Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Gospel of Judas (Continued)

I have a little more time now to write some more extended thoughts on the Gospel of Judas. I am indebted to Dr. Danny Akin and Dr. Al Mohler, two of our SBC Seminary Presidents, for helping me respond intelligently to the issue, as I have not had a spare moment to read the Gospel of Judas for myself yet.

The Gospel of Judas claims to contain records of secret conversations between Jesus and Judas Iscariot. According to the document, Jesus was asking Judas to help Him by betraying Him to those who would crucify Him, thus liberating Jesus from the confines of His physical body and freeing His spirit. This is the sort of dualism that is found in nearly all Gnostic writings. Bart Ehrman of UNC-Chapel Hill's Religion Department writes in the forward to the English edition: "This gospel was about the relationship between Jesus and Judas, and indicated that Judas didn't actually betray Jesus, but did what Jesus wanted him to do, because Judas was the one who really knew the truth, as Jesus wanted it communicated."

Recently a Christian and a leader in a church of another denomination said to me, "I am reading the gnostic gospels, and I find them more interesting than some parts of the Bible." My response was that it is good for us to read them, and I have no problem with finding them interesting. However, we need to understand more about their historical context before we are ready to exchange the New Testament for these "new and improved" writings. Their primary interest and value to us is not in giving us a glimpse of early Christianity. Instead, they give us a window into some of the earliest deviations from orthodox Christianity -- namely the Gnostic movement which has its roots in early departures from "the faith once delivered" combatted by the Apostle Paul in Colossians and John in most of his writings in the New Testament. "Full-blown" Gnosticism does not take shape until the middle of the Second Century, nearly 100 years after the writings of the eyewitnesses that we now have in the New Testament. The Gospel of Judas had surfaced in the time of Irenaeus, and he dismissed it as heresy. This is significant because Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a personal acquaintance of the Apostle John, the last surviving apostle, who was a part of the "inner circle" of Christ's disciples.

The Gospel of Judas was written at least 150 years after the alleged author died. This is typical of gnostic writings. They seek credibility by claiming authorship of those whose names are well known in the universally accepted canon of the New Testament. However, their origins are all much later than the deaths of those who are attributed authorship of the documents.

The Gnostic writings emphasize the attainment of esoteric, spiritual knowledge as the means of salvation. They differ from the New Testament teaching of salvation through the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. Atonement and redemption from sin are nowhere mentioned in the Gospel of Judas, marking it as significantly divergent from the writings of the New Testament. Because of blatantly spurious authorship and deviant theology, the gnostic writings were rejected as they surfaced by the church at large. Contrary to the claims of The Da Vinci Code and other popular works which challenge Christian orthodoxy, there was no vote at the Council of Nicea to determine the Canon of the New Testament. The New Testament was "ratified" as the church received and recognized authentic writings of eyewitnesses of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

The Gospel of Judas, contrary to the claims of the National Geographic Society, is not a "new discovery." Students of the early church fathers have been aware of it from the writings of Irenaeus for centuries. The document itself surfaced in 1970 near the banks of the Nile River. The text found was written in Coptic, but it is assumed to have been translated from a Greek original. This is the case with most of the Gnostic writings. The Da Vinci Code refers to the Gospel of Philip being in Aramaic, but there is no record of the Gnostic writings ever appearing in Aramaic.

Gnostic religion was far from monolithic. There were many varieties and sects of Gnosticism from its beginnings. It is believed that the Gospel of Judas has its roots in the Cainite branch of Gnosticism. They bear the name of Cain because of their practice of taking the characters of the Bible who are presented in a negative light, and attempting to redeem their reputations by painting them in heroic fashion.

Those who envision a grandiose revolution in Christianity because of the finding of the Gospel of Judas have leapt to an unsubstantiated conclusion. These individuals come to the Gnostic texts with a preformed bias against the Bible and orthodox Christianity, and find in the Gnostic writings ammunition for their position. The leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church has published the following comment on the media frenzy surrounding the Gospel of Judas, characterizing it as "non-Christian babbling resulting from a group of people trying to create a false ‘amalgam’ between the Greek mythology and Far East religions with Christianity. They were written by a group of people who were aliens to the main Christian stream of the early Christianity. These texts are neither reliable nor accurate Christian texts, as they are historically and logically alien to the main Christian thinking and philosophy of the early and present Christians."

The comments of James Howell, pastor of Myers Park Methodist Church in Charlotte, directed at another anti-orthodox writing, The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family and the Birth of Christianity by James Tabor, do well as a summary statement of all the present attacks against traditional Christianity. Referring to Tabor, Howell says, "Though Tabor has much hard evidence, he builds on facts with a hypothesis, then a guess, a few more facts, then another two hypotheses, an artifact that admits of multiple interpretations, another fact, then a guess- then he connects all these dots in one of dozens of possible ways. The feel in this marvelously well-written volume is that he is building a structure of facts toward his conclusion, and the reader may easily forget that a hypothesis is merely a hypothesis, and a string of them become guesswork."

Work done in this way in any other field of study would be instantly dismissed as irresponsible and as failing to demonstrate any level of academic integrity. However, when "research" of this variety is used to load the cannons that are aimed at the Bible, the Church, Jesus Christ, and traditional Christianity, it is accepted without question by the skeptics and scoffers of the world. The demand of our day is for intelligent Christian people to respond to these attacks by articulating what we believe and why, and demonstrating that Christianity is the only worldview in existence that makes real sense of the evidence of archaeology, science, history, and real life in the real world. The textual history of the New Testament is overwhelmingly sufficient to establish it as historically valid, but we live in a day where presuppositions and biases are valued more than academic prowess. We must rise to the challenge and defend the faith with sound and reasonable argumentation. To do anything less is to deprive God of the glory He deserves.

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