Variously described as “long-lost” or “recently discovered,” the Gospel of Judas has been reexamined and again found to be authentic. By analyzing the unique ink used and how that ink interacted with the ancient papyrus, scientists concluded anew that the document is genuine. When first revealed in the 1970s, the available techniques for analyses were unable to declare authenticity with a high degree of confidence, even though the evidence pointed in that direction. We now know, to the still-limited extent that such things can be known with modern technology, that the document dates to about A.D. 280.
So is having an authentic Gospel of Judas important? In answering that question, the Reverend Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, made a breathtaking, stunning, observation about the discovery. As reported in the April 6, 2006, USA Today, Mohler said the discovery, assumed to be authentic, “has no bearing whatsoever on the Easter story, much less on the faith of the Christian church.” He went on to dismiss the gospel as nothing but “an ancient manuscript that tells an interesting story.” Really? Really? If the good Reverend meant what he said, and if his views are representative of his flock, the implications are astounding.
Mohler is not alone nor an anomaly. Metropolitan Bishoy, leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, echoed Mohler’s dismissal of the new gospel as “non-Christian babbling resulting from a group of people trying to create a false ‘amalgam’ between the Greek mythology and Far East religions with Christianity… They were written by a group of people who were aliens to the main Christian stream of the early Christianity. These texts are neither reliable nor accurate Christian texts, as they are historically and logically alien to the main Christian thinking and philosophy of the early and present Christians.”
Gospels are nothing but ancient manuscripts that tell an interesting story. Well, that is exactly what I, too, have been saying all along! Of course, unlike Rev. Mohler, I apply that same logic to, and draw the same conclusions about, the gospels constituting today’s New Testament Bible. After all, the collection of gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, were only accepted as canonical at the Synod of Rome in 382 A.D. in the Decree of Damasus, issued, coincidentally enough, by Pope St. Damasus I. Scripture, as accepted by modern Christians, is nothing but an arbitrary collection of four gospels codified by the Christians in power in the 4th century.
Those four gospels of the modern Bible are considered special only as an accident of history, because some Christians decided, nearly four hundred years after Christ died, that this quartet represented the word of god, while dozens of other gospels were just a good read. The canonical four carry no more inherent weight than the Gospel of Judas. So why would the powers that be choose those specific four? Did they have any motivation to exclude all others, besides the obvious contradictions buried in the description of events found among the larger group of gospels? Well, yes, indeed.
In early Christianity, diversity ruled, with dozens of variations and sects like the Ebionites, Marcionites and Carpocratians flourishing, splitting, and growing. Eventually, from this chaos emerged two major schools of thought. In one corner, we have the Gnostics, who believed that personal insights are the key to redemption and salvation. Gnostics were able to hear the voice of god from within and therefore had no need for priests to act as their go-between with god. Ordinary people could be divine, connected directly to god.
Orthodox priests in the opposing corner were none too pleased with this idea. Gnosticism not only threatened the power structure of the Orthodox Christians, but directly contradicted their belief that faith in Jesus and his resurrection was the sole path to personal salvation. These Christians emphasized that only the son of god was both human and divine, making god a step removed from the man on the street. That belief conveniently ensured a role for priests, who retained the power to intercede with god on behalf of ordinary folks.
While the two schools sparred for almost two hundred years, the battle for dominance was never clearly won by either side. That is, until the squabbling led to an ugly split in 180 A.D., when Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, formally condemned Gnostic teachings in his magnum opus, Against Heresies (who isn’t?), and attacked as heretical any gospels that differed from the mainstream church. The Decree of Damasus issued in 382 A.D. was really just the culmination of the movement precipitated by Irenaeus when he published his anti-Gnostic book two centuries earlier.
We can think of the Gnostics as Democrats and the Orthodox Christians as Republicans. At the Synod of Rome in 382 A.D., the Republicans were in power. Not surprisingly, the Republicans chose the four gospels that best reflected their views. Hence, we now have Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who told a sympathetic story about Jesus’s birth, life, crucifixion and resurrection. Any gospels that displeased the Republicans were conveniently neglected or declared heretical. This type of selective blindness is no different from what we experience in modern times. Witness the blind treatment of any military intelligence that did not support the war in Iraq: any gospels (intelligence) that displeased the Orthodox Christians (Republicans) was conveniently neglected or declared heretical (unpatriotic).
The selection of the four gospels was nothing but the exercise of raw political power to promote one particular belief, which was much in dispute by other equally devout Christians. But Gnostic Christians, who dismissed the importance, or reality, of the resurrection, simply had less political influence, and lost the election. Gnostics were the Al Gore of the 4th century. Maybe Pope Damasus I had a brother serving as an Imperial Bishop in a critical region to help throw the election his way.
More than three dozen gospels, of undisputed authenticity, have been known to the Church for hundreds of years, or millennia in some cases, but most did not make the canonical cut. Gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Truth and the Secret Book of John were denounced as heretical by the early church, but were popular enough in their day to survive in plentiful copies dearly regarded by early Christians. Even the gospels that made the team were not in complete harmony; that is to say, they offered contradictory stories about the same events. Rev. Mohler could not be more right; he just needs to extend his logic to all 40 gospels, including those of the Fab Four, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which are in fact, as the good Reverend states, nothing but ancient manuscripts telling an interesting story.
As an aside, the conceptual schism between Gnostics and Orthodox Christians is analogous to the division in Islam today between Sunni and Shiite sects. Sunnis would be like the Gnostics (or modern-day Protestants), with no one person appointed as head of the religion, and with no formal clergy. Shiites, like the Orthodox Christians, have a divinely-appointed religious leader and a formal hierarchy similar in structure to the Catholic Church.
Judas and Applewhite
The Gospel of Judas is interesting because the story told within differs significantly from the biblical version. The bible claims that Judas betrayed Jesus for a mere 30 pieces of silver. This from Luke 22 (New International Version):
Now the Festival of Unleavened Bread, called the Passover, was approaching, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some way to get rid of Jesus, for they were afraid of the people. Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve. And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus. They were delighted and agreed to give him money. He consented, and watched for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them when no crowd was present.
The new Gospel tells a dramatically different story. Here Judas conspires with Jesus rather than betrays him. The two co-conspirators together plan to have Judas turn Jesus over to the authorities for execution, upon Jesus’s request, as part of the duo’splan to release Jesus’s spirit from his body. One wonders if Luke got something this important so wrong…
Anyway, the new story immediately calls to mind a more recent episode of spirit release. In 1997, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult took their own lives, dying in shifts over a few days in late March. Some members helped others take a deadly mix of Phenobarbital and vodka before consuming their own poisonous cocktail. Why did these people die? Members of the cult believed the prophecy of Marshall Applewhite, who claimed that the comet Hale-Bopp was the long-awaited sign to shed their earthly bodies, which they called “containers.” By leaving their containers behind, followers would be able to join a spacecraft traveling and hiding behind the comet, which would take them to a higher plane of existence.
With the new Gospel of Judas in hand, we need to take another look at that bug-eyed lunatic Marshall Applewhite, who commanded his followers to shed their “containers.” Everybody outside of that cult would agree that the guy had a screw loose. But in fact, Applewhite had good precedent in broadly accepted religious lore. Perhaps he was not crazy after all. Gnostic Christians believed, and the new Gospel supports the idea, that Jesus not only knew about, but encouraged, Judas to betray him so that Judas “could sacrifice the man that clothes me.” Jesus apparently wanted to shed his container. Perhaps the Gospel of Judas has the story correct after all. Even if not, traditional Christians today, though offering multiple interpretations of what happened between Judas and Jesus, widely accept the idea that Jesus at least had knowledge of the betrayal before the fateful evening. That conclusion would be hard to deny, with passages from the Bible such as, “For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him.” (John 6:64 in the Revised Standard Version, RSV). If that is too ambiguous, we have, “Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?” The bible speaks of “Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was to betray Him.” (John 6:70-71 RSV). If John is right, Jesus knew that he and his container would soon part ways, and took no action to avoid the separation. Crazy like Applewhite.
The Gospel of Judas, like dozens of others, did not make the cut in A.D. 382 because the story told differed from the four gospels eventually selected. Wishing to shed one’s container after all is a bit crazy, no? That Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are now what one reads in Sunday school is nothing but an accident of history, an outcome of political maneuvering in smoke-filled rooms. And yet mysteriously billions of people believe this agglomeration of tales written hundreds of years after Jesus died represents the literal word of god or some allegorical reference to such meaning. The true miracle is that the human mind can take these various, conflicting, inconsistent tales from nomads ignorant in the ways of the natural world as something supernatural. Crazy like Applewhite.
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Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World
by Jeff Schweitzer and Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara
Jeff Schweitzer spent much of his youth underwater pursuing his lifelong fascination with marine life. He obtained his doctorate from Scripps Institution of Oceanography through his neurobehavioral studies of sharks and rays. He has published in an eclectic range of fields, including neurobiology, marine science, international development, environmental protection and aviation. Jeff and his wife live in central Texas, moving there after retiring from the White House as Assistant Director for International Science and Technology.
Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara is an evolutionary biologist with a doctorate from the University of California. He serves as a marine policy advisor to various national and international bodies, and has recently represented Italy in multilateral environmental negotiations. Through appearances on television and radio, and the publication of articles and books, he has been striving to increase public awareness of marine conservation. Giuseppe lives with his family in Northern Italy.