2006-04-11

WWJD: What would Judas do?

Well, it is apparently time for us all to answer the question: What would Judas do?  A couple of my students and families at Church have asked me about the newly translated "Gospel of Judas" that has inspired much media hype, and yet another run-of-the-mill "groundbreaking" historical documentary on the National Geographic Channel this Easter Sunday. If you don’t know what I am talking about look at these online resources: either go to Wikipedia and type in "Gospel of Judas", or check out this collection (which includes a complete translation) at tertullian.org, or if you can read ancient Coptic, check out the text and translation here.

The questions I am getting are all versions of this well-thought out question by Matt:

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Nate,

What would you say about the Gospel of Judas and other newly discovered or popular apocryphal texts? There is a great buzz in the media over these texts and there are claims that these things show that the Christianity of the early church was not monolithic but full of “diversity”.  Do such arguments ignore the unity of the early church? And as Protestants, does our low view of church history (especially before the Reformation) set us up for failure when we have to confront questions about how the New Testament canon formed?

Matt
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The first thing that I want to say is that the "Gospel of Judas" is not new. It is part of a whole slew of Christian and Christian-inspired literature that was hidden in the sands of Egypt during the Roman persecutions of 250-313 AD. This was the era of the Roman empire when Christianity was systematically persecuted everywhere, with large groups of Christians imprisoned and killed, large amounts of property confiscated, and large amounts of Christian literature burned.  Rather than have their books burned, many Christian and semi-Christian groups hid them until it was safe to dig them out again... only to die for their faith or be made unable to retrieve the books.

Thus, huge libraries of Christian literature have been found in Egypt dating from 250-300 AD preserved by the dry desert conditions.  The "Gospel of Thomas" is part of this: It was found in the 1970's, pieced together over the last 3 decades, only to have a "literary" quality translation made in the last couple of years. The carbon dating and ink residue seems to date it at 220 to 340 AD, while the handwriting script and paper type seem to date it around 400 AD. It is reasonable to assume it was written originally sometime between 130 to 250 AD.  It is only 13 double-sided codex pages long.

The second thing to say is that is definitely was not written by Judas (since he killed himself immediately after Jesus' crucifixion according to Scripture and every other ancient tradition we have). Nor was it written by anyone from the apostolic generation or even their disciples. The earliest group to have written it would have been 3rd generation Christians, and perhaps more like 7th generation.

Third, it was not unknown by the early Christian community.  Around 180 AD Bishop Irenaeus wrote his massive study "Against Heresies" in an attempt to provide a theological map of the various semi-Christian communities that were deviating from the faith and practice of the Apostles.  Foremost of these groups was a diverse set of communities that we roughly call "Gnostic".  Gnostic groups came in all sorts of flavors, from pagan to Jewish to Christian.  They all had a few things in common:

1. Matter was evil and something we need to be saved out of.

2. The natural world is a corruption of spiritual reality, brought about by a corrupted Creator that emanated from the "Source of being" through a series of "steps" usually called "Aeons"

3. The first few Aeons share in the goodness of the Spiritual Source of all, but as more and more Aeons emanated, they devolved until they eventually become evil matter.

4. Trapped in matter is a remnant of the Source, and in order to be liberated, this remnant or "spark" of the Divine must ascend back up the Aeons to be united to the Source.

5. The only way that this happens is through being initiated into secret "knowledge" (Greek: Gnosis) that helps one master the Aeons and return to the Source.

6. Usually the Creator-God of this world (often called a "Demiurge") is evil and is trying to hinder those with the "spark" from ascending back to the Source.

Semi-Christian versions of Gnosticism add that Jesus is one of the higher Aeons who took a human form to lead those humans with the "spark" back to the Source (not all humans have the spark!). In Jesus, and Jesus' "secret disciples", is found the Gnosis to ascend back to the pure spiritual world of the Source.

After reading the "Gospel of Judas" it is clear that it was written long after the authentic Gospels as a piece of Gnostic propaganda. This isn’t to knock propaganda. The authentic Gospels are true propaganda. It is merely to say that it contains many of the aspects written above.  For instance, this "Gospel" speaks of a crazy system of Aeons and emanations that led to our creation:

verses 49-50: "The twelve aeons of the twelve luminaries constitute their father, with six heavens for each aeon, so that there are seventy-two heavens for the seventy-two luminaries, and for each [50] [of them five] firmaments, [for a total of] three hundred sixty [firmaments …]. They were given authority and a [great] host of angels [without number], for glory and adoration, [and after that also] virgin spirits, for glory and [adoration] of all the aeons and the heavens and their firmaments."

Furthermore, to highlight the "matter is bad" theme, this Gospel repeatedly claims that those born as mere mortals cannot inherit the Kingdom.  It also pictures Jesus giving Judas a divine mission to turn him in, because if Judas caused Jesus' death then Judas would:

"...exceed all of them... For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me."

The "man that clothes me" is a clear reference to the host body of the Spirit of Jesus.  Jesus is congratulating Judas for freeing him of the pesky host-body so that he can again become a pure spirit and ascend the Aeons back to perfection. Kind of creepy if you ask me. And Irenaeus thought the same thing when he decried them in 180 AD:

"Others again declare that Cain [who committed the first murder] derived his being from the Power above [the Source], 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 [the bad Aeon who made the physical world], yet no one of them has suffered injury. For Sophia [the good Aeon trying to free the physical world] 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."

What was the solution for Irenaeus? It was two fold: a "succession of Bishops" and a "rule of faith". Typically, we tend to try and solve doctrinal controversies by limiting the canon of Scripture to a certain number of books and only argue on the basis of those books (i.e. the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura). But, Irenaeus and the whole early Church understood that this would not work because:

1. It was the Church who defined what Scripture was, not Scripture that defined what the Church was. There is no book of the Bible that tells what books should be in the Bible, therefore God has left it to the Holy Spirit inspiring the Church as a whole to recognize what books are truly Scripture.

2. Even if there had been a defined Canon of Scripture at that time, the interpretations of that Canon would have been as varied as there were various readers (just look at the misery that is Protestantism today for evidence of that). Thus, we must again wait on the corporate inspiration of the Holy Spirit to guide us as a whole "into all truth", and give us a "rule" to interpret Scripture by.

Therefore, rather than choosing to solve the Gnostic crisis by means of a closed canon of Scripture (which would have, and did, cause as many problems as it solved), Irenaeus and the whole Church up to the mid-300's solved it by an appeal to core doctrinal consensus and historical continuity.

1. In ensuring historical continuity, the early Church stressed that valid Christian communities were those who had a bishop that was openly ordained by other bishops who could trace their roots back to the Apostles. It was rightly believed that everything Jesus taught was open for all, and that this open teaching was transmitted to the Apostles, who then transmitted and entrusted it to their disciples, on and on, until the current generation of bishops. Thus, when a group claimed "secret knowledge", bishop Joe could easily refute them by saying that he was ordained and taught by bishop Ed who was ordained and taught by bishop Polycarp who was ordained and taught by the Apostle John, who was ordained and taught by Jesus.  And since none of the handed down teachings or writings that have been protected by this succession talk about any crazy "gnosis" or creepy "aeons", then what the Gnostics say is pure bunk.

2. In ensuring doctrinal consensus, the early Church also handed down a "rule of faith" which summarized the basic knowledge and commitments of the Christian community. Although practice of worship varied widely across Christain communities, they shared a common standard, or "rule" of faith. This rule came from the Baptismal teaching that all Christians had to undergo and understand before they were baptized into the Church. Although this rule of faith had some variations (especially in vocabulary) across the ancient world, there was an outstanding unanimity in concepts. This rule is always Trinitarian in shape, and consists in faith in God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Spirit in the Church.  This rule usually looked very similar to the Apostle's Creed, and these rules were later used as the basis for the Nicene Creed.

It was this outstanding core doctrinal consensus (found in the rule of faith) combined with an acute sense of historical continuity (found in the apostolic succession of bishops) that allowed authentic Christianity to face down and get rid of those revisionist versions of Christianity that gave a false Gospel and another Jesus.

I believe that one of the reasons we get so thrown in a loop these days over stuff like the "DaVinci Code" and the "Gospel of Judas" is that as modern Christians most of us have no sense of core doctrinal beliefs, nor of historical continuity. We are the epitome of Protestantism: we exist in the a-historical here and now, cut off from every tradition, and we pick and choose from the buffet of doctrinal options that make us the happiest, using an infinitely flexible canon of Scripture that we can proof-text to say whatever we want.

When a new Gospel or a new Jesus comes along, we do not realize it is actually a very old heresy that has been dealt with ages ago by our fore-fathers (and mothers) in the faith.  Rather, we make a "groundbreaking" TV show about it, get everybody stirred up, and sell a lot of books to everyone on all sides. To one side we sell books to "defend" Christianity from this new [=old] threat. To the other side we sell books to show that this new [=old] Gospel leads us into a more "tolerant", more "modern" Christianity that the "mean old Church" has been trying to hide from us for over a thousand years. Never mind that descriptions of it, and reasons for rejecting it, have been open knowledge in the Church fathers for 1800 years. As long as the consumer machine makes money hand over fist, and everybody is happy. Then the fad dies out, and the "scholars" dig yet another one of these semi-Christian Gospels out of the heap of materials we found in Egypt, and start a new fad to make more money.

So, what would Judas do when faced with the multiplicity of options of how to understand Jesus, combined with the marketing machine dead set on making money from all of them? I bet he would just go out and hang himself.
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Copyright © 2006 Nathan L. Bostian
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.