Last Sunday night I watched the National Geographic Special on “The Gospel of Judas.” As usual with other recent programs of this sort that deal with the topic of the historical Jesus, I came away somewhat frustrated, perhaps even angry—not because the program attacked my personal beliefs or challenged the truth of Christianity, but because (once again) shoddy historical research and politically motivated revisionist history were being passed on to a gullible, biblically illiterate public as indisputable fact.
The Gospel of Judas is a Gnostic gospel similar in many respects to other “lost” gospels that have become the subject of popular discussion in recent years due to the popularity of the best-seller, The Da Vinci Code—works such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. As The Gospel of Judas has it, Judas was not the villain that orthodox Christians have portrayed for 2000 years. Rather, he was Jesus’ most trusted disciple, and the only one who truly understood his mission. According to the story, Jesus actually gave Judas the task of “betraying” him so that Jesus could die on the cross and be freed from his physical body (Gnostics believe physical stuff to be evil). So, Jesus’ betrayal and death were apparently not evil acts in themselves, but spiritual necessities designed to release Jesus from a physical prison. Rather than an evil traitor, Judas was actually a hero and the recipient of the secret knowledge (gnosis) required for true salvation.
Now why is this a big deal? Why would we think this Gnostic gospel anything more than a harmless historical curiosity? It’s because the producers of the National Geographic special, inspired by the revisionist history of Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman (the two scholars given the bulk of the airtime on the show), are pushing the idea that the Gospel of Judas presents us with a picture of Jesus and of early Christianity that is just as authentic, and perhaps more authentic, than the portrait of Jesus and the church that we find in the four canonical gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Ehrman and Pagels have made a name for themselves in recent years by pushing the thesis that in early Christianity there was no “orthodoxy,” no single standard of belief about the identity and mission of Jesus. Instead, the early church manifested a great deal of doctrinal diversity with many different, even conflicting, views of Jesus. What is their proof for this idea?—the so-called Gnostic Gospels, many of which were contained in the Nag Hammadi library, a collection of Gnostic works discovered in Egypt in 1945. So, according to Pagels and Ehrman (and the National Geographic Society), there existed in the early church about 30 gospels, not just four, and these gospels show that early Christianity was a mosh-posh of theological traditions and it wasn’t until the third and fourth centuries that the camp we call “orthodox Christianity” one supremacy through political oppression of opposing version of Christianity.
It ought to be enough to respond to this theory with one word: hogwash! For that is exactly what it is. Unfortunately, many people (even church-going people) are being misled by the likes of Pagels and Ehrman. So, a more substantial response is called for. There is not time or space here to be thorough, but let me offer the following remarks in rebuttal:
1. The Gnostic Gospels cannot support the Pagels-Ehrman thesis about early church diversity for several reasons. First, because the Gnostic gospels (including the Gospel of Judas) did not exist in the early church. The manuscripts of the Nag Hammadi library were transcribed between A.D. 350-400. And there is no evidence whatsoever that any of these books were written before A.D. 150. Before that time, the Gnostic gospels were unknown—which is a strong indication that they were not written until after that time. Concerning the Gospel of Judas, we have a reference to it in the works of the church father Irenaeus in the year 180. So, we can know that this gospel existed at that time. However, there is no reason to think that it existed prior to that time. Second, we know that all four canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were written in the first century, during the apostolic era. What is more, some time before Irenaeus, the canonical gospels became universally accepted throughout the church as authoritative and divinely inspired works. For instance, the Muratorian Canon (c. 170) lists the four gospels along with 16 other New Testament books as homologoumena (books accepted as authoritative by all the church). Though containing many differences, these four gospels nevertheless tell the same basic story about Jesus and identify him as fully human and fully divine (and they paint Judas as a traitorous villain). No other gospels as close to the life of Jesus as these four existed in the early church, least of all the Gnostic gospels.
2. There is ample evidence from early Christian documents that there was a single, orthodox Christian faith from the very beginning. First Corinthians was written by Paul about A.D. 55. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, Paul speaks of the gospel message he “received” and “passed on” to others. That message included the account of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus (the latter is especially important since Gnostics do not believe in a bodily resurrection). The words of this text are written in a highly formulaic style indicative of a creedal statement. So, what Paul is saying is that he had earlier “received” this creed and had passed it on to the Corinthians. When did Paul receive this doctrinal tradition? No doubt, he received it on his visit to Jerusalem as recorded in Galatians 1:18-19). This means (as most critical scholars acknowledge) that this creed dates no later than A.D. 40, within ten years of Jesus’ death. This same Paul also says in Galatians (his earliest epistle, written about A.D. 49) that there is only one gospel message, and any teacher who deviates from that message is accursed—a clear indication of a standard of orthodoxy. Elsewhere, Paul states that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph. 4:5). Throughout the New Testament, in books known to be early first century documents, there are numerous exhortations to hold on to sound doctrine and warnings against false doctrine (Matt. 24:4-14; Col. 2:8-9, 16-23; 2 Tim. 4:1-5; Heb. 13:9; 2 Pet. 2; 1 John 2:18-23; 4:2-3; Jude). All of this is a clear indication that there was a discernable Christian orthodoxy in the early, first-century church, long before the advent of Gnosticism and the writing of the Gnostic gospels.
3. Another point is worth mentioning. The earliest Christian canon was the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. These Scriptures taught that the world (and material things) was created by God and was inherently good. This fact explains very clearly why the Gnostic gospels could not possibly have been taken seriously by early Christians and could not possibly have been just one, competing “version” of Christianity. The Gnostics rejected the goodness of the created order and they rejected the authority of the Old Testament, believing that the God of the Old Testament was not really God, but an evil spirit who rebelled against the true God. The presence and authority of the Old Testament in the early church provides the reductio ad absurdum to the Pagels-Ehrman thesis that Gnosticism was an authentic expression of early Christianity.