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The Judas Gospel

APRIL 2006 Follow the discovery and translation of the Gospel of Judas with our books and DVD.

...continued.


By Andrew Cockburn
Photographs by Kenneth Garrett


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Irenaeus had plenty of heresies to contend with. In the early centuries of Christianity, what we call the church, operating through a top-down hierarchy of priests and bishops, was only one of many groups inspired by Jesus. Biblical scholar Marvin Meyer of Chapman University, who worked with Kasser to translate the gospel, sums up the situation as “Christianity trying to find its style.”

For example, a group called the Ebionites maintained that Christians should obey all Jewish religious laws, while another, the Marcionites, rejected any connection between the God of the New Testament and the Jewish God. Some said that Jesus had been wholly divine, contradicting those who insisted he was completely human. Yet another sect, the Carpocratians, allegedly indulged in ritualized spouse swapping. Many of these groups were Gnostics, followers of the same strain of early Christianity reflected in the Judas gospel.

Gnosis means ‘knowledge’ in Greek,” Meyer explains. The Gnostics “believed that there is an ultimate source of goodness, which they thought of as the divine mind, outside the physical universe. Humans carry a spark of that divine power, but they are cut off by the material world all around them”—a flawed world, as the Gnostics saw it, the work of an inferior creator rather than the ultimate God.

While Christians like Irenaeus stressed that only Jesus, the son of God, was simultaneously human and divine, the Gnostics proposed that ordinary people could be connected to God. Salvation lay in awakening that divine spark within the human spirit and reconnecting with the divine mind. Doing so required the guidance of a teacher, and that, according to the Gnostics, was Christ’s role. Those who grasped his message could become as divine as Christ himself.

Hence Irenaeus’s hostility. “These people were mystics,” says Meyer. “Mystics have always drawn the ire of institutionalized religion. Mystics, after all, hear the voice of God from within and don’t need a priest to intercede for them.” Irenaeus began his book after he returned from a trip and found his flock in Lyon being subverted by a Gnostic preacher named Marcus, who was encouraging his initiates to demonstrate direct contact with the divine by prophesying. Hardly less outrageous was Marcus’s evident success with women in the flock. The preacher’s “deluded victim,” wrote Irenaeus indignantly, “impudently utters some nonsense” and “henceforth considers herself to be a prophet!”

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.


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