The Expository Files

 

What is the Gospel of Judas?


The Gospel of Judas is an ancient book written between AD 300 and 400 in an Egyptian language known as Coptic. It was found by a farmer in 1978. Ultimately, it reached the hands of scholars who have now completed its translation, under the auspices and funding of the National Geographic Society (see USA Today, "Long-lost gospel of Judas recasts ‘traitor,’" 4/6/2006). The Gospel itself may be a copy of an older work, because its ideas about Judas are denounced in a late second century work by a man named Iraenaus. He warns of fictitious gospels in his book Against Heresies (see ch. XXXI.-Doctrines of the Cainites).

It is an interesting read, although only 80% of the gospel is legible so there are still holes and lines missing. The basic ideas do come through however. In the Gospel of Judas you will read of a rather unkind Jesus laughing at the apostles for their stupidity several times, hear a very different explanation of the creation of the world from what we read in Genesis, and of course (the part that has received so much media attention), find out that Jesus commissioned Judas to betray Him, making Judas out as a hero instead of traitor.

If that sounds weird, you should go see for yourself. It is a rather short work and easy to read. The Society’s website provides an English language translation.

Go here (http://www9.nationalgeographic.com/lostgospel/index.html) and give it a try. Nothing beats actually reading a Gnostic gospel. It is a unique experience!

A Gnostic Gospel? What is that?
The Gnostics were a group of people in New Testament times who were kind of a secret society. They believed the physical body was bad, that salvation comes by understanding one’s divine origins, and that only an elite few will be saved. They thought most Christians were deceived, in error, and doing it all wrong. Only the Gnostics were getting it right. Naturally, they wrote down their particular "take" on New Testament themes and ideas, even creating a Christ who taught their doctrines. These writings, of which there are many, are often called Gnostic Gospels, and are, to say the least, often very bizarre. Again, this is why it is a good idea to actually read the Gospel of Judas. The reader will quickly see how different these Gospels are from the New Testament.

So why aren’t the Gnostic Gospels in the New Testament?
The answer to that question is simple: they are not old enough. Even secular history confirms that the New Testament was completed shortly after the first century (perhaps as early as AD 70) so these gospels written hundreds of years later just are not old enough to be authentic New Testament material. They were not written by any of the apostles or other eye-witnesses of Jesus, two important standards for material that is truly biblical. Remember, anyone can write a story, title it "the Gospel" and circulate it. That doesn’t make it an authentic Gospel, worthy of inclusion in the Bible!
Why is there such a fuss about the Gospel of Judas?

Obviously, there will be some interest in a book that recasts Judas Iscariot as a hero, instead of portraying him as the rat who betrayed Jesus. However, there really isn’t much to get excited about with the Gospel of Judas. It offers no new insights into Jesus Christ because its writer never knew or met Jesus, living hundreds of years after Jesus. All in all, it is a rather eccentric little book that does not say much that scholars didn’t already know about Gnostics and Gnosticism.

However, the media and some Bible critics have tried to "make hay" out of the Gospel of Judas, using it to prop up some kind of Bible conspiracy theory. For example, Michael White of the University of Texas says "Scripture, like history, was codified by the winners, by those who emerged with the greatest numbers at the end of three centuries." Other writers and professors have joined in to say that the Gospel of Judas proves Christianity was more diverse than many have thought, and that there were lots of books that could conceivably have been in the New Testament but they were (unfairly) excluded. In the process, of course, the New Testament comes off looking like a book put together arbitrarily by men to advance a certain view of Jesus. This accords very well with the agenda of Dan Brown’s best-seller The DaVinci Code and the impending release of the film based on that book may well account for why the Gospel of Judas’ translation was published at this time.

Should the Gospel of Judas or other Gnostic Gospels be included in the Bible?
That is an excellent question for which there are two responses. First, for people of faith there is the issue of trusting God. The Bible claims it has all we need to be right with God (2 Timothy 3:16-17) and that it will be preserved and protected by God forever (1 Peter 1:23-25). For the Christian, there is no such thing as a "lost Gospel" or "lost books of the Bible" because if they were meant to be in the Bible they wouldn’t and couldn’t be lost. We trust God not to allow such to happen to His Word. Second, for people who do not (yet) accept the Bible as being an inspired book from God there is the evidence, both from the Bible and from secular history, for the Bible’s completion and canonization well before the middle of the second century. For example, a man named Marcion preached a different version of Christianity, going to Rome in 144 AD to start an alternative Christianity community. His false teaching forced other Christians to make lists of what books were, and were not, accepted as truly inspired from God. There was no conspiracy, and there was no voting. The apostles had clearly instructed and informed the New Testament church about the need to recognize true writings from fake ones (note Galatians 6:11), and the early church readily accepted those inspired writings for what they were: the word of God. There are plenty of manuscripts, papyrus writings, and fragments of writings that date back to the first century or early second century (like the John Rylands Fragment or Magdalen Papyrus) to verify that Christianity was a first century phenomenon, and is not the result of some sort of conspiracy in the fourth century. Further, from the writings of various Christians in the second and third centuries (long before the Gospel of Judas or any councils met to discuss and debate or vote) we know the content of the Bible was a settled issue. The church simply did not produce the Bible. The Bible produced the church.

Can we learn anything from the Gospel of Judas?
Some who are traditionally Bible skeptics are "blessing" the Gospel of Judas as if it should be put on par with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. For example, the National Geographic website says "The Gospel of Judas gives a different view of the relationship between Jesus and Judas, offering new insights into the disciple who betrayed Jesus. Unlike the accounts in the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, in which Judas is portrayed as a reviled traitor, this newly discovered Gospel portrays Judas as acting at Jesus’ request when he hands Jesus over to the authorities." We wonder if National Geographic and other Bible critics who are so ready to "authenticate" the Gospel of Judas are as ready to believe in all that the Gospel of Judas says? For example, it says Jesus did miracles, that people have an eternal soul, that angels exist and that Adam and Eve were real people. It also accepts without questioning that Jesus was a real and genuine historical person. Is National Geographic on board with these ideas from the Gospel of Judas, or do they just get to pick and choose what they want to believe out of it?

The Gospel of Judas will make a splash for a short time, and then the media will move on to something else. Unfortunately, the effect of its translation and surrounding publicity may be to undermine people’s faith in the Bible’s inspiration. But careful study and careful investigation will see the Gospel of Judas for what it is (the work of men), and more, will see the Bible for what it is: the very word of God. Truth has nothing to fear. Investigate the Gospel of Judas and the Bible for yourself. Hopefully, the translation of this Gnostic Gospel will provoke many to search for and find the real Jesus in the real Gospels contained in the New Testament.

By Mark Roberts
From Expository Files 13.5; May 2006

 

 

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