching is obvious from the last verse: ‘…and cannot recognize the truth?’”[3]
Thomas also includes verses that are extremely unlikely to have been words of Jesus. In 53, Jesus addresses the issue of circumcision and states that had circumcision been intended by God, males would have been born already circumcised. Here we have a saying attributed to Jesus that would have settled the debate about circumcision in the early church. The earliest Christians were divided over whether or not it was necessary to be circumcised to be a Christian. Some insisted that it was necessary. Paul argued that it was not. If Jesus had really said this it is hard to imagine someone would not have remembered.

Another thing we should point out is that, unlike all of the NT books, the Gnostic gospels hardly ever quote from the OT. In this, the Gnostic Gospels’ later origins are betrayed. It is hard to read these books as products of the second temple Jewish worldview. They fit much better into a later historical context.

Finally, the funniest thing about the way the Gnostic Gospels are presented is that they are often promoted as being pro-feminine. Their advocates say these books were only thrown out because they conflicted with the misogynistic perspective of the authoritative Church. This, of course, is one of the claims of The Davinci Code. But is the Gospel of Thomas pro-feminine: I think not. Listen to the last verse of the gospel (114):

“Simon Peter said to them, ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said, ‘I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’”
Love those pro-feminine gospels.

[1] Mark Goodacre has launched a staunch attack on “Q” that is really worth considering.
[2] Christopher Tuckett, “Thomas and the Synoptics,” Novum Testamentum 30 (1988):132-157.
[3] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 3:205-206 n 115. Also, see James Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2003), 162 n 105. For still more critique, see N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1992), 432-43.


Jeff Miller said...

The Gospel of Judas? Did the National Catholic Register have a name change?

I do find it funny the facination with the Gnostic gospels and how they are promoted as more true than the real Gospels. Especially those with the "sacred feminine" theology. I wonder if they ever read this line in the gospel of Thomas.

Simon Peter said to them, "Make Mary leave us, for females don't deserve life." Jesus said, "Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven."

Sophia Sadek said...

Thanks for the posting.

Just one minor comment. The observation on gnostics seeing Jesus as more spiritual than human misses the point a bit.

The human Jesus incarnated the divine Logos. As such, he was able to function in the role of Christ. This does not deny the humanity of Jesus, nor does it deny the divinity of Christ.

Gnosticism is a heresy because gnostics "know" that orthodoxy is a labyrinth of deception. Gnostics know that the doctrine of "homoousion" or "consubstantiation" was crafted as a sophism. It was used to outlaw the followers of Christ. It is still used to distract people from the path of salvation.

The only thing truly wrong with heresy is that it has proved how truly deceptive the Church has been all this time.

The Sheepcat said...

What is it you're saying exactly in your "one minor comment"? And what's your evidence?

What's wrong with heretical teachings, says retired Episcopal bishop FitzSimons Allison in The Cruelty of Heresy, is that "they nurture and reflect the way we would have it be rather than the way God has provided, which is infinitely better for us. As they lead us into the blind alleys of self-indulgence and escape from life, heresies pander to the most unworthy tendencies of the human heart."

goliah said...

Like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi discoveries, this latest 'gospel' increases the amount of new scriptural material only available this century, making the concept of 'canonical scriptures' untenable and any claims of understanding founded upon them both incomplete and even less credible.

What might 'Christianity' look like if all these resources were available from the beginning? Check this link:

pitcharan said...

Irrespective of canonicity we can discern truth if we belong to His sheepfold. So there is absolutely no threat from heresies to those who have experienced Jesus and belong to Him. On the other hand heresies and their authors help in weaning away lovers of darkness who are now mingled (mixed-up) with children of light; so they are unwittingly separating darkness from light and hence performing God's will, but maybe unknowingly.

Anonymous said...

I am curious.. who decides what is heresy and what is not??? I ask because in the early work for creating the two books John's revelations was left out as heresy and some of his other writings.

I get confused over this because either these men wrote as God spoke through them or they made it up. If God spoke through them, then what "man" on earth is going to determine if something is heresy.

Didn't that happen in the old testament as well with the Book of Enoch????

Anonymous said...

The Idiea that Simon Peter made such a statement concerning women, could be possible. The Idea that Yeshuah made the statment concerning women being changed into to males IS LUDACRIST. G*D MADE BOTH MALE AND FEMALE IN JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING. Yeshuah knew this, an extremly intelligent man. So the writings itself? A plant to cause confusion at best. Study study study people. Seek consistantly "bena". GB..

kentuckyliz said...

pitcharan: au contraire. I live in the Bible belt, and a lady I know, a sincere Baptist, is hosting a Gospel of Thomas Bible Study. She believes in it like it's another gospel equal to the canonical Gospels. So at least that sheep hears His voice and the voice of the heretics too!

There's a lot of Christians who believe in false gospels.

Anonymous said...

What the article left out was that Saint Irenaeus was around 180 AD; his condemnation does reduce the minimum age of the book to second century, not third or fourth as the article suggest.

All scripture may be given by God, but the selection of what is holy has always been done by man. Who wrote it and why is nearly moot because the "Holy Bible" was still COMPILED by ordinary humans.

Jenny said...

Hey all,

If people are interested in the Gospel of Judas, there is this book, ‘The Flight of the Feathered Serpent’ by Armando Cosani that is really great and gives a person a more in depth look into the life and role Judas had in the betrayal. It is seriously an amazing and fantastic book :)

Here is the book’s ‘official’ description.

First published more than 50 years prior to The Gospel of Judas, but correlating with it precisely, a little known book has brought to light secret teachings thought to belong to Judas Iscariot. Newly translated, The Flight of the Feathered Serpent is the true story of journalist Armando Cosani in the Second World War. His life changes inexplicably after he meets with a mysterious man, who leaves him with a series of profound writings – one being Judas’ firsthand account of the events leading up to the betrayal, which incredibly, reveal Judas as Jesus’ closest disciple.

It’s available on Amazon if people are interested and wondering where to find it.



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Anonymous said...

I purchased a copy of The Gospel of Thomas and another book that included the Gospel of Phillip,The Gospel of Peter, and, I think, one other back in the late 1970's. At a Catholic book store (believe it or not). For me the only sentence worth reading in both books was near the beginning of Thomas. He quoted Jesus saying (approximate) "If the kingdom of heaven was down in the earth the worms would get there first. If the kingdom of heaven was in the sky the birds would get there first. No I say the kingdom of heaven is within and without." The rest of it is drivel as you say. Incidentally, the Mormons are quite fond of Phillip saying he anticipated much of the temple ritual. I always understood gnosticism was heresy because it put knowledge above relationship and encouraged those with knowledge to think themselves superior. Isn't that the problem we have today with scientists?