A groundbreaking new insight into the relationship between Jesus and Judas, or a long discredited and bizarre account written long after the gospels who made it into the New Testament? John Allan investigates the Gospel of Judas.
It sounds like the plot of a thriller. Thirteen crumbling papyrus sheets, bound in leather, are found by an Egyptian farmer. He secretly sells them to an antiquities dealer. Over the next few years, the document is stolen, recovered, smuggled out of the country, stuffed into a handbag, deposited in a safe, and finally unearthed by a group of top scholars, commissioned by National Geographic.
After five years of research they announce their findings on Palm Sunday, 2006. This is no ordinary document. It is an undiscovered gospel – and its contents are explosive for Christianity. They show that Judas, far from being a traitor, may have been Jesus' closest associate. That the arrest of Jesus may have been stage-managed by the Messiah himself. And so the Christian story we've taught for 2,000 years may be a complete fraud.
Cynics may well suspect that the timing of all this – just before Easter, and while The Da Vinci Code is big news – isn't just a coincidence. But is the manuscript genuine? It would appear so. It's been tested by radiocarbon dating, ink analysis, multispectral imaging, contextual evidence, and paleographic evidence. What's more, we had heard rumours of a `Gospel of Judas' before. Around 180 AD, Christian writer Irenaeus had mentioned a `fictitious history' which – he said – claimed that Judas, ` knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal'. Could this be the same book? It seems possible.
So is this the torpedo that will finally sink Christianity?
The scholars at the heart of the discovery say that, at least, we will have to read history differently, and realise that the Bible contains a carefully doctored version of truth. Elaine Pagels, for example, asks: why wasn't The Gospel of Judas accepted into the Bible? The answer, she says, is political:
`Church leaders intended the New Testament canon to be a guideline for books to read publicly in church. It's no wonder then that what we find in the New Testament are the most obvious books to put on that list, the books like Matthew and Luke which tell - or say they tell - what Jesus taught to thousands of people. But what we find in this astonishing range of secret gospels often involves the unexpected... they are considered as advanced teaching not suitable for beginners.'
So there were two kinds of Christian literature in the first century – the publicly-available kind which anybody could read, and the secret, esoteric stuff, restricted to initiates. We do know that the Gospel of Judas was discovered in an area where there used to be an important Gnostic library. The Gnostics, explain Pagels and her team, were Christians with a rival theology to that of Paul. Their thinking was part of the creative mix that went into Christianity. But they eventually lost the power struggle; when Constantine became Roman Emperor, he decided to establish one version of the faith as his state religion, and gave strict orders that all other opinions were to be banned.
At the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, the church leaders discussed which books should be tolerated. Many ‘gospels’ had been written by this time, but they chose only four. All other writings were suppressed. They got away with their purge for nearly two millennia… until manuscript findings showed that there was another, very different, idea of Christianity. So the church is discredited. Generations of believers have been fooled.
Is this story true? Well, first, let's ask: what does the Gospel of Judas actually say?
It has to be said that it doesn't read much like a `Gospel'. It says nothing about the birth, home, family, death or resurrection of Jesus. Miracles are mentioned, but none specified. There's none of the teaching that we already know from other gospels. Indeed, Jesus sounds non-Jewish, using odd Greek-sounding terminology and constantly speaking in riddles. Only Judas seems to know what he's talking about, but he says some funny things too: `I know who you are and where you have come from. You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo.'
Yet we don't learn much about Judas either. The Gospel simply recounts some of his sayings, and ends abruptly when he betrays Jesus – something which, Jesus says, makes him greater than the other disciples: `You will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.' What can we make of all this? Is it to be taken more seriously than the other gospels?
First, we should realize that The Gospel of Judas was written much later than other Gospels – over a century after Jesus' lifetime ended. It's an imitation of the earlier, reliable documents, which were founded on eyewitness accounts and reliable traditions. But it isn't a good imitation. It shows little interest in Jesus' actual life, and simply tries to dress him up as a Gnostic teacher – to make him a mouthpiece for the bizarre views they wanted to teach.
Who were the Gnostics? Far from being an early, rival version of Christianity, they followed a very different religion with its roots in ancient Persian lore and Greek philosophy. They were syncretizers, the `New Agers' of their day, attempting to draw all religious truth (including Christian truth) into their own framework, and thereby transforming it into something quite different.
They weren't even around in the first century, when Christianity began; but some of their ideas were. Just read Colossians. The dangerous teachers whom Paul criticizes there were `proto-gnostics', who held that Jesus was just one emanation of God, that there were angels and other heavenly forces who needed to be worshipped too (like `Barbelo'!), that ordinary Christians didn't have the special advanced knowledge which they did. Exactly the sort of claims you find in The Gospel of Judas.
The particular group who wrote it, according to Irenaeus, were `Cainites' – who taught the Old Testament stories to their followers, but tried to turn them upside down. Cain became a hero. The Sodomites were spiritual pioneers. Esau and Korah were with the good guys too. No wonder, since this was their outlook, that they turned Judas into a heroic figure as well! But there's not a shred of historical evidence to back up any of their wild assertions.
Christian scholars like Ben Witherington III have commented that neither Pagels nor any of her colleagues "have ever written any commentaries on any New Testament books, or had to wrestle inch by inch with the exegesis of those…Their use of the NT is slender and superficial in justifying their theories, as is widely recognised by scholars around the globe." And, they point out, the Gnostic documents weren't banned in a great ecclesiastical cover-up. No Church council, and certainly not Nicaea, ever discussed the canon of the New Testament; it just wasn't on their agenda. The New Testament canon came together quite naturally, without any politicking. The Gnostic books were excluded, not because they were dangerous and secret, but because they were exploded, empty fakes.
Until, that is, National Geographic saw the chance to make some money out of it all.
It sounds like the plot of a thriller…
Gospel of Judas edited by Kasser, Meyer, and Wurst published by National Geographic (ISBN 1426200420)
The text of The Gospel of Judas is online at http://tinyurl.com/lodyh
There's a National Geographic website about it at http://tinyurl.com/qkp6f, and another at http://tinyurl.com/nkgsl.
Two excellent responses by Christian scholars are at http://tinyurl.com/mvmah and http://tinyurl.com/gczhd
John Allan is based at Belmont Chapel Exeter. A popular Bible teacher and preacher, he is a vateran youth worker and has written widely on apologetics and New Age religions.