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.

Unfortunately, this picture is wildly misleading at almost every point. The most important point is that all gospels are not created equal. Some have more historical credibility than others, more claim to provide an accurate and nearly contemporary picture of the time of Jesus and his first followers. Among the various competitors, the four canonical gospels have no serious rivals. All were in place in substantially their modern form by around 100 C.E., and all describe historical settings firmly rooted in the first century. By contrast, the vast majority of Gnostic gospels were composed after 150 C.E., and many as late as 250.

  Gnostic gospels also differ from the Big Four in their lack of interest in historical setting and background. In the Gnostic gospels, Jesus, Judas, Peter, and Mary Magdalene are not even historical characters, but have become mere mouthpieces for spiritual truths—so it is ridiculous to suggest that the "Gospel of Judas" sheds any light on the actual Judas or his motives.

Also dubious are the claims made for the supposed startling or revolutionary qualities of the "Gospel of Judas." Nothing in it—in tone, content, or substance—differs significantly from any one of dozens of Gnostic texts whose contents we have known since at least the 19th century, with the publication of works such as the Pistis Sophia, a second- or third-century text recording a prolonged conversation between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. To appreciate just how much non-specialists already knew about the Gnostics and their worldview, look at a best-selling popular guide like the "Apocryphal New Testament" of M. R. James (1924), or read Robert Graves' spectacular fantasy novel, "King Jesus" (1946). And both were written long before the Nag Hammadi material became available, or indeed before the discovery of the "Gospel of Judas."

Furthermore, contrary to what Pagels and others imply, scholars have realized for more than a century that early Christianity was kaleidoscopically diverse and that many weird and wonderful scriptures circulated. As early as 1893, E. J. Dillon wrote: "Nowadays, no impartial critic, or even enlightened theologian, holds to the once general belief that the four gospels of the Christian canon either headed the list of written narratives of the living and working of Jesus, or absorbed the vast mass of tradition which speedily gathered around his name."

In short, the "Gospel of Judas" tells us nothing about the historical Jesus or Judas; it adds next to nothing to our knowledge of early Gnosticism or of sectarian Christianity; and it actually adds very little indeed that was not already known from texts published a century or more ago. And this is "one of the greatest historical discoveries of the twentieth century"?

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