Can You Trust the Bible Skeptics?
Ever since National Geographic announced the completion of a translation of the Gospel of Judas (a 2nd-century apocryphal gospel attributed to, but not authored by, Judas), the news media have been abuzz with speculations that it provides a clearer view of Jesus from Judas’ point of view, and that the early church leaders suppressed it. The Gospel of Judas was known to exist around 180 A.D. but there were no surviving copies till now.
Some media reports smack of sensationalism. Example spin-off news articles: LiveScience, MSNBC News. Few seem to be asking about the authenticity of the document or the credibility of its claims; the burden of proof is being put on Bible-believers. An underlying assumption is that any contrarian view must be more reliable than the accepted view.
Once the story hit the press, articles supporting the traditional canon of the New Testament (NT) have started appearing. Collin Thomas wrote one for Christianity Today, and Al Mohler wrote one for Baptist Press. Union University profs also responded in another article on Baptist Press, calling the Gospel of Judas both “heresy and unreliable history.” Responding to the argument by Princeton professor Elaine Pagels that Gnostics did not consider their views heretical, Greg Thornbury said, “When do heretics admit that what they believe is, in fact, heresy? Whether one is talking about the fourth century or the 21st century, there has been no shortage of people trying to discredit the Christian faith.” Ted Olsen on Christianity Today listed two dozen links to news articles discussing the Gospel of Judas, pro and con. A couple of days later, Biola University posted a response in Q&A format by Clinton E. Arnold, professor and chairman of the Department of New Testament. So rather than running for cover, many Bible scholars are engaging the issue. Donald Senior said in an AP story on Fox News, “Let a vigorous debate on the significance of this fascinating ancient text begin.”
Update 04/22/2005: Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times (copied in the International Herald-Tribune) wrote, “Jesus-Judas manuscript is genuine, but is its story true?” Baptist Press printed an article, “Orthodox scholars: gospel of Judas not a Christian document.” Rev. Mark Creech responded also on Agape Press. The May issue of National Geographic, however, contained an expanded article similar in content to the press release.
What has become of National Geographic? Right before Easter, they published two reports trying to put Christians on the defensive: the silly claim by Doron Nof that Jesus walked on ice instead of water (04/04/2006), and now passing off this phony gospel with a conspiracy-theory flavor that the church “doesn’t want you to know” the truth about Judas. Why are they doing this? Is this objective scholarship, or activism?
Think for a moment what would happen if they did this to the Koran. Imagine the consequences that might ensue, considering the some hundred people that died over cartoons of Mohammed. Or consider if NG made a crusade of debunking native American beliefs. Only with Christianity is there a continual onslaught to undermine a religion’s historical foundations with impunity, and for added insult, right before their holiest time of the year. Why the asymmetry in so-called political correctness?
Since Christians are a forgiving lot, let’s set aside such feelings for now, and talk about the new document. The Gospel of Judas is merely one of many apocryphal, spurious writings of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. This is not news; though we didn’t have a copy of this one till now, others are well known from antiquity or from the Nag Hammadi cache of Gnostic texts found in Egypt in 1945. Scholars have read them, analyzed them and put them in context. As with any long-lost manuscript, the Gospel of Judas is historically interesting and worthy of analysis. The scientists who dated and translated this document did exemplary work. Ancient texts, reliable or not, can shed light on the period in which they were written and on the beliefs of certain sects at the time. Whether its contents have historical validity is a completely separate question. Compare, for instance, the Dead Sea Scrolls. They are of immense value for historians and for textual criticism of the Old Testament manuscripts, but whether the teachings of the Qumran community accurately reflected Judaism is a separate question. Scholars debate whether they were the Essenes of which Josephus wrote, and what was their relationship to the priestly class of Jewish believers in Jerusalem or to the Diaspora or to other Jewish sects. The contrast between true Christianity and Gnosticism is more stark. Sure, there were spin-off churches and various sects, but Christians and Jews have a standard: the Scriptures. The NT canon (from a word meaning measuring rod) is to true Christianity what the OT canon was to Judaism: a rule, a guide, a trustworthy body of inspired writings that distinguishes the true faith from the false. Gnosticism is not Christianity, and Christianity is not Gnosticism; their doctrines are poles apart. We don’t need spurious writings to tell us what Christianity is. We have the evidence right in front of us; the earlier, more reliable, more credible writings of the real apostles and their companions, and the words and acts of Jesus Himself as recorded by eyewitnesses. Even unbelievers should acknowledge that you should get your information from the best sources available, not from later writings of doubtful authenticity used by heretical sects. (Whether these sects considered themselves heretical is completely irrelevant; if you feel six feet tall but the yardstick measures you at three feet, sorry—enjoy your delusion.)
The canonical NT writings all date from the 1st century, and some from just a few decades, or less than a decade, from the events described. This is widely acknowledged by reputable historians, both secular and Christian. There is an embarrassment of riches of manuscripts of these texts: thousands of them, not to mention translations and citations by early church fathers. Long before the present NT canon become “official” in the days of Constantine, and long before there was a centralized church authority, early Christians shared a broad consensus on which texts were authentic and inspired. The ones that were written by the original apostles or their close associates (such as Mark and Luke), including Paul’s epistles, were accepted by Christians all over the Roman empire. There were a few without complete acceptance: documents such as II Peter and Revelation were accepted by some and not others; this may have been due to availability. On the other hand, some documents like the Didache and Shepherd of Hermas enjoyed wide popularity for awhile but either were not considered inspired like the apostolic writings, or eventually declined in acceptance – not by official decree, but, again, by consensus. Before there was a Catholic church with a centralized authority, church councils later codified what was already the accepted canon of the NT. In the councils, there was some debate about the few books enjoying wide but not universal acceptance; the debates concluded with a strong affirmation of the present 27 books (a list nearly identical to those of some apostolic fathers much earlier). How the NT canon came to be is a fascinating subject that will not be explored in detail here. The main point is that the NT canon was not some arbitrary decree of a hierarchy trying to suppress minority views within a church, but an affirmation and formalization of the beliefs of Christians from around the Empire about what constituted Scripture – the word of God.
Into this milieu appeared a number later documents that were either (1) known to be from Gnostic and other heretical sects, or (2) were falsely attributed to apostles or other first-century characters. These are called pseudepigrapha, or falsely-ascribed epigraphs – i.e., spurious writings. The Gospel of Judas is both. As Collin Hansen wrote in Christianity Today (good article), the Gospel of Judas is not a gospel, and it was not written by Judas. It would “sure change things, if it were true.” But it isn’t. It’s a phony document, written by a heretical cult. So why the media attention?
That there would be competing documents with the New Testament should come as no surprise. Look at the copycats that follow any successful movie or book today. As Christianity spread, so would motivations rise for competing with it or corrupting it with other religious traditions. This had already begun in the book of Acts (e.g., see Paul’s warning to the Ephesian elders, Acts 20). There were Judaizers trying to pull it toward legalism, and Roman mystery religions trying to pull it toward secret wisdom, and philosophers trying to meld it with Greek philosophy. Jesus, Paul, Peter and Jude all warned of false teachers that would quickly arise and mislead many. Already in Paul’s time there were hints of the Gnostic sects that the early church had to confront (cf. the warnings in Paul’s epistle to the Colossians, and I John). There have been off-shoot and off-beat sects all through history. True believers have always heeded the stern Biblical commands to guard against false teachers and deceivers who pollute the word of God with falsehoods out of the imaginations of their own heart.
Comparison of Gnostic teachings with the core of the New Testament doctrine easily shows the differences. The New Testament is remarkably consistent in doctrine, though written by men with a variety of backgrounds (fisherman, Jewish scholars, a doctor, a tax collector, and more), whereas the Gospel of Judas is clearly a Gnostic polemic dressed up as a historical narrative. It is one of many false “gospels” that arose in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Naturally, a fake would get more attention if it could be passed off as written by Mary, Judas, Peter, Thomas, Barnabas or other (by now) famous characters. (This particular fake was authored by the Cainites, a Gnostic sect devoted to praising the villains of the Bible.) None of these spurious writings had the wide acceptance of the New Testament texts, and many were overtly denounced as heretical by local elders and Christian writers. It’s easy to see why; they contained crazy ideas, or doctrines clearly contradictory to Scripture. The Gospel of Judas falls into this category. Perhaps some copies were destroyed, but more likely, it was not copied because it was known to be phony. The copy we have now dates from about 300 AD. Irenaeus knew about it in 180 and condemned it in Against Heresies (notice this is long before any centralized church or official councils), though its original date is unknown. No serious scholar believes it has any real connection to Judas. While any new archaeological find is interesting and worth study, a book like the Gospel of Judas, a translation of an earlier work, of doubtful antiquity and likely forgery, should not be put on the same shelf as the more trustworthy and verifiable manuscripts of the New Testament.
For these reasons, is it not strange that the media are leaping to conspiracy theories that the early church tried to cover up these texts? Read the New Testament, especially the sources accepted as earliest and most genuine by all reputable historians, and the differences are clear. What does straw have in common with gold? Yet NG and other news sources seem beside themselves to find ways to call the teachings of Jesus into question. This is not scholarship; this is agenda-driven advocacy.
Let a modern hypothetical case illustrate the point. Suppose Michael Moore writes a secret biography of George Washington and attributes it to Benedict Arnold. (Moore is able to maintain his anonymity somehow.) A few copies get into circulation but are widely dismissed by scholars as forgeries and not worthy of any serious consideration. The book is a flop; few copies ever get circulated, but it gets notoriety from high-profile book reviews, mostly negative. A thousand years pass, and some archaeologist finds a German translation of Moore’s book. For a long time in between, historians had possessed a wealth of primary sources and reputable biographies of Washington. They had heard about Moore’s book only from reviewers who denounced it. Now, the German version appears and is translated. Radiocarbon dating places it somewhere about 200 years after Washington lived. Scholars read the words of now-forgotten Michael Moore impersonating Benedict Arnold, Washington’s confidant turned traitor, telling new secrets about the father of our country. Among other shocking revelations, “Arnold” claims that he only defected to the English because Washington asked him to.
Would it make any sense to give such a book equal or superior standing against the reputable biographies that actually date back to the time of Washington himself? Of course not; that would make the National Enquirer blush. Then why all the hubbub over the Gospel of Judas and other apocryphal writings that were known and discounted by the heirs of the true apostles, who knew about and refuted the heretical sects that were putting out these teachings? What if new writings of David Koresh or Jim Jones were to surface? Some historians would probably be interested in them, and would benefit by learning details about the beliefs that led them to do what they did. Most Christians would lose nothing by remaining ignorant of such things and focusing, instead, on the real Scriptures. Light is more satisfying than darkness.
If NG, the New York Times and the popular press have an axe to grind against Christians, and if they hold a political and social agenda overtly contrary to the principles of the New Testament, let them say so; it is their right in a free country (as long as they are not getting government funding). But if they want any credibility, they owe it to themselves to get their facts straight and follow best practices of scholarship. Then, and only then, can an intelligent discussion take place.