It appears that the media has caught Judas fever. This is an old story (I posted about it for World Magazine Blog in February), but for some reason everyone seems to be discussing this now. I also responded to it in the comments here, but thought the topic needed to have its own post.
David Kopel has a nice piece at the Volokh Conspiracy:
Suppose that sometime around the year 3,800 A.D., someone wrote a newspaper that began: “According to a recently-discovered document, which appears to have been written sometime before 1926, Benedict Arnold did not attempt to betray George Washington and the American cause, as is commonly believed. Rather, Benedict Arnold was acting at the request of George Washington, because Washington wanted Arnold to help him create a dictatorship of the proletariat and the abolition of private property.”
A reader who knew her ancient history would recognize that the newly-discovered “Arnold document” was almost certainly not a historically accurate account of the relationship between George Washington and Benedict Arnold. The reader would know that the terms “dictatorship of the proletariat” and “abolition of private property” come from a political philosophy, Marxism, which was created long after Washington and Arnold were dead. The reader would also know that the most reliable records from the 18th century provided no support for the theory that Washington or Arnold favored a dictatorship of the proletariat or the abolition of private property.
The media coverage is just silly. You have a manuscript of the “Gospel of Judas” from around 300 AD. Why is that significant? It is in the same vein as numerous gnostic gospels.
One of the most ardent supports of the gnostic gospels is Elaine Pagels and surprisingly the NY Times published an op-ed by her on the latest gnostic manuscript. She claims the Gospel of Judas, along with all the other non-cannon gospels “are exploding the myth of a monolithic Christianity.”
The Princeton religion professor has written numerous books on the gnostic gospels, was a contributor to the Gospel of Judas project and was part of the “Jesus Seminar.” Clearly, she is bent toward accepting Judas (and Thomas and Mary Magdalene and Peter and Cross and any other manuscript that comes along with details contrary to the four New Testament Gospels).
The problem Pagels and those trumpeting the Gospel of Judas is that the Gnostics wrote several “Gospels” all well after the lifetimes of Jesus’ contemporaries and all claiming to be secret works from individuals close to Jesus. The Gnostics are simply one of the earliest Christian cults. No one views the Jehovah Witness Bible or the Book of Mormon as a threat to Christianity, neither are books written by gnostics.
People will rush to the gnostic gospels written centuries later like Judas, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of the Cross or theories about possible Gospels like Q or Secret Mark, which make outlandish claims such as a giant Jesus coming out of the tomb or a talking cross appearing. But the same people doubt Matthew, Mark, Luke and John because of the miracles and the couple of decades gap between the events and the compliation of the Gospels must have allowed for legend. In essence several hundred years is okay, but 30 years must mean legend.
Those that push the gnostic gospels ignore difficult passages in the writings and focus on things that make Jesus seem less divine. They cut and paste all the Gospels and the manuscripts to make Jesus fit the image that they want. It’s sad really.
Pagels and the Jesus Seminar attempted to elevate the Gospel of Thomas as on par with the four New Testament Gospels (actually they viewed Thomas as being more accurate than John). I wonder if she accepts the teaching that she must become a man:
For every woman who makes herself male will enter into the kingdom of heaven. – Thomas 114
Does she believe that we will bring about the return of Jesus by taking all our clothes off?
His disciples said: On what day will you be revealed to us, and on what day shall we see you? Jesus said: When you unclothe yourselves and are not ashamed, and take your garments and lay them beneath your feet like the little children (and) trample on them, then [you will see] the Son of the Living One, and you will not be afraid. – Thomas 37
Judas is just another in a long line of “gospels” like Thomas. The first reference we have to the Gospel of Judas comes from Irenaeus in 180 AD in which he dismisses it and the other gnostic writings as heresy. If Judas was written, being generous, 50 years earlier, then it would still be well after Judas’ life. Even 100 years earlier would be after Judas died. So this cannot be anything close to an eyewitness account.
This period of time was a high point for the gnostic movement which claimed to have secret knowledge or gnosis – Greek for “know.” You can see that in all the gnostic gospels they claim some secret idea or thought that no one had before. It claims salvation to be a result of what you know. This is why the gospel of Judas starts out with “the secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot” and Thomas begins by saying “these are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and which Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down.”
But again why lend any credence to something written over 100 years after the fact, when you won’t lend any credence to something written less than 30 years after the fact?
UPDATE: I didn’t even go into a comparison of manuscripts. This is the only manuscript of the Gospel of Judas and it dates from several hundred years after the original was supposedly written. With the New Testament we have over 5,686 manuscripts, some within 25 years of the original composition. The closest any other work of antiquity comes is Homer which has 643 manuscripts, with the closest being 500 years after the original. Nothing, including the gnostic gospels come close to the New Testament.