The gospel of ignorance

judas3My newsroom was all abuzz this week with the revelation of the Gospel of Judas. The media have been going nonstop with the news that a Gnostic tract has been translated that says Judas was helping Jesus rather than betraying him. Well, where to begin? Before I criticize the ridiculous ignorance of the media in covering this very old story, let me offer a critique of the church. If Christians knew anything about their history, if they knew anything about how the New Testament canon came to be formed, I doubt these stories would be met with more than a yawn.

Sometimes I get the feeling that Christians -- and others -- think the Bible was delivered to the church in present form upon Christ's death and resurrection. In fact, the Gospels, which were written soon after Jesus' time on earth, were fixed into the canon by the last quarter of the second century. Other books were included by A.D. 220. But there were many, many other books that were considered. And then there were some extremely heretical books that were never really considered. Various principles for inclusion were debated, but as a rule the books were tested against each other. So if the Apostles themselves said, for instance, that Jesus was betrayed by Judas, you would be hard-pressed to include a book written by a sect centuries later that said Judas was all good.

The thing is that for those who know their church history, Gnosticism is not news. It is a syncretistic movement with roots in pre-Christian times. It reached its zenith around the time the Judas Gospel was written. And it was based on the very non-Christian idea that its adherents possessed a secret message, bequeathed to a select few, that held the key to higher life.

For crying out loud, Irenaeus condemned the Judas writing in A.D. 180 in his book Against Heresies. He summed up the Judas tract as follows:

Others again declare that Cain derived his being from the Power above, and acknowledge that Esau, Korah, the Sodomites, and all such persons, are related to themselves. On this account, they add, they have been assailed by the Creator, yet no one of them has suffered injury. For Sophia was in the habit of carrying off that which belonged to her from them to herself. They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.

The Gospel of Judas claims to be a secret discussion between Judas and Jesus. Compare that with the four Gospels of the New Testament where Christ's preaching is extremely public. The Gospel of Judas claims secret knowledge for a limited few. Compare that with Christ's teaching that he came for all. The Gnostics tried to rehabilitate every bad guy in the Bible from Cain on down. They thought Yahweh was evil. I mean, is it really that shocking that Irenaeus, and the larger church, condemned these guys?

This story is sort of akin to folks in A.D. 3800 translating a Weekly World News story from this year that says Abraham Lincoln was actually a woman dressing as a man. I mean, sure, it's true that Gnostics existed, accessed Christianity and wrote several tracts. But why do the media treat this as some sort of breaking news story that casts doubt on the veracity of the Gospels? And why has their coverage provided no context and no understanding of the relative credibility of the Gospel of Judas? Perhaps it is because, as Harold Bloom notes, Gnosticism is America's cultural religion?

Let's go to the Associated Press story, which reached news outlets far and wide:

A "Gospel of Judas" was first mentioned around 180 A.D. by Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon, in what is now France. The bishop denounced the manuscript as heresy because it differed from mainstream Christianity. The actual text had been thought lost until this discovery.

Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, said, "The people who loved, circulated and wrote down these gospels did not think they were heretics."

Gnostic Sea SaltI love the way AP characterizes Irenaeus' theological whipping of the Judas-adoring Cainites. "Sorry, guys, but you differ from mainstream Christianity." That's like saying the Flat Earth Society was denounced for differing from mainstream cartography. I also love the Pagels quote. Really? The Gnostics didn't think they were heretics? Well, I guess the battle between orthodox Christians and Elaine "Gnostic Gospels" Pagels is settled, then. And that's precisely what the AP story makes it out to be. The next quotes are just odd, really. I kept waiting for a Christian who thinks the Judas Gospel is bunk (and lived after A.D. 180) to appear. Instead we got this:

Added [the] Rev. Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union of Chicago: "Let a vigorous debate on the significance of this fascinating ancient text begin."

Senior expressed doubt that the new gospel will rival the New Testament, but he allowed that opinions are likely to vary.

Craig Evans, a professor at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, Canada, said New Testament explanations for Judas' betrayal range from money to the influence of Satan.

"Perhaps more now can be said," he commented. The document "implies that Judas only did what Jesus wanted him to do."

Christianity in the ancient world was much more diverse than it is now, with a number of gospels circulating in addition to the four that were finally collected into the New Testament, noted Bart Ehrman, chairman of religious studies at the University of North Carolina.

Eventually, one point of view prevailed and the others were declared heresy, he said, including the Gnostics who believed that salvation depended on secret knowledge that Jesus imparted, particularly to Judas.

Could they not find one modern-day scholar or observer, even, who is less impressed by this supposed blockbuster? In fact almost all of the stories I read used the same few people to provide context. The Washington Post reporters who wrote about the Judas Gospel also managed to quote the same people as the AP story, but in a way that made them seem to be saying much different and more sensible things. It's actually worth comparing. Here, though, they quote Pagels again:

Some scholars suggested that view -- if it had been accepted -- might have lessened anti-Semitism over the centuries. "The story of the betrayal of Jesus by Judas gave a moral and religious rationale to anti-Jewish sentiment, and that's what made it persistent and vicious," said Princeton University professor Elaine Pagels.

Lord, have mercy. I mean, I'm beyond glad that Christians don't riot at the slightest offense. But this public relations stunt (coincidentally timed to prep for the fictional Da Vinci Code?) released just before Palm Sunday heading into Holy Week? Christians have every right to be offended. There were some other media outlets that handled this news with a bit more cynicism and analysis, but for the most part, I give the media a failing grade.

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