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ARCHIVE: The Da Vinci Code, Gnosticism and the Gospel of Judas

1. The Da Vinci Code: A Christian Response
2. The Nag Hammadi Documents and Gnosticism
3. The Gospel of Judas
4. The Gospel of Judas - A Retake
5. Teachings in the Gospel of Judas Compared (Part 1)
6. Teachings in the Gospel of Judas Compared (Part 2)
7. Teachings in the Gospel of Judas Compared (Part 3)
8. Canonicity and the Gospel of Judas



by Ong Kok Bin

Around the Easter season, an astonishing announcement was made upon the world. A ‘new gospel’ was discovered - the Gospel of Judas (though, the existence of this Gospel, but not its contents, was first announced in 2004). Those who were in the know claimed that this Gospel of Judas gave an alternative view which challenged the traditional Christian teaching on the person of Judas Iscariot and his relationship with his master, Jesus Christ. According to this view, Judas Iscariot was not the traitor that the biblical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and mainstream Christianity have made him out to be. Instead, he was the ‘hero’, ‘the good guy’, ‘the only apostle who understands Jesus’, who facilitated in the death of Jesus in accordance with Jesus’ own wish (and command to Judas). Jesus desired to die because he needed to free his spirit from further entrapment in his corrupt material body. In the Judas Gospel, Jesus is reportedly to have said to Judas: ‘You will exceed all of them (i.e., the other apostles) for you will sacrifice the man who clothes me’.

What are we Christians to make of the Gospel of Judas? And, how are we to respond to this revelation of ‘an alternative view’? It needs be noted at this point that this ‘alternative view’ does not only encompass the character of Judas Iscariot, but, and the more significant, it also challenges traditional Christian claims relative to (1) the personhood of Jesus Christ, his divinity and humanity, (2) the redemptive purpose of his death and (3) the promissory victory of his resurrection for all of his believers. For, the Gospel of Judas ends with Jesus’ death but not his resurrection.

According to one account, the manuscript (now known as Codex Tchacos) containing the Gospel of Judas was first uncovered at Muhafazat al Minya in Egypt sometime in the 1950s or 60s. Its discoverer, whoever he was, sold it to an antiquities dealer in Cairo who went by the name of Hanna. However, in or about 1970, a Greek trader stole it (together with other ancient Egyptian artefacts) and smuggled it into Geneva, Switzerland. The dealer, Hanna, was resourceful enough to retrieve his manuscript back. Then, in May 1983, he offered it to one Stephen Emmel (representing the Southern Methodist University) and two others in a hotel room in Geneva in hope of selling it for US$3 million. However, Emmel and his two friends could not match the asking price. Deeply disappointed, Hanna deposited the manuscript in a safe deposit box in a bank vault in New York, U.S.A., where it further deteriorated in the dryness of the box. Eventually, it came to the notice of another antiquities dealer by the name of Frieda Nussberger Tchacos (hence the name of the codex) and found its way to its eventual purchaser and owner, the Maecenas Foundation in Basel, Switzerland.

In July 2004, in Paris, at a conference of Coptic specialists, the existence of the manuscript in codex form was made public by Professor Rodolphe Kasser, a top Coptic scholar. Kasser revealed at the conference that the codex was written in the same Coptic dialect in which the Coptic texts of the Nag Hammadi Library were written. Further, the codex contained four different works, among which was the Gospel of Judas.

On April 6, 2006, the National Geographic Society announced, in Washington, D.C., the Gospel of Judas to the world - its restoration and translation completed. Three days later, the Society aired a special: The Gospel of Judas on its National Geographic Channel.

National Geographic hailed the codex as ‘the most significant ancient, non-biblical text’ to be discovered since the Dead Sea Scrolls. In its documentary special, The Gospel of Judas, the narrator, with unfeigned enthusiasm, described the Gospel as ‘incredible’ and ‘unbelievable’ - not to discredit - but to lift up the Gospel of Judas as an astonishing revelation that would revolutionize the way people perceive Jesus Christ, Judas Iscariot, the other apostles and Christianity as a whole, which in turn would lead to a ‘crisis of faith’. He (the narrator) asked: ‘How could someone write a gospel like Judas?’ ‘The betrayer becomes a hero ... and Jesus Christ arranges his own execution.’

Freida Nussberger Tchacos, the dealer who was instrumental in ‘resurrecting’ the Gospel of Judas from its safe deposit grave in the bank vault in New York, kind of bubbly enthused in the same documentary that, perhaps, she was ‘chosen by Judas to rehabilitate him’. She added, ‘I felt I had a mission.’

From what has been revealed to the public, the Gospel of Judas belongs to the same genre of Gnostic literature as the apocryphal texts of the Nag Hammadi Library (NHL). It has been described as having ‘an uncanny resemblance’ and ‘striking similarities’ to the Gospels of the NHL The ‘names’, the ‘basic worldview’ all indicate the ‘same religious movement’, viz., the Gnostics. Further, two other texts in the Codex Tchacos, the Letter of Peter to Philip and the Apocalypse of James are also found in the NHL. In all likelihood, the Gospel of Judas came from the same school of theosophical professors, that is, Gnostic Christians, who also produced the Nag Hammadi Apocrypha.

That the document is ancient is not disputed. Textual analysis has revealed it to be most probably a translation of an older piece of Greek work of about 130-180 A.D. Carbon-14 dating puts its age as being from the third to the fourth century A.D. More precisely, it has been dated at around 240 A.D. (with an error margin of 50 years both ways). However, the claim that the Judas Gospel ‘will rank among the greatest finds from Christian antiquity’ or that it is ‘the most important archaeological discovery of the past 60 years’ is sheer media hype. As to the further claim that it will ‘open up new vistas for understanding Jesus and the religious movement he founded’, this has to stand the test of time. In all probability (and this is understating), it will be a dud prophecy.

The force behind the boisterous hype surrounding the Gospel of Judas (and The Da Vinci Code) is the allegation that the historical church had not been truthful at all concerning the relationships of Jesus with Judas as in the Judas Gospel (and Jesus with Mary Magdalene as in the Code). To say that this is revisionist, is to give too much credence to those making the allegation. Yet, Christians need to take the ‘bull by its horns’ (look for the pun on the idiom) and meet the allegation head on.

I would like to use an illustration to make my case. It is the year 3045. Somewhere in a man forsaken island, an adventurer discovers a very old and tattered book. He takes out his C-14 test kit, nips a wee piece of non-text paper from the book, puts it into the test kit, and lo, and behold, the date appears as 2006 give and take five years both ways. Excitedly, he brings the book to his world-renowned historian and linguist friend, Professor Overachief. The ‘Prof’ makes a very careful and thorough examination of the book and pronounces it to be written in Kanji. A few days later, the Napon Greater Society buys the publishing rights to the book and quickly calls for a press conference and announces to the world: A discovery of earth shaking proportions has been made. Japan did not invade China or other Asian countries. Instead, Japan was the liberator. The Rape of Nanking and the Death Railway did not happen as told in the mainstream history books. It was all a cover-up and a conspiracy to pin the blame on Japan. With this book, new vistas for understanding the Second World War and the heroic efforts of Imperial Japan have been opened up.

I hope you see my point in the illustration. Are there any texts extant providing alternative views to the Second World War - in particular, the role of Japan in Asia? Well, you will say, ‘Yes’ - for you know very well that there are certain extreme right-wing Japanese who are insisting that Japan is not the aggressor that is portrayed in the history books and they have produced books themselves to give their version of Japan’s role in WWII. Which books are historically truthful? And which are not? You be the judge.

We now know that there is a Gospel of Judas. We know that there was - for Irenaeus had written about a work of the Cainite Gnostics who revered some of the less worthy characters in the Old Testament:

     They [the Cainites] claim that the betrayer Judas was well informed of all these things, and that
     he, knowing the truth as none other, brought about the mystery of the betrayal ... they produced a
     spurious account of this sort, which they call the Gospel of Judas.
- in Against Heresies

Does the discovery of this Gospel of Judas entail a ‘cover-up’ and a need for us to revise our views of Judas? You be the judge.

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