Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Gospel of Judas--- Part Two

I was on the phone yesterday with my close friend Dr. A.J. Levine who teaches at Vanderbilt Div. School. She was called in late in the game to give a bit more balance to the group of scholars unveiling the Gospel of Judas. I asked her point blank: " Well A.J. is this document of any importance at all in helping us understand the historical Jesus or the historical Judas and their relationship?" She said unequivocally--- "none whatsoever". In other words, we need to all have our baloney detection meters set to 'heightened alert' as we watch the special on the Gospel of Judas tonight. While this document will tell us more about the split off movement called Gnosticism, and so is of considerable interest as we learn more about church history in the period from the late 2nd century through the fourth century, it tells us nothing about the origins of Christianity or the beginnings of the Jesus movement.

But there is more. I asked A.J. about whether there was in her view any hard evidence that this document existed in Greek, or does it first appear in Coptic. We discussed the evidence from Irenaeus. As she reminded me, the way Irenaeus describes the content of the Gospel of Judas that he knows, it has very different content from this Coptic Gospel of Judas which we are now being regaled with. In other words, it is not at all clear that this Coptic Judas document is the same document referred to by Irenaeus. This needs to be demonstrated, not assumed to be the case. I would just add that it is perfectly possible that the document Irenaeus knows became a source for this later Coptic document, which again does not date, by carbon dating to before the beginning of the 4th century A.D. This places the Coptic Gospel of Judas at even a further remove from the first century A.D. and its documents. It is entirely possible that the Gospel of Judas we now have is not the original document created by the Cainite Gnostics that Irenaeus knows and speaks of.

A.J. was also in agreement with me that this document has no material which could or should shake the faith of Christians in what is said in the NT about Jesus and Judas for the very good reason that it comes from a much later source, and one that not even its advocates are really suggesting is written by the historical Judas. In fact it is just another example of the phenomenon known as pseudonymity--- documents with falsely attributed authors--- other such examples are the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, The Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip and so on.

Pseudonymity was a practice of those who did not have enough authority themselves to create sacred texts and so borrowed the name of an earlier illustrious or in this case notorious figure to create the air of an authentic eyewitness document. It needs to be said that this practice was very clearly denounced not only by church fathers like Tertullian and Ireneaus and Hippolytus who tell us about monks and priests being defrocked for dreaming up such documents, but in the wider Greco-Roman world there were plenty of persons who deplored this practice and saw it as a form of deception and fraud. For example, Cicero and Quintilian both complain about people creating documents in their name which they had nothing to do with. There was indeed a moral issue with such documents, then as now. It was not an 'acceptable literary practice of that era' as some might lead you to believe. I have much more to say on this subject, and you will find it in the Introduction to my Letters and Homilies of the NT Vol. 1 on the Pastorals and Johannine Epistles. It is my view that we do not have any such documents in the NT--- all of them are written by persons connected directly or indirectly with eyewitnesses and apostolic figures of the first century. But more on this later.

For those interested, it would serve you well to listen to all the sound clips on the National Geographic Gospel of Judas website about the Gospel of Judas. Evans is a Canadian scholar widely known for his excellent work and temperate approach to sensational claims. He reflects the mainstream of NT scholarship far more than Pagels, Meyer, or Ehrman.

In my opinion, of the three great supposed 'revelations' of this season, the one to pay the most attention to is James Tabor's work "The Jesus Dynasty" which argues for a messianic Jesus who set up a family dynasty. I will be posting a full critique of it later this week. In the meantime, watch the National Geographic Special with a critical eye, and the baloney detection meter fully operational.


Ben Witherington said...

He would see Jesus as one amongst various messianic pretenders, only he would say Jesus' teaching stands out and makes him special.


Scot McKnight said...

I agree with all your comments, except that I think there is pretty solid evidence the GJ is the text mentioned by Irenaeus (there is no evidence he actually read it, but his summary fits the GJ). Wurst's chp in the NG volume is pretty good.

Here's what Irenaeus says:
1. Judas was acquainted with the tradition of opponents of the tradition being right.
2. Judas knows about this Wisdom.
3. Judas alone was acquainted with these things perfectly fits what GJ says about Judas; several times Jesus takes him aside as one special.
4. Judas did accomplish the mystery of the betrayal in GJ.
5. The dissolution of the earthly and heavenly is what Scene 3 is about in GJ.

There seems to be some conviction this was originally written in Greek, but I don't know why.

Keep up this work. I'll be posting shorter posts each day this week.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Scot:

Well that's interesting because A.J. says the content of the two documents don't match up very well at all.

Thanks for this addition to the discussion.


Joe Camarda said...

Dr. Witherington,

Call me prophetic, but it is only a matter of time before some scholar on the outskirts of mainstream NT scholarship magically finds within the pages of this gospel a proto-gospel of Judas that he or she will then date earlier than our canonical sources. In doing so, this expert will prove to us all that history is indeed circular.


Ben Witherington said...


You ask a sad, but good question. I wish it were not necessary to point out the logical and historical problems with bad and revisionist history arguments, but alas it is necessary, not least because we live in a Biblically illiterate culture. The end result of that is that almost anything can pass for knowledge in such a situation.

Ben W.

Chong Choe said...

Dr. Witherington,

I watched most of the National Geographic program on the gospel of Judas last night. It would have been more balanced if they had more intelligent, conservative NT scholars weigh in on the subject. The program focused primarily on the discovery of the document. It also addressed the content. I've read the document and the program seemed to have ignored some of the more bizarre language.

What is most troubling about these gnostic writings, such as the gospel of Judas, is how they cause both unsuspecting Christians and the general public to doubt the authority of the Scriptures. The National Geographic program suggested that Iranaeus selected the four gospels for pragmatic reasons--and because they were popular. The National Geographic program also discussed how the potrayal of Judas became more sinister over time (especially in the gospel of John) because the early Gentile believers wanted to separate themselves from the Jews. Such a one-sided perspective of the Bible leaves the public with the impression that the Christian message is not the word of God, but a set of beliefs deliberately selected by men. Being bombarded with this perspective only reinforces for many people that the Bible and Christianity is no better than any other religion claiming to be the truth.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks Chong for this review, and of course sadly you are right. I am on NPR this morning at 11, and KET this afternoon at 2 speaking on this subject.

As for Traditionalist's question about 2 Peter, you are repeating the majority view about 2 Peter. I have argued that while this document is from the end of the first century knows of a collection of Paul's letters, it contains an eyewitness testimony from Peter himself about the Transfiguration in chapters 1-2. This material matches up nicely with the Greek of 1 Peter. Often in antiquity a compiled document like 2 Peter (which also includes stuff from Jude) was named after its most famous contributor--- in this case Peter. So this is not a pseudonymous document.



Leo Percer said...

Dr. Witherington:

Thanks for your posts on this issue! I am currently doing some research into gnostic materials (a hobby begun when working on my dissertation concerning angelic and messianic figures in Revelation). At any rate, I have Robinson's Nag Hammadi Library, the somewhat dated collection of essays entitled Nag Hammadi, Gnosticism, and Early Christianity, and the already recommended Dictionary of New Testament Background. Should I rely primarily on the bibliograhies of these works, or do you have other suggestions? I teach Biblical studies in a seminary, and, like you, I want to be able to tell my students the truth about the current crop of revisionist histories of the life of Jesus. Thanks in advance for your suggestions!

cyber joe said...

I think one question for you, Dr. Witherington, is whether ANY evidence could come to light which would cause you to change or rethink your views on the NT.

I've read your review of Ehrman's book, and I heard you on NPR this morning. It's difficult for me, as a listener/reader and not an academic, to know whether your views are slanted based on your religious views (in my opinion, the same is true for Ehrman and the other NPR commentators, be they evangelical protestant, Catholic, agnostic, etc.).

While you seem to question Ehrman's motives, although I can't read between the lines to figure out exactly why, I also think one must generally be skeptical of religious academics who are also believers in the inerrancy of the gospels. Not to be flip, but a lot is at stake for you if evidence would come to light that would conflict with your beliefs (although perhaps you think that is impossible).

Do you have any response to such concerns? In some sense, there may be no real answer other than for you to continue your scholarship and for me to continue reading it and comparing it to the work of others. Anyway, thanks for your time.

Ben Witherington said...

Cyber Joe:

As a person who is convinced that Christianity stands or falls on certain key historical events, and their proper interpretation of course there are many things that would cause me to have to revise my beliefs. Such is the nature of a historical religion. For example if we actually found the body of Jesus somewhere then I would assume that I along with many others have misunderstood what the NT is talking about when it refers to the bodily resurrection of Jesus.


none said...

Hi Dr. Witherington,

I have a quick question about this comment:

"Pseudonymity was a practice of those who did not have enough authority themselves to create sacred texts and so borrowed the name of an earlier illustrious or in this case notorious figure to create the air of an authentic eyewitness document."

We see this happening a lot: The Gospel of Peter, of Mary, Philip, etc.

What about such gospels, though, as the Gospel of the Egyptions, the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Ebionites, etc. It doesn't seem to be the case in these instances that the authors borrowed names to produce a sense of eye-witness authority.

Also, isn't it the case that authors sometimes gave their documents the name of the person who was the primary source of information? I believe I remember you writing that Matthew was given this name because the unique material came from him. Another case being 2 Peter as you pointed out above.

Not that I believe material in the Gospel of Judas was actually based on material from him, of course; I'm just curious about these things.