Dating of the Gospel of Judas is religiously crucial

(AP) – The tale of how the Gospel of Judas was rediscovered is worthy of a hard-boiled detective novel, but there’s an even more tantalizing religious mystery – whether the newly released document tells us anything authentic about either Jesus or Judas.

Instead of Judas as the sinister betrayer, the Egyptian Coptic text issued Thursday portrays Judas as Jesus‘ confidant, chosen to be told spiritual secrets that the other apostles were not. Jesus also asks Judas to hand him over to his enemies, a possible elaboration on a New Testament phrase in which Jesus tells Judas: “What you are going to do, do quickly” (John 13:27).

But should modern-day Christians take anything in the Gospel of Judas to be historically true?

Scholars will debate that for years to come, and the age of the text will be a crucial point in their arguments.

There seems little doubt that the document published by National Geographic is, indeed, ancient – despite a murky recent history.

Found by a farmer in a remote Egyptian burial cave in the 1970s, the text was sold to an antiques dealer who at one point left it disintegrating in a Long Island safe-deposit box for 16 years. After changing hands a couple of times, it finally ended up with a Swiss foundation, according to The Lost Gospel by journalist Herbert Krosney, which was released with the document.

Judging from radiocarbon testing, the papyrus text appears to date from about AD 300, or perhaps a bit later based on analysis of the handwriting style.

The scholarly team that studied the text for National Geographic – including Rodolphe Kasser of Switzerland’s University of Geneva, Marvin Meyer of America’s Chapman University and Gregor Wurst of Germany’s University of Augsburg – believe the document is a copy of a text first mentioned as heretical by Bishop Irenaeus in AD 180.

But even if this is actually Irenaeus’s Judas, a point that will spark further debate, the material would still have been written many decades after composition of the four New Testament Gospels that the early church accepted as authentic. Scholars’ consensus dates: around AD 70 for Mark, 90 to 100 for John, Matthew and Luke in between.

The way these debates typically develop, the later the document was written, the less likely it has any reliable connection to the people who knew Jesus or were among his early followers. Without that, the document isn’t important for learning about Jesus’ actual history but only for documenting a particular sect’s beliefs in the second century and beyond.

Another nagging question: since the New Testament says Judas killed himself shortly after betraying Jesus, how would anyone have known about the secret revelations this manuscript claims Jesus gave Judas only days before Good Friday.

On that point, New Testament scholar Bruce Chilton of Bard College thinks the Gospel of Judas wasn’t meant as biography in the first place. The heavily mystical content shows the text “never set out to provide historical information and to pretend it does is a distortion,” Chilton says.

One consultant on the Judas project, Elaine Pagels of Princeton University, popularized such Egyptian texts from outside the New Testament in The Gnostic Gospels (Gnostic refers to groups that generally shunned the material world and taught salvation through supposed secret knowledge from Jesus).

To her, the importance of texts like the Gospel of Judas is that they are “exploding the myth of a monolithic religion” and showing how diverse early Christianity was. Conservative scholars say we’ve always known about the diversity but the Christian consensus on the Jesus portrayed in the New Testament Gospels was early, strong and widespread.

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AP, via, USA
Apr. 7, 2006
Richard N. Ostling

Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday April 8, 2006.
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