Recent announcements about a relatively recently unearthed Gospel of Judas have generated a lot of conversation and many questions. We offer the following analysis and an accompanying link as a way to help you make sense of this event and prepare you to respond to questions you might receive.
Understanding the Context
The historical boundaries on the life of Jesus and the development of the Early Church are well determined. Jesus lived between the years of about 4 BC until about the year 33. (Scholars believe that it was 4 BC because that is the year King Herod died. The creator of the Christian calendar made a mistake on the years.) Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God and was crucified by the Romans. Then his disciples proclaimed that Jesus had risen from the dead and returned to the Father, sending the Holy Spirit to infuse the disciples to become witnesses to this truth.
In the years that followed, the oral proclamation of the disciples was put into writing. Beginning with the apostle Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians, written about the year 55 AD, Christians wrote and circulated letters and stories about Jesus to be read when they gathered to worship. The most important of these collections were the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
As outlined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, there were three stages in the formation of the Gospels. (CCC, 126)
The first stage is the life and teaching of Jesus. The Church affirms that Jesus was a man who lived in Palestine, who proclaimed the Kingdom of God, and who died for the sake of our salvation.
The second stage is the oral tradition, when after the Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit the disciples more fully understood that the risen Jesus is alive and active in our lives today.
The third stage is when the various collections and memories of Jesus were gathered and adapted by the writers of the Gospels to teach their local churches the true meaning of Jesus. All the Gospels give a vivid portrayal of Jesus, the man who had come to save us and who is revealed as the Lord. The dates in which the Gospels were written were from about 65 AD to the mid 90s.
All the Scriptures that we find in the New Testament were completed by the year 125.
Into the Roman World
The Scriptures contained in the New Testament were written in Greek, which was the common language of the Roman empire. But they reflect the Jewish background from which they emerged, with its healthy understanding that the material world is good as created by God.
But Christianity was entering into the environment of the Roman empire under the influence of Greek ways of thinking. The intellectual world of the Greeks was most influenced by the philosopher Plato and his followers. In this worldview, what we might call the idealistic, or the world of abstract ideas, was most important. In their religious worldview the material world of everyday life had no importance in itself. The material world, the world we see every day, was but a shadow of the world of ideas. The aristocracy at that time had nothing but contempt for those who did not have the leisure to contemplate the world of eternal ideas. Their notion of god was that he was totally separated from and unconcerned about anything that had to do with the material world. The idea that God would become incarnate in the man Jesus was incomprehensible to them. The desire of the human spirit, according to the Greeks, was to leave behind the material world and to raise the soul to the realm of the spirit from which it came.
Docetism and Gnosticism
Therefore, some Greek Christians began to interpret the Gospels in a way that accentuated the spiritual at the expense of the material. This had special ramifications in terms of the identity of Jesus Christ. Many Greek Christians could not believe that God had come in human flesh. The concept of unity between the divine and the human in Jesus Christ offended them. So instead of teaching that Jesus was truly human, they taught that Jesus only “seemed” to be human. As a result, the Greek verb “to seem” (dokare) became the root word of the heresy called Docetism, which taught that Jesus only “seemed” to be human, only “seemed” to eat and drink, and only “seemed” to die on the cross. To use a modern analogy, they would say that Jesus was a hologram, a three-dimensional image created by light, having no substance. Teachers in the early Church defended the Gospel by reasserting the humanity of Jesus and rejecting the writings of those teachers who denied Jesus' humanity.
Gnosticism was a “new age” kind of movement that was popular by the end of 200 AD. This was a time of severe social crisis in the Roman empire. Many people were looking for assurance of personal salvation and were attaching themselves to communities that seemed to offer what they needed. There was not one brand of Gnosticism but many, all with their own stories about how people could be saved.
A common denominator of the Gnostic stories was that before the material world and its people existed, there existed a world of souls. For whatever reason, these souls fell into the material world and assumed bodies. It is apparent that our bodies are limited in time and space. We will soon die, and our bodies will disintegrate. Is that all there is to life? The tellers of the Gnostic stories said no. For some fortunate few, the spark of our previous life as a heavenly soul still remained and with the right kind of knowledge, our soul would know that it could return to its heavenly existence. But this salvation was not for everyone, only for a few of the elect. When most people died what remained of their soul would disappear like a wisp of smoke in the wind.
Gnostic teachers offered salvation to those who recognized themselves as having a heavenly soul. They did so by telling stories of salvation. And the stories that were especially attractive were the stories they found in the New Testament. But they had one problem with Christian teaching. It was clear that the Church was teaching that Jesus Christ had come to save everyone, not just a select few. These were stories that they could not use. So they rewrote them to have Jesus using their words and teachings, and they used these writings in their religious gatherings to teach their elitist story of the salvation of the few.
Since the language they used was in many cases similar to that found in authentic Christian churches, many Christians found themselves in Gnostic worship services, thinking they were celebrating as Christians. The bishops of the early Church wrote to describe the Gnostic writings to warn their congregations against them.
Gnostic Writings Disappear
When the Gnostic writings are described today, the story is told in such a way as to say that a monolithic Church suppressed them. The truth is more nuanced. One of the early ways Christians judged whether stories and teaching would be saved was to hear them proclaimed in their religious worship. If the story proclaimed what they had heard in the Gospels and what had been taught by their bishops, they accepted it and copied it for further transmission. But if the stories did not meet these criteria, if they did not teach that Jesus was truly man, that he suffered and died for all, that he now sits with his Father in heaven and sent the Holy Spirit, they were not copied. The Gnostic writings eventually disappeared from the Christian world because the communities that copied them died out.
Nag Hammadi and Beyond
In 1946 a collection of papyrus codices, or books was found in a jar near the Nile River in Egypt. The writings proved to be dated from the 200s to the 400s. They are copies of Gnostic writings and “gospels” that proved to be of great value in shedding light on Gnostic teaching. Among these are a Gospel of Philip, a Prayer of the Apostle Paul, and Dialogue with the Savior. Other Gnostic writings from the same period are a Gospel of Thomas and parts of a Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Many of these writings contain “sayings” of Jesus that support their beliefs. It is interesting to note that modern apologists for the Gnostic gospels constantly say that they present a portrait of a more human Jesus. Actually they do the opposite. Instead of presenting well-rounded stories of Jesus, they list “sayings” that they attribute to him. The Gnostics did not believe that Jesus was fully human, but a phantasm who only seemed to be human in the same way as the Docetists mentioned above. If the modern apologists of Gnosticism are looking for a portrait of Jesus with truly human qualities, they can look no further than the Gospel of Mark.
These discoveries have led to many headlines in the media and to cover stories in major news magazines wondering if we have found “lost gospels” that could shed a different light on who Jesus was and what his mission entailed. Actually, they shed light on nothing but what Gnostic teachers have developed to skew the teachings of the Church to support their own philosophical leanings.
The Gospel of Judas
The collection of sayings now being referred to as the Gospel of Judas is the latest discovery coming out of the Egyptian desert reflecting the teachings of the Gnostics. Judas is presented in these writings in a way that deliberately contradicts the Gospels because the Gnostic writers wanted to shape the story around their own beliefs. (See link to Rev. James Martin article.)
The discovery of the Gospel of Judas is a notable find for helping us understand Gnostic teaching. But what is unfortunate is its sensationalist presentation in the media as if it was written with the same authority as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Gospel of Judas sheds no new light on the meaning of Jesus. It sheds a lot of light on the elitist Gnostic communities who saw themselves as the only ones worthy of being saved, and the rest of humanity could be left to a hell of nothingness.