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The Gospel of Judas: Monster or kitten?

Image: Kenny Louie

The work of restoration and translation was completed in April 2006 with the publication of two books by the National Geographic Society: The Lost Gospel, which tells the recent story of the manuscript, and The Gospel of Judas, which is the text of the gospel with commentary. Both books are attributed to Bart Erhman, the most prominent member of the restoration committee. Erhman is well known for his work in the area of early church history. In his opinion “The reappearance of the Gospel of Judas will rank among the greatest finds from Christian antiquity and is without doubt the most important archaeological discovery of the past 60 years. What will make this gospel famous – or infamous, perhaps – is that it portrays Judas quite differently from anything we previously knew.”

The existence of the manuscript was also announced in media outlets all over the world in terminology that was sometimes speculative and sometimes alarming: that they had found a “new gospel”; that the experts had verified it; that this type of discovery has already led many to abandon Christianity; that some thought the church had suppressed it.

The context is Gnosticism

Although the discovery of the actual manuscript of the Gospel of Judas occurred in the last century, its existence has been known for some 1800 years through the writing of Irenaeus. His catalog of the non-orthodox teachings of his times, called Against Heresies, includes a small section on the teachings of the so called Cainites and the book that promoted their teachings, the Gospel of Judas.

It is almost impossible to understand the meaning and significance of the Gospel of Judas without first understanding Gnosticism, a religious movement that was popular during the second and third centuries after Christ. Today we would probably call it a cult; something that appeals to the Bible but which includes ideas that are radically different from the historical faith of the church. There were many different versions of Gnosticism, but they all shared a disdain for the material world and an exaltation of the immaterial realm. In Gnosticism the physical world was a mistake that had been created by an inferior god who had botched things up in many ways. The goal of Gnosticism – in other words, the Gnostic concept of salvation – was to escape from this flawed and inferior plane of existence into the non-physical realm. Because of this anti-materialism Gnostics tended to interpret the Bible upside down. Yahweh, the creator of the universe in Genesis, was the creator of the physical world (or the “Maker”) and he was, therefore, inferior or incompetent. In some versions he was crazy. So in this system the God of the Bible took the place of Satan as the one behind the problematic human condition. The solution to this mess came in part from “Sophia” (which is the Greek for wisdom), who brought secret knowledge to the world and told the “true story” about the nature of the universe. Sophia was more powerful than the God of the Old Testament and humans were already in some sense a part of her, drops of the divine trapped in the physical world of the Maker.

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Category: Fall 2016, Living the Faith

About the Author: Rob Haskell grew up in Argentina as the son of missionaries. He has done college ministry and worked in missions in Latin America, training pastors. Rob has a ThM in New Testament from Regent College. He is author of a Spanish language book on hermeneutics (Interpretacion Eficaz Hoy) and co-editor of Local Theology for the Global Church, a book produced by the World Evangelical Alliance Theological Commission. Currently he makes websites at his company, Intuito Websites, and teaches regularly at his local church in Bellingham, Washington. He enjoys a busy life as a single parent and an avid hiker.

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