Over the weekend, I received a couple of emails asking about the Gospel of Judas – I did some sniffing around – a Technorati search this morning revealed that over 3000 blog posts have been made about this subject in just the past few days. The buzz is tremendous. Thus, for my own benefit, I thought I'd think through this document aloud here at the Eagle and Child.
The first place to go is the National Geographic society website for this “lost gospel” – there you’ll find an actual text that you can read for yourself – you’ll find the whole story of the recovery of this gospel. This is the fountain of data that feeds the buzz – a media engine beating the drum to attract attention to its TV specials and book offerings. All the usual suspects are on board – Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman – pitching their case for the Gnostic tradition as a faithful expression of Christ’s teaching.
For a helpful resource in sorting through all this mess, check out Mark Roberts’ wonderful Q&A page – it's chock full of data to help through thinking about this issue.
Here’s my quick take on the whole thing. This new gospel (which is only 7 pages long) is a typical example of the later Gnostic gospels (like the gospel of Phillip and the gospel of Mary). They posit special secret revelation to an elite inner circle. Now here’s the rub that the scholars don’t tell you. The secret revelation doesn’t build upon Jesus' public teaching in the gospels; it blatantly contradicts it. The secret revelations indicate that the physical body of Christ is unimportant – he is a pure spirit. They indicate that all our material life is illusory – that we’re spirits trapped in a material world and through the special revelatory teaching we can be reunited with the higher plane to which we belong. This is the stock and trade of New Age thinking – but there’s very little harmony with anything in the canonical gospels at all.
Here’s how New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik describes this secret teaching, as revealed in the gospel of Judas “The true mystery, as Jesus unveils it, is that, out beyond the stars, there exists a divine, blessed realm, free of the materiality of this earthly one. This is the realm of Barbelo, a name that gnostics gave the celestial Mother, who lives there with, among others, her progeny, a good God awkwardly called the Self-Generated One. Jesus, it turns out, is not the son of the Old Testament God, whose retinue includes a rebellious creator known as Yaldabaoth, but an avatar of Adam’s third son, Seth. His mission is to show those lucky members of mankind who still have a “Sethian” spark the way back to the blessed realm. Jesus, we learn, was laughing at the disciples’ prayer because it was directed at their God, the Old Testament God, who is really no friend of mankind but, rather, the cause of its suffering.” (Gopnik has a good critique, you should read the article, but his conclusions are ultimately disappointing – perhaps in a future post, I’ll take a look at what he has to say in more detail)
Truth be told, the secret teachings sound more like Scientology (read the incredible Rolling Stone expose that talks about the secret teachings of Scientology) than it does like Christianity. Clearly the gnostics and the orthodox gospels cannot both be true -- it's either one or the other.
Go ahead and read the gospel of Judas and read it side by side with the canonical gospels – the points of contact are minor – it seems obvious to me that the gospel of Judas was written by someone familiar with the existing gospels and wanting to use their stories to advance their private point of view. While it may help us better understand the milieu in which the early church operated, it does little to shed light on what Jesus actually taught.
Soli Deo Gloria