Saturday, March 18, 2017

Should the gospel of Judas be in the Bible?

What is the Gospel of Judas?
Does this writing provide reliable, additional information about Jesus? Was this document suppressed by the early church and edited from the Bible in the fourth century? These are legitimate questions that need to be seriously considered. It is critical that we determine if the information concerning Jesus Christ as portrayed in the canonical gospels in the Bible is reliable or if other, different or alternative, facts may also be true.

Origin and dating
In the 1970s, a leather-bound 66-page codex, written in Coptic, containing a copy of the Gospel of Judas was discovered near El Minya, Egypt. It is the only known copy. The document had deteriorated and a painstaking restoration process by a National Geographic Society international team has reconstructed and translated approximately 90%. It was dated to approximately A.D. 220 to 340 by several methods: radiocarbon, multispectral analysis, ink analysis, paleography, and contextual evidence.[1] The copy appears to be genuinely written around the third or fourth century and it also appears there was a real Gospel of Judas written prior to 180. That being said, it does not mean the original contained factual information about Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot.

The Gospel of Judas allegedly contains an account of secret conversations between Jesus and Judas held during the week prior to the celebration of the Passover. Jesus spoke of mysteries that are beyond this world and, apart from the other disciples, provided to Judas mysteries of the kingdom and how to reach it. Much of the content of this writing is indicative of Gnosticism, such as the pervasive use of secret knowledge and terms such as Sophia, twelve aeons, and 72 heavens. The portions that were salvaged can be read in about five minutes or so and the disparity between this and the authentic historical accounts found in the four canonical gospels is striking.

Claims of authenticity
As one might expect, soon after the Gospel of Judas became public, claims arose that the document is on par with the canonical accounts in the Bible. Others asserted that it was likely censored by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century as he chose only those gospel accounts that fit his theological preconceptions.  Bart Ehrman remarked, “We're confident this is genuine ancient Christian literature…”[2] Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton, stated, “"These discoveries are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion, and demonstrating how diverse — and fascinating — the early Christian movement really was."[3] The point being made by Ehrman and Pagels is not that Judas actually wrote this, but that there was much diversity of belief among early Christians and one gospel account was not necessarily better or more correct than another.

The first known mention of the Gospel of Judas was around 180 AD in Against Heresies, written by church father Irenaeus, who stated:
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.”[4]
It cannot be stated with absolute certainty this copy found near El Minya is the same document Irenaeus mentioned; however, because of the time proximity and the fact that we have no records of another Gospel of Judas, it likely is the same.

Is it authentic?
The evidence indicates the copy restored by the National Geographic Society was actually written around 300 AD. Also, the original from which the copy was made likely predated 180 AD. However, neither of these facts is probative concerning whether Judas actually wrote this document or whether it contains accurate historical information. Irenaeus quickly dismissed this work as a “fictitious history” and we know of no other church father who even mentioned it. Early church fathers extensively quoted Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. First century Christians – who had seen Jesus or the apostles – immediately accepted the four canonical gospels, but there is no known mention of the Gospel of Judas. If it was authentic, one would expect to receive better treatment. Craig A. Evans, PhD, Biblical Studies from Claremont Graduate University, stated there is “Probably not” anything historical about Jesus and Judas in this document, but it “tells us something about second-century Gnosticism and perhaps a group called the Cainites, who are a bit mysterious to us.”[5]

Should the Gospel of Judas be in the Bible?
Other than the title of the document, there is no evidence it was written by Judas Iscariot or that it contains any legitimate historical information. It appears to be a second-century Gnostic pseudepigraphal gospel. The value of the readable portions of this document is in the background historical information they provides concerning off-shoots of Christianity, much like we have today, which are not orthodox in their beliefs. See articles on this website concerning the Bible for information on the acceptance of the four canonical gospels.

For more in depth study related to the acceptance of the canonical gospel accounts, see:
·         The Canon of the New Testament by Bruce Metzger
·         The Canon of Scripture by F. F. Bruce

(Biblical references are from the NASB version.)

[1] National Geographic, The Lost Gospel of Judas, May 2006, accessed 28 Jul 2008,
[2]Dan Vergano and Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA Today, 4/06/2006.
[3] John Noble Wilford and Laurie Goldstein, The New York Times, April 6, 2006.
[4] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 1, Chapter XXXI, paragraph 1.
[5] Craig Evans, quoted by Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan, 2007), 55. 

No comments: