What should we make of the discovery of this new Gospel of Judas that has been unearthed in the sands of Egypt? The media and unfortunately some biblical scholars of note would have us think that this document represents voices from the early centuries of Christianity that need to be given a hearing as we assess who the Jesus of history was.
Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels are among those scholars of the opinion that earliest Christianity was not a monolithic movement. There were many different Christian groups in the first century, but we just don’t know much about the “other” groups because their voices were suppressed by the orthodox tradition. For Ehrman and Pagels, texts like the Gospel of Judas enable scholars to rewrite the myth of the origins of Christianity. (See my review of Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus)
How should we assess claims such as these being touted in the media and by some scholars? First of all, the Gospel of Judas is not new. Not only is the document not new (obviously), our knowledge of it and its central claims aren’t new either. We’ve known about the existence of the Gospel of Judas for nearly two thousand years. Irenaeus mentions this gospel in his book Against Heresies which was written around AD 180. He writes:
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 (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1:XXXI.1).
So don’t let anyone tell you that this “new” discovery completely changes the historical picture that we have of Jesus. It doesn’t. The evidence has been in a long time.
Second, this copy of the Gospel of Judas has been carbon dated to about the 3rd or 4th century. However, scholars estimate that the original text dates approximately to AD 130–170. Obviously, that means that the author could not have been Judas. It also means that whoever wrote it could not possibly have had any first hand knowledge of Jesus. So it’s a late document with a false name on it making claims for which we have no historical corroboration.
Third, the document advances a Gnostic version of Jesus, a version of Jesus which is historically implausible given what we know about first century Judaism and Christianity. To begin with, the Gnostics believed in a radical Platonic division between material things and spiritual things, such that all created, material things (such as human bodies!) are evil because they are material and all spiritual things are good. First century Jews and Christians simply did not believe such things. Both Jews and Christians looked forward to a time when God would redeem people’s physical bodies through resurrection. I could go through text after text to illustrate this from Jewish and Christian sources (e.g., Daniel 12:2; 2 Maccabees 7:9, 11, 14, 23, 28ff; John 5:25-29; 1 Corinthians 15). Anyone interested in getting the full picture of what people believed about the resurrection of the body in the first century should read N. T. Wright’s magisterial work on the resurrection. The Gnostic Gospel of Judas is clearly out of step with the historical record.
Fourth, it’s Easter season. Every year historically tendentious depictions of Jesus get released just in time for Holy Week. This year is no exception. Let’s not be naïve about this. This discovery is being hyped now because this is the season for hyping such things. That the National Geopraphic Society made this sensational announcement when it did is no accident. It was timed.
At the end of the day, this discovery doesn’t tell us anything reliable about Jesus. It does, however, tell us about a 2nd century Christian heresy and about 21st century people who are all to willing to recycle it.
Some dispute this. Ben Witherington, for example, thinks it’s possible that this 3rd or 4th century copy may not be the same document that Irenaeus refers to in Against Heresies: “It is entirely possible that the Gospel of Judas we now have is not the original document created by the Cainite Gnostics that Irenaeus knows and speaks of” (“The Gospel of Judas— Part Two,” April 9, 2006). The controversial claims of this document go back at least as far an Irenaeus. So in any case there’s nothing new as far as claims about the historical Jesus are concerned.