By M. D. Harmon
Just in time for Easter, we get ‘The Gospel of Judas’ to ponder
There’s not much new to it,
but what it says and why
it’s not in the Bible are
worth some discussion.
Imagine that you are the head of the federal Food and Drug Administration. One day, you discover evidence that a dairy company is putting whitewash in milk bottles and selling it.
Obviously, you would quickly denounce the practice and warn consumers not to drink that brand. You would also initiate action to prevent it from being advertised and sold as if it were really nourishing food.
That would put you in a position analogous to the early leaders of the Christian church when they were confronted with various letters, “gospels” and other documents produced by a competing contemporary faith called Gnosticism (the “g” is silent).
Gnostics taught that the universe was once entirely spiritual and gradually was corrupted by material things, which some Gnostics believed to be illusions.
They strongly opposed Christianity, because for them the idea that God could take on the flesh of a man in Jesus Christ was not only wrong, but evil.
Many postulated the existence of a secret kind of “knowledge” (“gnosis” in Greek) by which adepts could “ascend” to higher and higher levels of spiritual existence, until they became pure spirit in its original uncorrupted-by-matter form.
There are still lots of Gnostics around. (All together, class, say, “The Force be with you.”) Some of them are proselytizing their faith not only in sci-fi movies but in such places as the front page of USA Today.
That paper featured a major story recently on the alleged “discovery” of an ancient document called “The Gospel of Judas,” one in a series of “Gnostic gospels” that also include the well-known “Gospel of Thomas.”
It’s worth putting “discovery” in quotes because the document itself really is ancient – so much so that it was identified as false doctrine by a prominent Christian leader named Irenaeus in the second century A.D.
That ties into the entirely spurious controversy being raised today about the way that the Bible was assembled by the early church. It is fueled in part by books like “The DaVinci Code” and “Holy Blood, Holy Grail.”
Actual historians laugh at the books’ claims that there is hidden evidence Jesus was married and had children, and that the early church “invented” the idea of his divinity and didn’t teach it as part of the faith until much later in history, when Christianity was legalized in the fourth century by the Emperor Constantine.
There are tons of extant documents showing that the books of the New Testament as we know them today were all written only a few decades after Jesus’ death.
The last one, the Revelation (or Apocalypse) of John, was almost certainly completed before the year 100 A.D.
The New Testament writers were certainly aware of Gnostic teachings (and condemned them in several passages, including a statement in John’s gospel that Jesus was the divine agent by whom all matter was created, a direct slap at Gnostic teachings).
The later leaders who chose the books of the current Bible applied strict standards in judging what should be included.
One rule was that the authors of books to be included in the “canon,” or church-approved text, had to be either apostles who personally knew Jesus or their direct disciples.
(Yes, there are scholars who dispute these attributions, but there are equally qualified ones who attest to them. More importantly, the early church, much closer in time to their writing than we are, accepted them. That’s good enough for me.)
Second, the books had to be widely used in the church as a whole, and they had to agree on their main points of doctrine.
The church leaders who approved these works in the middle of the fourth century were not fools. They knew the books contained inconsistencies and apparent contradictions – and were wise enough to see, as any detective or district attorney will tell you, that any group of eyewitness accounts of the same event inevitably contain such variations.
That is evidence of the gospels’ authenticity, not their falsity.
The Gnostic “gospels” – all written much later than the books of the canon, but based on teachings extant at the time those books were written – were thus judged unworthy of inclusion because they so strongly contradicted the testimony of the apostles and their first disciples.
People tempted to accept Gnostic teachings as some “purer” or “more original” form of Christianity should read what the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians (1: 6-9):
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.”
They still do, but there’s no reason to let them succeed now when they’ve failed so often before – and for such good reasons.
— M.D. Harmon is an editorial page writer and editor. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is an ordained deacon serving at Prince of Peace Charismatic Episcopal Church in Sanford, ME.