Monday, April 10, 2006

The Gospel of Judas-- the NPR Discussion

For any of you listening to "On Point" this morning on NPR, which involved host Tom Asher, myself, Karen King of Harvard, and Marvin Meyer of Chapman U. one of the translators of the Gospel of Judas, several new things came to light.

First of all Professor Meyer admitted that we have absolutely no Greek fragments of this Gospel at all. His argument is that the use of Greek loan words in the Coptic text of the Gospel of Judas demonstrates that there "must have been a Greek original" behind this Coptic text. This is in no way a convincing argument on two counts: 1) there are various Latin loan words in the NT, and this certainly in no way would ever lead us to think there were putative Latin originals of these Gospels; 2) Coptic is a language already heavily dependent on Greek, and no only in regard to its alphabet. It is a language that tries to draw on the benefits of the harvest of Hellenism, including on its language.

Greek had long been the lingua franca of the Hellenistic and then Roman Empires centuries before the Gospel of Judas was ever written. Greek heavily influenced languages like Coptic, and one of the residues of such influence is loan words. No, we would have to have clear evidence of 'Greek interference' in this Coptic text--- by which I mean clear evidence in the grammar, syntax etc. that the author is translating from a Greek original before we could draw such a conclusion. As things stand, Meyer is overreading the evidence we have and wishing for there to have been a Greek version of this text. This may be nothing more than wishful thinking.

The second important thing which this conversation on NPR brought to light, was stressed by Professor King, and rightly so. This document is not likely to help the cause of those who despise anti-Semitism, and all three of the scholars on this program would agree in finding such an attitude reprehensible, because this document has various passages which reflect anti-Semitic views of various sorts.

King is perfectly right to say that while Judas may get a bit of a reprieve in this document, other Jews certainly do not. It makes one wonder why anyone like Professor Meyer would hope that this document would promote more tolerance, or would think that it might achieve such an aim, given some of the polemical content of the document itself. Taken on face value the Gospel of Judas does not promote the feminist agendas of Professor King or the tolerance agendas of Professor Meyer.

Nor, I would reiterate once more, does this document in any way change our views of the historical Jesus or Judas, because this document has no claims at all to be in touch with any first century persons. Unlike the NT which was all written by Jews, with the possible exception of Luke-Acts and all written in the first century A.D., this Gnostic document like the Gospel of Mary and Philip and others are written by persons who surely are not Jews, and indeed don't much like Judaism and its creation theology, and are writing at various steps of remove from the NT period, and with a Gnostic philosophy that is in fact antithetical to much of what the NT says about a whole host of subjects such as history, eschatology, creation,the value of the OT to mention but four subjects.

When all the hype dies down, what we will be left with is further evidence of an interesting split off movement from early Christianity which began in the second century A.D. and was tolerated for two centuries by the church until the church fathers and mothers had heard quite enough of these fairy tales. In short, it helps us understand post apostolic and Nicene church history better, it tells us nothing about the origins of Christianity or the historical Jesus.


The Ole '55 said...

As I read the text of the document, I too thought that it would be a favorite of anti-semites. The Jewishness of the gospel has completely disappeared.

Thanks for the great analysis on whether this is mid-2d or early-4th century material.

Questing Parson said...

Thank you for these illuminating reflections on this current topic of conversation. This is a big help.

Fr. John Whiteford said...

The shame of the format of this show was that you had one conservative guest who knew what he was talking about, two liberal scholars with fairly far out views, a talk show host who didn't have a clue, and a bunch of wine and cheese liberal callers who had even less of a clue. Thanks to Dr. Witherington for holding up the Lord's side of the debate... but it was an incredibly stacked deck.

RC said...

Interesting...I don't know that I'd thought of this as adding in historical understanding of the 2nd century.

--RC of

Ed Brenegar said...

Ben, you write:
"When all the hype dies down, what we will be left with is further evidence of an interesting split off movement from early Christianity which began in the second century A.D. and was tolerated for two centuries by the church until the church fathers and mothers had heard quite enough of these fairy tales."
What fascinates me is not ancient Gnosticism, but its appeal to modern people. The resurgence of not just interest in Gnosticism, but the elements that make up Gnosticism that have emerged in the life of the church. The spiritual esotericism that can be found from left to right. The appeal of Gnosticism is that it allows for a self-authenticated spirituality. Perfect for a modern narcissistic culture. The fairy tales persist. Where people lack a spirituality rooted in the real world, they lack the affirmation of God's love and grace functioning in the real world. How sad it is to believe and never have assurance because one's faith remains an esoteric, personal faith disconnected from life.

Ben Witherington said...

All I can say Ed, is that you are soooooooo right---

preach it.


Dan McGowan said...

wait a moment - so we should NOT rely on the authenticity of the Gospel of Judas and, thereby, totally reconstruct our doctrine? Phew!

Hepzibah The Watchman said...

From what I have read of the Gospel of Judas, I am not sure whether Jesus charged Judas to turn him over or if Jesus was stating a prophecy or foreknowledge of what Judas was about to do.

We can never correctly determine te heart or intent of another person - we are only limited to assumptions based on their actions.

The Gospels indicate that Judas hung himself after Jesus' death. My assumption - he was not thrilled wtih the results of his actions.

Phil said...

I'd like to hear this. Is it archived on NPR's site?


Phil said...

I actually found it.

Gospel of Judas on On Point

C.P.O. said...

The way the media plays this stuff up is unbelievable. If they had a clue how worthless these gnostic writings are for anything but understanding the gnostic movement itself, we wouldn't be hearing about this thing at all.

Jeremy Pierce said...

I'm curious about what you mean with respect to the anti-semitic elements. Are you saying that the Gospel of Judas is anti-semitic in a way that the canonical gospels are not? I gather that you don't accept the claims of many scholars who claim that the internal criticism of Jesus and his followers of their fellow Jews counts as anti-semitism. So I'm wondering if this is just a further development in the direction that isn't really anti-semitism but that scholars have pretended is anti-semitism or if you think there's real anti-semitism in a way that the canonical gospels don't have it? I'd be reluctant to consider it anti-semitic simply to have said some things that Jews didn't agree with, but that's all you mention here. If it can be established that the motivation was hatred of Jews, then I could see it, but simply having a different cosmology from the Hebrew one doesn't seem to me in itself to be anti-semitic.

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

Your critique of the argument for a Greek original based on Greek loan words illustrates the silly and irresponsible treatment of the linguistic evidence we often see employed by those who have some agenda to promote which has nothing whatsoever to do with to text under discussion.

Along this line it is also amazing that anti-Semitism and feminism should be topics of interest when discussing an ancient text. Who cares if the "gnostics" were proto-Nazis or their views on "gender" issues? This importation of late 20th century ideological categories into a discussion of an ancient text is an earmark of the worst sort of scholarship. David Irving was at one time a better historian than a great host of New Testament "experts" of the kind that show up on NPR programs. And David Irving the last I heard is doing time in an Austrian prison for airing his views 20 years ago.

Perhaps we should start putting New Testament scholars in prison for their ideological treatment of the scriptures. Seems only fair that they should do some hard time for being propaganda mongers.