Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Gospel of Judas

The Gospel of Judas

The Gospel of Judas is currently being publicized by the National Geographic Society as a new and important discovery. Unfortunately for the NGS, The Gospel of Judas is neither new nor important. Its release, however, is remarkably timed to correspond both with the regular media assault on orthodox Christianity that occurs every Christmas and Easter and with the upcoming release of the movie version of Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code.

First, the facts about The Gospel of Judas. This particular manuscript was found in the 1970’s, finally ending up in the hands of the NGS. The manuscript, on the basis of both paleographical and carbon dating, dates back to the 3rd or 4th centuries AD. The “gospel” itself dates back probably to the mid-second century AD, since it is mentioned in Against Heresies by the early church father Irenaeus about AD 180. This puts it in the same time frame as most of the other “gospels” that came out of Gnostic circles in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, such as the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary. Most of these so-called gospels have been readily available to the reading public since the late 19th century. Many of them are collected in a volume titled The Lost Books of the Bible and published originally in 1926 (though the translations are much earlier).

Those familiar with the four canonical gospels will find themselves at sea when they begin reading The Gospel of Judas, or any other of the Gnostic gospels. There is no story here. There is little to no narrative. There are no historical references. Instead there is seemingly endless talking. Jesus is explaining to Judas all the things that he can’t explain to the other apostles. Judas alone is privileged to receive this secret knowledge, which he is then to preserve and pass down.

There is nothing distinctive here. It reads like all the other Gnostic gospels. The emphasis is on secret knowledge, hence the name Gnostic (from the Greek gnosis, meaning knowledge). Unlike orthodox Christianity, which even early on was distinguishing itself by creedal statements to show the unity of the church’s belief, there was no such unity of belief among the Gnostics. Instead there were characteristic features of Gnostic thought. One of these is an extreme dualism. In this dualism, body is bad, spirit is good. Thus, according to The Gospel of Judas, Jesus needed Judas to betray him so that he could be killed and freed from his physical body. In the Gnostic “system” sin is essentially ignorance and salvation is essentially knowledge. Man is lost in sin (read “ignorance”) and hence must have a redeemer (a bringer of true “knowledge”) so that he may be released from bondage to this material world and restored to the divine realm. In this, ancient Gnosticism differs little from modern forms of Gnosticism in which the true problem is ignorance, and salvation is gained by instruction in the true (but hidden) knowledge. There is, however, no real similarity between Gnosticism, in either its ancient or modern forms, and Biblical Christianity. Don’t be led astray. There is not only no gospel (good news) in The Gospel of Judas, there is also no truth.