Late last week, the National Geographic Society heralded the release of a 4th century document discovered in Egypt and written in Coptic as a major insight into historical Christianity. Dubbed “The Gospel of Judas,” those marketing the manuscript have claimed that it gives new insights into “the disciple who betrayed Jesus.” The text provocatively suggests a “conversation” between Jesus and Judas in which the now infamous disciple learned a “secret mystery”: Jesus must abandon his physical body to accomplish his true spiritual mission. “You will exceed all of them,” Jesus supposedly tells Judas. “For you will sacrifice the man who clothes me.” In other words, this newly discovered “gospel” is nothing more than one of many propaganda pieces produced by Gnostics—a group of people who were desperate to undermine the doctrine of the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
Despite this background about the spurious provenance of this recent discovery, the mass media have been in frenzy about the phenomenon. After all, it’s good for business during the week leading up to Easter to take a cheap shot at historic Christianity. But the claims being made for the “Gospel of Judas” are nothing short of ridiculous. The New York Times ran an op-ed saying that historians had uncovered “proof that Judas might have been part of a divine plan.” In reality, as New Testament scholar Bruce Chilton observed in The New York Sun, “no scholar associated with the find argues this is a first century document or that it derives from Judas.” It is not in any way, shape, or form a historical writing that tells us anything reliable about either the real Jesus or Judas. Even those who say that this is the same text that the Church father Irenaeus condemned as heresy are hard pressed to prove that the Coptic version of “Judas” is the same one that the 2nd century bishop described (e.g., Irenaeus mentions a “Gospel of Judas” that has mythological material not included in the recently touted Coptic/National Geographic version).
“The Gospel of Judas” is little more than a forged pseudo-gospel probably written by some 4th century heretics. Elaine Pagels, a Princeton University religion professor and paid consultant for the National Geographic Project, is quick to point out that these people didn’t consider themselves heretics. But then again, when do heretics admit that what they believe is, in fact, heresy? Whether one is talking about the 4th century or the 21st century, there has been no shortage of desperate and unscrupulous people trying to discredit the “faith once for all delivered to the saints.”