The Gospel of Judas: New light on Christian origins – N.S. Rajaram

Dr. N.S. RajaramWhy are these momentous findings of Christian historical scholarship little discussed in India when the media is willing to give space to discredited Jesus lived in India stories and proven fakes like the Shroud of Turin? Is it because the English-language media is dominated by a convent-educated elite that doesn’t want to report controversial findings? Or do Indian churches and their leaders still see themselves as serving colonial masters and have no tradition of critical Biblical scholarship?” – Dr. N.S. Rajaram

Judas IscariotThere has been a revolution in Biblical scholarship beginning with the discovery of the Gnostic Gospels at Nag Hammadi in Egypt and the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran in Israel, both in the years following the Second World War. But Church leaders in India have kept their followers in ignorance of all this while continuing to peddle discredited stories like the St Thomas Myth and other pre-enlightenment falsehoods like accusing the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus. The reasons for this are twofold: (1) the abysmal state of Biblical scholarship in India; and (2) the low opinion of Indian Christians among Western scholars — a holdover from the colonial era. Many of them still see Indian Christians as second class Christians who blindly follow whatever they are told and incapable of appreciating scholarly research. Here is an example of what Biblical scholarship has exposed.

For nearly two thousand years, Judas Iscariot has been reviled as the archetypical betrayer for which the Jews have been made to pay a terrible price. A recently discovered ancient text known as the Gospel of Judas gives a radically different picture: Judas, far from being a traitor was Jesus’s closest disciple to whom, and to whom alone, Jesus entrusted the most important task needed to fulfil his mission on earth — to die for the sins of mankind. In handing Jesus over to the Romans, Judas was doing exactly what his master ordered him to do. Without it, and the crucifixion that followed, there would be no Christianity.

Elaine PagelsThis is the dramatic, not to say shocking message of the Gospel of Judas, one of the forty-odd gospels that were in circulation during the first four centuries of Christianity. This is described in fascinating detail in Reading Judas by Elaine Pagels and Karen King, two of the world’s greatest biblical scholars. It is accessible to the general reader though one is helped by some familiarity with recent biblical discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Manuscripts.

Karen  KingI will discuss the Dead Sea Scrolls (known in scholarly circles as the Qumran texts) in a later article, but here we shall be looking at one of the more remarkable of the Nag Hammadi finds, the Gospel of Judas. The story of its discovery is no less dramatic than what it has to say — though not quite so dramatic as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls also. Here it is in brief.

Nag Hammadi (meaning ‘geese grazing grounds’) is a small town in Egypt located on the west bank of the Nile about 80 kilometers north-west of Luxor. It was established by Mahmoud Pasha Hammadi, who was a member of the Hammadi family in Sohag, Egypt. Mahmoud Pasha Hammadi created Nag Hammadi for the indigenous people from Sohag who were forced to abandon their homeland by the British occupation. In recognition of this, the new town was given the name Hammadi.

Gospel of JudasIn December 1945, some local farmers discovered a sealed earthenware jar containing thirteen leather-bound papyrus manuscripts, along with loose pages torn from another book. One of the books was burnt as fuel by their mother who obviously did not know their value. The writings in these texts, known as codices, date back to the 2nd century AD. The contents of the Coptic-bound codices were written in Coptic, though the works were probably all translations from Greek. The Nag Hammadi codices contain the only complete copy of the Gospel of Thomas as well as a copy of the Gospel of Judas.

The Gospel of Judas was acquired by the Maecenas Foundation of Geneva, Switzerland where they now reside. The president of the Maecenas Foundation, Mario Roberty, suggested the possibility that the Maecenas Foundation had acquired not the only extant copy of the Gospel, but rather the only “known” copy. Roberty went on to make the suggestion that the Vatican probably had another copy locked away. As he put it:

Mario Roberty“In those days the Church decided for political reasons to include the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in the Bible. The other gospels were banned. It is highly logical that the Catholic Church would have kept a copy of the forbidden gospels. Sadly, the Vatican does not want to clarify further. Their policy has been the same for years. No further comment.”

Roberty provided no evidence to suggest that the Vatican does, in fact, possess any additional copy. But there is a problem — the Vatican’s secrecy about its holdings. While the contents of one part of the Vatican library have been catalogued and have long been available to researchers and scholars, the remainder of the library, however, has no public catalogue. Vatican says that researchers may view any work within, but they must first name the text they require. This is impossible for those who do not know what is contained by the secret library! The Gospel of Judas may well be one of them, but we don’t know. So it had to be pieced together by Biblical scholars from fragments found at Nag Hammadi.

Judas is radically different from the gospels in the New Testament we are familiar with. The standardization of the New Testament with its four canonical gospels that we know today — of Mark, Luke, Matthew and John — took place in the fourth century. This, as scholars including Pagels and King point out had the effect of lowering the message from a spiritual to a material plane with the story of Jesus’s body escaping from the grave with a resurrected body. To a non-believer or a scientifically informed person, this supposed miracle seems absurd. But it remains the foundation of Christian belief.

St. ThomasThe Gospel of Judas, along with its companion Gospel of Thomas belongs to the category of early Christian texts knows as Gnostic. (Thomas was Jesus’s twin brother [according to the Acts of Thomas], so who was the Only Son of God?) The word ‘Gnostic’ is derived from the Greek gnosis — cognate to the Sanskrit ‘gnana’ (or jnana) — meaning spiritual knowledge. According to Lost Christianities by Bart Ehrman there were “Christians who… believed in one God. But there were others who insisted there were two. Some said there were thirty. Others said there were 365.”

A remarkable feature about the Gnostic Gospels is that they seem to have borrowed heavily from Hindu and Buddhist practices. This is easy to understand considering that Persia was then under the Arsacids or the Parthians. They served as the link between the Indian and the Roman worlds. This is now a major area of research, but not in India.

John Marco AllegroTo give an idea of how diverse early Christianity was, some said that Jesus never died, while some others claimed he was never born meaning Jesus was a fictional character. This is the view also of several modern scholars who have studied the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially Robert Eisenman and John Allegro. John Allegro, a very famous Biblical scholar wrote: “I would suggest that many incidents [in the Gospels] are merely projections into Jesus’s own history of what was expected of the Messiah.” In other words, Jesus was a fictional character created to project some religious ideas. (We will have occasion to look at Allegro and his work relating to the Dead Sea Scrolls in a future article.)

Allegro was persecuted and hounded out by Church authorities for expressing such views. It was no different nearly two thousand years ago. The key figure in suppressing texts which “encourage believers to seek God within themselves with no mention of churches, let alone clergy” was Irenaeus, a Syrian theologian who was the bishop of Lyon. He is particularly harsh on Judas with his claim of having received secret knowledge (gnosis) as the favored disciple of Jesus. It was the claim also of Mary Magdalene in her Gospel. Yes, there is a Gospel of Mary Magdalene also. It was discovered as far back as 1896, but have Christians in India been told about it?

St. Irenaeus of LyonIrenaeus’s program was to suppress diversity and impose total uniformity of belief and practices. As Pagels observes “the teachings Irenaeus labelled as ‘orthodox’ tend to be those that helped him and other bishops consolidate scattered groups of Jesus’s followers into what he and other bishops envisioned as a single, united organization they called the ‘catholic (universal) church.’ The diverse range … they denounced as ‘heresy’… could be antithetical to the consolidation of the church under the bishops’ authority.”

One can see that the overriding concern of the early Church fathers was exercising political control over the followers. Irenaeus’s program was taken a major step forward in the fourth century by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria. He fixed the New Testament substantially in the form we have it today by selecting four gospels out of more than forty then known, and assigning them to Mark, Luke, Matthew and John.

St. AthanasiusAthanasius’s theological consolidation of Christianity was paralleled by political consolidation. At the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, persuaded Emperor Constantine to extend protection to this version of Christianity or Nicene Christianity. Armed with this power, it was a relatively easy matter for Eusebius, Athanasius and others to suppress the Gnostics and other competing versions of Christianity. Church dominance became complete when Theodosius in 391 AD declared Nicene Christianity the only legitimate religion in the Roman Empire.

Why are these momentous findings little discussed in India when the media is willing to give space to discredited Jesus lived in India stories and proven fakes like the Shroud of Turin? Is it because the English-language media is dominated by a convent-educated elite that doesn’t want to report controversial findings? Or do Indian churches and their leaders still see themselves as serving colonial masters and have no tradition of critical Biblical scholarship? By doing so they have yielded the space to politico-religious entrepreneurs like John Dayal and outright charlatans like Valson Thampu (principal of St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi). Fortunately, Biblical scholars in the West, like Pagels, King, Allegro, Eisenman and a host of others have not allowed their beliefs to come in the way of truth even though most of them belong to the Christian faith. – Folks Magazine, 27 June 2012

» N.S. Rajaram is the author of The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Crisis of Christianity.

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