It's being hailed as the greatest archaeological find in the last 60 years. Some are saying the "Gospel of Judas," a Gnostic text that dates back to the second century, could force a completely different understanding of Christianity, more specifically of Judas and Jesus. But as Collin Hansen of Christianity Today writes: "This is no Christian text .... This new text tells us nothing more about Jesus' relationship with Judas than does Jesus Christ Superstar."
The text was originally discovered in Egypt during the 1970s, then circulated among antiquities dealers and ultimately found its way to a safe deposit box in Long Island, New York, where it languished and deteriorated for 16 years. Eventually, it was acquired by a Swiss foundation that formed a joint venture with National Geographic to reconstruct, transcribe, and translate it. National Geographic has now acquired the rights to the document and recently unveiled it for the public.
The Gospel of Judas tells an entirely different story than the one recorded in the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In this writing, Judas is the hero and not the betrayer of Christ. Instead, he is depicted as Christ's best friend -- the only one who really understands Jesus -- the one who turns Jesus over to the authorities for crucifixion at His behest -- helping Him shed his fleshly body and return to the spirit world.
The teachings of The Gospel of Judas are Gnostic in origin. The Gnostics were a sect that believed only a select group of people was privy to a secret knowledge. The material world to them was a trap -- something from which to escape to enter into the spirit world. As Hanson notes, the teachings of the "Cainite Gnostics," the group responsible for the Gospel of Judas, were characteristic for "rehabilitating disgraced biblical figures, including Cain, the Sodomites, and Judas." Although Gnostics appeared to be Christian, there is nothing about their teachings that resembled what the apostles actually taught and passed down to the Church.
Despite the fact scholars have always known about the Gospel of Judas and that the early Church rejected it as heresy, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler, Jr., notes one of the more significant reasons why many people are making such a big deal of it:
"The resurgence of interest in Gnostic texts such as ... the gospel of Judas is driven by an effort, at least on the part of some figures, to argue that early Christianity had no essential core. Instead, scholars such as Elaine Pagels of Princeton University want to argue that, 'These discoveries are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion, and demonstrating how diverse -- and fascinating -- the early Christian movement really was.' What Pagels and many other figures argue is that early Christianity was a cauldron of competing theologies, and that ideological and political factors explain why an 'orthodox' tradition eventually won, suppressing all competing theologies. Accordingly, these same figures argue that today's Christians should be open to these variant teachings that had long been suppressed and hidden from view."
The fact of the matter is, however, that from the earliest times the Church had a functional canon that was authoritative in matters of faith and practice. In his book You Can Trust the Bible, Dr. Erwin Lutzer, senior pastor of Moody Church in Chicago, Illinois, explains how the development of the New Testament Canon actually took place:
1. Letters from the apostles were written and received in the churches; copies were made and circulated.
2. A growing group of books developed that were recognized as inspired Scripture. An important question for their acceptance was: Was the book either written by an apostle or by someone who knew the apostles, and thus had the stamp of apostolic authority?
3. By the end of the first century all 27 books in our present canon were written and received by the churches. Though some of the canonical lists were incomplete, this is not to be interpreted as the rejection of some books but often simply means that some books were unknown in certain areas.
4. To show both agreement and the widespread acceptance of the New Testament books, we should note that by a generation following the end of the apostolic age, every book of the New Testament had been cited as authoritative by some church father.
5. Remaining doubts or debates over certain books continued into the fourth century. As far as historians know, the first time the list of our 27 books appears is in an Easter letter written by Athansius, an outstanding leader of the church in A.D. 367. Obviously, the books were regarded by most churches as authoritative more than 200 years prior to that time.
6. The 27 books of our New Testament were ratified by the Council of Hippo (A.D. 393) and the Council of Carthage (A.D. 397).
Lutzer rightly adds: "These councils neither added nor subtracted books, but simply approved the list of twenty-seven which had already been recognized by the early church. Given the geographical distances, the limitations of communication, and the diverse backgrounds of the churches, such agreement is remarkable."
Indeed, it was remarkable accord -- quite contrary to the argument that genuine early Christianity was "a cauldron of competing theologies, and that ideological and political factors explain why an 'orthodox' tradition eventually won, suppressing all competing theologies."
This also clearly explains why writings like the Gospel of Judas were never recognized as divinely inspired. Such documents were simply too young to have apostolic authority. Moreover, they were inconsistent with the fundamental teachings of the Christian religion.
It is no coincidence that in the last chapter of the last book of the New Testament there is a dire warning. Although the text was intended primarily to refer to the book of Revelation, it nonetheless has a wider application for the Bible as a whole. It reads: "For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, if any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book. And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book" (Rev. 22:18-19).
Without question, the canon is closed and all the information needed to know God and live as He requires is contained therein. Those who either promote or embrace some extra-biblical revelation such as the Gospel of Judas betray the truth, even as the real Judas Himself did, and crucify the Son of God afresh.
This article originally appeared on April 20, 2006.
Rev. Mark H. Creech (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc.