One of the hottest-selling books during the last few weeks is The Gospel of Judas. The document, which was unearthed in Egypt in 1945, has received a lot of media attention. Some claim it will rock the Christian boat and change the way you look at Jesus and Judas forever.

Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton and a student of Gnosticism, had an Op-Ed piece printed in the New York Times a week and a half ago. In it she made some provocative claims for The Gospel of Judas, contending that this newly translated discovery might reveal that Judas was actually Jesus’ favorite disciple, may show that the man who has been blamed for betraying Jesus was really “acting on orders from Jesus to carry out a sacred mystery,” might contain some of Jesus’ “secret teaching” which we’ve never heard before, and explodes “the myth of a monolithic Christianity … showing how diverse and fascinating the early Christian movement really was.”

Implied in what Pagels writes is the contention that what is referred to as the “canon,” or official list of books included in the New Testament, excludes many books which were popular in the first centuries following Jesus and could expand our understanding of both history and the teaching of Jesus.

Clodagh Weldon, associate professor of Theology at Dominican University, and Andrew Steinmann, associate professor of Theology and Hebrew at Concordia University, have some thoughts about the Gospel of Judas and the media attention it is getting.

Weldon and Steinmann agree the Gospel of Judas was probably written about 180 CE. That means whoever wrote the document was about as far away in time from Jesus as we are from the Civil War. Therefore, the author certainly had no contact with eyewitnesses as did the writers of the four gospels included in the canon of the New Testament. Both professors also agree that the Gospel of Judas reveals far more about the Gnostics who wrote it than it does about the historical Jesus and Judas.

“The Gospel [of Judas] does not tell us anything about Jesus or Judas from firsthand accounts of his activity,” Steinmann said. “It was composed about 150 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and Judas’ death. Instead, the Gospel reveals how some Gnostics sought to appropriate Jesus and Judas to further their beliefs.” In other words, the author or authors put gnostic words on the lips of Jesus and Judas and Gnostic thoughts in their minds.

The Gnostics, according to Weldon, were members of sects who thought that secret knowledge, or gnosis, was the way to salvation. “In brief,” she said, “the Gnostics were dualists?#34;they saw the material world as evil and the spiritual realm, the realm of God and the aeons or divine principles which emanate from God, as good. The material world is created as a result of the fall of one of these aeons and some of the divine substance becomes trapped in human beings. Human beings, however, are unaware of this and so Christ is sent to reveal this secret knowledge to his inner circle and thereby save them.”

For example, in the Gospel of Judas, Jesus tells Judas?#34;now the hero of the story?#34;”Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom.” Jesus says to his favorite disciple, “You will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”

“In other words,” said Weldon, “Judas’ betrayal helps Jesus to get rid of his material body and thereby liberates the divine substance that was trapped within, facilitating a return to the spiritual realm.”

Both scholars disagreed with the contention that a small group of men made the decision as to what books were included in the canon of the New Testament and which were left out. Steinmann acknowledges that many more gospels?#34;about 20 in all?#34;were left out of the canon than were included. But he disagrees that the exclusion was due to some political conspiracy. “The core of the New Testament canon formed rather quickly,” he said. “By the early-to-mid 2nd century Christians had a core collection of books accepted by nearly every Christian church.

“The other gospels are all later than this and most are late second century or later,” Steinmann said. “These other gospels are almost always demonstrably dependent upon one or more of the canonical gospels. The only explanation of this dependence, in my opinion, is that the four canonical Gospels were already viewed as unimpeachable authorities on Jesus and his teachings.”

Elaine Pagels argues that the Gnostics were unfairly condemned as heretics. Instead, she says that writings like the Gospel of Judas could be seen as “advanced-level teaching for those who had already received Jesus’ basic message.” Weldon disagrees. She said Gnosticism was rightly judged to be a heresy for several reasons: it was exclusive, whereas Christianity was inclusive; its various sects were often contradictory, whereas Christianity was the same everywhere; it emphasized the material world as evil, whereas Christianity sees the goodness of creation, including the human body, which, though fallen, could be redeemed; it offered a liberation of the “pneuma” or divine spark from the body, whereas Christianity offers redemption for the soul and the body; it is often docetic, i.e. Christ only seemed to be human, whereas Christianity is incarnational, i.e. Christ was both human and divine; Gnosticism subjects mystery to the comprehension of the ego, whereas Christianity is ultimately an incomprehensible mystery to be accepted in faith.

Steinmann and Weldon agree that the Gospel of Judas can be an interesting read. Prof. Steinmann said discussing the document can help a group answer questions like: Why did early Christians reject Gnosticism? Why did some Gnostics feel the need to adopt Jesus into their movement? What parallels to Gnostic concepts can be found in contemporary society?

The Gospel of Judas, edited by Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer and Gregor Wurst and with commentary by Bart Ehrman can be purchased at your favorite bookstore?#34;list price for hard cover is $22. Is it worth reading? Weldon answered, “Yes, from a historical perspective, The Gospel of Judas gives us more insight into Gnosticism from a Gnostic perspective.”

If, however, you want to learn more about Jesus and Judas, both Weldon and Steinmann would say, “Read the canonical gospels.”

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...