Until recent decades, such doctrines were glimpsed mainly through the denunciations of antagonists like Irenaeus, but in 1945 Egyptian peasants found a set of long-lost Gnostic texts buried in an earthenware jar near the town of Nag Hammadi. Among them were over a dozen entirely new versions of Christ’s teachings, including Gospels of Thomas and Philip and a Gospel of Truth. Now we have the Gospel of Judas.
In ancient times, some of these alternative versions may have circulated more widely than the familiar four Gospels. "Most of the manuscripts, or at least fragments, from the second century that we have found are copies of other Christian books,” says Bart Ehrman, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina. A long-buried side of early Christianity is re-emerging.
The notion of "gospels” that contradict the canonical four in the New Testament is deeply unsettling to some, as I was reminded at lunch with Meyer at a Washington, D.C., restaurant. Brimming with enthusiasm, the ebullient academic polished off a plate of chicken salad while discoursing nonstop on the beliefs in the Judas gospel. "This is really exciting,” he exclaimed. "This explains why Judas is singled out by Jesus as the best of the disciples. The others didn’t get it.”
The lunchtime crowd had emptied out, and we were alone in the restaurant, deep in the second century A.D., when the maître d’ hesitantly handed Meyer a note. It read simply, "God spoke a book.” The cryptic message had been called in anonymously, with instructions that it be delivered immediately to the diner who had ordered chicken salad. Someone seated nearby had apparently thought Meyer was casting doubt on the Bible as the word of God.
In fact it is unclear whether the authors of any of the gospels—even the familiar four— actually witnessed the events they described. Evangelical biblical scholar Craig Evans of Acadia Divinity College says the canonical Gospels ultimately eclipsed the others because their version of Christ’s teachings and passion had the ring of truth. “Those early Christian groups were generally poor; they couldn’t afford to have more than a few books copied, so the members would say, 'I want the Apostle John’s gospel, and so on,'" he argues. "The canonical Gospels are the ones that they themselves considered the most authentic.” Or perhaps the alternatives were simply outmaneuvered in the battle for the Christian mind.
The Judas gospel vividly reflects the struggle waged long ago between the Gnostics and the hierarchical church. In the very ﬁrst scene Jesus laughs at the disciples for praying to "your god,” meaning the disastrous god who created the world. He compares the disciples to a priest in the temple (almost certainly a reference to the mainstream church), whom he calls "a minister of error” planting "trees without fruit, in my name, in a shameful manner.” He challenges the disciples to look at him and understand what he really is, but they turn away.