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‘Gospel of Judas’ is heresy and unreliable, Union experts say

JACKSON, Tenn.April 10, 2006 – The newly-published “Gospel of Judas” contains teaching that is completely foreign to the New Testament, according to a Christian studies professor at Union University.

“It presents a completely different cosmology and theology from what we find in the New Testament,” said George Guthrie, the Benjamin W. Perry Professor of Bible at Union.

Guthrie and other Christian studies faculty members said that the “Gospel of Judas” document is unreliable as a source for the actual historical events in the life of Jesus and promotes the heresy of Gnosticism, an ancient teaching condemned by the early Christian church.

“It is not in any way, shape or form a writing that tells us anything reliable about either the real Jesus or Judas,” added Greg Thornbury, dean of Union’s School of Christian Studies.

Thornbury referred to a quote from Elaine Pagels, a Princeton University religion professor who was a consultant for the National Geographic project that translated and published the “Gospel of Judas.” Pagels pointed out that the people who wrote and circulated these gospels “did not think they were heretics.”

“When do heretics admit that what they believe is, in fact, heresy?” Thornbury said. “Whether one is talking about the fourth century or the 21st century, there has been no shortage of people trying to discredit the Christian faith.”

Ray Van Neste, associate professor of Christian studies at Union, said it’s important to distinguish between authentic and authoritative.

“Sure it’s authentic, meaning it came from that time,” Van Neste said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the true gospel.”

Van Neste used as an example histories written during World War II that denied the Holocaust. They were written at that time, but they were far from accurate or authoritative, he said.

He added that the discovery of the “Gospel of Judas” should in no way change what people believe about traditional Christianity, because documents like this have been around for a long time.

“We’re not surprised at this discovery,” Van Neste said. “We knew these things were out there. I think that’s an important piece of the puzzle.”

Union University President David S. Dockery agreed, saying that the distinction between historically authentic and truthful must be made.

“The document has been shown to be authentic and this gives us a window into key aspects of second-century Gnosticism,” Dockery said. “When reading these other ‘gospels’ of this period, we understand why Irenaeus, a second century church leader, pronounced these writings as heretical.”

The biggest difference, Dockery noted, is that the “Gospel of Judas” completely ignores the gospel message itself, which is the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Unveiled last week, the “Gospel of Judas” was originally found in the 1970s, and its origins are unclear, according to the National Geographic web site. It is believed to have come from a tomb on the east bank of the Nile River near the Egyptian village of El Minya.

For the next three and a half decades, the document remained hidden in the cloudy world of the antiquities market before being purchased in 2000 by Greek dealer Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos. She in turn sold it in 2001 to the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art, which sought to restore, preserve and publish the ancient document. The Maecenas Foundation worked with the National Geographic Society to this end.

The document was in poor condition by the time experts gained possession of it, and the last five years have been spent restoring and translating it. Scholars have dated the Coptic version of the document from the third to fourth century A.D. and some question the exact relationship between it and an earlier Greek version mentioned by Irenaeus in the second century.

Guthrie said the key to understanding “Gospel of Judas” is to know about Gnosticism, an ancient belief system that the early church identified as a heresy.

“New Testament scholars question whether or not this was a full-blown religious system in the first century,” Guthrie said. “Regardless, it was a philosophical system that at some point begins to be melded with Christianity, probably in the second century A.D.”

Gnosticism held to the belief that salvation comes through “gnosis,” the Greek word for “knowledge,” Guthrie said.

“It’s about becoming an insider on the secrets of the universe,” Guthrie explained

Gnosticism pitted the true God against an evil God, who in some forms of Gnostic teaching is associated with Jehovah of the Old Testament. One of the bad things this evil God did was to create the world.

“The pure spiritual realm is where the true God is, but none of us can get to him directly,” Guthrie said about Gnostic teaching. “Part of the problem, according to Gnosticism, is that we live in a world that is evil. Our bodies are evil, and anything associated with our bodies is evil.”

Thus, marriage is seen as bad, and having children is bad to Gnostics. Guthrie said this view is contrary to biblical teaching, as God pronounced his created world as good.

Gnostics further taught that only “certain, spiritual people have a spark of divinity in them,” Guthrie said. The problem, however, is that these people are born ignorant of the way the universe works and of their celestial origins.

Thus, when joined with Christianity, Gnostics believed that Jesus was a heavenly being who whispers secrets to people.

“That’s how they learn that they are really these celestial beings,” Guthrie said. “It’s kind of a secret society of spirituality.”

With this background about Gnosticism, Guthrie said it’s easy to identify this teaching in the “Gospel of Judas.”

For example, at one point in the document, Jesus tells Judas Iscariot, “Come, that I may teach you about secrets no person has ever seen.”

Jesus also tells Judas that he will exceed all of the other disciples, “For you will sacrifice the man who clothes me.” The document suggests that Judas’ betrayal of Jesus came at the request of Jesus himself.

“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,” Thornbury said.

Guthrie said the document suggests that Judas is “the only disciple who gets it.”

“He’s the only one who clues in and starts picking up on this higher form of knowledge,” Guthrie said. “Thus, Jesus begins pulling Judas aside and saying, ‘Since you obviously are superior spiritually, let’s talk about these things.’”

Guthrie encouraged Christians to read it for themselves and said they would easily see how foreign it is to the teaching of the New Testament and to the teaching and person of Jesus. The entire document is available on the National Geographic web site.

He also offered a reason as to why the media is making such a frenzy out of the publication of the document.

“The bottom line is that the modern world is enamored with anything that calls into question orthodox Christianity,” Guthrie said, “whether it’s historically credible or not.”


Media contact: Tim Ellsworth, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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