The gospel of ignorance

judas3My newsroom was all abuzz this week with the revelation of the Gospel of Judas. The media have been going nonstop with the news that a Gnostic tract has been translated that says Judas was helping Jesus rather than betraying him.

Well, where to begin? Before I criticize the ridiculous ignorance of the media in covering this very old story, let me offer a critique of the church. If Christians knew anything about their history, if they knew anything about how the New Testament canon came to be formed, I doubt these stories would be met with more than a yawn.

Sometimes I get the feeling that Christians — and others — think the Bible was delivered to the church in present form upon Christ’s death and resurrection. In fact, the Gospels, which were written soon after Jesus’ time on earth, were fixed into the canon by the last quarter of the second century. Other books were included by A.D. 220. But there were many, many other books that were considered. And then there were some extremely heretical books that were never really considered. Various principles for inclusion were debated, but as a rule the books were tested against each other. So if the Apostles themselves said, for instance, that Jesus was betrayed by Judas, you would be hard-pressed to include a book written by a sect centuries later that said Judas was all good.

The thing is that for those who know their church history, Gnosticism is not news. It is a syncretistic movement with roots in pre-Christian times. It reached its zenith around the time the Judas Gospel was written. And it was based on the very non-Christian idea that its adherents possessed a secret message, bequeathed to a select few, that held the key to higher life.

For crying out loud, Irenaeus condemned the Judas writing in A.D. 180 in his book Against Heresies. He summed up the Judas tract as follows:

Others again declare that Cain derived his being from the Power above, and acknowledge that Esau, Korah, the Sodomites, and all such persons, are related to themselves. On this account, they add, they have been assailed by the Creator, yet no one of them has suffered injury. For Sophia was in the habit of carrying off that which belonged to her from them to herself. They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.

The Gospel of Judas claims to be a secret discussion between Judas and Jesus. Compare that with the four Gospels of the New Testament where Christ’s preaching is extremely public. The Gospel of Judas claims secret knowledge for a limited few. Compare that with Christ’s teaching that he came for all. The Gnostics tried to rehabilitate every bad guy in the Bible from Cain on down. They thought Yahweh was evil. I mean, is it really that shocking that Irenaeus, and the larger church, condemned these guys?

This story is sort of akin to folks in A.D. 3800 translating a Weekly World News story from this year that says Abraham Lincoln was actually a woman dressing as a man. I mean, sure, it’s true that Gnostics existed, accessed Christianity and wrote several tracts. But why do the media treat this as some sort of breaking news story that casts doubt on the veracity of the Gospels? And why has their coverage provided no context and no understanding of the relative credibility of the Gospel of Judas? Perhaps it is because, as Harold Bloom notes, Gnosticism is America’s cultural religion?

Let’s go to the Associated Press story, which reached news outlets far and wide:

A “Gospel of Judas” was first mentioned around 180 A.D. by Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon, in what is now France. The bishop denounced the manuscript as heresy because it differed from mainstream Christianity. The actual text had been thought lost until this discovery.

Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, said, “The people who loved, circulated and wrote down these gospels did not think they were heretics.”

Gnostic Sea SaltI love the way AP characterizes Irenaeus’ theological whipping of the Judas-adoring Cainites. “Sorry, guys, but you differ from mainstream Christianity.” That’s like saying the Flat Earth Society was denounced for differing from mainstream cartography. I also love the Pagels quote. Really? The Gnostics didn’t think they were heretics? Well, I guess the battle between orthodox Christians and Elaine “Gnostic Gospels” Pagels is settled, then. And that’s precisely what the AP story makes it out to be. The next quotes are just odd, really. I kept waiting for a Christian who thinks the Judas Gospel is bunk (and lived after A.D. 180) to appear. Instead we got this:

Added [the] Rev. Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union of Chicago: “Let a vigorous debate on the significance of this fascinating ancient text begin.”

Senior expressed doubt that the new gospel will rival the New Testament, but he allowed that opinions are likely to vary.

Craig Evans, a professor at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, Canada, said New Testament explanations for Judas’ betrayal range from money to the influence of Satan.

“Perhaps more now can be said,” he commented. The document “implies that Judas only did what Jesus wanted him to do.”

Christianity in the ancient world was much more diverse than it is now, with a number of gospels circulating in addition to the four that were finally collected into the New Testament, noted Bart Ehrman, chairman of religious studies at the University of North Carolina.

Eventually, one point of view prevailed and the others were declared heresy, he said, including the Gnostics who believed that salvation depended on secret knowledge that Jesus imparted, particularly to Judas.

Could they not find one modern-day scholar or observer, even, who is less impressed by this supposed blockbuster? In fact almost all of the stories I read used the same few people to provide context. The Washington Post reporters who wrote about the Judas Gospel also managed to quote the same people as the AP story, but in a way that made them seem to be saying much different and more sensible things. It’s actually worth comparing. Here, though, they quote Pagels again:

Some scholars suggested that view — if it had been accepted — might have lessened anti-Semitism over the centuries. “The story of the betrayal of Jesus by Judas gave a moral and religious rationale to anti-Jewish sentiment, and that’s what made it persistent and vicious,” said Princeton University professor Elaine Pagels.

Lord, have mercy. I mean, I’m beyond glad that Christians don’t riot at the slightest offense. But this public relations stunt (coincidentally timed to prep for the fictional Da Vinci Code?) released just before Palm Sunday heading into Holy Week? Christians have every right to be offended. There were some other media outlets that handled this news with a bit more cynicism and analysis, but for the most part, I give the media a failing grade.

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  • andy chamberlain

    This is one of those stories that show how hard it is for journalists to resist the instinct to go for the ‘shock’ angle on a story. The idea that the gospels are basicially correct in their details about the life of Jesus and that other documents are wrong – that is not news, it may be the truth but it’s not news in the sense of a story that grabs the reader.

    I think this points to one of the deeper reasons why faith and religion find it so hard to get along. Suppose a church community is functioning as it should, worshiping God, engaged in prayer, working in the community – there is no news in that! There is nothing there for news people.

    Now suppose at that same church one of the male leaders is visited by a female member of the church community; he happens to be alone. They spend an hour in his house alone together and then she leaves. What would the media rather hear:

    a) They talked about Sunday school for 5th graders


    b)They were engaged in a passionate affair that would shock the congregation

    religion hopes it’s one thing, the media – or substantial sections of it – would hope the another.

    Essentially it’s the same thing with all of the speculation about Jesus; people want to think he married Mary Magdalene, or whatever, because it’s so much more entertaining and newsworthy than the truth.

  • John Uebersax

    Having taken the trouble to make at least a limited study of Church history and Gnosticism, I believe I can say this much with some confidence:
    Gnostic gospels were in almost every case *of a completely different literary genre* than the four canonical gospels. The canonical gospels were intended and understood by their readers as accurate historical narratives. However, Gnostic gospels were more likely to be both intended and interpreted as highly metaphorical and allegorical.

    To make a long story short, it likely would not have occurred to a 3rd Century reader of the Gospel of Judas to take its content literally. This is in keeping with the nature of Gnosticism, which was concerned with “esoteric knowledge”, and therefore intentionally used elaborate metaphors, allegory, and symbolism.

    In no way would an allegorical, and in that sense, intentionally fictionalized narrative contradict or challenge a nonfictional, historical narrative.

  • Libertine

    I was wondering when GetReligion would pick up this hot potato.

    It is a valid criticism to point out that many general media outlets have neglected to elucidate the context in which Gnostic texts and the canonical Gospels competed for popular and institutional (let’s NOT forget the influence of Christian institutions, such as they were in the early AD centuries!) approval. The historical results are crystal clear. Obviously the Catholics won.

    But it is not “cynicism” or anti-Christian to point out that the internecine debates among the early Christians were more about literary aesthetics than historical truth. It does little violence to revelation to point out that the Gospels read much better than the Gnostic texts. The former are merely turgid and preachy, the latter nigh unreadable. But we are still speaking in terms of art, not of Truth. It is of supreme advantage for a faction positing a particular interpreation to have all opposing factions declared heretical as a matter of institutional fiat. Especially if your version reads better.

    Which brings us back to the media. A great deal of people are unaware of the power struggles that defined early Christianity. History and science say very little about which version of events is “more correct,” but we’re stuck with Gospels because they tell a better story than the Gnostic texts. By highlighting the “Gospel of Judas,” the media is simply pointing out that the early Christians contested their own metanarrative. It would be nice if they also mentioned who won, but that’s the cool thing about power struggles: they don’t ever really end.

  • Jim Razinha

    Interesting take, but not entirely accurate explanation as to how the canon came to be. The four gospels themselves do not pass the “tested against each other” criterion, as there are too many inconsistencies in their present form. The real litmus test was which books fit the precepts of the religious leaders in power at the time of the New Testament’s final composition. The ancients did not subject the gospels to a rigorous critical analysis. Had they done so, they would have surely removed (or rewritten) the inconsistent passages.

    Of course the media is interested in this – controversy sells. Ignorance? No one has ever accused the media of scholarship (witness Foxnews, or any of the major network evening news programs). As for the conspiracy theory of the timing coinciding with the “Da Vinci Code” release, I would think National Geographic above such, as they have no interest in the movie revenue. Last years’ rumour had Sony strong-arming the production to rewrite the screenplay to be less offensive to Christians who might be on the fence about seeing (paying for) the film. Laughable, but probably unfortunately true – a sad commentary, given the extraordinary sales of the book despite it’s “offensive” premise and text.

    Still, this fragment, along with all of the other texts excluded from the Bible must necessarily be questioned with a critical eye. For that matter, so do the ones that were actually included in the Bible. The more than 100 contradictions in the Gospel of Matthew alone, as compared with the rest of the Bible, demonstrate that the text cannot be taken as accurate, or even historical; rather, as allegory meant to establish a new religion.

  • Alan Sindler

    It’s curious how quickly some people want to dismiss this latest find. “Don’t confuse me with the facts, I’ve already made up my mind”, comes
    to mind. Since we know that this is authentic with regards to when it was written, it would behoove us to at least keep an open mind.

    But alas, that’s difficult for the “don’t confuse
    me” crowd.

  • Michael Konomos

    With due respect, I disagree, Mr. Razinha, that the gospel of Matthew has “more than 100 contradictions”. What does it contradict? The other gospels? The gospel accounts look at the life of Jesus from different points of view and emphasize certain aspects of events, just as a good reporter would today. A person with an open mind will quickly see that almost every “inconsistency” is accounted for when considering these different points of view, and easily explained. The gospels as we have them were universally accepted by the various congregations of the 1st and 2nd century churches. These Gnostic “gospels” were roundly rejected by the early church as inconsistent with oral and written teachings that had been handed down to them only decades before by the apostles of Jesus.
    If our primary witnesses are to be rejected, then how could we possibly pretend to know anything about Jesus? No, the primary witnesses can be trusted.
    Rather than focus on any assumed inconsistencies, I propose that one consider the amazing similarities between four accounts of the life of Jesus. Look at the consistency of his character throughout, as well as how his apostles are depicted. Look at the repeated accounts of his deeds, of his miracles. Then compare these similarities with something like the “gospel” of Judas, and the truth becomes apparent.
    “He who has ears, let him hear…”

  • digitalbeachbum


    View points vary on virtually all stories in life. There is no exception, not the Christian bible, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Siddharta Gautama, Jesus, Mohammed or even views on what happened on 9/11/2001.

    History can provide powerful lessons of love, compassion and understanding toward other living beings. Very few people have learned this lesson and many instead learn fear, anger, hate, greed, jealousy or lust.

    What is “the truth” when it comes to a story? One’s perception or views on an event is not “the truth”. It is only a view point. The truth is the result of an action, word or thought. These view points on Judas are only perceptions on what happened the day Jesus of Nazareth was taken in to custody.

    The Christian bible is a collection of views on what happened when Jesus of Nazareth walked this planet. These views were later, compiled and bound together to form what today we know as “The Bible”. Only the views that supported Jesus and his teachings were used to create it.

    Even though many people are against the happenings of 9/11/2001, there are different view points to what happened that day when thousands of people died because of other individuals actions. Some might tell you that it was a justified attack. Some might say it was a defensive reaction to a military presence. Some might say that it was murder.

    Two thousand years from now, what will be the story told about what happened on 9/11/2001? Two thousand years from now, what will be the story told about Jesus of Nazareth? Two thousand years from now, what will be the story told of Judas?

    Those who fail to learn the lesson of love, compassion and understanding toward all other living beings are doomed to live a life of fear, hate and suffering.

  • Seven Star Hand

    All ancient religious, mystical and wisdom texts have been shrouded in mystery for millennia for one primary reason: The ability to understand their widely evidenced symbology was lost in antiquity. How do we finally solve these ages-old mysteries? To recast an often-used political adage: It’s [the] symbology, stupid!

    Here is stunning and comprehensive proof that:

    * The three Faiths of Abraham are purposeful deceptions used to hide the activites and true nature of the Vatican and the aristocrats, plutocrats, politians, and world leaders that conspire with it, precisely as they have done for centuries

    * The Christianized Book of Revelation is a fraudulent and deceptive rewrite of a Hebrew symbolic wisdom text authored by the Teacher of Righteousness

    * Christianity, the New Testament, and Jesus Christ are Blatant Lies, Strong Delusion, and False Prophecy perpetrated by Rome

    * The Vatican is the evil and mysterious remnant of the Babylonian and Roman Empires symbolized in The Apocalypse, Book of Daniel, and elsewhere

    * The Vatican and its secret society cohorts rule Planet Earth through hidden control of all money, politics, and religion

    * The author of this book is the long-prophesied Messiah, Lion of the Tribe of Juda, Teacher of Righteousness, and Melchizedek

    * Our Creator exists, and Her long-expected Judgment of humanity is clearly described by the Doctrine of Two Spirits and encoded within The Apocalypse

  • Amy Welborn

    The damning, discrediting “contradictions” within the canonical Gospels? In which does Jesus preach repentance and the Kingdom of God and in which does he not? In which does he hold up religious authorities for criticism and which does he not? In which does he teach his disciples to put God first, depend on God and preach in his name and in which does he not? In which Gospel does Jesus die and rise from the dead and in which does he not?


    Here’s the thing that the “don’t privilege the canonoical Gospels” crowd don’t address.

    Do you think that those who privileged these Gospels in the 2nd century already were idiots? Do you think they didn’t read them? That they didn’t notice, for example, that there were 2 (different) infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke and none at all in John and Mark? Do you think they didn’t notice that Jesus doesn’t tell parables in John?

    I mean, if they were all after power for a certain story, don’t you think they would have selected – or written – texts that matched each other exactly and that even gave a less ambiguous portrait of Jesus?

    The point is, what the privileging of these Gospels show is that they, more than the others, are consistent with the traditions that the early Christians received in the preaching and teaching of the apostles. This is what the “many Christianities” crowd never addresses. If the “orthodox” party was intent on presenting a story that would “win” – they went about it in an exceedingly odd way.

    And Mollie – I’m guessing that the consistency that we see in the press stories are on this are due to nothing else than dependence on the press packet. The voices in the stories are all “consultants” and experts to the project. Senior and Evans are both in the program.

  • ceejayoz

    I was hoping you guys would take up this one – I figured the media coverage of this was a tad too breathless and “omg how cool is this huh?”, especially with something that seems like it’d be very controversial.

    Thanks for an informative post. :-)

  • Josh


    You can always count on Pagels and Ehrman. I recently had a religion professor who once mockingly said that he was going to sign up for the Ehrman of the Month club.

    I can appreciate your antipathy toward the sensationalist media coverage of this story, and I do thank you for bringing Iranaeus into the discussion, but one would have to admit that actually having the book that Iranaeus denounced is pretty exciting (at the very least, for Classicists, like me; I am notorious for finding the strangest things fascinating). I will feel more able to comment WHEN I’VE READ THE BOOK (!).


  • Randy

    Interesting….. I find both the journalists response and this web site’s response to be strange…..

    Is the discovery and translation and publicity of this “new” historic writing important? Sure. It is a valuable contribution to the historical record. Among other things it validates the writings of Irenaeus and much of early church history as we understand it. This is further confirmation that the Gnostic writings existed and that they were/are written in such a way as to directly challenge the growth of Christianity and the Church in the first few centuries after Christ.

    I find the journalists attempts to cover the story amusing, because mostly they can’t figure out what to make of the story. They can’t figure out if the significance is the link between Judas (and 1st century jews), the execution of Jesus, and later anit-semitic teachings are somehow related to this story or not….. or is the story that the church has missed the point and villified a “good guy.” … or are they just having fun tweaking a few noses of the Christian Right ….. and for a few they actually end up asking the question, “what is a gospel, really?” Most of their musings and babblings have nothing to do with this historic manuscript. It’s just an excuse to babble.

    So what if the popular media gets the story wrong. I can’t think of many people that expect the media to get a story like this straight or to provide any kind of proper context. And as far as someone to interview, who is really a good interview for this story …. historians? scholars? All terrible from the media’s viewpoint. They want simple sound bite answers, so they go to the people that will give it to thhem. And from the media’s viewpoint, one of the few people in this area of early church history that has a name known to at least some of the public is Pagels. The media isn’t engaged in a conspiracy here. They’re just being used by people with an agenda…… nothing new in that.

    In the end, I think that it is interesting that millions of people may for the first time have actually heard that there were other writings from the early days of the church. For the few that got the word that these were gnostic writings, they may even connect it to bible lessons, or sunday school, or even a religion class they took at some point…. and they may remember something about lessons that explained Paul’s writings as attempts to deal with Gnostics.

    For the mass public, this is a blip, but for a few they may actually learn a little something.

    As for Judas, it’s pretty hard to know exactly what he thought or believed. He is a difficult figure to contemplate very deeply, for I’m afraid many of us may see a little bit of Judas (as the traditional church has understood him) in our own lives.

  • Joe

    What’s the big deal? The other gospels were made up too. The NT was put together by vote in a committee. That should tell you something: we all know how good committies can be.

    Come on people. There is no evidence of the existence of gods. There is also no evidence of souls, spirits, angels, demons, ghosts or goblins. There may not even have been a historical Jesus. Can’t you lay this 3000 year old myth to rest and move on with your lives?

    Lose your myths.

  • Willy

    Why do none of the ‘true scholars’ who are decrying the manuscript, which by the way was found years ago but whose translation was only completed recently, talk about Constantine or any number of the other truths the Christian church has withheld from its people? Or should I say, which it’s people have chosen to ignore?

    I hear a lot of damning rhetoric, and quite frankly childish rhetoric, about how people who have actually had the conscience and courage to look at this manuscript and question what it means, its validity, its narrative or chronicles are evil, obtuse, and lurid but I do not hear one valid word about the issue itself. Rather then talk about actual known history and how 99% of what is commonly considered the Bible today was vetted by a man who murdered thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people who were simply not of like mind or were maybe a bit unruly I hear these journalists are all looking for shock value! You have to give me a break.

    I can’t even mention the hypocrisy the entire Christian Church has shown the world over the last two thousand years. Little morsels ranging from the Salem Which trials to the Monkey trial, from the Crusades to the war on Christmas, no matter what it is you disappoint all reality in lieu of your faith. Once faith is questioned you attack rather then reason. Typical.

    OK, now; instead of attacking me as I am sure many of you will, why not discuss the person I bring up and tell me why he converted a kingdom? Being a scholar of history and carrying a PhD on the topic and teaching it to young men and women I would be very interested in hearing what the other side has to say. I am curious what you sharp-witted and obviously open and honest people here have to say about him. You do understand that it is his work that your entire religion’s legitimacy actually rests upon, not Jesus’.

    OK, I am now ready for the personal attacks… Bring it on to coin a phrase from the ignorant one in the oval office.

  • Kevin Carr

    When will religious folks stop arguing about what kind of clothes the prophet wore, and how he buckled his sandals, and realize the message. I see too little love, wisdom and compassion in the above posts

  • Grant Ellsworth

    I’m fascinated with how this Gospel was re-assembled and decoded. Quite an accomplishment given the shape it was in. I’m also fascinated with the story itself – it does reflect some sophisticated thinking about the fundamental christian story – but really does not refute it. All that I’ve seen in print so far about this gospel does nothing to undermine the essential christian message – in some manner it seems to re-enforce it.

  • tmatt

    We will, I am sure, be dissecting follow-up stories on this for days to come.

    Please remember that we are trying to write about the JOURNALISTIC treatment of this story, not re-fight centuries of warfare over the religious issues.

    The point is that this is an amazing discovery for those who want insights into the nature of the gnostic Christians. The text is from their era and it is about their beliefs.

    The press is treating this as a major find about Christianity, period. Many reporters are saying that this changes the content of normative Christianity. Sorry, but it does not. The texts and doctrines there are from an earlier era. No one is claiming an oral tradition linked to Judas himself. Right?

    In terms of journalism, the big problem is that we are seeing the gnostic players quoted as authorities on traditional Christian faith and doctrine without seeing the other half of that debate represented in the news stories. We are seeing a one sided debate about the wrong issue.

  • Achilles

    Wow, the trolls are out in force on this one.

    At least, I hope they’re trolls.

    Remedial course for anyone that might be confused: the formation of the NT canon took place from the bottom up between the mid-second to the mid-fourth centuries. The Council of Nicaea did not discuss the subject, despite the popular misimpression that they did. By the time of Constatine, most of the major books (the Gospels and the Pauline letters) had been settled on. Only a few of the Catholic letters, Hebrews and Revelation were still being discussed. Constatine may have had an opinion on these, but we have no evidence of this. The final canon of the NT as we know it postdates Constatine.

    Thank you.

  • Achilles

    I guess I was just repeating what Mollie said already. For those who do not wish to hear, it will not matter what anyone says.

    Here’s a good site for anyone interested in the subject:

  • capulet

    “…no matter what it is you disappoint all reality in lieu of your faith.”

    I know those words, but that phrase makes no sense.

  • Aumgn

    To Willy, above:

    For someone with a history phd you seem remarkably cack-handed with English.

    Not to mention appearing to not have studied history.

    That’s kind of amazing, isn’t it?

  • Will

    “This story is sort of akin to folks in 3800 AD translating a Weekly World News story from this year that says Abraham Lincoln was actually a woman dressing as a man.”

    Or AP announcing the mediaeval romances of “Pope Joan” as “proof” of a “coverup”?

  • Jon

    I don’t see why this Judas “gospel” should change anything. The only thing that really matters, or should matter, for Christians is Jesus’ resurrection. As far as I know, this Judas book doesn’t denounce that fact. If God wanted this book to be in the Bible, I think he would have made it happen.

    I don’t see how this Judas book has any credibility to be compared to the four canonized gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were written between 70 AD and 100 AD. Assuming that Jesus resurrection occured around 30 AD, the four cannonized gospels were written within 30-60 years of the event. So if the gosples were not written by the apostles themselves, they must have been written by someone who knew them well. This Judas book was apparently written around 180 AD, which is about 150 years after Jesus crucifixion. That would be like a historian today writting a dialogue between two soldiers in the civil war and claiming it to be 100% accurate… Seems unrealistic.

    Oh and Willy I think you need to do some more research on Christianity because you apparently don’t understand that there is a difference between 11th-13th century government controlled catholicism, 17th century puritanism, and modern day Christianity. I’m sorry but if you put those in the same category you’re a pretty ignorant person…

  • Joachim

    “. . .no matter what it is you disappoint all reality in lieu of your faith.”

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  • Herb

    Excellent post, Mollie. I would only add a couple of verses to strengthen your argument:

    “If you point these things out to the brothers, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, brought up in the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed. Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly.” (1 Tim 4:6-7, NIV)

    “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Pet. 1:16)

    Sorry, Joe, but Christ is our life, and those of us who know Him are not about to give Him up in exchange for whatever it is that you put in His place.

  • matt


    It seems to me that the reporters on this story suffer from limited rolodexes. And that is because the people who wind up in rolodexes are the ones with good publicists. People who have differing opinions from the scholars quoted in the stories tend not to have good publicists. And most have none at all.

  • Herb

    It might be helpful to add that the NT canon was forged in the blood of God’s people. As F.F. Bruce points out in The Canon of Scripture, the question of which books had divine authority became acute when, in times of fierce persecution, the early Christians had to decide which ones were worth dying for.

    This was no theoretical issue, and there is a sense in which we should not re-open a question that was fought through in those early centuries.

  • Herb

    Matt, can you translate for a layman?

  • Sheila M

    I’m unsure that people ever saw the canonical gospels as historical books, but rather narratives that gave us glimpses of Jesus.
    The media is the media… It is the hype reminiscent of Passions of the Christ or DV Code. We survived the liberties in both entities and will the Gospel of Judas, I’m sure

  • Cumanus

    The discovery of the Gospel of Judas is significant for the specialist scholar of recondite, mid-2nd century religious movements, such as the weird, minor Gnostic sect – the Cainites -that produced it. Otherwise it is of little or no interest, and has no bearing whatsoever on the issue of the relation between Jesus and Judas.

  • Jeff

    Hey all –

    For anyone who is interested, there is going to be a debate between Christian Origins scholar Bart Ehrman (mentioned in the above article) of the University of North Carolina, and New Testament Scholar Richard Hays of the Duke Divinity School on April 25, about the historical issues posed in the Da Vinci Code. It’s going to be at Duke Divinity School, at 7 PM (I think), ad it’s open to the public. So, if anyone on here is from the Triangle area or going to be here around then, and is interested in attending, let me know and I’ll send you details. (


  • C. Wingate

    Laura Goodstein’s article in the NYT is pretty good. There’s a little too much of “make sure to have the same number of references on both sides” quotes, but it does let the cat out of the bag reasonably well that the mainstream isn’t shocked by this discovery (and that actual gnostic texts have been knocking around for 45 years).

  • Russ Pulliam


    Thanks for an excellent analysis of the primary story here, and the limitations of the reporters involved. In general the mainstream news media needs reporters who can grasp these stories as well as they can analyze national political trends, or professional sports.

    Russ Pulliam

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  • matt

    I was asked to explain what I meant when I wrote this: “It seems to me that the reporters on this story suffer from limited rolodexes. And that is because the people who wind up in rolodexes are the ones with good publicists. People who have differing opinions from the scholars quoted in the stories tend not to have good publicists. And most have none at all.”

    I’ve worked at two newspapers. Every reporter at these papers had lists of experts provided by different sources. Stanford university made sure that each reporter had actual rolodex cards to be filed by topic. For instance, there was an economics card with the names and phone numbers of several professors good for a quote. San Jose State’s college of Sciences and Arts published a little booklet titled “Knowledge Resources for Journalists” with the same kind of information. (Every election Dr. Terry Christiansen from the Poli Sci dept is interviewed on TV at least once) One of my colleagues had a list of experts published by U.C. Berkeley stuck on her cubicle wall.
    Does Holy Cross or St. Vladimir’s or Biola or Franciscan of Steubenville publish similar lists and get them into the hands of reporters?

    And everyone knows that Elaine Pagel’s agent is Royce Carlton. Royce Carlton makes money by getting bookings for their clients. They need to keep their client in the public eye and make sure that she is available to reporters covering any story related to any of her books or speaking topics. Does anyone know who Archbishop Dmitiri’s agent is? Or who is Harold O. J. Brown’s agent? Or who is Scott Hahn’s agent? How would a reporter reach these people? Does the average reporter know that these people, who would offer a different view than that of Pagels, even exist? I doubt it. The economic incentive to get their names out is not as great as it is for Pagels.

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  • Herb

    Thanks, Matt. I appreciated your taking the time to explain!

  • Scott Allen

    Achilles, thanks for the link to the New Testament Canon site.

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I never thought I would see National Geographic–the main promoters of the seriously flawed hype surrounding the Judas so-called Gospel–so debasing themselves to revive interest in their magazine and to make a buck. They have reached the level of the grocery store tabloids. After 50 years of subscribing it is time to cancel.

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  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    Seven Star Hand:

    Nice way to post your views and get a plug in for your books!

  • Joe

    > Sorry, Joe, but Christ is our life, and those of us who know Him are not about to give Him up in exchange for whatever it is that you put in His place.

    Sorry Herb, but there is nothing “in ‘His’ place”. I simply do not have your belief. If I don’t drink alcohol, does that mean I have “put something in its place” as well?

    > … the question of which books had divine authority became acute when, in times of fierce persecution, the early Christians had to decide which ones were worth dying for.

    Millions of people from thousands of different religions (and non-religions) have died for their beliefs over the millenia. Are they all, therefore, correct? I’m sure plenty of Hindus have died for their beliefs; does this mean the Vedas are the true way?

    More to the point of this article: yes, the press is pushing this story a little too much. But frankly, they do that with nearly every story, and this one has a potential audience of billions of interested viewers.

  • Herb

    Joe, I wasn’t implying that the canon of Scripture can be verified on the fact that Christians were willing to die for the sake of its authority. I was trying to point out that there was more involved that just scrolls circulating around church fellowships and church councils supposedly discussing the matter. Verification of the truth rests on other grounds.

    As for the first statement, everyone has faith. Life is too big, and the question of human existence too complicated, for it to be otherwise. Evidently from the brief amount you wrote, you are assuming that the material is all there is. Most of the world’s people acknowledge (most in fact live in fear, especially in view of death) that there is a far greater spiritual dimension to reality, they just aren’t sure how to deal with it.

  • Joe

    Herb, your statements do indeed seem to say that we can tell which books had divine authors: the books the early Christians died for. I see no other way to parse the statement.

    I don’t think the early Christians were any better at truth determination than modern peoples, arguably worse, in light of the near total lack of education. In my view, they accepted the stories that resonated with their feelings and beliefs in one way or another (the same as every other holy text does/did for their believers). The Gnostic writings only caught on with the mystery cult and “new age” types of the day. As today, the majority of people don’t think of themselves as “mystics”, and the councils reflected that.

    On the other topic: I do not know if the material is all there is. I do know I have never seen any reason to believe otherwise. Many people acknowledge (or rather, believe) many wildly incompatible ideas about what else there might be. Even most Christians, if you question them deeply, will disagree with each other on rather fundamental aspects of the faith. Only one set of beliefs can be correct, and I see no reason to think there’s more to it than “we die, and that’s it”. Granted, it’s not the most comforting, but it is the simplest (it requires no invisible entities, no unseen gods, chakras, spirits, or souls). It is also the one with the most evidence. Besides, nature has no requirement to be comforting :)

  • Herb

    What’s the big deal? The other gospels were made up too. The NT was put together by vote in a committee. That should tell you something: we all know how good committies can be.

    First of all, Joe, you need to read something good about the canon of Scripture. Try F. F. Bruce for a start, as an antidote to whatever it is you’ve been imbibing.

    Before you posit things that fly in the face of evidence like:

    Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:3-4, NIV)

    You need to examine the claims closely. Islamic fanatics blowing themselves up for the sake of promises made in traditions that were concocted hundreds of years after Muhammad’s life is one thing. But claiming that first-century Christians (who knew Jesus personally and were eyewitnesses of His death and resurrection, and willing to give their lives up for what they knew), were impostors, willing to make God in their own image, is another.

    When you post cynical statements like:

    Come on people. There is no evidence of the existence of gods. There is also no evidence of souls, spirits, angels, demons, ghosts or goblins. There may not even have been a historical Jesus. Can’t you lay this 3000 year old myth to rest and move on with your lives?

    You are going to get a reaction from people who know what they know. Even animists in Africa will laugh that one to scorn — they know the existence of the spirit world all too well. Ridicule of people’s beliefs isn’t going to accomplish a thing.

    And for us all, a Good Friday meditation:

    Lifted aloft in the air, with light all around it,
    Of all beams the brightest. It stood as a beacon,
    Drenched in gold; gleaming gems were set
    Fair around its foot . . .

    The King of all mankind coming in great haste,
    With courage keen, eager to climb me.

    Then the young hero – it was God Almighty –
    Strong and stedfast, stripped himself for battle;
    He climbed up on the high gallows, constant in his purpose,
    Mounted it in sight of many, mankind to ransom.

    A cross I became; lifted up with the mighty King,
    the Heavenly Master; but yet I dared not bend.
    With dark nails they pierced me: on me the scars are visible,
    the open and malicious wounds. For him I dared not, so no one
    did I injure.
    Mocked they us both together. I was all with blood sodden
    from the side of the Hero after his spirit was ceded.
    Much ridicule on that hill did I experience
    with this cruel event: The God of Hosts
    hideously stretched out. Darkness had now
    covered with clouds the Lord’s corpse,
    and its shining radiance; A darkness went forth,
    black under the clouds. Weep all creation,
    lament the King’s fall: Christ was on the Cross.
    “But then there hastened many from afar
    to that Prince: I beheld it all.

    From a 7th century Old English poem, The Dream of the Rood

  • Joe

    Interesting how you dismiss other religions’ martyrs as fanatics with beliefs “concocted hundreds of years” after the fact, but somehow all those “first century Christians” all knew Jesus personally. Again, millions of people have given up their lives for things they “knew”, nearly all of which you know (and “know”) are untrue.

    The “accepted” gospels, the founding documents of Christianity, were written 30 years or more after “the fact”. That’s more than enough time for a religion to create a set of beliefs, brew, and drift (we have thousands of religions to show us that). As I mentioned, it is entirely possible there was not even a historical Jesus. There were other myths at the time involving men who probably didn’t exist, and events that probably never happened either (which you believe are myths). Even if there was such a man (divine or not), is there reason to believe the “accepted” gospels hold an accurate account? Give the time lag, there were no embellishments? No liberties taken? No fabrications? No merging with other myths of the time? I know you believe the answer is “no”, but the questions remain nonetheless.

    I have read much about the Bible: some good, some bad. Perhaps you should read something critical of the Bible? (How anyone can read the Bible cover to cover and not see a pure work of iron age men is beyond my comprehension.)

    Oh, it is not cynical to call someone’s beliefs a myth. It is not polite, but it is not cynical. I’m actually very polite in person. Really. But in writing we can be a little more honest. It may not accomplish anything, but I doubt I could incline you to question the your gospels and your beliefs with politeness, either. Such is life.

    We’re obviously done here. Have a nice Easter.

  • Herb

    Been through a lot of questioning, Joe. I worked in Germany as a minister for nearly 30 years, much of it in or connected to the Lutheran churches, which severely tested my evangelical seminary preparation, so I think I’ve been exposed to a lot of different viewpoints. Having taught the Scriptures for decades, I’ve had to do a lot of reading as well.

    The point is, the New Testament, in particular, is a collection of documents like no other. The 30 years you are dismissing so easily include a time of collection and reflection (Q and various other documents). Given the communication possibilities of the day, and the pressure that the church was under, it is actually quite remarkable to realize that documents were being finalized already within the life of eyewitnesses. And Paul is already calling a quote from Luke’s Gospel (in 1 Tim. 5:18 — yes I know, the liberals contest that the Pastorals are Pauline) Scripture on a par with the OT.

    Do you really think that the first century eyewitnesses were all hoodwinked? They don’t appear to be that kind of people.

  • Joe

    I do not dismiss the thirty years. It was when the religion came about, but the questions about the validity of the gospels’ content still remain.

    “Hoodwinked” isn’t my word. I think they believed something that wasn’t true; something everyone has done from time to time.

    Billions of people have beliefs incompatible with Christianity.

    Hundred of thousands of people, at the origin of those religions, witnessed gurus, priests and shaman perform “miracles”. Millions more were contemporaries and believed.

    Millions today still witness these “miracles” performed daily.

    In your lifetime, you have witnessed the birth of Scientology. The founder of the religion died only 20 years ago. Now several hundred thousand+ call themselves members.

    Millions of people believe the moonlanding was hoaxed.

    Millions of people believe Bush directed the 9/11 attacks.

    Thousands of people believe Elvis is not dead.

    Millions of people believe John Edward communicates with the dead.

    In some small village somewhere, rumors about a resident spread, and soon the whole town believes it and they run him out. The event supposedly happened last week, not thirty years ago. It never happened, but they believe it anyway.

    My point is that people, no matter how sincere, and how recent the event, can be, and often are, wrong.

    What I am saying is to “question” is not to compare it to Lutheranism, but look at it as your animist from Africa (or an entirely hypothetical atheist from a very small town Missouri) might see it. How you view Hinduism or Shinto.

  • Herb

    Joe, you are comparing apples with oranges and grapes.

    Let’s let “apples” be the verified stories. Elvis is dead. The moon landings happened. The holocaust is a reality, and it cost 6 million people their lives. These can be verified. I can go back and check the medical records on Elvis. I can probably still interview some of the medical personnel, or the coroner. A few “nuts” who deny these happenings have the freedom to do so, but they are nuts. They may be believing propaganda in Al-Jazeera, but they are believing lies.

    “Oranges” are claims that cannot, or only with very difficult means, be verified. We have a right to be skeptical, but still should keep an open mind. I have been to Africa and India. Some claims of extraordinary miracles are hoaxes. But some, I am convinced, are not. I accept the world-view of the supernatural, and that spiritual “beings” can affect humans. They can choke us, kill us, and mislead us. They can do physical acts. A bit of exposure to demonic spirits will wake anybody up to their reality. Of course, there is little room for that in our society, but that does not get rid of the reality. Still, I understand skepticism. It is right to be skeptical, and every Christian counselor knows that it is very hard to distinguish between demonic activity and mental illness, especially since the two often mesh (and I freely admit that the former is often not present at all in such cases).

    The third type are the “grapes,” which are obvious untruths that people believe anyway. Scientology goes into that category for me. So does the Book of Mormon and its story, which has nothing to do with historical reality (that has been discussed already on this website).

    Some of Jesus’ miracles may be classified freely as “oranges.” But the point is, the resurrection, if examined properly, is an “apple.” It is just hard to deny it, as many who have tried to deny it have discovered (e.g., Frank Morrison, “Who Moved the Stone”). And once we admit the resurrection of Christ, the “oranges” pale in comparison.

    I submit that there are no “grapes” in the NT. One thing we leave out is the Jewish context of the NT (i.e., the careful memorization of Scriptures and their meticulous care in transmitting it). Jesus gave his teaching in a “rabbinic” form that could easily be memorized. His disciples spent, obviously, a good deal of their time memorizing it. The “prophets” in the NT period knew exactly what Jesus said, and what He didn’t say (1 Cor. 7:10). They knew exactly what Christ had done, and hadn’t done (1 Cor. 15), and it was very important to them to know what the words of Jesus were. It was also very important for them to know exactly what Jesus had done, and what He hadn’t done. (Luke 1:1-4), for it was both His deeds and His words that formed the basis of what they said and preached. They did not create Jesus; the teaching and deeds of Jesus created the church.

    Of course, in the end, they had not only the objective evidence, but the Holy Spirit’s inner witness, which is an indespensable ingredient to faith. But those who read and study the manuscripts with an open heart usually open up to that witness. It is amazing to me how often Muslims, after they begin to read the NT in earnest, are drawn to Christ.

    And by the way, your doubt about the historicity of Christ altogether is really out in left field. Given the manuscript evidence, and its Jewish context in NT times, no real scholar would ever doubt that Jesus existed. Philosophers might, but historians cannot.

  • Herb

    By the way, Joe, my reference to Muslim sources was accurate. The “Hadith” are recorded long after the event. True, they put a lot of emphasis upon the “chain” or isnad of the traditions, but their contradictory nature mitigates against them, despite claims of “so-and-so told so-and-so who told so-and-so.” Moses clothes running around after him, and other such questionable traditions, are embarassing even for many Muslims. Even Muslim history (Ibn-Ishaq) is documented far too late.

    The NT is far different from that. And though there are parts that are difficult for Christians, we aren’t embarassed by the nature of its miracles. And most of all, we’ve experienced the difference that it makes in us personally.

    I won’t go into the Qur’an, since my reference was to the Hadith.

  • Herb

    I hope I am not thrashing a dead horse here, even though this thread is obviously coming to an end. But Joe basically told us to leave the myths of Christianity behind and get on with our lives, and my reply is that we cannot leave Christ if we are going to get on with our lives. He is the center of everything. Religion is not a part of my life. To some extent, I want my life to be a part of Christ; He at the center of everything. I want His guidance, His goals; I want to be a part of what He is doing in the world; I want to have His view of Scripture (so amply evident in the New Testament), and I want to experience Him every day.

    Dr. Hans-Joachim Eckstein, who is a professor of New Testament at Tuebingen University in Germany (and before that at the University of Heidelberg), and well acquainted with liberal and radical views of the Bible and Jesus, wrote the following. Dr. Eckstein is a personal friend, and I know he does not mind my poor attempt at a translation of his thoughts. They are out of one his books, Du liebst mich, also bin ich (“You love me, therefore I am”):

    Und Jesus sprach: Komm her! Und Petrus trat aus dem Schiff und ging auf dem Wasser und kam auf Jesus zu . . . (Matt. 14,29, Luther 1984)

    Als Historiker kann ich fragen, ob etwas kausal nicht Ableitbares und Analogieloses ueberhaupt historisch sein kann – uns skeptisch mit den Schultern zucken.
    Als Paedagoge kann ich mir bewusst mache, dass solch eine Erzaehlung die Kinder nur dumme Gedanken bringt; bin ich nicht selbst als kleiner Junge – auch ohne die Geschichte von Petrus zu kennen – auf zu duennem Eis schon eingebrochen und waere fast ertrungen?
    Als Theologe kommen mir Bedenken, ob das Bild fuer das Tun des Unmoeglichen nicht falsche Hoffnungen weckt und ob die einmal zerstoerten Illusionen nicht in noch groessere Verzweiflung umschlagen koennen. Geht es beim Glauben nicht vor allem um die Annahme der menschlichen Schwachheit und um das Akzeptieren der eigenen Grenzen?
    Und doch! Was soll lich denn tun, wenn ich es immer wieder erlebe, dass ich Dich beim Wort nehme, das Boot meiner vermeintlichen Sicherheiten verlasse, mich allein von Dir her verstehen und zu Dir hin unterwegs sein will und dann feststelle – dass das Wasser traegt?

    “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. (Matt. 14:29, NIV)

    As a historian I can ask myself whether something without an adequate cause or analogy in life can be historical at all, and skeptically shrug off the whole event.
    As a teacher I can remind myself that a story like this can lead children to stupid ideas: didn’t I try, when I was a kid (and without knowing this story about Peter) to walk on thin ice – and almost drown in the attempt?
    As a theologian I have to ask myself whether or not this picture of “doing the impossible” doesn’t tend to awaken false hopes. When illusions are finally destroyed, isn’t there great danger that they lead to an ever deeper despair? And isn’t faith, in the final analysis, about accepting human weakness in general, and my own personal boundaries in particular?
    But wait! What do I do, when [with all my skepticism], again and again I experience the same thing: I take You by your Word, leave the boat of my imaginary securities, and understand myself alone from Your perspective – a person who is basically just on a journey to You – and then find out that the water bears me up?

    The Lord is risen! Blessed Easter everyone!