Headlines from First Thoughts

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Judas is Back

Just in time for Easter, Judas has one last gasp. At least the writer of his book has. “The Gospel of Judas,” a late third-early fourth century biography of the betrayer of Christ has surfaced through the National Geographic Society. I have not read the book; but from what various reports have suggested, the Gospel fits a large swath of manuscripts that give a different account than the one in the 4 New Testament Gospels. This should come as no surprise. After the New Testament Gospels were circulated, Gnostics of all stripes wrote alternative versions of the lives of the prominent figures among the early Christians, including Peter, Mary Magdalene, Thomas, Jesus, and now Judas.

Scholars of all persuasions, including yours truly, study the Gospels that were around in the early churches for various reasons. Some of us use them for better information about culture, habits, linguistics, and data. There is much to be gained by comparing the New Testament Gospels with other literature of their day. We do that with all the books of the Bible to help us understand what the ancient writers were thinking and the ancient audiences were hearing. The writings only make sense in their contexts. Just as we study the archeological findings from Ephesus to know more about the city of Ephesus, we study the data from ancient literature to know more about the most important ancient literature in the Bible.

There are good reasons the Gospel of Judas, like the other Gnostic Gospels, were rejected as authoritative by the church. One, it’s a “Johnny/Judas come lately” book, 200-300 years late. The New Testament Gospels were written much earlier in the first century. All Gnostic Gospels are later than the New Testament's. Second, the Gnostic Gospels distorted the accepted portrait of Jesus from the early church. Some scholars like Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels are determined to find a conspiracy behind this. I think it was less conspiracy and more consensus. The early Christians had four accurate accounts of the life of Jesus and his disciples. The others did not match the information. The Gnostics changed the information to fit their purposes. Some thought he was human and not divine; others, vice versa. Most of the early church leaders advised against using them as authoritative literature. We have carried on that tradition today with the 27 books we call the inspired New Testament.

I should also warn you about something else. The Gospel of Judas was purchased from an antiquities dealer. The last time we had a major archeological find from an antiquities dealer was a couple of years ago when scholars thought they found the ossuary (casket) of Jesus’ brother James. It turned out to be a forgery. Stay tuned.

Either way, don’t let your resurrection faith be worried about another Gospel written much later than the New Testament’s Gospels. The four we have to go on have sufficed us for 2,000 years of church history and will remain that way for centuries to come. The Gnostic Gospels actually give us more reasons to accept our Gospels and believe in the Christ of the resurrection.

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