Ben Witherington on the Gospel of Judas pt. 2

This is the second part of Dr. Witherington's critique of the Gospel of Judas. Again, this is a must read and I post it here in its entirety.

The Gospel of Judas— Part Two

I was on the phone yesterday with my close friend Dr. A.J. Levine who teaches at Vanderbilt Div. School. She was called in late in the game to give a bit more balance to the group of scholars unveiling the Gospel of Judas. I asked her point blank: “Well A.J. is this document of any importance at all in helping us understand the historical Jesus or the historical Judas and their relationship?" She said unequivocally— "none whatsoever". In other words, we need to all have our baloney detection meters set to 'heightened alert' as we watch the special on the Gospel of Judas tonight. While this document will tell us more about the split off movement called Gnosticism, and so is of considerable interest as we learn more about church history in the period from the late 2nd century through the fourth century, it tells us nothing about the origins of Christianity or the beginnings of the Jesus movement.

But there is more. I asked A.J. about whether there was in her view any hard evidence that this document existed in Greek, or does it first appear in Coptic. We discussed the evidence from Irenaeus. As she reminded me, the way Irenaeus describes the content of the Gospel of Judas that he knows, it has very different content from this Coptic Gospel of Judas which we are now being regaled with. In other words, it is not at all clear that this Coptic Judas document is the same document referred to by Irenaeus. This needs to be demonstrated, not assumed to be the case. I would just add that it is perfectly possible that the document Irenaeus knows became a source for this later Coptic document, which again does not date, by carbon dating to before the beginning of the 4th century A.D. This places the Coptic Gospel of Judas at even a further remove from the first century A.D. and its documents. 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.

A.J. was also in agreement with me that this document has no material which could or should shake the faith of Christians in what is said in the NT about Jesus and Judas for the very good reason that it comes from a much later source, and one that not even its advocates are really suggesting is written by the historical Judas. In fact it is just another example of the phenomenon known as pseudonymity— documents with falsely attributed authors— other such examples are the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, The Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip and so on.

Pseudonymity was a practice of those who did not have enough authority themselves to create sacred texts and so borrowed the name of an earlier illustrious or in this case notorious figure to create the air of an authentic eyewitness document. It needs to be said that this practice was very clearly denounced not only by church fathers like Tertullian and Ireneaus and Hippolytus who tell us about monks and priests being defrocked for dreaming up such documents, but in the wider Greco-Roman world there were plenty of persons who deplored this practice and saw it as a form of deception and fraud. For example, Cicero and Quintilian both complain about people creating documents in their name which they had nothing to do with. There was indeed a moral issue with such documents, then as now. It was not an 'acceptable literary practice of that era' as some might lead you to believe. I have much more to say on this subject, and you will find it in the Introduction to my Letters and Homilies of the NT Vol. 1 on the Pastorals and Johannine Epistles. It is my view that we do not have any such documents in the NT— all of them are written by persons connected directly or indirectly with eyewitnesses and apostolic figures of the first century. But more on this later.

For those interested, it would serve you well to listen to all the sound clips on the National Geographic Gospel of Judas website about the Gospel of Judas. Evans is a Canadian scholar widely known for his excellent work and temperate approach to sensational claims. He reflects the mainstream of NT scholarship far more than Pagels, Meyer, or Ehrman.

In my opinion, of the three great supposed 'revelations' of this season, the one to pay the most attention to is James Tabor's work "The Jesus Dynasty" which argues for a messianic Jesus who set up a family dynasty. I will be posting a full critique of it later this week. In the meantime, watch the National Geographic Special with a critical eye, and the baloney detection meter fully operational.


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