All Gospels Are Not Created Equal

The 'Gospel of Judas' tells us nothing about the historical Jesus or Judas. Why the furor?

On April 6, the National Geographic Society published an English translation of the long-anticipated "lost" "Gospel of Judas," a Coptic text on papyrus dug out of the Egyptian desert.

The release of this Gnostic text that makes a sympathetic figure out of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, has generated a furor of excitement. Bart Ehrman, author of the best-selling "Misquoting Jesus," called the gospel "one of the greatest historical discoveries of the twentieth century." A headline in The Washington Post declared: "Ancient 'Gospel of Judas' Translation Sheds New Light on Disciple." The New York Times quotes a claim by Elaine Pagels, author of "The Gnostic Gospels," that the discovery of the Judas Gospel and related Gnostic texts "are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion, and demonstrating how diverse—and fascinating—the early Christian movement really was."

But readers who scan the "Gospel of Judas" might wonder what the fuss is all about. The 24-page gospel consists mostly of a long conversation between Jesus and Judas. Like most Gnostic texts of the second-century C.E. (which is when the original of the Judas Gospel was probably written in Greek), Jesus talks about many different Gnostic deities and angels. It seems that Judas is the only one of the 12 disciples Jesus deems worthy of imparting this secret knowledge to. Jesus then asks Judas to betray him so that his mortal body will be killed and he can rejoin the spiritual world. Judas agrees and goes to the high priests to betray Jesus: That's the end of the gospel.

The reason that many scholars and members of the press have characterized this ho-hum Gnostic document as a momentous leap in our understanding is that it fits in with their model of early Christian history as a battle between competing understandings of who Jesus was. The Christians who called themselves "orthodox" had the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John that appear in today's New Testament. Other Christians, including the Gnostics, had their own gospels, but neither the orthodox nor the Gnostics had truer insights into Jesus. The orthodox just happened to win the battle.


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