Sense and Sensation:
The Discovery of the Gospel of Judas
Fr. Dr. K. M. George
The Gospel of Judasis the latest sensation in some media circles. Judas Iscariot got only thirty pieces of silver for betraying his master, but media people certainly hope to make far more than thirty million for the sensational "revelation" of the Gospel of Judas.
Two years ago it was Mel Gibsonís The Passion of the Christ, A grossly distorted cinematic account of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Millions of gullible Christians piously went to watch this blood-dripping, violent film during the Holy Week as part of their religious obligation.Then came Dan Brownís book The Davinci Code, proposing to reveal some juicy secret hidden in the famous painting Last Supper by the sixteenth century artist Leonardo Da Vinci. People behind such sensational things know how to manipulate commercially the market of popular psychology and religious devotion.
Unlike the film and the book, the Gospel of Judas is not modern fiction. It is a 3rd and 4th century manuscript written in Coptic, the ancient language of the Egyptian people still used as the liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Probably it is the Coptic version of an earlier Greek codex from the 2nd century AD. It was discovered in the 1970s in a place called EI Minya, east of the Nile in Egypt. It was found in an earthenware jar together with some other manuscripts. The ancient leather-bound papyrus manuscript went around many places through the hands of antique dealers, collectors and scholars. It features Judas Iscariot as the best friend of Jesus who revealed to him the secret of the kingdom of God it was recently translated into English. The National Geographic Society now promotes it as a great earth - shaking discovery.
But to students of biblical research and archaeology, there is nothing new or sensational in this. From the second century onwards, there were many writings attributed to the Apostles and other early disciples of Christ. They claimed to be Christian. But the Church did not accept them all as authentically reflecting the teachings of Christ. There were gospels of Thomas and Judas, Revelation of Jacob, Letter of Peter to Philip and so on all claiming to be Christian. The Christian Church exercised a very judicious discernment about such prolific later literature.
The Apostles, soon after the death and resurrection of Christ and the event of Pentecost, began to preach the Good News of Salvation in Jesus around the world. But the four Gospels, circulated as oral tradition, were put in writing much later. St. Paulís letters were the first written accounts in the Present New Testament. The Twelve Apostles and Paul were already aware of the various stands of teaching about Christ circulating around them. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul was worried that Galatian Christians were inclined to listen to a "different" gospel that "perverts" the Gospel of Christ. He puts it rather strongly: "But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a Gospel contrary to what we proclaim to you, let that one be accursed" (Gal. 1:6-8).
This shows that there were different and sometimes contradictory versions of the story of Christ and the Gospel he preached. So, from the very beginning, the Apostles (The Twelve) exercised their authority to sift the true Gospel from the false. The Apostolic authority was based on the fact that they were direct witnesses and companions of Jesus in his public ministry. When they elected Matthias in place of Judas who was dropped from the Twelve, they made it clear that they were electing a person from among those who "accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, until the day when he was taken up from us - one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection" (Acts 1:21-22). So their apostolic authority was based mainly on their status as witnesses to the death and resurrection of Christ.
The Church exercised this apostolic authority and witness in selecting its canonical scripture which is now called the New Testament. It contains among other writings the four authentic gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John which are not disputed by any historical church.
But in the present Bible containing both the Old and New Testaments there are books whose canonical authority is not beyond dispute. For example in the Old Testament, several books accepted as canonical in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions are not accepted as such by the Protestant tradition. The process of canonization of the books of the Bible has been a complex and long process. From the second century onwards we have people like Marcion who proposed additions or deletions to the canonical scripture. The Church did not accept such alternate proposals. Though there are still differing opinions about some of the individual books, there is a certain ecumenical consensus among ancient mainstream churches as to the essential message of the Gospel of Christ.
Beginning with the second century AD, we see a large number of so-called Christian writings. The Fathers of the Church called most of them "Gnostic" literature. In 1945 a collection of manuscripts written mainly in Coptic language on papyrus was discovered in Nag Hammadi in Egypt. They are classified as Gnostic writings. Gnosticism, from the Greek word "gnosis" meaning knowledge, was the generic name given to a broad movement, which comprised of different sects and secret societies that believed that they had a secret and higher knowledge of God. This movement was characterised by a high degree of dualism between body and spirit, between world and God, and between matter and spirit. Many in this movement looked down upon the body and the world as evil and exalted the spirit at the expense of the material existence. Some of these groups taught that the Jewish God Yahweh was an evil God who created the present world. They claimed that they knew a higher and more abstract Deity secretly revealed to the initiated few by Jesus Christ. Gnostic writings generally reflect a syncretistic and esoteric kind of religious belief and practice borrowing from many religious traditions.
The so-called gospels of Thomas and Judas belong to this Gnostic universe. They are mostly in the form of sayings of Jesus. The Church Fathers like Ireanaeus of Lyons in the 2nd century knew about the such Gnostic "gospel" sayings that deviated dangerously from what Jesus taught and did. For example, Jesus never condemned or discriminated against women in the matter of salvation. The Gospel of Thomas says women cannot enter the Kingdom of God unless they become males! The Gospel of Judas claims that it is "the secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot." Jesus is reported to have told Judas. "Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the Kingdom." This kind of esoteric secretive understanding is not in line with the teaching of the Apostles as reflected in the canonical scripture. Salvation in Jesus Christ is open to all those who believe in him and follow the apostolic life and witness. It is not exclusively limited to those with special, secret knowledge and initiation into divine mystery, as the Gnostics taught.
Some early Christian teachers like Clement of Alexandria and Origen in the third century were even attracted by some of the features of Gnostic teaching, but the church, in its total wisdom, rejected the Gnostic teachings and the writings which reflected the dualistic, syncretistic, and anti-women, anti-body ideas. The Gospel of Jesus is essentially about the kingdom of God, human salvation and renewal of creation in Christ. It is rooted in love, peace and justice to all. The incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth was the outcome of Godís love and compassion for the world. Jesus voluntarily chose death on the cross as Godís will for the salvation of the world. He died as the Lamb of God, as eternal sacrifice of love. In his death and resurrection, Jesus broke down all the barriers and dualisms between body and spirit, between Jew and Gentile, between God and world, between man and woman. He reconciled humanity to God and called the whole creation to participate in Godís being and glory. This is the message of the canonical scripture. The Gnostic Christian writings, though they contain some good insights here and there, do not reflect the authentic Christian tradition as established by the Apostles of Christ.
The difference between Orthodoxy (true faith) and heresy is clearly maintained in the early Christian centuries. The authority of the Apostolic college is continued in the councils of bishops like the famous councils of Nicea, Constantinople and Ephesus. Such Councils met in times of confusion about the true doctrine of the Church. After elaborate discussion, consultation and study of the Word of God in the light of the Holy Spirit, they declared the true faith of the Church, and condemned deviations from that faith as heretical.
If we make a comparison with our present world, we can understand why the Church made such discernment in selecting some as authentic and canonical scripture, and rejecting some as heretical distortions of the Gospel. There are still People in Germany (neo-Naziz) who venerate Adolf Hitler as a hero. But the conscience of humanity has condemned Hitler, a man who ruthlessly exterminated six million of our fellow human beings in the 20th century. Or, take the case of our country, which followed the Gandhian way rather than the way of his killer Godse. But remember that there are people in India today who adore Godse as a hero who eliminated the Mahatma for the good of the nation. In ancient Christian history, there was a sect called Cainities, who venerated Cain, who in the Genesis account killed his good brother Abel.
We cannot ignore the fact that, for every good movement, and for every great benefactor of humanity, there are critics who take a totally negative approach. Mother Theresa, one of the most compassionate human beings humanity has recently seen, has her staunch critics. Judas Iscariot had his own admirers in history. The Gospel of Judas comes out of this demonic admiration of people who stand for the darker side of existence.
As the Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury rightly said, people are fascinated by stories of conspiracy and cover-up. The media today can exploit this weakness of ordinary human beings and conquer the popular market with sensational stories about Jesus Christ.
There are millions of Christians who never involve themselves in the Christian worship of the Triune God, in the practice of Christian faith or in the meditation of the Word of God in the Gospels. Yet they can be thoroughly excited by such commercial media Ďmiraclesí as the Gospel of Judas. Such Christians probably preferred to watch from their cozy couches the Gospel of Judas on National Geographic channel this Easter day rather than celebrate the joy and life of the risen Christ together with a community of committed Christians.
We need to learn that deep rooted experience of faith in Christ and loving commitment to the Gospel of Christ are very different from sensational journalism, however "scientifically" garbed, aimed at profit and name making.