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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

The dramatic appearance of the Gospel of Judas in April raised certain questions about the Bible, especially for those who are not too familiar with how the Christian text came to be. In particular, these people were troubled by the notion that the Christian Bible, as we know it today, may not have included all the Gospels (and/or all the other writings) that had been written in the early part of the formation of the church. This is not to mention the radical difference in the nature and content of the Gospel of Judas. At issue is the question: Do we have the complete Word of God in the Bible? A corollary question is: Do we need to add to the Bible books as and when they are discovered? Both of these questions have to do with a subject known as canonicity. But before we discuss this, we shall deal with the word ‘gospel’ since its very appearance in the title of the much-hyped book, the Gospel of Judas, is most probably the source of much confusion to many a Christian.

The Word ‘Gospel’ (euangelion)
The English word, gospel, which stands for ‘good news’, translates the Greek euangelion, which is a derivation of either the noun angelos (‘messenger’) or the verb angello (‘to announce’). In its general usage, euangelion means: either (1) the reward received by the messenger of the good news of victory; or, (2) the message itself, which can be a message of victory or a political or private message which brings joy. However, the word is also used in a religious sense in connection with the Roman imperial cult - particularly, in oracles containing ‘news of the divine ruler’s birth, coming of age, or enthronement, and also his speeches, decrees and acts’, which are ‘glad tidings...for happiness and peace’. Thus a decree c. 9 B.C. marking the birthday of the emperor Augustus reads as follows:

      It is a day which we may justly count as equivalent to the beginning of everything - if not in itself
      and in its own nature... - inasmuch as it has restored the shape of everything that was failing
      and turning into misfortune... and whereas the birthday of the God [Augustus] was the beginning
      for the world of the glad tidings [in the Greek the ‘Evangel’] that have come through him...

      (The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 2, Ed. Colin Brown, 108)

What was a word for the Greeks, came to be a term loaded with its own significance for the new religious movement of the first century - the Christian movement. However, the early Christians did not claim any exclusive right to this borrowed word euangelion. Others, who had pretences of association with the name Christ, also laid their hands (or rather, pen) on the word; thus, the Gospel of Judas and so forth.

From the foregoing, Christians should not be too troubled if there are further appearances of other Gospels. The word ‘gospel’ is not an exclusive word owned by Christians. Rather, it is common property - available to anyone who may want to use it in any way he deems fit. However, to us Christians, ‘gospel’ will always refer to the good news of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; and in a secondary way, to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which respectively and collectively, tell us the story of this Jesus, the Emmanuel, who lived and died as a man to take away the sins of the world.

The Canon of the Bible
The word ‘canon’ is an English transliteration of the Greek ‘kanon’, which essentially means a reed. But a reed was sometimes used as a measuring rod and thus, derivatively, kanon also came to mean a standard or a rule. Thus, when we speak of the canonicity of the Bible or the Scripture, we are referring to the criteria or standards by which a book or a work is admitted to the list of books that form the Bible. These criteria include: (1) apostolic authority, (2) inspiration, (3) general assent, (4) orthodoxy, and (5) antiquity.

Apostolic Authority The notion of apostolic authority in the canon of Scripture arises from the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ left no written material of his teachings himself. The recourse then is to the writings of the apostles and those other disciples who were nearest to him in time and space. Thus, among the apostles who had produced works which inform on church doctrine and regulation were Paul and Peter. As they readily identified themselves in their writings, their letters were circulated and read in the churches and accepted as normative and authoritative. Other works which were anonymous encountered some initial difficulties but because of their content and the early attestation to their apostolic origination, were also universally accepted. Thus, it was in this way that the four Gospels came to possess apostolic authority. Others like James and Jude, because of their authors’ earthly consanguinity with the Lord, also had their writings accepted as having authority.

Inspiration This refers to the notion that the writings as represented in the Scriptures were not the mere effort of human intellect or imagination, but the result of the Holy Spirit working through the hands of the prophets, apostles and other faithful men. As Paul puts it in 2 Timothy 3:16, ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’. Though ‘Scripture’ in this particular text refers to the writings of the Old Testament, the same belief of ‘God-breathedness’ or ‘God-inspiredness’ was extended to the writings of the New Testament which possessed apostolic authority. Peter, in an indirect fashion, alluded to the writings of Paul as ‘Scripture’, thus, ‘God-breathed’ (2 Peter 3:15-16).

General Assent The canon of the Scriptures is not decided by a single body of people or closed council but is the result of the general assent of the faithful at large. In the initial years of the formation of the New Testament canon, certain books were commonly accepted without ado; but others were not. Books like Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, Jude, 2 & 3 John and Revelation were called into question. Their places in the canon were only assured after they had each overcome early resistance and doubts. It was not until A.D. 367, that the list of 27 books in the New Testament as we know it now was published by Athanasius.

Orthodoxy and Antiquity These are closely related to apostolic authority. Orthodoxy means the apostolic faith. Writings which departed from the apostolic teaching would be deemed non-authoritative and thus excluded from the canon. Antiquity refers to the closeness in time of a writing to the apostolic age. Thus, a work like the Shepherd of Hermas was excluded because it was too far removed from the time of the apostles.

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