Friday, April 07, 2006

Ben Witherington on the "Gospel of Judas"

First let us deal with the facts: 1) we do not have a Greek text of this Gospel, we have a Coptic one from which the English translation has been made. To simply state this text was based on Greek text is to argue without hard evidence. The fact that Irenaeus mentions this document may suggest there was a Greek original, but we do not have it, and the translation done is not based on any Greek text. We need to be clear on this: 2) You will find a link above to the article in today's NY Times about this find. You will see me suggesting we all need to take a deep breath before consuming too much baloney; 3) this papyrus carbon dates to about 300 A.D. We only know some document called the Gospel of Judas existed around 180 because Irenaeus mentions it. One could also raise the question of whether Irenaeus is referring to the same document, but probably he is. 4) This document reflects the same sort of dualism that we find in many other Gnostic documents-- matter or flesh is evil or tainted, spirit is good. Thus at one juncture in the Gospel of Judas Jesus says to Judas that he will become the top disciple for "you will sacrifice the man that clothes me." In other words Judas is the good guy who helps Jesus get rid of his tainted flesh and become a true spiritual and free being.

This of course is miles from early Jewish theology about the goodness of creation and the flesh, much less the belief that God intends to redeem the flesh by means of resurrection. Much of what Jesus is depicted as saying in the Gospel of Judas the historical, thoroughly Jewish, resurrection believing Jesus could never have said. In other words it is revisionist history being done by a splinter group of Gnostics. This group was at variance with the theology and praxis of the church whose beliefs could in fact be traced back to Jesus and his earliest disciples.


My greater concern is the revisionist history being tauted by Elaine Pagels, Karen King, Bart Ehrman, Marvin Meyer and others, on the basis of such Gnostic documents, wanting to suggest that somehow, someway these documents reflect Christianity at its very point of origin--- the first century A.D.

Such scholars indeed represent a small minority of NT scholarship, and in fact, like the early Gnostics, are busily creating a new myth of origins that suggests that Christianity was dramatically pluriform from the beginning. Unfortunately, as a historian I have to say that this is argument without first century evidence.

We have no first century evidence of Gnostics or Gnosticism. This is a movement that reacted to mainstream Christianity, and emerged from it sometime in the middle of the second century A.D. Every shred of first century evidence we have suggests that the actual physical life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was at the heart of the belief of the earliest Christians--- all of whom were Jews, not Gnostics. It simply will not do to suggest that the esoteric Gospel of the Gnostics bears any resemblance to the Jewish creation and redemption theology of Jesus and his first Jewish followers.

NT Scholar Ben Witherington blogs on the "Gospel of Judas."

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