The Gospel of Judas debuted Thursday in Washington, D.C. What's the Gospel of Judas, you ask? Well, it's not a gospel. And it's not written by Judas. But it's still important, if not the most important nonbiblical text discovered during the last 60 years, as a National Geographic Society executive told The New York Times.
The text, a copy of the document written during the second century, reveals some big news. Turns out Judas wasn't the renegade disciple who betrayed Jesus and committed suicide after remorse overwhelmed him. No, this Judas was just doing what Jesus told him to do. Jesus explained to Judas that he would "exceed all of [the disciples]" by getting Jesus crucified.
Well, that sure would change things. If it were true. This "news" isn't what makes the Gospel of Judas significant. Rather, thanks to this text, we can further confirm what we already know about Gnosticsthose pesky heretics condemned by early-church leaders like Irenaeus. Don't get confused by mentions of Jesus and Judas. This is no Christian text. The Gospel of Judas did not circulate until about 150 years after Jesus died. Let's put it this way: This new text tells us nothing more about Jesus' relationship with Judas than does Jesus Christ Superstar.
Until the release of the Gospel of Judas and other Gnostic texts discovered decades ago near Nag Hammadi in Egypt, we learned about Gnosticism mostly through the polemics of Christian apologists. Now thanks to the Gospel of Judas, we can further verify two major Gnostic teachings. According to many Gnostic teachers, Jesus either did not actually appear in the flesh, or he at least wanted to shed his skin as soon as possible. Jesus longed to return to the spirit world. Judas helped make that happen. ("You will sacrifice the man that clothes me," the "spiritual" Jesus tells Judas in this document.) Also, Gnostics believed only a select few would truly apprehend the knowledge of heaven. The Gospel of Judas teaches that only Judas, Jesus' favorite disciple, fully understood.
Christian belief contrasts sharply with Gnosticism. Fully God and fully man, Jesus endured birth in a manger and death on a Cross. He shared in our humanity, "so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death" (Heb. 2:14). This message is not restricted to a few who will ascertain gnosis (knowledge). The gospel "is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile" (Rom. 1:16).
Nevertheless, some claim the Gospel of Judas and other Gnostic texts throw orthodox Christianity into doubt. "As the findings have trickled down to churches and universities," New York Times reporters John Noble Wilford and Laurie Goodstein wrote, "they have produced a new generation of Christians who now regard the Bible not as the literal word of God, but as a product of historical and political forces that determined which texts should be included in the canon, and which edited out. For that reason, the discoveries have proved deeply troubling for many believers."
Who are those troubled believers? We're not sure, because Wilford and Goodstein apparently didn't talk to any of them. Karen King and Elaine Pagels revive their Gnosticism act. We also meet James Robinson, a jilted scholar who wrote a book on the Gospel of Judas without having access to the text. The Times doesn't mention that Robinson believes the Gospel of Judas tells us nothing about the historical Jesus or Judas.
I talked with Darrell Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary hours before he was scheduled to lecture at Princeton, Pagels's employer. He explained some peculiarities about the group that gave us the Gospel of Judas. Turns out these "Cainite Gnostics" earned their moniker rehabilitating disgraced biblical figures, including Cain, the Sodomites, and Judas.
Bock also pointed out that Scripture does include some contrasting perspectives on Judas. Mark portrays Judas as a bumbler, just like the other disciples who misunderstood Jesus' teaching. Writing later, John explains Judas differently. Judas exploits his position as treasurer to steal from the till, and Jesus calls him a "devil" (John 6:70).
According to Bock, the balance of Scripture indicates Judas expected a different type of Messiah. Disappointed, he turned in Jesus, whom he considered a threat to the Jewish nation. "Judas is a reflection of anyone who ends up rejecting Jesus," Bock said. "It's a tragic storynot something to shake your finger at, but something to be sad about."
Much more tragic and sad than rehashing an old debate about the legitimacy of orthodoxy.
Collin Hansen is an associate editor of Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.