Enter Judas, Stage Left

So now it’s Judas. National Geographic magazine and ABC television have been beating the drums over the discovery of the so-called “Gospel of Judas.” This ancient manuscript, one of the Gnostic Gospels, carbon dated to somewhere between 220 and 340 A.D., is purported to be Judas’s account of his complicity with Jesus in organizing Jesus’ capture by the Romans.

We are also told that the new “Gospel” corrects mistaken understandings of Christ’s words held by Christians over the centuries, based on personal revelations to Judas by our Lord.

I’ll leave it to the Scripture scholars and theologians to deal with its credibility. They have been doing a solid job so far in pointing out the reasons why there is little reason to take the message of this manuscript — which was discovered in the 1970s — seriously. I ask something else: Why this manuscript? Why now?

I say the answer is obvious: They are beating the drums over this narrative about Christ’s life and teachings for the same reason they are beating them over The Da Vinci Code. It is a way to discredit traditional Christianity, and the Catholic Church in particular; a way to create doubt about the reliability of the teachings that Christians have lived by for nearly 2000 years. You can bet that if an ancient parchment were found corroborating the Gospel of Luke it would not get this attention. Its discovery would be reported in the back pages of some scholarly journal. The mainstream media wouldn’t take a second look.

The spectacle of ABC and National Geographic reporters oohing and aahing over this stuff would be funny, if the stakes were not so great. Come on: Why take seriously Dan Brown’s fictional renditions of old legends about the Knights Templar and baseless speculation about conspiracies inside the Vatican — other than that they make the Church look malevolent and hostile to women? Why call for serious consideration of the Gospel of Judas, which was written about two-hundred years after the Gospels found in our modern Bibles, except for the fact that it can be used to plant the notion in our minds that the Church has been in error all these years?

Consider what we are being asked to believe. The early Church went to great pains to evaluate which Gospel accounts were accurate and which were not. Scripture scholars — Catholic, Protestant and agnostic — have gone over the evidence of their deliberations for over a thousand years now. There is general agreement that the four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — are an accurate representation of the beliefs of the early Christians.

Now I did not say that there is general agreement that the accounts are accurate. An agnostic, obviously, would not accept that. The agreement is only that the early Church came up with the most reliable accounts of the beliefs of the first followers of the Lord. We must remember that this manuscript that purports to be the words of Judas is not the first challenge to the message of the Gospels.

Let me give you a small sample of the competing Old and New Testament stories that the early Church had to evaluate. There was the so-called Apocrypha: The First Book of Adam and Eve, The Second Book of Adam and Eve, the Book of the Secrets of Enoch, Testament of Reuben, Testament of Zebulon, the Gospel of St. Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, Biblical Antiquities of Philo. That’s just for starters.

The early Church also had to deal with the Gnostic Gospels — the Gospel of Judas is one of these — that preached a co-equal God the Mother and God the Father, a role for Mary Magdalene far superior to that found elsewhere in the Gospels, the belief that the Resurrection should be viewed in strictly symbolic terms, and that the path to God was through self-knowledge rather than loyalty to Church authority.

Some of these narratives were rejected by the early Church because they offered interpretations of Christ’s teachings that clashed with those found in a wide variety of other sources. Some were simply not verifiable enough for the Church to accept them as valid, even though they proposed nothing unsound in doctrinal terms. The point is that the early Church did not “cover up” these Gnostic understandings of Jesus’ life and teachings found in the Gospel of Judas; it did not “cover up” Dan Brown’s notions of a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The early Church rejected them because they found them to be eccentric, novelties, unfounded. They remain eccentric, novelties and unfounded.

Yet now we are told that all this painstaking scholarship, the core of Christianity, should be cast in doubt because of the medieval tall tales and imaginative conspiracy theories in The DaVinci Code — and because of a manuscript found in the desert in 1970 said to be the writings of Judas. No hyperbole: there is more proof for the existence of Big Foot than any of this stuff.

Look, one can see why a non-believer would reject the accuracy of the Gospels. A non-believer would have a hard time accepting the miracles — everything from the Virgin Birth to the Ascension. But how does one go from that position to accepting the pot-boiler fantasy of the The Da Vinci Code and the idiosyncratic musings of the Gospel of Judas? That’s a goofy leap of faith. An unknown writer in the 4th century A.D. put to paper some revisionist notions about the relationship between Judas and Jesus. So what? There were people at the same time writing stories about dragons and trolls. There are people nowadays who write books about Elvis still being alive. Does that mean they should be given serious consideration?

What we are looking at is a version of what C.S. Lewis called “putting God in the dock,” that is, putting Christianity and the Scriptures on trial and selecting those passages that corroborate our personal perceptions of truth and morality. Lewis used as examples how the advocates of the Social Gospel would select the biblical passages that preach a message of sharing the wealth, and how proponents of situation ethics and moral relativism would focus on those where Jesus taught freedom from the law in favor of the life of the spirit. They focus on those passages, and assure us that we can ignore the passages they find backward and judgmental.

It is the same with The Gospel of Judas and The Da Vinci Code. The Gospel of Judas is not getting all this attention because it offers new insights into the beliefs of the first Christians. The Da Vinci Code is not the talk of the town because its conspiracy theories are plausible. They are hot topics because there are people in the media who see them as vehicles to proselytize the secular humanism that shapes their lives.

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at fitzpatrijames@sbcglobal.net.

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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