A New 'Gospel'?

Recent efforts to authenticate and translate a historical document being called the Gospel of Judas have been said by some to be among the most significant archaeological findings during the last 100 years.

This "gospel" gives a different view of the relationship between Jesus and Judas and is said to offer new insights into the disciple who betrayed Jesus. Unlike the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, in which Judas is portrayed as a reviled traitor, this newly discovered gospel portrays Judas as acting at Jesus' request when he hands Jesus over to the authorities.

We brought this topic to the Pastor's Roundtable for a discussion and invited participants including Chuck Coffelt of the Arkansas State University Wesley Foundation, Steven Farmer of Trinity Church, Rex Holt of Community Fellowship Church and David and Patty Schaller of First Presbyterian Church. Their responses to our questions follow:

  • 1. Without much thought being given to it over the last 1,700 years we're learning about the restoration and translation of a document said to be the Gospel of Judas. Some say it is one of the most significant archaeological discoveries in the last 100 years. In the broadest sense, what are we to make of this "discovery." Could it be the real thing?

Coffelt: First we need to realize the Gospel of Judas is not some long lost religious discovery. Along with many other purported "gospels" it was know to the very early leaders of the Christian faith. In his book, "Lost Christianities", biblical scholar Bart Ehrman points out that in the early days of the faith, there were several competing versions of what the essential Christian message was all about. Some writings had Jesus as merely a good and moral human leader, with no divine qualities at all. Some Christians believed and wrote that Jesus was only a divine God and had no real human qualities. Then there were the Gnostics writers, from when the Gospel of Judas comes, that wrote that Jesus only appeared to be fully human. In their world view, the body was an evil and sinful vessel and the soul's desire was to escape from it and be with God in heaven. Salvation, according to the Gnostics, came by possessing a secret knowledge, given to chosen followers of Jesus. That is the premise of the Gospel of Judas.

Farmer: In reference to the most significant archaeological discovery in the last 100 years - perhaps to skeptics, yes, but to Christians, I don't believe it is that significant with the exception of verifying the tenets of Gnosticism. There have been other works such as the Lost Books of Eden that are interesting reads, but not "gospel." Perhaps a short definition of gospel would be "the proclamation of redemption as taught by Jesus and the Apostles." I believe I heard in an earlier discussion that this writing was "not a gospel" and in fact, not written by "Judas" appearing approximately 150 years after the death of Jesus.

Holt: The codex, containing the Gospel of Judas, was discovered in the 1970s near El Minya, Egypt, and moved from Egypt to Europe to the United States. It was kept in a safe-deposit box for 16 years on Long Island, New York. Alarmed by the codex's rapidly deteriorating state it was transferred to the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Basel, Switzerland, in February 2001. The National Geographic Society led by Coptic expert Dr, Rodolphe Kasser worked five years to restore the document by reassembling nearly a thousand broken fragments of papyrus. It was then translated and published in National Geographic Magazine along with the book by Kasser.

The Gospel of Judas seems to be the Gnostic writing identified by Irenaeus of Lyons in 180 in his book Against Heresies. After reading the seven-page document posted on National Geographic's web page I understood why early church fathers rejected such fanciful, fairy tales as pure fiction. The particular Gnostic sect behind the Gospel of Judas, called Cainites, made heroes out of biblical villains like Cain, Easu, men of Sodom, and of course Judas Iscariot. This "discovery" simply reinforces our understanding of the ancient Gnostic heresy and why the early church identified and rejected such "gospels" as spurious. The Gospel of Judas shows how aggressive and subversive Gnosticism really was. It portrays the 12 disciples as ignorant and captive to illusion. It is an assault on the person of Jesus Christ and the faith once delivered to the saints. After reading The Gospel of Judas I wanted to stand and shout "three cheers for Irenaeus and those early defenders of the faith."

Schallers: The "Real Thing?" We already have that. It is called the New Testament. Bishop Iranaeus was aware of the Gospel of Judas, and described it accurately in his work, "Against Heresies" in 180 A.D. Iranaeus condemned the writing as a gnostic heresy. If the carbon dating of the recently discovered document is correct (4th century), the Council of Nicea, meeting in 325 A.D. spoke against such teachings. Their formulation, summarized in the Nicean Creed, was that Jesus was "fully human and fully divine." Gnostics considered the physical creation, and the creator god, to be evil - only the spiritual had value.

  • 2. If other "secret gospels" such as this actually exist, why are some in the bible and others not? Should we be concerned that our Bible is incomplete?

Coffelt: When you have completely different and competing versions of the Christian faith, there has to be a process to sort out what is true and what is not. Over the course of the first three to four hundred years of the church, that is exactly what happened. Various leaders of the faith gathered for a series of church councils, for instance in Nicea in 325 AD, or in Constantinople, 56 six years later. They hashed out the details of what was considered orthodox faith and what was heresy. The Bible we have today is a result of that process. Gnosticism was deemed heretical, completely against the understanding of Jesus as fully human and fully divine. The scripture we have today is complete in the sense that it holds together a consistent message and theology of Jesus Christ as the Son of God incarnate, author of our salvation.

Farmer: I find it very interesting that this discovery or type of book makes its reappearance during the time of the DaVinci Code controversy which makes an attempt to challenge the tenets of the Christian faith. As the old systematic theology professor says about the sufficiency of Scripture - "Scripture contains all the words of God he intended his people to have at each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains everything we need God to tell us for salvation, for trusting him, and for obeying him perfectly."

Holt: The 66 books of our Bible are complete and can be fully trusted as God's Word to man.

In his book You Can Trust the Bible, Dr. Erwin Lutzer, senior pastor of Moody Church in Chicago, Illinois, explains how the development of the New Testament Canon took place.

  1. Letters from the apostles were written and received in the churches; copies were made and circulated.
  2. A growing group of books developed that were recognized as inspired Scripture. An important question for their acceptance was: Was the book either written by an apostle or by someone who knew the apostles, and thus had the stamp of apostolic authority?
  3. By the end of the first century all 27 books in our present canon were written and received by the churches.
  4. To show both agreement and the widespread acceptance of the New Testament books, we should note that by a generation following the end of the apostolic age, every book of the New Testament had been cited as authoritative by some church father.
  5. Remaining doubts or debates over certain books continued into the fourth century. As far as historians know, the first time the list of our 27 books appears is in an Easter letter written by Athansius, an outstanding leader of the church in A.D. 367. Obviously, the books were regarded by most churches as authoritative more than 200 years prior to that time.
  6. The 27 books of our New Testament were ratified by the Council of Hippo (A.D. 393) and the Council of Carthage (A.D. 397).

Lutzer then rightly adds: "These councils neither added nor subtracted books, but simply approved the list of twenty-seven which had already been recognized by the early church. Given the geographical distances, the limitations of communication, and the diverse backgrounds of the churches, such agreement is remarkable."

Our Bible is more than remarkable, it is a miracle.

Schallers: Scholarship over the past 2000 years has evidence of about 30 writings claiming to be "gospels." Each has its own theological ax to grind. But do they live up to their name as "good news?" The secret gospels, some of which have been widely published for decades, were considered, for one reason or another, to be heresy - less than the truth, and not witness to the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ.

  • 3. Should it be unsettling to Christians to learn there are other gospels out there?

Coffelt: Not if you understand and respect early church history. We must somehow trust that the first followers of Jesus got it right when the made the key decisions on matter of faith.

Farmer: Unsettling? No. However, I believe that most people really do not know what they believe. Most of us are religious people, yet we know little about our faith. Most people become "unsettled" due to a lack of knowledge of the Word of God becoming easy prey for a deceptive doctrine.

Holt: No, it should not. Our Bible is complete. The canon is closed. No new written revelation is needed. The four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are all-sufficient records of Christ own words and works. It is no coincidence that in the last chapter of the last book of the New Testament there is a dire warning. Though it refers to the book of Revelation it has a broader application for the whole Bible. It reads: "For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book." Rev. 22:18-19 NKJV

Those who either promote or embrace some extra-biblical revelation such as the Gospel of Judas betray the truth, even as the real Judas himself did.

Schallers: No. You or I could write a story about somebody named Jesus, and call it a "gospel." That title doesn't mean it contains any truth whatsoever. Archeology and scientific research has been revealing lots of ancient documents in the last 50 years or so. (The Dead Sea Scrolls are still being translated, about 50 years after they were discovered.) These old writings give us a broader view of the world when and where they were written. And sometimes they challenge us to explore our own faith and belief more deeply.

  • 4. At the heart of this issue the newfound gospel depicts Judas's betrayal of Christ as an act of obedience rather than an act of betrayal and maintains the two essentially conspired these plans together beforehand. Scholars say this offers us not only an alternative view of the relationship between Judas and Jesus, but also illustrates the diversity of opinion in the early Christian church. Is there any value for us here?

Coffelt: I think it always valuable to have good discussion on what the Christian faith means for our lives. The relationship between Jesus and Judas appears to be very complex. If God's plan all along was for Jesus to be betrayed and executed for a crime he did not commit, then someone had to be the bad guy. Was Judas chosen for that role ahead of time or did he work his way into it? Did he know all along that was what God wanted or was he simply following his instincts? More significant for us today, how do we discern the will of God for our lives? If we knew that an action of ours, that left us going down in history as a villain, would actually contribute to a wonderful plan of redemption, would be do it?

Farmer: Another writer said, 'the release of the writing helps verify two Gnostic teachings: one, that Jesus either did not actually appear in the flesh or wanted to return to the spirit world as soon as possible - Judas' was enlisted by the "spiritual Jesus" to help him accomplish this. Secondly, according to the Gnostics only a select few could acquire the knowledge." According to this writing, Judas must have had this special knowledge. Therefore, this is not about diversity rather a denial of the truth of the gospel.

Holt: The discovery of the Gospel of Judas does not illustrate the diversity of opinion in the early Christian church as much as it illustrates the near unanimity of belief concerning the true apostolic message. Men like Polycarp of Smyrna, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Athansius and other early scholars wrote books, preached sermons and met in councils to clarify truth and expose error. Every parchment, codex and scroll was judged against the authoritative Old and New Testaments and if it did not measure up to apostolic authority it was cast aside as heresy.

If anyone ever wondered about Irenaeus' credibility and accuracy this "discovery" should close the debate. Irenaeus wrote in "Against Heresies" that the Gospel of Judas" existed. He gave the essential plot of the Judas-Jesus connection and decisively rejected it as Gnostic heresy. Now, we can read for ourselves the actual document that Irenaeus himself read. What a powerful confirmation of Irenaeus' theological integrity!

Every spade of the archeologist, every discovery in Egyptian deserts, Israeli caves or anywhere else only confirms the accuracy and historicity of the Bible. Each generation must contend earnestly for the faith, clarify truth and thereby expose error. Today's post-modern culture of diversity and tolerance needs a fresh encounter with the truth of the Gospel.

Schallers: In the Gospel of Judas, Jesus says to Judas, "But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me." Gnostic theology says that Jesus only appears to be human; that his humanity is only a facade. Orthodox Christian theology proclaims Jesus both fully human and fully divine, who endured and overcame every human temptation, and suffered a very human death. In Philippians 2:5-8, we are told that Jesus willingly emptied himself of divine privilege. The humanity of Jesus was not an article of clothing, but a reality. The value of this writing is in comparing and contrasting with the New Testament, and clarifying just what it is we say we believe.

  • 5. The Gospel of Judas actually describes Judas as Jesus' closest friend, someone who understands Christ's true message and is singled out for special status among the disciples. Assuming the authenticity of this document, what might its purpose have been?

Coffelt: The whole issue of having a special status with Jesus was key to the Gnostic way of thinking. It was secret knowledge that led the way to heaven, not simple faith through grace. Much like the premise of The DaVinci Code, select followers of Jesus were privy to the hidden meanings of his teaching. And also like that popular novel, the foundation of that belief is pure fiction.

Farmer: This is not a new concept. While on a tour of the Holy Land some twenty years ago, our guide described the relationship of Judas to Jesus and the rest of the disciples like this: Judas was a Zealot and a Judean.The Judeans were known for the "rebellious activity" against the Romans. They were seeking the restoration of the Davidic kingdom or returning Israel to independence.According to this guide, Judas believed that Jesus was the Messiah and that he had come to establish the kingdom again.Her explanation - Judas thought he was doing Israel and God a service by betraying Jesus - to cause a confrontation with the Romans so that he would reestablish the kingdom by force. Sounds vaguely familiar.

Holt: The clear purpose of this spurious gospel was the advancement of Gnosticism. Gnostics were intensely hostile to the creator God of the Old Testament and therefore toward all material things. They regarded matter as corrupt brought into being by an evil creator. The Gnostic found salvation through escape from the body, which is available through a secret knowledge (gnosis) revealed to the elect. In this case, the elect one is Judas. The other disciples are ignorant of the secret knowledge and only Judas understands. The manuscript begins, "The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week three days before he celebrated Passover." The composition consists of dialogues between Jesus and the disciples, but mostly a dialogue between Jesus and Judas called the "thirteenth" who is portrayed as superior in understanding to the 12 apostles.

Schallers: What is authentic? That Judas wrote it himself? That an early writer wrote the story from the perspective of Judas? The canonical Gospels all note that Judas made an end of himself. That is an unlikely outcome if Judas was supposed to be the favorite. A few decades ago, Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a rock opera about Jesus, from the perspective of Judas, and called it "Jesus Christ: Superstar." We recommend it for those who want to explore the character of both Judas and Jesus. We can't call that work a "gospel" because, unfortunately, Webber didn't notice the resurrection. The Gospel of Judas ends with the betrayal of Jesus to the religious authorities, negating the importance of both the resurrection and the crucifixion.

  • 6. We seem to be in an especially unique time when different media are arguing against the character of Jesus we know from the Bible. What's going on?

Coffelt: The media is market driven these days. They write and produce what sells. There is obviously a deep spiritual hunger that many people have. Folks are looking for answers to complex life questions. If the character of Jesus is being challenged, then maybe we have not a done a good enough job of making his life and death have meaning for today. The "old, old story" can still connect in our high tech world if we are not afraid to let questions be raised so that answers can be discerned.

Farmer: I'm not sure if this is an especially unique time when this is happening. I remember reading somewhere in the early 80's warning the church about a systematic approach to include abolishing traditional religious holidays while substituting them with pagan festivals. A part of that was a denial of the deity of Jesus andthe elimination of Christmas and Good Friday. I thought the writer was a little extreme. Now, I'm wondering how close she was to the truth.

Holt: We are experiencing a full, frontal assault on our faith from a culture gone wild with sensational theories and clever marketing to a society hungry for spiritual reality. Like the ancient Gnostics, empty-hearted Americans want more and a ready-to-comply media has it packaged for delivery. Dan Brown writes a book. Ron Howard produces a film. The giant media-machine takes over. We sit with buttered popcorn and a coke soaking it all in. Whether your cushioned seat is in a theatre or a church it is high time to get up, open your Bible and start digging deeply into the Word of God. It is high time to rediscover the Jesus of the Bible. We have a crucified, risen Savior. We have an accurate, authoritative account of His life and works. We have the history of the early church in action. We have apostolic letters to first generation Christians and Churches. We have the testimony of early church fathers who laid down their lives that we might know the truth. And above all, it is time to live out the truth. The character of Christ is most clearly seen through us as living epistles that can be read and understood by all men. "For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men." - 1 Peter 2:15

Schallers: "Question authority" is a watchword of contemporary culture. In our generation, we were told "don't trust anyone over 30." Today the idea seems to be "don't trust anyone or anything that is older than your computer." There is a profound suspicion in today's culture of all institutions and authorities. Anything that knocks the institutional church is "in." The Church has proclaimed Jesus as Lord, based on the testimony of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. For us, the value of any discovery, old or new, gets tested against the authority of Scripture, as edited and handed down by the early Church.