Vindicate the Villain?
National Geographic announced in its May issue, “After nearly 2,000 years, the most hated man in history is back.” The magazine is referring to “The Gospel of Judas,” a Gnostic work that attempts to vindicate Jesus’ betrayer by claiming he helped Jesus “shed” His earthly body. The “gospel” quotes Jesus as saying to Judas, “You will sacrifice the man who clothes me.”
That the Gospel of Judas exists is nothing new. Irenaeus of Lyons mentioned the manuscript in his work Against Heresies, and said of its Cainite authors, a Gnostic sect, “They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas” (1.10.1).
Then decades ago archaeologists and scholars uncovered numerous Gnostic texts, including the Gospel of Judas. So what’s new—or newsworthy—about something that we’ve known for centuries?
Its public availability. The Coptic manuscript that recently debuted is given a composition date of A.D. 300. Scholars believe the original Gospel of Judas (for which there are no copies) was written between A.D. 130 and 170, about sixty years after they believe the New Testament Gospels were written.
In an article that appeared last month, “The Judas We Never Knew,” Collin Hansen, associate editor for Christianity Today, wrote about an interview he had with Darrell Bock:
Hours before he was scheduled to lecture at Princeton ... [Dr. Bock] explained some peculiarities about the group that gave us the Gospel of Judas. Turns out these “Cainite Gnostics” earned their moniker rehabilitating disgraced biblical figures, including Cain, the Sodomites, and Judas. Bock also pointed out that Scripture does include some contrasting perspectives on Judas. Mark portrays Judas as a bumbler, just like the other disciples who misunderstood Jesus’ teaching. Writing later, John explains Judas differently. Judas exploits his position as treasurer to steal from the till, and Jesus calls him a “devil” (John 6:70). According to Bock, the balance of Scripture indicates Judas expected a different type of Messiah. Disappointed, he turned in Jesus, whom he considered a threat to the Jewish nation. “Judas is a reflection of anyone who ends up rejecting Jesus,” Bock said. “It’s a tragic story, not something to shake your finger at, but something to be sad about.” Much more tragic and sad than rehashing an old debate about the legitimacy of orthodoxy.
At the heart of much of the current discussion on Jesus is a revival of Gnosticism, which is the doctrine of salvation by knowledge. (“Gnostic” comes from gnosis, meaning “knowledge”.) Gnostic philosophy says matter is a deterioration of spirit, and the universe, a depravation of the Deity. For a Gnostic the ultimate goal is to overcome the grossness of matter and return to the Parent-Spirit. Gnostic belief also says salvation comes from separating the “true part” of oneself, the mind/spirit, from the body.
How does the Gnostic Jesus differ from the Christian Savior, Jesus Christ? Atonement does not exist in Gnosticism. There are no sins other than the sin of ignorance. Gnostic belief says Jesus had no human nature but was entirely spirit. And if Jesus was not a man, He could not have died as a man for the sins of humankind.
Though Gnosticism was not fully developed until the second century, the Apostle John refutes it in its embryonic form: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1, italics added).
In orthodox Christian teaching, God made both body and spirit, the material and immaterial. And He called both good. Jesus the God-Man was God in the flesh. John wrote, “The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us” (1 John 1:2).
Not all who “testify” should merit our faith. The Gospel of Judas, like the disciple whose name it bears, is unworthy of trust. Believers can stand firmly in their confession of the Savior who is both divine and human as recorded in the testimonies of those who, unlike Judas, remained faithful to Christ until the end.