April 22, 2006 at 10:43 pm #1214
The “Gospel of Judas”
Gnosticism vs. Christianity
In recent months there has been much talk and media speculation about the “Gospel of Judas.” The text has been made public by the National Geographic Society in several books and articles, also online. This publication comes just in time for Easter. You wonder: Is that a coincidence? Who knows! Certainly, the events described in the Gospel of Judas take place during Holy Week. This might be the best construction we can put on it. Here’s another take on this publication date: Some people have said that the Gospel of Judas is another instance of “the Church” not wanting ordinary people to know “the whole truth” about the allegedly quite murky origins of the Christian religion. This prejudice has been around for at least 250 years and is rooted in the anti-church attitude of many an intellectual of that time period, the Enlightenment. So, by publishing this text (it has been called “sensational” by some) at this point in the year, somebody somewhere maybe is trying to stick it to “the Church.” Some even speculate that the Vatican has another copy of the book but kept is secret because it would “change everything.”
Now, media sensationalism aside, what’s so special about this gospel book? The book, its modern promoters say, provides more and new information about Judas Iscariot. In the four biblical gospels, this man is a rather marginal figure, though he is by no means unimportant (he betrayed our Lord). So, since we’re all for fairness, let’s give “Judas” a chance to give his side of the story! But is this really an accurate claim? To answer this question, a bit of historical background information is needed.
First of all, the book was probably written in the second century A.D., so about 100 years after the gospel books contained in the Scriptures and after the death of Judas. So at least the title of the book is bogus. Judas did not write this book. The book is mentioned by a couple of prominent teachers of the Early Church by the names of Irenaeus and Epiphanius. So people always knew the Gospel of Judas existed; they had just never seen an actual copy of it.
Irenaeus and Epiphanius tell us that this book was popular among those who called themselves “Gnostics.” Gnostics were believers in a form of Christianity that was radically different from the one taught by the Christ of Scripture. They believed that the god of the Old Testament and the one revealed by Jesus are two different Gods. The first was about justice, the second is about love. They held that this world, including the body, is evil in nature because it was made by the inferior god of the Old Testament. From this they drew two different conclusions: Some Gnostics believed that the body needed to be destroyed by fasting and other ascetic exercises; other believed that it didn’t matter what you did with your body since it’s evil anyway (only the soul matters). All Gnostics believed that the soul is trapped in the body and needs to be freed from this dungeon. It is freed by learning secret knowledge (a free translation of “Gnostic” would be “person in the know,” that is, a person who has the saving knowledge of the secrets). Jesus comes into the picture as heavenly teacher of this knowledge; he had this knowledge because he originated somewhere higher in the heavenly hierarchy. He saves by teaching the truth, not by dying on the cross. In fact, according to some Gnostic accounts of the death of Jesus, Jesus did not die on the cross at all. One reason is that Jesus is said to have had only what appeared to be a human body; that is, Jesus didn’t really become man and die.
Such was the intellectual environment in which very likely also the Gospel of Judas was written. It fits nicely with a number of other Gnostic gospels produced at about the same time. Some of these writings have been preserved intact (a whole bunch of them was discovered in the desert in Egypt in 1945). We know of others only from quotations in the writings of Irenaeus, Epiphanius, and other Christian writers like them. Time and again, these false gospels embellish, change, and elaborate on the biblical gospels. This means: We don’t learn anything that’s new and true about Jesus (or any other New Testament characters) from these false gospels. We only learn something about the beliefs of the folks who wrote these texts.
Now, in Judas’ Gospel, Judas is the favored receiver of dreams and visions and private conversations with Jesus. Jesus, in fact, tells Judas to betray him so that he (Jesus) might be freed from “the man that clothes” him, that is, his dungeon-like body. For, in keeping with Gnostic teaching, the Gospel of Judas claims that man was made by an inferior angel called Saklas who, in turn, was made by an evil angel called Nebro who seems to be a Satan-like figure (a rebel angel). Obviously, man created by this low-ranking and evil angel cannot be good. Besides, the world as we know it, with all people, is only the shadow of the heavenly realm of angels. There are two classes of people: one only endowed by Michael with a spirit that keeps them alive while they are governed from without; the other endowed by Gabriel with both spirit and soul. The latter ones are the chosen ones who need to be rescued from this evil world by teaching true knowledge, “the mysteries of the kingdom.” Jesus is the One teaching this knowledge since he is the earthly double of a heavenly being called Seth that is fairly close to the “Father” or, as he is also known, the “Spirit.”
It is not difficult to see why the Church in the second century AD rejected the Gospel of Judas and writings like it! There just isn’t any gospel in this “Gospel.” Instead, a different god is taught. Jesus is not the one true God made man to save us by his life and death. Jesus, according to “Judas,” is a “son of god” in the sense that he is created offspring of the highest god of the Gnostic religion. He is no more than an angel. The being who made this world is also an angel, lower than Jesus and, unlike Jesus, evil. This gives a negative “taste” to the entire material world, to what we can see and touch. The Early Church fathers asserted against the Gnostics: Jesus is the one true God, not some angel (angels are mere creatures!). He and the Creator of the world and the Spirit are the one true God in three equal Persons. The world is evil, not because an evil god made it, but because Adam and Eve broke God’s Word and spoiled God’s creation he pronounced very good in the beginning. Created matter as such is not evil; in fact, God uses his creation to redeem fallen creation: Think of the incarnation and crucifixion of God’s Son; think of the means of grace, word and sacraments. All men are equal in their sinfulness; there are not two classes of people, one created receptive for the gospel, the other not. All men are equally saved by faith in the live and death of God’s Son made Man on their behalf, not by accepting some secret knowledge about the universe. In heaven, the saved will not be disembodied souls but souls in glorified bodies.
Now, as we’ve said, there are many more than four gospel books out there. Should we be confused by this fact? No, we should not. The existence of texts like the Gospel of Judas reminds us that there has always been disunity among those who claim to be Christians. Those who wrote the Gospel of Judas did not recognize the gospels we have in Scripture and those who believed in them as legitimate disciples of Jesus. Those who stood by the gospels of the bible did not recognize as Christian those who wrote the Gospel of Judas including the book itself. The gospels themselves bear witness to the fact that even during Jesus’ earthly life there were divisions among those who wished to be his disciples. And the larger part of God’s Old Testament people, the Jews, have yet to recognize Jesus as their God and Savior. So, what’s new? Error has always sought to replace the truth.
We today are dealing with a situation in which you have many different churches. There are Lutherans, Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, “Christians,” Pentecostals, and many more. And even in Lutheranism there is serious division ‚Äì and when you compare the LCMS and the ELCA, then you realize that the old challenges once posed by Gnosticism are back: Who is God, the Holy Trinity, the “Mother Goddess,” or some generic “Supreme Being”? Who is Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity made Man or some great teacher only later called “god” by his followers? On what does Christianity rest, on the historical facts of God’s incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection or on the subjective views of certain individuals we may share or replace by our own subjective realities? What is the bible, God’s error-free record of his saving acts and words or one version of the truth among others? Who made the world, the one true God or a random, impersonal “process” of evolution or natural selection? How are we saved, by faith in the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ or by some special, secret knowledge parts of which we might also find in other religions? How are we to live, according to God’s unchanging will, the Ten Commandments, or according to our enlightened mind, even if that includes divorce, fornication, abortion, and homosexuality?
Now, given the fact that there are so many gospel writings “out there,” how do we know that our gospels are genuine? After all, the oldest manuscript evidence for the four biblical gospels also is not older than the second century AD. Some critics of the Christian religion have therefore asserted that the gospels of the bible are also forgeries and that Christianity is a big lie. Dan Brown’s popular book, The Da Vinci Code, claims that the apostles made Jesus into a god he never was and that therefore the biblical gospel cannot be trusted if you’re interested in the “real Jesus.” The “real Jesus,” according to this novel, we know from the secret records which are secretly handed down to our age by the natural offspring of Jesus and Mary Magdalene ‚Äì against the will of the Church, of course! The Da Vinci Code is thus no more than another form of Gnosticism, since its protagonists claim that the Gnostic gospels are, first, older than the biblical ones and, second, the true records of Jesus’ earthly life.)
We can know the difference between true and false gospel accounts by asking a couple of simple questions: Does a given gospel book teach the truth and was it written or authenticated by a genuine apostle of Jesus Christ? In other words, the gospel account, first of all, has to be in agreement with the Old Testament. Again and again, Jesus and his apostles show and prove the agreement of their teaching with the Old Testament (John 5:39, 45-47; Acts 26:22-23; Romans 3:21). Jesus also proves that he is God’s Son, the promised Messiah, by fulfilling each and every one of the prophecies made concerning him since the creation of the world; these prophecies are recorded in the Old Testament (Luke 24:44). He sent out the apostles, making them and their writings the infallible teachers of the church (John 14:26; 17:20; Acts 2:42; Revelation 21:14). Christians who lived during the time of Christ and the apostles knew these men personally. And they knew what they had written and what they hadn’t written. Based on this factual knowledge, the church established the canon of the New Testament. The genuine writings of the apostles (or their companions) made it into the bible; the many other writings were excluded. This is how we got our four gospels which are the “real deal.” They were written by an apostle (Matthew, John) or an apostle’s companion (Mark, Luke).
Now, a canon is a standard, a yardstick, according to which things are measured or judged. Based on the canonical writings, canonical teaching was established in the form of creeds, statements of faith: Some teachings are Christian, others are unchristian because they are outside the canon; they cannot be established based on the writings in the canon of Scripture. In this way, the Early Church fathers battled the Gnostics and their false teachings. The Gnostics claimed to be the true followers of Jesus, but neither did they accept the genuine writings of Christ’s apostles nor did their teachings agree with the teachings of the apostles. Instead, they had a different canon of Scripture and therefore held a different canon of teaching. There is no agreement between Gnostics and Christians. This has not changed in the last 1800 years.
Certainly, we can read the Gospel of Judas and learn something about Gnosticism and its beliefs in the second century AD. That’s fine, and scholars have already begun studying this new ancient text. Yet the buzz around this text was not only about its value for historical scholarship. There are people today who actually promote the ideas taught in the Gospel of Judas and other ancient Gnostic texts. They want to establish an “alternative version” of Christianity, one that is unrestricted by the “narrow-minded dogmatism” of the Church. And, ever since the Enlightenment (18th century), they’ve succeeded in establishing modern forms of Gnosticism among us, especially in liberal churches.
We need to be very careful here and distinguish the spirits, to see whether they are from the God who has revealed himself in the Jesus taught by Scripture. The only way we can tell truth apart from falsehood is by applying the standard ‚Äì the canon ‚Äì we have in Holy Scripture and the faithful creeds, or confessions, of the Church.
All in all, the Gospel of Judas is one of many Gnostic gospel books. Gnosticism is a religion that teaches that this world is a mere mirror image of the real world in heaven; that this world was created by an inferior, evil angel; that this world is bad; that souls are trapped in dungeon-like bodies; that Jesus is the heavenly teacher who brings the saving knowledge. The Church rejected Gnosticism because it has a different set of holy scriptures (a different canon of authoritative writings) and therefore teaches different doctrines. We today can know the difference between Christianity, the true religion, and false religions by clinging to the apostolic canons of Scripture and teaching (the creeds and confessions, including the <I style=”mso-bidi-font-style: normal”>Small Catechism). Everything we can and need to know about Judas ‚Äì and our salvation ‚Äì is reliably taught in the bible, the Old and New Testaments.
[color=darkblue:21uddgfj]AUTHOR UNKNOWN[/color:21uddgfj]May 19, 2006 at 1:40 am #6178
To put it bluntly: Christianity – Truth; Gnosticism – Whishful thinking!
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