The Gospel of Judas, so what?

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The Gospel of Judas, released Thursday, offers a version of the crucifixion narrative in which Jesus apparently asks Judas to betray him to the Romans (excerpts here) though it's actually not as explicit as you may have heard. The press coverage of the Gospel focuses--misguidedly in my view--on the question of whether the Gospel is factual or not (see, for instance, this Times article), but really there's nothing new here. Ever since Nag Hammadi we've been swimming in alternate gospels, including ones named after Thomas, Philip, and Mary.

The facts of the situation are this: There are an enormous number of alternative texts to the canonical Gospels and the other canonical texts. While most of them appear to be rather newer than the big four, at least one, the Gospel of Thomas, is widely believed to be very old (cf: the two-source hypothesis). Many of these texts tell radically different narratives than the canonical ones. Even Thomas, which to a great extent resembles the canonical material, has some surprising material:

(37) His disciples said, When will you become revealed to us and when shall we see you?"

Jesus said, When you disrobe without being ashamed and take up your garments and place them under your feet like little children and tread on them, then [will you see] the son of the living one, and you will not be afraid"

...

(114) Simon Peter said to them, "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life."

Jesus said, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that he too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.

Nearly all of this material was floating around at the time that the current canon was finally solidified in the 4th century CE. The process of selection was fairly messy, intensely political, and far from instantaneous. (This site provides a good introduction to the history). This process appears to have been driven to a great extent by the authorities choosing texts which matched their beliefs rather than assessing the accuracy of the texts based on the kind of historical critical techniques that modern scholars use. Obviously, if you're a believer in one particular set of texts that's something you have to come to grips with, but if you've been paying attention it's not exactly news.

2 Comments

Like the Dead Sea Scrolls and and Nag Hammadi Library, this 'discovery' and publication of additional scriptural material makes any conception of 'Canonical scriptures' upon which all tradition is founded, untenable for much longer. The difference between a true revelation and a theological conterfeit needs to be explored.

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