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Orthodox scholars: gospel of Judas not a Christian document

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The gospel of Judas is helpful in understanding early church heresy but should be viewed as false writings and not comparable to the biblical Gospels, conservative scholars say.

A group of scholars and translators announced in early April the document’s discovery, disclosing the find just before a special about the manuscript aired on the National Geographic Channel. National Geographic billed it as a “lost gospel.”

Christians long have known about the gospel of Judas and considered it heretical — even though they didn’t have an entire copy. Much of what previously was known came from an early church father, Irenaeus — a hero of church history who was bishop of Lyons and lived in the second century — who wrote a work titled “Against Heresies,” in which he called the gospel of Judas “fictitious history.”

The newly discovered document was dated to around A.D. 300, although it likely is a copy of an earlier manuscript, scholars said.

Unlike the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the authorship of Judas is not tied to the name it bears. Also, unlike the biblical Gospels, Judas promotes an early heresy known as Gnosticism, a movement that tried to corrupt the teachings of Christ in the early church. In a nutshell, the gospel of Judas makes Judas a hero, and not a traitor. Orthodox scholars say the gospel of Judas is not Christian at all, but simply heresy.

“The finding of the manuscript is important because we now have a manuscript that we didn’t have for 1,700 years, but this manuscript will not change what Christians believe,” James M. Hamilton Jr., assistant professor of biblical studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Houston campus, told Baptist Press. “I have two volumes of ‘New Testament Apocrypha’ on my shelf that we have had for a long time now, and the fact is that only scholars read this stuff. The canon has long been decided, and the discovery of a Gnostic book is not going to re-open the question.”

The discovery of the gospel of Judas should lead believers to “praise God for preserving the books of the Bible he wanted us to have,” Hamilton said.

In fact, the gospel of Judas isn’t the only surviving early manuscript that wasn’t included in the New Testament. There are other Gnostic documents, as well as some documents written by early church fathers, that survived. Chief among the orthodox documents is 1 Clement, written by Clement the bishop of Rome, possibly in the first century.

But none of the “extra” documents rises to the level of Scripture, orthodox scholars say. The 27 books of the New Testament were recognized as Scripture by the early church primarily because of their association with an apostle. The only books not written by an apostle are Mark, Luke, Acts, Hebrews and Jude. Luke and Acts were written by Luke, who was associated closely with the Apostle Paul. Mark had close ties to Peter, and Jude was the brother of the Apostle James and possibly a half brother of Jesus. Although it is not known who wrote Hebrews — some have thought it was Paul — it was accepted as Scripture by the early church based on its internal qualities and obvious divine inspiration.

“Archeological finds of the last century have only confirmed that the early church fathers gave us accurate accounts of false teachers,” Alan Branch, vice president for student development at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., said. “The gospel of Judas is typical of other Gnostic gospels written during the second and third century. As [the early church father] Origen said, ‘The church has four Gospels. Heretics have very many.’ The church has never denied or attempted to cover up the fact that other groups circulated fallacious gospels. The Gnostic gospels are second- and third-century forgeries. Pagan thought hijacked Christian terminology and used the name ‘Jesus’ as a vehicle for a pagan worldview.”

Gnosticism was a heretical teaching that salvation came through a secret knowledge. Supposedly, Judas was a transmitter of that knowledge. According to Gnosticism, matter was evil and was created by the Old Testament God, who also was evil. Spirit, though, was good. In the gospel of Judas, Jesus tells Judas, referring to the other apostles, “But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” The “clothes” reference presumably referred to Jesus’ body.

“Theologically, the gospel of Judas is a false gospel representative of the Gnostic tradition,” Malcolm Yarnell III, associate professor of systematic theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said. “… Christ’s bodily resurrection is also denied. Christianity has had heresies or false gospels with us since the apostles began preaching. This is why Paul warned Christians to utterly reject false gospels in Galatians 1. The false gospel of Judas is an interesting historical find, but should not be placed on the same level as Scripture.”

Likewise, Michael D. McMullen, associate professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., believes the gospel of Judas has value for learning about heresy.

“[I]t reminds us that the early church was built on Scripture, and that heretics like the Gnostics were a real threat to the Gospel … and that present-day heretics will continue to use such a document to attack the very same inerrant Scriptures that God has given,” McMullen said. “But the real truth is that Gnostic ideas will forever remain at an infinite distance from the truth of the biblical Gospel.”

Hamilton, the Southwestern Seminary professor, wondered what would happen today if a “newly discovered” document was found from the American Revolution.

“Let’s say the document was written by someone loyal to Great Britain, and let’s say that it suggested that George Washington asked Benedict Arnold to betray the American cause,” Hamilton said. “Given that the facts are well-established, and given that the sympathies of the author of this document are clear for everyone to see, would this document change our understanding of American history?

“I think not, and I think the same is true of the gospel of Judas.”

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust