Using Judas to push an agenda

02 May 2007

Last year, National Geographic published the long-lost Gospel of Judas.

Deal done: Judas, prompted by the Devil, and holding his bag of silver pieces, makes arrangements with the chief priests in Giotto’s fresco, Judas’s Betrayal

Deal done: Judas, prompted by the Devil, and holding his bag of silver pieces, makes arrangements with the chief priests in Giotto’s fresco, Judas’...

by Robin Griffith-Jones

The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A new look at betrayer and betrayed
Bart D. Ehrman
Oxford University Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

Judas and the Gospel of Jesus
Tom Wright
SPCK £6.99
Church Times Bookshop £6.30

WHAT A brouhaha. In 2006, National Geographic published the long-lost Gospel of Judas in translation, with a set of scholarly essays on its significance. With it appeared a book to tell of the Gospel’s discovery and restoration (a story worthy of Dan Brown), a TV special — and wildly extrava-gant claims that the Gospel would make us rewrite the history of Jesus, Judas, and the early Churches. National Geographic had invested heavily in the Codex, and needed to ensure a return.

Bart Ehrman has been involved in the saga since 2004. He is well placed to write of the Gospel, its background, and its publication. In 180 pages he has done so. About 55 of these are about the Gospel of Judas itself, and its place in Sethian Gnosticism; 30 are about its discovery and recent history; 95 are about the stories of Jesus, Judas, and the disciples in the New Testament and Apocrypha.

Ehrman has in mind, I think, readers who have been prompted by the Gospel of Judas to investigate the canonical stories about Jesus which they have not encountered for ages, if ever. Such readers will find Ehr-man’s book well judged and inform-ative; but perhaps fewer would bother with it if the publishers had put on the cover the one sentence (tucked away on page 145) that addresses the only question on such readers’ minds. “This Gospel appears to be using Judas to advance an agenda, and is probably not reliable as a historical source, however interesting it is for under-standing how later Christians portrayed Judas.” To make that a sensible summary, just remove one word: “probably”.

Tom Wright is impatient with the whole Gnostic industry. He reckons some people are out to make a great deal of money, and far more are deluded by America’s left-wing selective neo-Gnosticism. Of Dr Wright’s many readers, those who dislike and distrust the noisy propagation of that creed will find themselves vindicated by his short and trenchant book. I wonder, however, whether others will feel handbagged by his rhetoric.

Those, in particular, who have actually read and valued the Gnostic texts might well feel confused. Did the Gnostics, as Dr Wright claims, consistently evade persecution? No; see the First Apocalypse of James. Was each Gnostic taught to be darkly self-obsessed? No; see Jesus’s repeated demands for forgiveness in Pistis Sophia.

Two passionate concerns shaped all ancient Gnostic thought; sur-prisingly, Dr Wright bypasses both. First was a question: where does evil come from? No philosopher of the Greek world could accept that the cosmos began with chaos (Genesis 1.1-2). There must, they thought, be a spiritual realm of a spiritual God which chaos and its many gods (1.26) forever try to confound. Hu-mankind is tempted and distracted, but the spirit breaks through none the less (2.7). “Such a reading”, claims Dr Wright, “ ‘makes use’ of Genesis in much the same way as a child might ‘use’ a Shakespeare play by tearing out a page to make a paper dart.”

That hardly sounds fair. The Gnostics had the courage to con-front the deepest theological problem of all — and in Genesis found support for a solution such as, for nine years, convinced Augustine himself.

The second issue was a principle of physics and epistemology together: the analogy between a human being on the one hand, and on the other the universe and God. To understand the macrocosm, study the microcosm, and vice versa. The theory may sound fantastical now, but the Gnostics in deploying it were the heirs to the greatest of Greek thinkers. Thanks to that sense of an analogy, the dualisms of the ancient world have (bizarrely) engendered the holistic neo-Gnosticism we see now.

Gnosticism is a dangerous error and must be fought — on that Dr Wright and I are at one. But such a campaign must surely do more than satisfy the hawks at home; and, regretfully, I am not sure that with this book Dr Wright will win over the hearts and minds of those he hopes to liberate.

The Revd Robin Griffith-Jones is Master of the Temple, in London.

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