Sunday, April 09, 2006

On the Gospel of Judas and other "Lost Gospels"

The "Gospel of Judas" has suddenly become very prominent in the news. I've had several people mention it to me, so I thought it might be worth writing about.

I haven't read any of the text, nor have I perused the scholarship that is being released on the text, but from what I can tell of the material, it is just another Gnostic gospel, and as such it is completely devoid of truth. The Gospel as taught by the church is not present in the text. The theme of the book is Jesus passing on secret knowledge to Judas. If you haven't noticed, the Gnostic sects were pretty big on the whole "secret knowledge" thing.

In any case, because the Gnostics represented people who came along much later than the events that they wrote about and practically rewrote history to make their "Gospels," the "Gospel of Judas" can be dismissed with the rest of the Gnostic texts.

That's my say on the matter. The invaluable Al Mohler has an article about it here. It's too big to reprint in full (though you should read the whole thing), but here are some snippets:
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 Gnostic character of the text is immediately evident. In his supposed conversations with Judas, Jesus speaks in Gnostic categories such as "aeons" and an "eternal realm." Judas is identified as the "thirteenth spirit" who was appointed by God to be the agent of releasing Jesus from the physical body in which He was trapped in the incarnation.

. . .

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.

. . .

This redemptive action is completely missing from The Gospel of Judas. For that reason, the text was rejected by early Christian leaders. Writing about the year 180, Irenaeus, a major figure among the early church fathers, identified the text now known as The Gospel of Judas as heretical. In his foreword to The Lost Gospel, Bart Ehrman, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explains, "This gospel was about the relationship between Jesus and Judas, and indicated that Judas didn't actually betray Jesus, but did what Jesus wanted him to do, because Judas was the one who really knew the truth, as Jesus wanted it communicated."


Aeryn said...

Look at me, breaking one of my big rules... Buuuut
(Trying not to make this a religious issue but a technical one)

But, how as a scientist, can you make a statement that says this doesn't say what is taught, therefore it must be false. (2nd paragraph)

I have a hard time with the blind throwing out of a viewpoint because someone labels it Gnostic, and so by the decree of Emperor Constantine and the council of Nicea, should be thrown out automatically and everything else is non-canonical henceforth. Let alone go down the slippery slope of translation versus transcription debates.

(side note: I will admit that I couldn't make myself wade through the text of the Jud(an? ian?) Gospel that I could find, but from what I could tell, it was more that Judas help Jesus with his gnosis (by that quoted text of "sacrificing the man that clothed him" ) more so than learning the great secrets himself, if we are going to actually take it as Gnostic translation.)


Anonymous said...

We made this man a president, too:
"Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear". --Thomas Jefferson

Hal said...

So, here's the deal Aeryn:

I read your comment as boiling down to "Why is Gnosticism considered outside Christian orthodoxy?"

To fully answer this question would take a while, especially since Gnosticism encompasses quite a variety of small sects and philosophies. Here's the short version:

Gnosticism was considered outside orthodoxy even by the early church. The earliest church leaders wrote about it and clearly described their teachings as being counter to what was handed down by the Apostles. In some cases, Gnosticism attempted to blend various Eastern philosophies into Christianity (apparently there is evidence that some Gnostic philosophy predates Christianity). Many of the Gnostic "Gospels" were written hundreds of years after the life of Jesus, giving them dubious reliability at best.

Theologically, Gnosticism is at odds with Biblical teaching, both Old and New testaments. God's creation is often described as fallen, but redeemable. Gnosticism considered all material substance to be inherently evil.

The Bible teaches that the Messiah would atone for the sins of mankind through his death. Gnosticism denies the incarnation of God as the Son. In so doing, it denies the true efficacy of the atonement since, if Jesus is not God, He could not atone for all of mankind and we would still be lost in our sins.

So that's the short version. If that's not sufficient, I'd have to do more research than I have time for at the moment (and I'd just recommend you find a better scholar than I who's written on this).

What is the big rule? I don't get it.

Jared said...

You know - at first glance, I was like - hmm - what would be so bad about Judas having turning in Jesus at His request. Then I came to John 19:11. Jesus is standing before Pontius Pilate and says, "He who delivered me to you has the greater sin." It seems he's probably referring to Judas - and referring to the action as a sin. There are other places in the Gospels as well that point to Judas's guilt. He wouldn't feel guilty if Jesus has given him some secret insider mission.

Aeryn said...

In this case my big rule is not to discus religion ;P

Which is why I was more trying to talk about...hmmm.... thought processes for outright rejection of evidence. But therein seems to lie (lay?) the problem in attributing purely science thought process to this subject matter. (But you know, if religion can be in science [ID] then why can't science be in religion?)

I realize that you didn't say that all Gnostic transcriptions were many years later, but in this case, the Judas ones are accepted to be from 130-170 [greek not copic] (by contrast canonical John is 70-130.. honestly not much of a difference when you concider that by those years, neither are going to be an actual first hand account)

And it doesn't change the fact that the arguement of it's-not-the-same-as-what-was-before-so-it-has-to-be-ignored. Especially since the synoptic triad of gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) have just that, synopsis of each other. And when the four pillars of faith idea was put forth by Irenaeus, the those three were supposed to be viewed through the scope (or some say "lens") of John. So that in itself is setting up for an exclusivity club. But in a more "malicious" way (that's not exactly what I'm trying to say but I can't get that word out of my mind) than Gnostics, Canites or than the Malthites.

But all in all, the big problem that I have, ignored or just dismissed. Even a transcription of an account has some merit even if it's a complete fraud.

Hal said...

I suppose, Aeryn, that the way to settle your question is to talk about authority. "This isn't what was taught before, so it's rejected."

The Gospels in the current New Testament have a competing authority with the Gnostic gospels (such as Judas, in this case). In this case, the Synoptic Gospels & John are given authority because 1) They are (supposedly) written by eye-witnesses, 2) They are much more consistent with each other and the other teachings of the early church (such as Paul), and 3) They are much more consistent with the teachings of the Old Testament, whose authority is already established.

Of course, the next step down the line would be to say something like, "Why does the Old Testament have authority, then?" But that would back into the completely off-topic of "Why believe in the Judeo-Christian God?"

In science, a text has authority because it is based upon reproducible results and sound reasoning. Religion is just a bit different. If you believe that the Bible (or your text of choice) is given by God, that's not exactly an authority figure that will be easily dismissed.

Aeryn said...

I'm not trying to attack... but it just sounded like you said something analogous to "We can throw out the National Geographic story of the photographer who was at the Mt. St. Helen's erupting because it wasn't based on the AP news story."

Anonymous said...

Aeryn and Hal,

You'd be interested in the two-part article on this page, entitled "Is the Gospel a Myth? A Literary Argument for the Historicity and Uniqueness of the Gospels."

The author gives forty-five elements that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John share in common. The first thirty-five elements are not religious in character, while the last ten are.

Then, the author sees which of these characteristics are or are not present in the Gospel of Thomas, the Analects of Confucius, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Agricola, a biography by Roman historian Tacitus of the emperor Domitian, Apollonius of Tyana, and the Chinese allegory Journey to the West.

While it is somewhat long, it is a surprisingly quick read.

Aeryn, I think you'll find that while the author David Marshall uses a similar thought process as Dr. Mohler and reaches the same conclusion, that his hermeneutic is much more rigorous.

(Perhaps you'd say scientific, but I'm not sure if that's the right word or not. And, I contend that any "lack of rigor" in Dr. Mohler is not in any way a fault with his own thinking, but simply a fault of the medium - it's not fair to expect in-depth answers in a blog post. So far as I can surmise, Dr. Mohler's post was never meant to be an thorough apologetic, but simply a news article with brief commentary, primarily written for other believers.)

Hal, I strongly agree with the view of you and Dr. Mohler that Scripture is consistent with itself.

I am also glad that you reference the tradition of the early Church to strengthen your arguments as to which writings are inspired and which are not.

After all, the principle of self-consistency divorced from tradition led Luther to conclude that Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation are not inspired, and that James is an "epistle of straw" which is "flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture."

But, I wonder if perhaps you want to be a bit cautious in pointing to the beliefs of the early church and the writings of church fathers such as Irenaeus as examples of Christian orthodoxy? ...

Mohler writes, 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."

Forgive me for my bluntness, but it seems to me that whether you realize it or not, you have an awful lot invested in the notion that "early Christianity had no essential theological core."

If you want to know more about what I'm talking about, I challenge you to read "Against Heresies" in its entirety. And, you could ask Dr. Mohler or another trusted person who are the other "major figure[s] among the early church fathers" and read their original writings.

I know you're extremely busy, so if you're not able to do that extra reading at this time, I would be happy to provide you with a few specific passages.

-Ryan Herr.

Anonymous said...

1. After re-reading my comment, I think I may have come off more confrontational than I intended.

2. Here are the links I promised:

Church Father quotes on the Eucharist, from the first through third centuries.

Excerpts on the Eucharist from Against Heresies by Irenaeus.