I just read an obituary of Early Christianity scholar Marvin Meyer, who died at the obscenely early age of 64.
In recent years, Meyer was best known for his edition of the Gospel of Judas, which in his view portrayed Judas in vastly more positive terms than the conventional account. His translation was however controversial, provoking a vigorous attack by his doctoral supervisor James M. Robinson. Among other issues, Meyer seems to have omitted the word “not” in a crucial sentence, resulting in Jesus placing Judas in a highly favorable light. I am not a Coptic scholar, and cannot judge the linguistic point.
I am, though, a historian, and on that basis I fundamentally challenge the framework of the debate presented by among others, Britain’s Daily Telegraph. (I stress that I am critiquing that media discussion, and not Meyer’s own work). According to the Telegraph, which should know better,
What we know as the New Testament – the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles, and the Book of Revelation – was actually born of thousands of texts and gospels circulated among the early Christians. Members of the new faith were subject to persecution, and the Church fathers felt that for the faith to survive, there had to be a unified belief system. Some time around AD 180, Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon denounced all gospels but Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as heretical. Later, about 50 years after Constantine’s conversion early in the fourth century, the New Testament became Christianity’s official text.
Lacking here is any sense that these early Christian texts vary enormously in authority, and in date. As I discussed some years ago in my book Hidden Gospels, the fact that a text circulated among the “early Christians” (anywhere from the first through fourth centuries) is irrelevant to what it can tell us about Jesus or his world. Contrary to the Telegraph account – and good grief, this is a conservative paper – the reason early church leaders privileged those particular four gospels was that they were so evidently the earliest and most authoritative texts, without serious competition. No body of cranky patriarchs sat around and said, “Well, we have to vote out Mary because it’s, um, a tad sexual. John can stay because it spiritualizes everything, and that’ll be useful in a century or so when we get political power.” If you read the actual church debates over which texts should be canonized or excluded, you will be deeply impressed by the historical logic and good sense they demonstrate, and their powerful sense of history and chronology.
Forgive me for the obvious remark, but they never seriously contemplated adding most of the Nag Hammadi texts because they had not even been written in the mid-second century, and in any case, these relied on the Big Four for any historical descriptions. I can point confidently to chains of historical evidence and authority linking the apostles to Mark, and on to the other synoptics, and John has its distinctive foundations. Literally no other gospel – including Thomas – has anything vaguely comparable.
We find possible reference to a Gospel of Judas in the mid-second century, though it is not clear if this is the one that recently came to light. Possibly it was written fifty or a hundred years later. But assume for the sake of argument that it dates from 150. It offers precisely nothing suggesting any independent historical transmission, beyond a second century thinker meditating freely (and wildly) on what he/she has gleaned from one or more of the Four Gospels.
To put this chronology in perspective, it’s the difference between a first hand memoir of (say) a US Army unit in the First World War, written down in 1950, and an article on that same war that I just penned myself, relying wholly on secondary sources. My article might be brilliant, but it has no independent authority whatever for the era it seeks to describe, any more than do the Gospels of Judas or Mary.
All gospels were not created equal.