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Tom Chaney. R761 review: The Gospel of Judas

Of Writers and Their Books No. R761: First appeared 6 May 2007 in the Hart County Herald. A review of the book: Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity [Viking Press, 2007].
The next earlier Tom Chaney column : Tom Chaney. R760 review: Plain Truth

By Tom Chaney

The Gospel of Judas

The discovery of the Gospel of Judas had been rumored for a decade before the archaeological find was made public by the National Geographic Society in 2006.

Evidently the text is a Coptic translation from the original second-century Greek. Following the discovery near Al Minya in Middle Egypt in the early 1970's, the Gospel of Judas traveled from pillar to post ending up, somewhat damaged, in the hands of philologian Rodolphe Kasser and other scholars who restored the text.

Professors Karen L. King and Elaine Pagels have made use of that Coptic text and provided a translation of the gospel from Coptic into English in their new work, Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity [Viking Press, 2007].

The Gospel of Judas was not unknown before the 1970's. Late in the second century the church father Irenaeus wrote of it. "They produced a fictitious history . . . which they style the Gospel of Judas."

This was a time when the church was establishing uniformity of scripture, doctrine, and creed. Heresies were being ruled beyond the pale of established religion. Judas fell beyond that pale.

Irenaeus wrote further that "It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are, since there are four directions of the world in which we are, and four principal winds... the four living creatures [of Revelation 4.9] symbolize the four Gospels... and there were four principal covenants made with humanity, through Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Christ."

The Gospel of Judas, as is the case with those books comprising the canon of the New Testament, was written long after the death of the disciple whose name it bears. It does not add materially to what we know of either Jesus or Judas from other early Christian literature. "Instead, The Gospel of Judas opens a window onto the disputes among second-century Christians over the meaning of Judas' betrayal and Jesus' teachings."

The author of the gospel is angry. He insists with other true believers that his way of thinking is the only way. He argues that man is essentially spiritual -- that the physical body perishes at death. He accuses the other disciples of human sacrifice (martyrdom). "[H]is tone is not one of gentle persuasion or peaceful discussion: It is a direct and sustained attack on the deeply held convictions of certain other Christians."

Yet, according to Pagels and King, the writer of The Gospel of Judas transcends anger -- "when, for example, Jesus tells the disciples to 'bring forth the perfect human,' and reveals to Judas the brilliant realm of the spirit, illuminated by God's love."

These two scholars do not argue for the reopening of the canon of the New Testament. That canon, used by a wide range of faiths -- Catholic to protestant; Episcopal to Pentecostal -- gives a unity to Christianity that is essential.

"Gospels like this one," say Pagels and King in conclusion, "do not belong in the canon -- nor . . . do they belong in the trash. Instead, they belong where we have placed them here: within the history of Christianity."

The Gospel of Judas and other texts resulting from archaeological discoveries of the past one hundred fifty years enrich the study of the New Testament and of church history in that they flesh out the physical, theological and cultural chaos of the early days of the church.

"Exploring these discoveries, then, offers more than insight onto our past and present; it also opens up a far wider range of visions than we had ever imagined of what Jesus -- and his teaching -- might mean."

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This story was posted on 2012-05-06 02:46:58
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