THE Judas gospel


by Donald Sensing

April 7, 2006


Much is being made today of the "Judas Gospel," a set of papyrus texts recently acquired by the National Geographic Society and authenticated as ancient, dating from about 140 years after Jesus. The texts were discovered in Egypt in the 1970s. Judas was one of the Twelve, who were the core group of disciples of Jesus during his ministry. Canonical gospels agree that Judas betrayed Jesus for money paid by the Temple priests. Obviously, the "Judas gospel" wasn't written by Judas, who committed suicide after Jesus was arrested in Jerusalem.


The Mercury News reports:


Judas Iscariot, long reviled as history's quintessential betrayer, was actually the best friend of Jesus and turned him over to authorities only because Jesus asked him to, according to the Gospel of Judas, a long-lost document presented Thursday by the National Geographic Society.


The document, considered by some to be the most important archaeological find of the past 60 years, purports to record conversations between Jesus and Judas in the last week of their lives -- conversations in which Jesus shared religious secrets not known by the other disciples.


It was ruled heretical by early church leaders because of its disagreement with the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.


Not quite.


What happened is that by the middle of the second century Christians increasingly made a distinction was made between the apostolic time and their own. Also, there were so many writings claiming Christian authenticity that documents of genuine apostolic origin were being squeezed out. Through a complex series of episcopal meetings, by the fourth century the Church decided that only Gospels of actual apostolic origin should be considered canonical. That meant that writings well known to the Church, such as the Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), Gospel of Peter, First Letter of Clement, Letter of Barnabas, Apocalypse of Peter and Shepherd of Hermas, and now the so-called Judas gospel were excluded. They simply dated far too late to have apostolic authority. In the case of the Judas document (but not only it), they were works of imaginative fiction, novels basically, which could not form the basis of preserving the teachings of the apostles who had known Christ personally.


Oral tradition had begun to deteriorate in post-apostolic times, partly because many or most of the eyewitnesses to the earliest events of Jesus’ life and death and the beginning of the church had died. Because the early church perceived its risen Lord as a living Lord, even his words could be adjusted or adapted to fit specific church needs. By the end of the first century, local gospel production was a booming business. Some gospels purported to be words of the risen Lord that did not reflect apostolic traditions and even claimed superiority over them. Such claims helped to push the early church toward canonization. Faced with such confusion and claims to late revelations, the church came to acknowledge it had to retain the historical dimension of its faith, the “once for all” revelation of God in Jesus Christ.


In addition, there were “para-Christian” movements flourishing that combined elements of pagan religion, Greek philosophy and Christian tradition. Gnosticism sounded Christian on its face, but it denied that Jesus and God were the same and also denied that Jesus was truly physical. Hence, Jesus did not actually die on the cross, but only appeared to. Gnosticism’s root was Greek philosophy, which made a sharp distinction between the physical world and the spiritual one.


The Judas gospel is considered a Gnostic text, according to the Mercury News.


The Gnostics were a sect "that emphasized knowledge, but not the kind we think of today," said biblical scholar Gregor Wurst of the University of Augsburg in Germany.


They were interested in the spiritual knowledge of God and "the essential oneness of the inner self with God," he said.


They considered the world a creation of lesser, inferior gods who imprisoned the inner self in a material body, a prison from which they hoped to escape, Wurst said. The Gospel of Judas reflects this belief, which is in stark contrast to the version of Judas presented in the Bible.


"He's the good guy in this portrayal," said Bart Ehrman, a religion professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "He's the only apostle who understands Jesus."


In a key passage, Jesus compares Judas to the other disciples, saying: "You will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me."


By helping Jesus get rid of his flesh, Judas will help liberate the divine being within.


The single most decisive factor in the process of New Testamenty canonization was the influence of Marcion, who flourished about 140. Marcion was a wealthy, influential shipbuilder who thought of himself as Christian. However, his religion was basically Gnostic. He set up his own canon that totally repudiated anything Jewish, including the Jewish Scriptures. The “Father” Jesus spoke of was an altogether different deity than the God of the Jews, according to Marcion. Marcion and his many followers viewed the God of the Old Testament as a cruel God of retribution. (Even today, we hear some Christians say that the God of Old Testament was a God of judgment but the God of the New Testament is a God of grace. Such a view has been held by the Church for 1800 years to be heretical, which perhaps shows how strong Marcion’s influence was.)


Marcion rejected the gospels of Matthew, Mark and John as too Jewish. He heavily edited Luke and deleted and from Paul’s letters all Old Testament references. One result of Marcion’s influence was the writing of the Apostles Creed by Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons. Adapted from a very early baptismal liturgy of the church in Rome, Irenaeus intended the Apostles Creed to be the definitive and irreducible statement of Christian faith, a test it has endured since that day.


As a result of Marcion’s challenge, church leaders began to enforce some principles for determining the authenticity of Christian writings. The main three criteria were apostolic origin, true doctrine and widespread geographical usage. Satisfying all three of these criteria resulted in rejection of many writings from the Christian canon because they were not apostolic or were unconnected to the apostolic age, or they were local writings without support in many areas. The question of divine inspiration was not thought very important by many church leaders because they held that the Spirit’s inspiration was continuous. So a writing might be thought divinely inspired but still not make the cut as canonical.


There was dispute over some issues between the western church and the eastern church but these were resolved in the fourth century. The twenty-seven books of the New Testament, and no other books, were agreed by both east and west to be canonical at the Council of Nicea in 325, the same council that gave us the Nicene Creed. By the end of the 300s, the New Testament books other than the present 27 became definitively excluded.


What do the Judas texts have to do with modern faith? Not much:


The translation of the document will produce "a short-term sensation,'' said the Rev. Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, but its "impact on the lives of ordinary believers is going to be somewhat minimal.''


The reason being that this text is not a gospel - just writing something about Jesus doesn't make the work a gospel.