The Gospel of Judas
The much-heralded discovery of a third or fourth century copy of an Egyptian translation of the so-called "Gospel of Judas", has the world in a tizzy of speculation. Actually discovered by an Egyptian archeologist back around 1975, it was sold to an antiquities dealer in Cairo and terribly mistreated (kept in a shoe-box!) for some 20 years until finally sold to some reputable scholars who, funded by the National Geographic Society and another foundation, have painstakingly reconstructed the crumbling manuscript.
So what should be our reaction to this new discovery?
First, we should understand that the existence of this document is nothing new. St. Irenaeus, bishop of what is now Lyons, France, back around the year 180, knew about this supposed "gospel", apparently in its Greek original, and considered it worthless. So the media hype that it is "authentic" is highly misleading — unless by "authentic" one simply means that it is a genuine third or fourth century copy of what today we would consider to be a forgery.
Second, examination of its contents shows it to be, like the other so-called "Lost Gospels" (those of Thomas, Philip, Mary, and a document called "The Gospel of Truth" — all found in Egypt back in 1945), typically "Gnostic" in content. Gnosticism (which took its name from those claimed to be "in the know", through secret knowledge or "gnosis") was a movement that was especially popular in early Christian Egypt, and that generally divided things between a "good" world of pure spirit, and an evil material world. Typically, in this "Gospel of Judas", Jesus tells Judas that he wants him to do what he has to in order to get rid of the "man" — that is the mortal body — that veils or obscures his real (spiritual) identity. In other words, like so many of the earliest deviations from the accepted gospels, the writer of this secret document believed that Jesus was a divine being only more or less pretending to be a human.
Finally, we have to remember that according to the four canonical or accepted gospels (of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) Jesus did in fact send Judas on his errand, which is to say, that Jesus knew he had to die to accomplish what God intended and allowed the least trustworthy of the Twelve he had chosen to betray him to his inevitable fate. But to claim, as does this "gospel", that all this was plotted out in detail in a long conversation with Judas, who contrary to the other gospels claims to have been Jesus' best friend, then wrote it all down — in what now appears as a twenty-some page long manuscript — all this three days before the rest happened (including, the other gospels are correct, the author hanging himself) seems to be stretching things more than a bit!
If nothing else, this latest discovery confirms basically three things.
First, that there was a wide diversity in the first few centuries as to just how Christianity was to be understood, with esoteric fringe groups especially trying to present alternative interpretations opposed to what was the earliest tradition.
Second, it illustrates, yet again, that what we tend to think of as the foundation documents of Christianity, that is, the four Gospels and the other documents found in the New Testament, were selected from a host of competitors because they reflected or accurately reported what the majority of Christians knew or already believed to be true.
And finally (third), if nothing else, it proves that even after some two thousand years, the memory of Jesus continues to both fascinate and disturb people — enough that there seems no end of the attempts to reinterpret both his life and message, and even his death, to suit our own prejudices.
R W Kropf 4/10/06
Judas.mss (640 words) 06-04-10.html