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April 10, 2006

The Gospel of Judas

So I've spent all weekend away from my computer, taking a sort of blog vacation, and the whole Gospel of Judas thing has probably blown over by now. Or maybe not -- people seem particularly susceptible to "hidden Gospels" right now, and this newest one sure does promise a new look at Christianity.

The sad thing is that it's not all that new. It's made the rounds of the antiquities markets, the "grey market" of archaeology. It is getting attention now because of the current fascination with historically inaccurate portrayals of early Christianity (The DaVinci Code) and re-hashes of early 80s fantasy works (Holy Blood, Holy Grail, brought back to life by author Michael Baigent as The Jesus Papers just in time for his lawsuit against Brown. Or maybe the lawsuit was the opportunely-timed event ...). People are fascinated by the idea that there were multiple traditions early on.

The Gospel of Judas has actually been known for over a thousand years. Irenaeus referred to the work in AD 180 in discussing the heretical group, the Cainites.

The Cainites were a Gnostic and Antinomian sect who were known to worship Cain as the first victim of the Demiurge Jehovah, the Old Testament God, who was identified by many groups of gnostics as evil. The sect following was relatively small. They were mentioned by Tertullian and Irenaeus as existing in the eastern Roman Empire during the 2nd century.
from Wikipedia
The Cainites were typical gnostics, and viewed Judas' work as a heroic effort to defeat the demiurge Yahweh/Jehovah and bring salvation to mankind.

One of my favorite books as a teenager was Taylor Caldwell's book I, Judas. The book presents a more sympathetic view of Judas, as we see events from his point of view. It doesn't quite go as far as the Cainites did, but we are left with a Judas who, while flawed, is not deserving of the condemnation that is routinely heaped on him. I enjoyed the book because I thought it gave a more human Judas -- a man who did something very wrong, but for the best of reasons. A man who, like the rest of the disciples, saw Jesus as a political savior (which is what Israel was looking for, after all). He saw Jesus as a reluctant leader, and tried to force His hand. And when he found out that Jesus was to be executed, realized that he was wrong.

The Gospel of Judas cannot be reliably dated to the time of Christ. The earliest date we have for the manuscript fragments available is 220, though clearly the text existed in the latter half of the second century, since Irenaeus made reference to it. It certainly tells the story of a group who appropriated the story of Jesus of Nazareth for their own philosophy, and enlisted Him in their gnostic battle against the creator demiurge. There is nothing new here, nothing that hasn't actually been speculated about before. The text can illuminate a sect that has been cloaked in mystery (and even obscurity) for almost two thousand years. But it's value in studying early Christianity lies only in it's account of the divergent traditions that grew up as people rejected the teachings of the disciples.

There is little background concerning the fragments available, since they are unprovenanced finds. The hype we are seeing is over a document that has been known about for centuries (of course, the same can be said about the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary, but the hype continues). The hype will continue, fueled by people who are more eager to reject Chrisitanity than to find out the truth.

Posted by Warren Kelly at April 10, 2006 09:20 PM | TrackBack
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