Ben Witherington on the Gospel of Judas pt.1

This is the first part of Dr. Witherington's Post on the Gospel of Judas. This is a must read, so I post it here.

Right at Easter time, just as the dandelions are starting to appear in my yard, a new crop of theories about Jesus and the Gospels usually pop up as well, often rushed into the Easter market. Clearly the appropriate amount of fertilizer has been applied to these supposed 'new revelations' to make such hot house theories grow, seemingly over night.

We have "The Jesus Papers" reviving the old "Passover Plot" theory that Jesus never really died on the cross, he only swooned and was revived, a theory supported by no first century source whatsoever (even our Roman sources are clear that he was executed under Pontius Pilate— see Tacitus and Suetonius), and with much more fan fare we also have the Gospel of Judas which we have known about for a long time. It is yet another Gnostic document, which Elaine Pagels says helps to explode the theory of a monolithic early Christianity. Of course the only conservative Protestant scholar of the group National Geographic engaged to comment on this work, Craig Evans, has a very different take on the matter. So do I. So also do conservative Catholic scholars.

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.

But my greater concern is not so much with this document which is interesting and tells us more about the Gnostic heresy of the 2nd-4th centuries. This is important to know about and reminds us just how vibrant early Christianity was that it could create secatrian split off groups like the Gnostics. 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.

More will be said on this after the National Geographic special on Palm Sunday.

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