Keeping up with all the new Jesus books these days takes a scorecard. Just about the time one thing is behind us, a new one pops up on the radar. There is no doubt that The Da Vinci Code movie has spawned an array of works trying to take Dan Brown to the next level. Not all these efforts possess the same significance, but they all are trying to hype a revised understanding of Christian history. We may well be entering an era of more discussion about early Christian history than has existed in decades.
It is important to appreciate that many people asking questions or embracing the recent materials have no background in church history, so they have no way of assessing what is being said. Their questions are quite sincere in light of the repeated message they are hearing that the new materials should change our view of church history. However, the group that is producing this material is quite certain that these new finds do change our history significantly, even though the new finds do not really reach back to the first century. Such hype needs to be shown for what it really is, more efforts to discredit Jesus, the apostles, and the Bible and to exchange these central elements of Christian faith for a less unique, domesticated form of Christianity.
The latest cycle of hype began with The Jesus Papers. This work by one of the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Michael Baigent, represents a continued effort to find the roots of Jesus' work outside of Israel and Judaism. In scenes that are only loosely connected, the author posits that Jesus spent time in Egypt at a secondary (and deviant) temple in Egypt. He also is far too quick to associate Jesus with Mithras and Osiris myths. There is absolutely no evidence for Jesus making such a trip to Egypt during his adult life or late childhood. Baigent also claims that there are papers that argue Jesus survived the crucifixion and went to Egypt as late as A.D. 45.
These papers, which he claims to have seen, were part of a second-hand story that he heard. The text he saw was in a language he could not read. So there is nothing provided that allows for any verification of such claims. This work appears to be little more than an attempt to string together some related topics on mysticism and religion and link them to a Jesus who circulated in places we have no evidence he ever was at the times suggested. More than that, the idea that Jesus would have survived crucifixion, the most violent means of Roman capital punishment, is also quite unlikely. John Reed has addressed this inadequacy in a piece on Beliefnet.com. He summarizes the book as a "revisionist fantasy masquerading as legitimate history." Reed also notes that Baigent's appeal to Zealots is historically suspect. So there is nothing here of historical merit.
The second work was the glitzy release of the Gospel of Judas. This is a much more serious find. It is a legitimate work of the second century, preserved in a fourth-century manuscript. Many reports claimed that this work was "authentic," but all that means is that the text is a legitimate ancient work. It is not a comment on the accuracy of its statements about Judas. We know this work comes from the second century because of the developed Gnostic cosmology that is a part of it. This movement attributed creation not to God but to underling gods, who often are described as getting creation wrong so that matter is corrupt. This is the case in Judas, where the point of salvation is to save the spirit only, and where Adam and Eve are created by a lesser god alternatively called Sakla or Saklas in the Coptic.
The idea that Judas was Jesus' key disciple fits what Irenaeus hinted at when he attributed this work to Cainite Gnostics in A.D. 180, a point that shows that we have known about this gospel for 1,800 years! It is not so new after all. The Cainite Gnostics regularly rehabilitated questionable characters in the Bible, such as Cain, its first murderer, Korah, Esau, and the Sodomites. Giving a prominent role to Judas runs against the deep and consistent picture of the Gospels, our earliest historical texts about Jesus, which portray Peter consistently as the lead disciple. He is always first in the list of the Twelve. It also ignores a key role for John as another disciple very close to Jesus.
The description of Judas also runs against the tradition in Scripture that he was disturbed by his actions, so much so that he threw money back to the leaders who rewarded him for his betrayal. He committed suicide according to Matthew and met an ignominious end according to Acts. If Jesus had promised him exaltation and commanded him to betray him, then there was no need for Judas to take the leap to suicide.
In sum, there is nothing here historically about Jesus or Judas that cries for any need for redefinition. Even the more modest claims that this work attests to the diversity of early Christianity, a claim made in an op-ed piece by Elaine Pagels in The New York Times on April 8, is either too vague or goes too far. If Pagels is alluding to the second century, then the text adds nothing to what we already knew to be true. If she is referring to the first century, she goes beyond the evidence of this text, which as a second-century piece tells us nothing about the earliest Christian century. Everything about the opening salvo on this work had the word hype written under itand that was all it was. This gospel is a precious find in that it gives us great detail about what this Gnostic group believed at a point before A.D. 180. However, that is all it tells us.
This is a time that tries many a believer's soul. Works are coming out like rounds from a machine gun. But none of the guns fired so far are the "smoking gun." They are more like pop guns, creating a lot of noise but no damage.
A Brief Overview of the Contents of the Gospel of Judas
The text opens three days before Passover with Jesus in conversation with Judas. It calls itself the "secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas."
In Scene 1, Jesus has a private conversation with Judas after laughing at the prayer of the Twelve. The distinction made in Scene 1 between the understanding of Judas and of the rest of the Twelve suggests a severe critique of them. They work for "the other god." The private telling of mysteries to Judas and not to the rest does recall Thomas 13, where Thomas confesses Jesus as having an unutterable name, leading Jesus to have a private talk with Thomas that the other Twelve do not receive. Thomas refers to Jesus as having an unutterable name in Thomas 13, but in the Gospel of Judas, the unutterable name belongs to the region of Barbelo and the god who sent Jesus. The laughing Jesus throughout this gospel also is a feature of some of the other missing gospel texts (like the Apocalypse of Peter and the laughing Jesus from above the Cross).
Scene 2 has some important breaks in the text that make summarizing its argument pretty difficult. However, this section does continue the critique of the rest of the Twelve, who represent this generation that will not see the generation that will ascend and rule.
Another critique surfaces in the parable of the priests before the altar. The Twelve represent those who are a part of the generation of the lawless. In other words, there is a strong polemic against the remainder of the Twelve throughout this text.
There also is in the response to Judas' question about the (lack of) fruit of this generation, a clear separation of spirit from the rest of the person in salvation that is a clear indication of a Gnostic perspective. In Gnosticism, only the spirit is saved and ascends back to the heavenly realm. The body is destroyed, and there is no physical aspect to salvation as in the Christian tradition reflected in 1 Corinthians 15. Another indication of Gnostic origin and perspective is that this generation is created by the corruptible Sophia. In a line that is broken, she appears to be associated with the hand that created mortal people (recalling texts like the Hypostasis of the Archons and the Apocryphon of John).
But Judas will become associated with the thirteenth aeon for his act and rule over others.
The next extended scene is about the creation and the creation of Sakla by Nebro. This Nebro is also known as Yaldabaoth, a name that appears in other Gnostic texts on creation. Nebro creates Sakla as an assistant, often associated with the idea of the demiurge, an artisan-creative god. (The name Sakla is also spelled Saklas in places in the Coptic text.) With the help of other angels, Sakla creates Adam and Eve, also known as Zoe. (Sakla and Sophia also appear in the Hypostasis of the Archons, another second-century Gnostic text that offers a more detailed description of this creation story background.)
Finally, Judas has a vision that pictures his own ascent. It is here that the now widely circulated citation of Judas as one who "will exceed all" and as the one who "will sacrifice the one that clothes me" appears. Judas makes the release of Jesus' spirit back to the heavenly realm possible.
The last scene has Judas go and betray Jesus, receiving the money in the process. This is where the Gospel ends.
In sum, this text has a developed Gnostic cosmology and a severe critique of the Twelve. As such, it gives evidence of being a polemical text where lines were drawn in the diverse and contested world that was second-century Christianity. It does not reflect the theological expression of the first century and thus tells us nothing about the real Judas or Jesus. What is does give us is significant detail about this strand of Gnosticism, known as Cainite Gnosticism. This movement tried to rehabilitate figures such as Cain, Korah, Esau, and the Sodomites. The rehabilitation of Cain explains the group's name.
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Previous Christianity Today articles by Bock include:
The Good News of Da Vinci | How a ludicrous book can become an opportunity to engage the culture (Jan. 5, 2004)
The Politics of the People of God | The Church has a unique role to play in our politicized culture. (Sept. 7, 2005)
When Sin Reigns | An event like this shows us what humans are capable of becomingboth as children of darkness and of light. (Sept. 13, 2001)
No More Hollow Jesus | In focusing so intently on Jesus the man, Peter Jennings' report missed the big picture. (July 3, 2000)
For Usand Creation | The gospel is about far more than heaven (Feb. 11, 2000)
Jesus v. Sanhedrin | Why Jesus 'lost' his trial" (Apr. 6, 1998).