Sunday, August 20, 2006

Doug Groothuis review of "The Gospel of Judas"

Article Last Updated: 8/19/2006 12:59 AM

Book review
"Judas" a window on Gnosticism

By Douglas Groothuis
Special to The Denver Post

The Da Vinci Code" book and movie have tapped into and further stimulated popular interest in accounts of Jesus that were never included in the Bible. The novel led many to believe that the New Testament books we now possess were a result of the unsavory politics of Constantine at the Council of Nicea (325), that reliable documents depicted Jesus as married, and so on. Scholars have refuted these charges, but soon before the release of "The Da Vinci Code" movie, a short, spotty and cryptic text called "The Gospel of Judas" was released with much fanfare.

In making Judas the hero instead of the villain, this ancient document has sparked more questions about which historical sources accurately describe the life and times of Jesus.

"The Gospel of Judas" is a codex (ancient book) written in Coptic, which was found in Egypt by farmers in the 1970s but only recently released to the public by The National Geographic Society. This book contains a translation of the document in addition to essays by four scholars discussing its discovery and meaning. "The Gospel of Judas" is one of the many Gnostic texts from the second and third centuries.

Gnosticism is a worldview that denied the goodness of creation - "The Gospel of Judas" refers to the cosmos as "perdition" - and that affirmed a secret divine spark (or gnosis) latent in some people. It is much shorter than the four Gospels of the New Testament, with about half of the space given to footnotes. The text is fairly often difficult to follow because the original codex was damaged such that important words and entire lines are missing. The translators compensate for this by adding probable missing words in brackets, but this still leaves a fair amount of it undecipherable, despite the copious notes added at the bottom of the page. The text also uses some technical vocabulary that is not obvious to those unacquainted with Gnosticism.

As Bart Ehrman notes in his essay, "The Gospel of Judas" turns orthodox Christianity on its head. It begins with a revelation given only to Judas. The story denies that Jesus is the Incarnation of the God described in the Hebrew Bible. Instead, Judas (alone among the disciples) realizes that Jesus comes from a realm far higher than inhabited by the underachieving deity worshipped ignorantly by the Jews. Jesus laughs at the ignorance of the other disciples who haven't caught on to this monotheistic shell game. Yet he commends Judas.

When Judas gives Jesus over to be killed, Jesus thanks him for helping him exit a disagreeable earth. Then Judas enters "a luminous cloud" as a reward for his illumination. "The Gospel of Judas" ends without reporting either Jesus' crucifixion or his resurrection. The resurrection of the body would be unthinkable for this Gnostic mind-set, because the body is reckoned a prison from which one yearns to escape.

Contributors Marvin Mayer and Ehrman present "The Gospel of Judas" as a compelling alternative to the New Testament presentation of Jesus as Savior and Judas as betrayer, and this is how the book has been marketed. Ehrman claims that the four New Testament gospels won out over the other accounts of Jesus' life for largely political reasons. This scenario has been advanced by a host of writers in the past few decades, especially Elaine Pagels ("The Gnostic Gospels"), who, not surprisingly, endorses the book.

Nevertheless, "The Gospel of Judas" is dated around the middle of the second century, while most all scholars date Matthew, Mark and Luke to within three or four decades after Jesus' ministry. The Gospel of John is usually dated in the 90s. Internal evidence and the testimony of the church fathers agree that these records were written by witnesses of the events they describe or those who consulted witnesses (see the beginning of Luke, for example). Besides, no Gnostic text was ever even considered as a candidate for inclusion in the New Testament. The Gnostics knew they could not compete with the primary biographies. These Gnostic stories are later revisions of a much more historically rooted testimony about Jesus.

Despite promotion to the contrary, the publication of "The Gospel of Judas" does not fling open a long-closed window into a forgotten or suppressed Christianity. It rather provides one more primary source about the theological rebellion known as Gnosticism.

Douglas Groothuis is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of "On Jesus."

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