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JUDAS: HIS ROLE AND GOSPEL

THE "GOSPEL OF JUDAS"

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Sponsored link.

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Overview:

Many people assume that the Gospel of Judas states that it was written by Judas, one of Jesus' disciples. In fact, it makes no such claim. It was apparently written by a follower of Gnostic Christianity sometime during the second century CE. 7

A copy of the gospel which was recently found in Egypt is in the Coptic language and dates from the third or early fourth century CE. It was based on an earlier work, probably in Greek, written before 180 CE. It deals with the relationship between Jesus and Judas.

The gospel teaches that Judas was not a traitor. He did not betray Jesus as described in the four gospels Mark, Matthew, Luke and John which were accepted into the official canon of the Bible. Rather, according to this Gospel, Judas was the most enlightened and knowledgeable of Jesus' disciples. Both Judas and Jesus realized that for Jesus to attain his purpose in life, his soul had to be liberated through the death of his body. Both worked out a plan by which Judas would hand over Jesus to the Jewish authorities in the expectation that he would be subsequently executed.

The Gospel has raised some interesting debates about the role of Judas, the diversity of belief in early Christianity, and the relationship between passages in the Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. New Testament) and anti-semitism. 1

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Very early Christianity:

By the middle of the second century CE, more than a century after Jesus' execution, there were three main movements within early Christianity: 

bulletJewish Christianity They rejected the virgin birth, and taught that Jesus was a man -- i.e. a prophet, not a God or a son of God. This was the original Christian group and was centered in Jerusalem and led by James, a brother of Jesus. Some members may have moved to Pella about 70 CE; others were wiped out by the Roman Army's attack on Jerusalem in 70 CE. The movement never recovered and eventually disappeared from history.
bulletPauline Christianity, which was founded by Paul and later became what has been referred to as "proto-Christianity, " It eventually morphed into the Catholic Church. They taught that Jesus was a man-god.
bulletGnostic Christianity, which was, and remains today, a diverse movement. Some Gnostic groups promoted Docetism, the belief that Christ was pure spirit and only had a phantom body. Jesus merely appeared to be human to his followers. Some Gnostic groups teach that Jesus had both male and female disciples. Gnostics were heavily oppressed by other Christians and were almost wiped out. A small group remains in the Middle East. Gnostics in the West are experiencing rapid growth.

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The Gospel of Judas:

The Cainites, the ancient Gnostic group which produced the Gospel of Judas, taught that Judas was not a betrayer or traitor. Rather, he was a hero who was the only disciple who really understood Jesus. He and Jesus jointly conceived a plan that resulted in Jesus being arrested and subsequently executed by the Roman Army. The Gospel of Judas was written in the mid-second century, at about the same time as the canonical books James, 2 Peter and Jude, according to liberal Christian theologians -- or a few generations after these three canonical books were written, according to conservative Protestants.

This gospel was attacked by St. Irenaeus circa 180 CE as a heretical book. He wrote:

"[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...[from] which they style the Gospel of Judas." 2

It is important to realize that heresy was, and remains, a relative term: A heretical belief to Irenaeus' is an orthodox belief in Gnosticism; What Iranaeus considered orthodoxy is a Gnostic heresy.

A translation of the gospel in the Coptic language, was discovered during the 1970s in a cave near El Minya, Egypt. It was in a codex -- a book similar to modern-day format -- which also included "...a text called James [a.k.a. the First Apocalypse of James], the Letter of Peter to Philip and a fragmentary document dubbed the Book of Allogenes." 6 Called the Codex Tchacos, it was passed among a series of antiquities traders. Unfortunately, the gospel was not properly cared for. Portions of the papyrus on which it was hand-written disintegrated. Some sections have been forever lost. The remains were finally obtained by  National Geographic. It was restored, translated and published in book form in early 2006-APR. It will eventually be returned Cairo, Egypt where it will be housed in the Coptic Museum.

This manuscript appears to have been written sometime between 220 and 340 CE according to radiocarbon dating and other tests. It is believed to be a translation from an earlier version probably written in Greek circa 130 to 170 CE. 5

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Positive responses to the Gospel of Judas:

bulletTerry Garcia, an executive vice president of the National Geographic Society, said that religious historians consider the gospel to be the most significant ancient, non-biblical manuscript to be found in the past 60 years. It has been given a battery of tests to prove its authenticity, including radiocarbon dating, analysis of the ink used, multi-spectral imaging, and analysis of the script and linguistic style. Garcia said: "The codex has been authenticated as a genuine work of ancient Christian apocryphal literature."
bulletElaine Pagels, a professor at Princeton University and well known author of a number of books on Gnostic Christianity, wrote in a statement:

"These discoveries are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion, and demonstrating how diverse — and fascinating — the early Christian movement really was."

bulletKaren L. King, a professor at Harvard Divinity School and author of other books on Gnostic Christianity said:

"You can see how early Christians could say, if Jesus's death was all part of God's plan, then Judas's betrayal was part of God's plan. So what does that make Judas? Is he the betrayer, or the facilitator of salvation, the guy who makes the crucifixion possible?"

bulletThe Waitt Institute for Historical Discovery, gave a grant of over one million dollars to the National Geographic Society to restore, preserve, and make the manuscript available to the public. Ted Waitt, said:
" I didn't know a whole lot until I got into this about the early days of Christianity. It was just extremely fascinating to me....You can potentially question the translation and the interpretation, he said, but you can't fake something like this. It would be impossible."

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Negative responses to the Gospel of Judas:

bulletIn his April 13th e-letter to readers, Brian St. Paul, editor of Crisis Magazine, wrote that the Gospel of Judas "sheds no light on historical Christianity," other than to fill in "the heavenly pantheon of second-century Gnosticism."  He wrote that the Gospel of Judas and the other Gnostic gospels "offer no reliable historical insight into the actual events of the first century" and that the Gospel is "hardly a theological earthquake." 4
bulletThe Catholic News Agency engaged in an ad hominem attack against religious historians who took part in a National Geographic Special about the Gospel of Judas which was initially broadcast on 2006-APR-12 -- Palm Sunday. The agency's main concern does not seem to be the Gospel itself. They appear to be more concerned about whether there have been centuries of anti-Judaic and anti-semitic oppression on the part of Christians, and -- if so -- whether that was partly based on the Bible's portrayal of Judas.

The agency criticized:
bulletElaine Pagals, author of "The Origin of Satan" and "Adam, Eve and the Serpent" -- writings which the agency regards as "against the Catholic Church." She has written that the biblical description of Judas as a betrayer of Jesus subsequently led to anti-semitism among Christians. They also cited her support of an artist who produced a piece of artwork that some consider blasphemous.
bulletBart Ehrman because in his book criticizing The Da Vinci Code, he wrote that certain statements in the novel are accurate. He also attributes the responsibility for Jesus' death to the Roman Army.
bulletMarvin Meyer because he has written a series of books on early Gnostic writings and because there was a lack of agreement on the program about his estimates of the age of the Gospel of Judas manuscript.
bulletCraig Evans who believes that Jesus was not baptized by John the Baptizer, was not bodily resurrected; and did not perform miracles. The Catholic News Agency writes that In Evans' books on early Gnostic Christianity, "he refers to the supposed anti-Semitism of Christians."
bulletFrancois Gaudard who said in the program: "This text not only seriously challenges one of the most firmly rooted beliefs in Christian tradition, but also reduces one of the favorite themes of anti-Semitism to nothing." 3
bulletRt. Rev. C. FitzSimons Allison, a retired Episcopal Bishop comments:

"The esoteric (intended for or understood by only a small group) nature of Gnosticism appeals to our human pride and condescension to others. The great loss that results from Gnostic gospels like Judas' is that it leads us to believe that we need no redemption for our sinful wills, only freedom from our material bodies."

"What is lost in the Gnostic 'gospels' is the trust in and knowledge of God, whom we call 'Father;' that the material world and our bodies are good; that we sinners have been shown mercy, not just given secret knowledge; that the suffering of Christ gives hope and fellowship in our suffering; and that as Christ was raised from the dead, so our deaths are not the last word."

"Unfortunately, the media too often turn to the 'experts,' many of whom do not call themselves Christians, to explain the significance of something like the newly found Gnostic 'Gospel of Judas'." 11

bullet Philip Jenkins is a Professor at Pennsylvania State University and the author of several books including "Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way." He suggests The Gospel of Judas tells us nothing about either Jesus or Judas. He writes:

"The reason that many scholars and members of the press have characterized this ho-hum Gnostic document as a momentous leap in our understanding is that it fits in with their model of early Christian history as a battle between competing understandings of who Jesus was. The Christians who called themselves 'orthodox' had the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John that appear in today's New Testament. Other Christians, including the Gnostics, had their own gospels, but neither the orthodox nor the Gnostics had truer insights into Jesus. The orthodox just happened to win the battle....

In short, the 'Gospel of Judas' tells us nothing about the historical Jesus or Judas; it adds next to nothing to our knowledge of early Gnosticism or of sectarian Christianity; and it actually adds very little indeed that was not already known from texts published a century or more ago. And this is 'one of the greatest historical discoveries of the twentieth century'?" 10

bulletBen Witherington III, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary and one of the most respected evangelical scholars in the world, writes in his blog:

"This document reflects the same sort of dualism that we find in many other Gnostic documents -- matter or flesh is evil or tainted, spirit is good....This of course is miles from early Jewish theology about the goodness of creation and the flesh, much less the belief that God intends to redeem the flesh by means of resurrection. Much of what Jesus is depicted as saying in the Gospel of Judas the historical, thoroughly Jewish, resurrection believing Jesus could never have said. In other words it is revisionist history being done by a splinter group of Gnostics. This group was at variance with the theology and praxis of the church whose beliefs could in fact be traced back to Jesus and his earliest disciples. 12

bulletBrandon Wasoh, a student in classics at California State University wrote in his blog:
"In reality, however, it's just one more of a whole list of Gnostic gospels, which doesn't bring us any closer to understanding the historical Jesus. And when did Judas have the time to write this gospel between the betrayal and suicide?"

This reflects a commonly held misunderstanding. Some assume that since the manuscript is called "The Gospel of Judas," that it must have been written by Judas. Actually, the text does not claim Judas to be its author. 9

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References used:

  1. Radolphe Kasser, et al., "The Gospel of Judas," National Geographic Soc., (2006) Read reviews or order this book
  2. St. Irenaeus, "Adversus haereses (Against Heresies)," 1:31:1, 180 CE.
  3. "Questions arise about scholars who collaborated in National Geographic’s Gospel of Judas presentation," Catholic News Agency, 2006-APR-24, at: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com
  4. "Gospel of Judas is a Gnostic gospel of little value to Christians, says analyst," Catholic News Agency, 2006-APR-16, at: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/
  5. "Gospel of Judas," Wikepedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  6. "Explore the document," National Geographic, at: http://www9.nationalgeographic.com/
  7. A translation of The Gospel of Judas is online at: http://www9.nationalgeographic.com/ This is a PDF file. You may require software to read it. Software can be obtained free from: 
  8. John Wilford & Laurie Goodstein, " 'Gospel of Judas' Surfaces After 1,700 Years," The New York Times, 2006-APR-06, at: http://www.nytimes.com/
  9. Brandon Wasoh, "The Gospel of Judas," Novum Testamentum, at: http://www.novumtestamentum.com/
  10. Philip Jenkins, "All Gospels Are Not Created Equal. The 'Gospel of Judas' tells us nothing about the historical Jesus or Judas. Why the furor?" Beliefnet, 2006-APR, at: http://www.beliefnet.com/
  11. C. FitzSimons Allison, " 'Gospel of Judas' reflects Gnostic denial of Jesus' suffering," The Post and Courier, Charleston SC, 2006-APR-12, at: http://www.charleston.net/
  12. Ben Witherington, "The Gospel of Judas et al.," 2006-APR-07, at: http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/

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Copyright © 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
First published: 2006-APR-08
Most recent update: 2006-APR-25
Author: B.A. Robinson

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