If it’s not the talk of the town already, I guess it soon will be. With the launch of The Da Vinci code on film, and the recent rediscovery of the ‘gospel of Judas’, religious mystery and intrigue has rarely had a better press. Perhaps received wisdom as taught by the church is not the full truth?
Predictably, having watched National Geographic’s TV programme on the ‘gospel of Judas’ the content hardly matched the hype. What the programme managed to say in two hours could easily have been said in twenty minutes. But on the whole, I think the discovery and translation of the manuscript does no harm to the true Christian message. It does, however, warrant a word of response.
The central tenet of the Judas manuscript is that Judas helped Jesus by his betrayal, because he liberated Jesus from his body so that he could rise to a higher plane. But this is not Christian doctrine at all, but pure Gnosticism.
Gnostics believed that flesh is bad, spirit is good. They promoted the unbiblical idea that the material world is evil and that secret wisdom and a host of angelic intermediaries are needed to span the gulf and reach the purity of the spiritual realm.
But the Bible teaches that man was made spiritually and physically good, but was corrupted through his own fall. Yes, there is an evil power in the flesh, but Christ came in human flesh to break that power. Moreover, Christ rose from the dead to retain a physical, glorified human body for ever.
For the Christian, the flesh is weak and corrupt because of sin, but we are delivered from its power through a spiritual union with Christ. What we do in the body is important, for it is the temple in which we serve God, and the seed for our eternal body in which we shall see God. Heaven is ultimately a physical place – the promised new heavens and earth in which righteous people shall dwell bodily.
The cultural context
It was predictable that someone as remarkable as Jesus should be ‘enlisted’ by Gnostics and woven into their traditions and writings. Nor should it surprise us that a character like Judas, who seemed to be a loser, might be revealed as a winner after all. Especially if the transformation gives ‘hidden insight’ and ‘higher knowledge’ that others do not have.
One question raised in the TV documentary was whether this manuscript gives any real insight into the historical Jesus, or even the historical Judas. The telling answer was, ‘No; it gives more insight into the context of thought and writing in second century Egypt’ than anything else. It was clearly not written by Judas, but shows how Gnostics took ideas and historical characters and wrote them into their own tradition.
People today seem to think that the events of the New Testament happened in a cultural vacuum. Many Christians are unfamiliar with how we got the New Testament – what was included, what was excluded, and why.
Others want to believe in some kind of early church cover-up and see the excluded writings as more valid than the included ones. But the ‘gospel of Judas’ helps us to see the context in which these events took place.
Just as in every age there are ideas which have followers, so Christ and his gospel message came into a world overflowing with ideas and philosophies. The question is which teachings are authentic and come from God, and which are from men?
The faith worth dying for
The film made much of the early church theologian Irenaeus, presenting a view that he alone decided which writings would become the books of the New Testament. He certainly had a part in that and was a great definer and defender of the faith.
But it is simplistic to think that Irenaeus simply preferred what Matthew, Mark, Luke and John said about Jesus, to the accounts of ‘many other gospels’. Certainly there were other writings about Jesus in those first centuries, just as there continues to be in every century to this day. But that doesn’t mean that the Bible is incomplete or that something significant has been lost.
As the film pointed out, Irenaeus was concerned that those who were dying as martyrs for their Christian belief should be sure they were martyrs for the authentic Christian faith. In other words, God used suffering to help define what was authentic.
In those days, to call a book ‘the gospel of …’ was to make it a best-seller, just as the word ‘code’ does today (as in The Da Vinci code, The Bible code, The Genesis code etc.). But this does not make it a missing part of Scripture.
To claim that because Matthew says more about Judas than Mark, this somehow reveals a growing tradition against him is very weak. The Gospels are not identical and they explore different themes. It was important for Matthew, writing principally for Jews, to show how Judas fulfilled the role of betrayer, just as Judah (one of the twelve brothers) had betrayed Joseph centuries before. This pictured the Jews of his day, who likewise refused to hear and believe, as predicted.
Yet for all that, what man meant for harm, God worked together for good – a theme often brought out in the preaching in Acts and the New Testament generally.
The New Testament builds upon the Old
The Christian ideas of the New Testament do not appear in a theological vacuum – they are built on the foundation of the Old. With a grasp of the Old Testament, you can clearly see that the ‘gospel of Judas’ has a radically different view of who God is – and even who man is.
By contrast, the four New Testament Gospels are founded on, and grow out of, Old Testament theology – encompassing also the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy and pattern. Such writings as the Judas manuscript were labelled heretical because they clearly contradicted what was already revealed by God.
Almost every theological or philosophical error of the following centuries was present in the New Testament era and the Apostles addressed them in their letters. 1 Corinthians 15 alone, written over 100 years before Irenaeus lived, is sufficient to determine that the ‘gospel of Judas’ is in error – not on Irenaeus’ authority, but on Paul’s.
We often fail to see how Jewish Christianity is. After all, what is Christianity? Is it a brand new religion which developed in first-century Palestine, or is it the direct fulfilment of the Messianic promises given to Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David – and predicted in the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets?
What became known as Christianity could have been called ‘New Covenant Judaism’. After all, what is Christianity other than the fulfilment in the person and work of Christ of the covenant made with Abraham, as Jeremiah promised?
The gospel message was at first a verbal tradition, but one that drew upon the existing Old Testament for its foundation and validation. With that in mind, it becomes easier to see which writings bore the hallmark of truth and were received and used by the churches.
They were the writings of the Apostles themselves, or of close witnesses – writings that are Christ-centred and at one with the existing revelation of God in the Old Testament.
The real mystery revealed
But to conclude – what of mystery? People like the idea of mystery, things hidden and unknown but now revealed. The reality is that the Bible does contain a mystery, which is now revealed but sadly missed by many.
In fact there are a number of secrets hidden and buried in the Old Testament, and brought to life and light by Christ in the New. They principally concern the person of God and of Christ, and the nature of his church and kingdom.
Paul describes it as ‘the mystery of Christ which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to his holy apostles and prophets’ (Ephesians 3:4-5). Again in Colossians 1:27 he writes of ‘the glory of this mystery … which is Christ in you the hope of glory’.
Surely, this revealed secret is much more worthy of investigation, through the reading and understanding of the New Testament! The reward for doing so is the gift of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ, to whom the Scriptures continually point us (2 Timothy 3:15).
Judas’ betrayal and the crucifixion to which it led remain no accident. Christ had predicted it enough times and so had the prophets before him. As John the Baptist cried in words which resonate with Old Testament concepts, Jesus Christ is ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’ (John 1:29).