June 06 Judas Gospel

The Judas Gospel

            Thud.

            The kind of noise made by the mail as it drops through our letterbox around noon each weekday reveals a great deal about what it brings. A slapping sound indicates the usual collection of letters and junk mail. By contrast, a deeper thud betrays the arrival of a magazine or two.

            On this particular April day, whilst sitting at the Study desk, I was interrupted by a tell-tale thud. Not a slap, but a deep thud. Sure enough, today’s red elastic bands held the May copy of ‘National Geographic’. Once the characteristic brown covering was removed, my heart sank as I read the headline.

            The Judas Gospel’

            The article carried the subtitle: “An ancient text lost for 1700 years says Christ’s betrayer was his truest disciple’.

            Having just read ‘The Da Vinci code’ and written an article on it, I could feel weariness descend upon me. Having just dealt with a 21st century work of fiction purporting to rewrite Christian history, now I was faced by a 2nd century work of fiction doing the same. The old dictum holds true: once people stop believing in God, they start believing in anything.

 

            The Judas gospel is one of a large number of writings, mostly from the second century, which represent what is called ‘Gnosticism’. The term ‘Gnostic’ is one used to cover a wide range of ideas and beliefs, which were current especially in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, although they caused some problems for Christians even earlier than then. There were different forms of Gnosticism and these different strands often contradicted each other. What was characteristic of the Gnostic was their claim to possess esoteric truth. They were elitist in nature.

            Early forms of Gnosticism evidently disturbed the early believers, to the extent that the apostle Paul felt he had to write to correct their false teachings. We see examples of this in his letters to the Corinthians and to the Colossians. It would appear that at Corinth a group arose who, under the influence of Gnostic ideas, came to regard themselves as a spiritual aristocracy, possessing more profound wisdom and a deeper mystical experience than even Paul. Typically these people regarded the body as evil, an outlook which had varying moral consequences. Some regarded physical acts with indifference, and so were guilty of moral license (see 1 Corinthians 5-6) whilst others resorted to an extreme renunciation of the world. (see Colossians 2:20-23)

            Such false notions can arise in the church today, when individuals seek to portray themselves as ‘more spiritual’, or as having access to a spiritual experience superior to others. Nonsense. Christians all know the same Christ and are indwelt by the same Holy Spirit.

            At Colossae, a Gnostic influence led to a belief in intermediate angelic powers and as a consequence, the supremacy of Christ required to be emphasised by Paul (see Colossians 1:15-20)

 

            The Judas gospel relates a purported secret conversation between Jesus and Judas during the last three days of the Passion Week. The key to understanding the message of this 2nd century document focusses upon one line, towards the very end, where Jesus instructs Judas to betray him, so that his eternal spirit can be freed from his mortal body. Bearing in mind that the gnostics hate the material world and regard life in the body as second-rate, then salvation for them is not about God in His grace repairing a broken relationship with Him due to sin; it is about being released from the confines of the body. This pagan notion governs much of Gnostic thought. You can follow the logic: if the best thing that can happen to you is to be released from the body, then the person whose betrayal leads to your death is doing you the greatest of favours. So Judas the traitor becomes Judas the hero.

            One suspects that a prominent theme of 2nd century Gnosticism (their negative attitude to the body) is being ‘read back’ into the life of Jesus.

 

            Some scholars have latched onto the discovery of fragments of this Judas Gospel to make some fantastic claims. The scholar Elaine Pagels triumphantly declares that the Judas Gospel “explodes the myth of a monolithic religion, demonstrating how diverse and fascinating the early Christian movement was.” This is nonsense, and I am sure she knows it is nonsense. The writings of the early Church Fathers, which have come down to us from antiquity, make reference to gnostic documents. Around 180 AD, the bishop of Lyon, Irenaeus, wrote a book ‘Against heresies’ in which he made reference to the ‘gospel of  Judas’. We all knew these documents were around; all that has changed is that fragments of one of them have been discovered.

            Two things to say about these writings:

1) First of all, Gnosticism was not an alternative form of Christianity as some scholars (looking for research funding?) would like to argue, or Dan Brown would have us believe in the Da Vinci Code. Gnosticism was part of the hostile environment within which the Christian church had to exist, especially in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. For example, it is a fact of life that in our own age, the prevailing culture is secular and materialistic. This is the environment, sometime hostile, in which the church nowadays has to operate. I would hardly then suggest that secularism and materialism are alternative forms of the Christian faith. Not unless I was very confused.

            Most students of Church history learn about a fascinating character called Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, who was martyred early in the 2nd century. On his way to his execution in Rome he travelled through many communities where, we are told, the Christians came out to encourage him. What this tells us is that these Christian groups all held to a common faith, which led them to regard Ignatius as their brother in Christ. Ignatius would have had a very different experience if the Christian faith was as fractured and inconsistent as Pagels would want us to believe.

 

2) Secondly, The ‘Judas Gospel’ was a late 2nd century composition, claiming to provide a new insight into events which took place almost 200 years previously. It therefore tends to read 2nd century issues back into the 1st century. It would be a bit like me writing a sober history of the abolition of the Slave trade 200 years ago and suggesting that those involved spent a great deal of time sending emails in support of the cause. I would be reading 21st century technology back to the 19th century. That is what the ‘Judas Gospel’ does.

 

            One of the effects that the Gnostic threat had in the early church was to hasten the formation of the canon of Scripture. With so many documents around, distorting the Christian faith, the church came to recognise very quickly which of the early writings were truly divinely inspired and carried apostolic authority. It became clear to the early believers what was ‘the real thing’.

The re-appearance of what is patently false should not undermine our confidence in that which is true.

            Your minister

 

            Martin Thomson

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