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Catholic Register: Newly found Judas text not ‘gospel,’ but revealing of sect, scholars say
By Joseph Sinasac
April 13th, 2006
The Catholic Register (www.catholicregister.org)
TORONTO, Canada (Catholic Register) – Just before Easter, religion was front page news all over North America once again. A new “gospel” had been discovered, and not just any gospel. This was the Gospel of Judas, an ancient, decaying papyrus manuscript that seemingly turned much of what Christians know about Jesus’ passion on its head.
Yet, according to four scripture scholars interviewed by The Catholic Register, claims that its contents will unleash a “crisis of faith are overblown, as it says much more about gnostic thought in the early church than about the apostolic tradition, of which it is out of step.
In the “Gospel of Judas,” Judas is no longer the betrayer, but Jesus’ closest confidant, the one who knew his deepest secrets and obeyed his command to arrange his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The “gospel” came with the imprimatur, not of the Catholic Church, but of the National Geographic Society, which had commissioned a team of scientists to explore the authenticity of the recently found document and then produced a two-hour television special and a book.
Viewers across North America are being treated to the television special throughout April. It premiered April 9 on the National Geographic Channel and will be repeated April 26 (8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET), April 27 (2 p.m., 7 p.m. and 12 a.m.) and April 30 (12 p.m., 7 p.m. and 2 a.m.).
“Actually, it has the potential of drawing a lot more people into the church,” said William Klassen, a New Testament scholar and retired professor from the University of Waterloo. Klassen’s own scholarly study on the subject, Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus? (Fortress Press, 1996) led to his being interviewed for the television documentary. He appears several times in the Garden of Gethsemane and in the Cenacle, or Upper Room, where tradition holds that the Last Supper was held.
Klassen has deep sympathy for Judas, who he believes did nothing wrong.
But he said April 7 that the document in the television special was not written by Judas, but by an anonymous person writing more than 250 years after the crucifixion.
This author was likely a member of a sect in the family of Gnostics, people who held a variety of beliefs, including some elements of early Christianity, in a strange mystic stew. They held that salvation was only available to a small elite to whom was revealed secret teachings and rejected anything to do with the material world. This is reflected in the Gospel of Judas, which has Jesus giving Judas secrets not revealed to the other apostles. The Gnostics were considered heretics by Christians.
“I think it is an authentic voice of the Gnostic community,” Klassen said. “It’s very much in the same stripe as the gospels of Thomas, Bartholomew and Mary.”
These were other Gnostic documents in circulation in the early centuries of the church – some say there were as many as 50 – which were rejected by the church as not authentic, too fantastical or out of step with what was known about the life of Christ from the earliest times. In recent decades, some of these have been recovered, leading to an academic’s field day in scripture studies.
The Judas manuscript had actually been discovered in an Egyptian cave in the mid-1970s. It eventually was purchased from an antiquities trader and made its way into the hands of the National Geographic team whose efforts at scientific authentication form a large part of the documentary.
The show says the manuscript was likely written about 300 AD. However, there are references to a Gospel of Judas among early church writers. The bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus, described it in some detail in 180 AD and denounced it as heretical.
Irenaeus was an aggressive advocate of there being only four authoritative gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – reflecting the consensus of the early church.
Father Murray Watson, a biblical scholar at St. Peter’s Seminary in London, Ont., said the document was interesting from an historical standpoint, but is not a “gospel” as we understand the term.
“I don’t believe that this newly published gospel will or should have any impact on the Christian faith, in terms of its essential message and beliefs, which remain unchanged as a result of this discovery and publication,” he told The Catholic Register in an e-mail.
“Is it a gospel? Parts of it have similarities to the gospels (especially to the Gospel of John): it is largely made up of dialogue.
However, there isn’t really any reference to Jesus’ birth, life, crucifixion and resurrection, so I would say that the title ‘gospel’ fits this work only in the loosest possible sense.”
Jesuit Father Scott Lewis, a scripture scholar at Regis College in Toronto and a Catholic Register columnist, dismissed the National Geographic special as sensationalism. He said the document offers some evidence of the thinking of the Gnostics, but is not a challenge to the faith.
It is clearly out of step with the apostolic tradition of the church, he said. “In this particular gospel, they turn everything upside down. They take the standard salvation history and stand it on its end.”
However, he is concerned that such media spectacles can confuse many Christians who lack biblical literacy.
“It’s really hard to get across what scholars know to the people in the pews,” he said. “But it’s very important that we do. When we don’t, we leave people vulnerable to The Da Vinci Code and these kinds of things.”
And while Father Lewis disagreed with Klassen on Judas’ guilt, he had no problem agreeing that Judas could have been forgiven for his action.
Whether one believes Judas is evil or simply misunderstood is not a central tenet of the faith. Even the four Evangelists give different, sometimes ambiguous accounts of his character and motives.
Father Thomas Rosica, a scripture scholar and chief executive officer of Salt + Light television, pointed out that in the Gospels of Mark and John, Peter and Judas commit similar wrongs against Jesus. Peter denies him three times and Judas handed him over to be crucified. The difference is that Peter had the courage to be forgiven while Judas, though filled with remorse, hangs himself.
“While historically, many have thought that Judas is probably in hell, because of Jesus’ severe indictment of Judas: ‘It would have been better for that man if he had never been born’ (Mt 26:24), even these words do not offer conclusive evidence regarding his destiny.... The mercy of God is infinitely greater than our wickedness,” Father Rosica wrote in a recent column he wrote for the Toronto Sun. - - - Joseph Sinasac is the publisher and editor of The Catholic Register.
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