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Of Gnostic Gospels and the Apocrypha

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Looks like the timing of National Geographic was really on the dot. Just as the Catholic Church and mainline Christian churches are beginning the celebration of the Holy Week, they decide to publish the Lost Gospel of Judas. Not everyone saw the National Geographic special on the newly discovered second century Coptic manuscript but some of those who did seem to like the idea of rewriting the Gospels to make Judas look good.

But why should one dissenting voice become the norm? And why should Gnosticism suddenly become normative?

Update: April 28, 2006

Below is Brian Saint-Paul’s article on the Gospel of Judas (dated April 14). While he points out certain things that I have already written about in my Res Biblica articles, the editor of e-Crisis Magazine adds some new things:

  • the sensationalism of National Geographic’s presentation
  • some historical background on the Gospel of Judas
  • a critical look at Gnosticism

Here it is…

It just keeps coming… one after another.

First, there was The Da Vinci Code, which sent historians and art experts into fits over its countless errors and distortions.

Then there was a lawsuit in Italy and a feature-length documentary… both of which argue that Jesus never actually existed (if you read my last e-Letter, you know how to respond to that claim).

And now, we have the Gospel of Judas… which is being promoted by National Geographic as a bombshell that could destroy the very foundations of Christianity.

The press — going for sensationalism over fact — has jumped on the story, intoning solemnly that new light has been shed on the life of Jesus, and that the traditional biblical accounts have been thrown into question.

In reality, this latest episode says less about Christianity than it does about the media’s profound ignorance of ancient history.

But just in case you missed all the press hoopla, let me give you some background…

In 1978, an Egyptian farmer unearthed a box that contained an ancient manuscript. He sold the document to a dealer in Cairo, who then tried to sell it himself.

Finding no buyers, he put the piece in a safe deposit box in a New York bank… where it sat for 16 years. Finally, a buyer purchased the manuscript in 2000, and in 2001, National Geographic teamed up with a Swiss antiquities foundation to restore and translate the ancient text.

In it, they discovered several apocryphal documents… the Apocalypse of James, the Epistle of Peter to Philip, fragments of another ancient book (temporarily titled the Book of Allogenes), and the Gospel of Judas.

The text was carbon dated to between the third and fourth century, though the gospel itself was penned in the mid-second century.

But here’s where it really gets interesting…

You see, the Gospel of Judas tells a different story of Christ’s relationship to the man who would betray Him. In fact, according to the newly found gospel, Judas wasn’t His betrayer at all.

Apparently, Jesus (who came from “the immortal realm of Barbelo”) took Judas aside at one point and asked the apostle to turn Him in… so that through the crucifixion, He could be freed from His body.

So Judas wasn’t such a bad guy after all. And traditional Christianity may have gotten the whole religion thing wrong from the start.

At least that’s what most of the media coverage has been saying.

Here’s where a drop of historical knowledge would do wonders for secular journalists. In point of fact, the Gospel of Judas is hardly a theological earthquake. After all, the Gospel of Judas is one of the Gnostic gospels. There are many others… the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of the Egyptians, etc. And with the possible (and partial) exception of Thomas, they offer no reliable historical insight into the actual events of the first century.

You see, Gnosticism was a parasite theology. It latched onto whatever religion was available and rewrote the host’s scriptures and doctrines to fit its own unique beliefs. Often, the villains of the original religion were turned into the heroes of the Gnostic variation (and so we often see Cain lionized in Gnostic texts). Furthermore, Christianity was not its only victim… there were also Gnostic forms of Judaism and paganism as well.

One of the primary tenets of Gnosticism is salvation through hidden or secret knowledge — the name itself comes from “gnosis,” the Greek term for knowledge. And so, not surprisingly, the Gospel of Judas begins with a nod in this direction:

“The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week three days before he celebrated Passover.”

What follows is a relatively short summary of Gnostic belief, dressed up in Christian garb: There’s a spark of the divine trapped within the prisons of our bodies… Through knowledge, we’ll learn to free ourselves… etc.

Of course, like any good Gnostic, the Jesus of the rediscovered gospel shares his knowledge with Judas, even going so far as to arrange His own arrest.

He tells Judas:

“’But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me…. Look, you have been told everything. Lift up your eyes and look at the cloud and the light within it and the stars surrounding it. The star that leads the way is your star.’ Judas lifted up his eyes and saw the luminous cloud, and he entered it.”

While the Gospel of Judas sheds no light on historical Christianity, it is nevertheless a significant find. After all, it’s a pretty big deal when an ancient work long considered lost is rediscovered. And the document does flesh out the heavenly pantheon of second-century Gnosticism.

But that’s as far as it goes. In the end, this is just another Gnostic gospel… interesting if you’re a scholar of Gnosticism, but of little value to anyone else. As for it’s historical reliability, St. Irenaeus said it best in A.D. 180:

“[The Gnostics] declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas” (Adversus haereses 1:31:1).

Originally posted 2006-04-12 21:53:05. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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