This article was first published in the May 2006 ABR Electronic Newsletter.
Now that the pre-Easter media hype for the publication of the Gospel of Judas is over and the Da Vinci Code movie hype is in full swing, this appears to be an appropriate time to consider the real significance of this “new” gospel. Popularly known as the Gospel of Judas, it is officially called Codex Tchacos, named after Dimaratos Tchacos, father of Zürich-based antiquities dealer Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos who bought the document in September 2000.
Unfortunately for scholars, the Gospel of Judas did not come from excavation, but has been in the Egyptian antiquities market for three decades. Apparently found by a farmer near El Minya, Egypt in 1978, Nussberger-Tchacos made it available to the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Switzerland in 2001. The document was then restored and translated through a joint effort of the Foundation, the Waitt Institute for Historical Discovery and the National Geographic Society. Separate teams of international scholars were assembled for each task and their work was unveiled to the world from Washington DC, on April 5, 2006. Appropriate in today’s international political climate, the restored document will be sent back to Egypt to be kept at the Coptic Museum in Cairo.
The facts about this document are interesting. It was written in ink on papyrus, native to ancient Egypt where it was found. Not a scroll, the text was formed into a codex (Latin “writing tablet”) where folded sheets of papyrus were bound on one side to create pages. The earliest form of a book, this revolutionary idea began to take hold in the 3rd century AD and was widely used for sacred texts. Codices could hold more information and specific passages were easier to locate. The Gospel of Judas was only one text in this particular codex of four Gnostic Christian works. Apparently with pages numbered at the top, the Gospel of Judas was 13 sheets (26 pages) written on both sides in one color ink (black). The text takes its title from its last line on page 26, “The Gospel of Judas.”
The document was carbon-dated from both its leather binding and its papyrus pages; the ink was analyzed; the script and the language were studied – all by authorities in their fields. It passes every test as a 3rd-4th century AD text. The bound manuscript was in a thousand of pieces when scholars began to work with it, but they have been able to restore 80% of the text.
The Judas Gospel comes from a well-known genre of ancient literature called Gnostic Gospels. We know of about 50 of these ancient texts from discussions by early church fathers who rejected them as heretical. Then 13 leather-bound papyrus codices containing some of these actual documents were discovered in 1945, within a jar from a tomb near Nag Hammadi, Egypt (Van Elderen 1997). As the Gospel of Judas, the 3rd -4th century AD Nag Hammadi texts, were written on papyrus in Coptic (the ancient Egyptian language in Greek script and perpetuated through time as the liturgical language of the Egyptian Coptic Church).
Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyon, France and one of the most important 2nd century AD church fathers, wrote extensively refuting Gnostic Christian thought. In his Against Heresies Book I Chapter 31.1 (AD 180), he refers to a particular branch of Gnostic thought known as Cainites. Deriving their name from the son of Adam and Eve, this group specialized in rehabilitating the reputation of famous Old Testament bad boys. Irenaeus notes that they have done the same with Judas and that “They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.” He is speaking of a 2nd century AD Greek text which was no doubt translated into our 3rd-4th century AD Coptic version. Just for the record, we do not have a copy of the Greek text of Against Heresies that Irenaeus wrote in the 2nd century AD either. Our earliest extant copy of his book is from a later Latin version.
The Gospel of Judas has all the standard Gnostic Gospel characteristics. The opening line pretty much says it all: “The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot.” The book speaks of Judas having special insights that the other disciples did not have. According to the text, Jesus recognized this in Judas and gave him additional knowledge that the other disciples were neither capable of grasping nor given the opportunity. Judas delivering Jesus to the authorities was just one of the special secrets the two shared together.
Gnosticism (Greek gnosis “knowledge:” from which we get our English “agnostic” – “not-knowing”) is the modern academic term used to describe this diverse and widespread intellectual movement in the Greco-Roman world during the formative years of the church. Gnostic ideas had developed in some circles of Christian thought by the beginning of the 2nd century AD. To combat Gnosticism, Irenaeus called for identifying an authoritative canon of Scripture, established a creed to follow (the “Rule of Truth”) and catalogued a list of bishops in major cities from the days of the apostles to demonstrate that none were ever a Gnostic.
All of Irenaeus’ known writings are directed against Gnosticism. Until the 1945 Nag Hammadi discovery of actual Gnostic texts, much of our understanding of their beliefs came from his works. When the Nag Hammadi texts were published, Irenaeus proved to be quite precise in his discussions on their beliefs. Interestingly, Irenaeus was uniquely connected to Jesus through the Apostle John who was (according to tradition) pastor of the church at Ephesus (Turkey) where Polycarp grew up. As a child, Irenaeus saw and heard Polycarp who became known as the last living connection to the apostles. Thus bishop Irenaeus was recognized as connected directly to Jesus through the Apostle John and Polycarp.
While Irenaeus (2nd century AD) did help set in motion the means through which the early church would ultimately overcome Gnosticism, as the 3rd-4thcentury AD Gospel of Judas indicates, the movement persisted within Christian thought. In AD 325, Roman Emperor Constantine called bishops from around the empire together for a council at Nicea (Turkey). With the Arian controversy over the deity of Christ the more pressing heretical issue at the time, the bishops affirmed their own belief in the historic and standard Christian views on both Jesus and the Bible. Gnostic thought was also publicly and officially deemed heretical. While there is no historical evidence indicating Gnostic texts were systematically sought out and destroyed, they did not continue in popular use (all the above being contrary to Dan Brown’s suggestions in The Da Vinci Code). The Gnostic texts discovered in the 20th century had probably been “laid to rest” as grave goods in tombs (Van Elderen 1997). Officially rejected in normative Christianity, Gnosticism as a philosophical movement died out within a few centuries.
The media frenzy over the Gospel of Judas is intricately connected to their enthusiastic response to The Da Vinci Code book, and here it comes again for the movie. In light of all this, I want to conclude with a few comments about the Judas Gospel as a find, the processes of its authentication and the media coverage and marketing.
1. It is unfortunate that the document did not come to light by way of excavation. Archaeological excavation would have helped clarify the period in which the text was last in use. This could have shed light on the identity of those who had the document and possibly connected it to additional texts from the same period. I agree that such unprovenienced artifacts are not true archaeological finds and now belong more to the field of history. Still, I support those scholars who are willing to work with such material, but their results will never be complete without the artifact’s archaeological context.
2. In recent days the academic community has been very unforgiving of texts and artifacts coming from the antiquities market, but which seem to support a more traditional understanding of the Bible. I accept that the Judas Gospel has apparently met all the appropriate criteria for authenticity as an ancient (3rd-4thcentury AD) text. There is no question that major scholars and organizations have stepped up to do good work here. Still, I can’t help but wonder these days, if this had been a canonical text supporting historic Biblical views, would it have been as readily accepted and appreciated by academics?
3. Scholarly response to the document is one thing, media reaction is another. It appears that anything casting doubt on the traditional view of Scripture is widely hailed as interesting and worthy of consideration. There appears to be almost a sense of compassion for the poor Gnostics in the media (and among some scholars). I can’t help but see our own “21st century Gnosticism” here. We glory in any new information (our own “secret Gnostic insight”) that has not been part of orthodox Christianity (or Judaism). Historic truth these days, however tried and true, is just not sufficient. Following the incredible reaction to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (see Byers 2004), it seems more popular now than ever to trumpet any evidence that challenges traditional Biblical truth.
4. The National Geographic Society has done a service for the academic community in preserving and translating this ancient document. It will help us better understand the diversity of views during those early centuries of Christian thought. Yet, it appears to me that they are much more willing to fund projects that challenge a traditional Biblical perspective than to fund those that support a Biblical view.
5. Whenever these new “archaeological discoveries” come to the public’s attention today, we would do well to follow the money. True of business in general, it is now very much part of all academic projects. Beyond the old concerns of just getting enough funding to do the work, there are now marketing strategies to the publication side of research. National Geographic unveiled the text at Easter season, a tried and true marketing technique. While some Christians may take offense at the timing, I don’t think it was a deliberate affront to our faith. Not personal, just business – the National Geographic Society intends to roll out sufficient books, television programs and videos to recoup their investment and even make a profit. Even today, I am not certain Dan Brown really believes all the things he wrote in his novel (The Da Vinci Code), things that he is on record as saying he does believe are true. If he really does believe this stuff, I would be amazed. Yet, if he doesn’t and actually says so, his sales will drop and before long he would disappear from our collective computer screens.
7. Publication of the Gospel of Judas does remind us of the issues with which the early church leaders struggled. I have read the Judas Gospel’s English translation and it is pretty clear why church fathers condemned it as heretical. There is nothing here that relates to the canonical text of either the Old or New Testaments. Read it for yourself and draw your own conclusions: http://www9.nationalgeographic.com/lostgospel/_pdf/GospelofJudas.pdf.
But it was because of the Gnostics and other theological deviations within the early church that leaders wrestled with determining an official orthodox canon of Scripture and doctrine of Christ. God used this period of conflicting voices to lead the new church to clarity on the most critical matters of their faith.
8. As in the days when the Judas Gospel was composed, read and debated, we are also living at a time of confusion about what to believe. Almost daily, most of academia and the mainstream media suggest that our orthodox view of the Biblical text and Jesus is out-of-date and essentially meaningless. We can huddle together and bemoan the marketing and media hype surrounding the Gospel of Judas. Or we can take it as another God-given opportunity to get a hearing for the real message about Jesus – a message that has already had a permanent impact on our lives. I recommend the latter, because the Da Vinci Code movie is just about upon us.
Recommended Resources for Further Study
2003 The Da Vinci Code. New York: Doubleday.
Byers, Gary A.
2005 The Judas Gospel. National Geographic 209.5.
2006 The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot.. Washington DC: National Geographic.
National Geographic Society
2006 The Lost Gospel of Judas. http://www9.nationalgeographic.com/lostgospel.
Van Elderen, Bastiaan
1997 Nag Hammadi. Pp 87-89 in Eric Myers ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East 4. New York: Oxford Press.
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