The Judas Gospel:

Suppose that sometime around the year 3,800 A.D., someone wrote a newspaper that began: "According to a recently-discovered document, which appears to have been written sometime before 1926, Benedict Arnold did not attempt to betray George Washington and the American cause, as is commonly believed. Rather, Benedict Arnold was acting at the request of George Washington, because Washington wanted Arnold to help him create a dictatorship of the proletariat and the abolition of private property."

A reader who knew her ancient history would recognize that the newly-discovered "Arnold document" was almost certainly not a historically accurate account of the relationship between George Washington and Benedict Arnold. The reader would know that the terms "dictatorship of the proletariat" and "abolition of private property" come from a political philosophy, Marxism, which was created long after Washington and Arnold were dead. The reader would also know that the most reliable records from the 18th century provided no support for the theory that Washington or Arnold favored a dictatorship of the proletariat or the abolition of private property.

This Friday's coverage of the so-called "Gospel of Judas" in much of the U.S. media was appallingly stupid. The Judas gospel is interesting in its own right, but the notion that it disproves, or casts into doubt, the traditional orthodox understanding of the betrayal of Jesus is preposterous.

In the March 2 issue of USA Today, ancient Egyptian documents expert James Robinson correctly predicted that the owners of the Judas Gospel manuscript would attempt to release it to coincide with the publicity build-up for "The DaVinci Code" movie, but explained that the "gospel" was part of a genre of pseudo-gospels from the second century onward, in which the authors simply made up the stories. In contrast, virtually all serious scholarship about the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) believes that they were written much closer to the events they describe--sometime in the first century a.d.

The influential Christian bishop Ireneus, in his treatise Against Heresies, written in 180 a.d., denounced the Gospel of Judas as the product of a gnostic sect called the Cainites. (Book 1, ch. 31, para. 1.)

The "Gospel of Judas" asserts that Jesus asked Judas to betray Jesus so that Jesus's spirit could be liberated from its earthly body. ("You will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.") This statement is a classic expression of gnosticism, and for that reason is antithetical to Christianity.

Unfortunately, the amazingly mendacious DaVinci Code presents a picture of gnosticism that is wildly false — so it is helpful to set the record straight about what gnostics really believed.

The roots of the Gospel of Judas and of gnosticism go back to Marcion (approx. 100-160 a.d.). After he was excommunicated for heresy, he founded his own sect, the Marcionites. The Marcionites never grew as numerous as orthodox Christians, but for several centuries they were important rivals to the orthodox.

The Marcionites believed that the physical world was created by the angry god of the Old Testament, and that Jesus had been sent by a different god, who had nothing to do with the created world. Marcionites strove to avoid all contact with the created world. They were celibate, and ultra-ascetic. They did not even allow the use of wine at communion, insisting only on bread. Consistent with this highly ascetic view, they rejected war in any form. The Marcionites also denied the authority of the Old Testament, and most of the Gospels. Their only scriptures were portions of Luke, and ten epistles from Paul. (The idea of expunging the Old Testament from the Christian Bible was reintroduced by Adolf von Harnack, a very influential late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century liberal Protestant theologian. The Nazis enthusiastically adopted Harnack's proposal.)

The great nineteenth-century Catholic theologian John Henry Cardinal Newman explained that gnostics such as the Marcionites believed in "the intrinsic malignity of matter." The rejection of the Old Testament was necessary because the Old Testament is replete with stories about the wonders of the created world. In the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, God looked at his newly-created natural world, "and God saw that it was good." Then, "God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them....And so God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good." The Song of Songs rejoices in a newly-married couple's sensuous love. Ecclesiastes celebrates the natural cycle of life.

The New Testament agreed that the God who was the father of Jesus was the same God who had made the material world. In Acts, the Apostles prayed "Lord, thou are God, which has made heaven, and earth, and the sea..."

Newman also pointed out that "All the Gnostic sects seem to have condemned marriage for one or another reason." This is the opposite of the mainstream Christian view which, while recognizing that celibacy can be a special calling for some people, celebrates "holy matrimony." The Marcionites acknowledged that Jesus had been born of a woman, but claimed that the fetal Jesus never touched Mary's body or received any nourishment from her womb.

The Marcionite and other forms of Gnostic pacifism have a reasonable internal logic. If the entire world and every human body is repulsively unclean (if one looks on the whole creation the same way that the Old Testament regarded a leprous corpse), then it makes sense never to lift a finger to defend a human being who is being attacked. Why try to preserve the evil human body from destruction? And how sinful it would seem, in the Gnostic view, to involve oneself in the material world so greatly that one would actually use a physical weapon.

The earliest Christians seem to have foreseen that something like gnosticism would attempt to substitute itself for Christianity. In the First Epistle to Timothy, Paul specifically warned about the false teaching that would arise from "doctrines of devils." The evil doctrines that would arise in "latter times" would be "Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving."

Timothy's instructions also drew an important parallel between the carnal eating of meat and the carnality of marriage. Both are gifts which God created for humanity.

Gnosticism's hatred of the created world sets it in direct opposition to Jewish and Christian doctrine from the first chapter of Genesis all the way through the New Testament.

The Gospel of Judas adds no historical information to the biography of Jesus, but it does provide additional information about the gnostic heresy which thrived in the mid-second century, and which has attracted many adherents today as well.

UPDATE: Fantastic Planet provides very interesting, thoughtful commentary about the Gospel of Judas, written by a modern Gnostic.