These comments are from the CNN special series Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery which has been airing on Sunday nights. The March 25, 2015 episode was entitled "The Gospel of Judas" and highlights the text that received so much attention when the National Geographic Society published a translation of the rare manuscript in 2006. National Geographic promoted its translation in a special, saying it was "a lost gospel that could challenge what is believed about the story of Judas and his betrayal of Jesus."2 Back then there was much fanfare, but little to surprise or sway biblical scholars. But the media always love to provoke, especially if they can undermine the traditional biblical accounts with any wild speculation they can find. So, nine years later, CNN offers an entire episode on the Gospel.
In fact, the Gospel of Judas wasn't groundbreaking even in 2006. Scholars had known for some time that a document called the Gospel of Judas existed from the writings of the early church fathers, particularly Irenaeus. What's amazing to me is how some otherwise intelligent people lose all sense of bearing when they are confronted with an ancient text that has the word "gospel" on it. Just because a document has the word "gospel" at the top, doesn't mean it even comes close to being on par with the canonical gospels.
Still, the discovery of an actual copy of the text is significant. Was the Gospel of Judas hidden as the result of some kind of conspiracy to keep power in the hands of a few? Does it place the canonical gospel stories of Matthew, Mark, Luke , and John in doubt? Hardly. Let's examine just what this document is and then we'll look at why it really tells us nothing about the formation of early Christianity.
Another Gnostic GospelThe Gospel of Judas translation that was recently published comes from a third century manuscript, written in Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language. It contains many strange teachings such as:
- Creation was corrupted by lesser gods who made the material world
- Jesus wished to be set free from His material body so He could access the holy realm
- The Gospel holds a type of secret knowledge that only one person (Judas) has
- The rest of the disciples are clueless to the true mission of Jesus
Judas Gospel is Too New to be BibleNow, I don't want to go into a technical discussion of Gnosticism to show why the Gospel of Judas doesn't hold a candle when compared to the four canonical gospels. We don't need to go that far to show why it should be rejected. We know that the manuscript we have is authentic - which means that it really did come from the third or fourth century. However, that doesn't mean that its contents are true. There's a big difference there. And why am I so sure that the contents of the Judas gospel are false? Well, it's simple. The gospel is too new to be written by the Judas of the Bible. You see, most scholars agree that Jesus' death happened somewhere around AD 33. The gospel is around 100 to 120 years later. Just how old would Judas have to be to write this account? 150? It doesn't make sense. Judas died well before this text originated.
The Associated Press interviewed James M. Robinson from Claremont Graduate University and who they said is "America's leading expert on such ancient religious texts from Egypt."3 There, Robinson agrees with this assessment. Robinson states, "There are a lot of second, third, and fourth-century gospels attributed to various apostles. We don't really assume they give us any first century information."4 He concludes that nothing new can be learned about Judas of the Bible from the text.
Secondly, since Judas didn't really have anything to do with this "gospel", we also know that the documents facts are in serious question. Remember, Judas dies during Jesus' crucifixion, so he couldn't have told anyone this special revelation. Therefore, these conversations must be fictional. You see, real gospels have what is known as an apostolic tradition. In other words, the four gospels can be traced back to the apostles themselves. Christians such as Irenaeus understood this and rejected it as a forgery.
Looking at a Modern ExampleI think for a good starting point when discussing this text with others, let's look to a more modern example: the forged memos that surfaced during the 2004 presidential election. During the campaign, 60 Minutes reported on the discovery of an Air National Guard memo that suggested favorable treatment for the president. If these documents were accepted as real they could do much damage to his campaign. However, when the memos were scrutinized it became apparent that they were forgeries. Type styles used in the memos were too recent for the documents to have originated in the 1960's when they were purportedly written.
I think that no matter which candidate you supported, most news agencies showed maturity in their rejection of the documents as unsubstantiated. Even if one holds that special treatment was afforded Mr. Bush during his National Guard service, these specific memos do nothing to give us new or better information about those charges, simply because they are false testimony. Similarly, a forged gospel of Judas doesn't help us to really understand Jesus, Judas or first century Christianity.
Ultimately, the biggest piece missing from the Gospel of Judas is the gospel message itself. Remember that the word "gospel" means good news. It was called such because early Christians saw their redemption from sin as the good news to share with others. But redemption is the one thing the so-called Gospel of Judas doesn't have. Without that, there's no freedom from sin and no reason to follow Jesus who becomes just another dead man claiming to speak from God.
2. "The Lost Gospel of Judas." National Geographic Channel. National Geographic Society. Web. 20 April 2006. http://www9.nationalgeographic.com/channel/gospelofjudas/. Archived page at https://web.archive.org/web/20070623220135/http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/gospelofjudas/
3.Ostling, Richard. ""Expert Doubts 'Gospel of Judas' Revelation"" USAToday. USA Today, 2 Mar. 2006. Web. 1 Apr. 2015. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/tech/science/2006-03-02-gospel-of-judas_x.htm.
4. Ostling, 2006.