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Last Updated: Friday, 7 April 2006, 11:05 GMT 12:05 UK
Not so secret gospels
Stephen Tomkins

Gospel of Judas
The papyrus document containing the Gospel of Judas

Once the dusty preserve of theologians and historians, the success of the Da Vinci code has turned an ancient religious document into a major publishing event.

There could hardly be a luckier time - or more providential depending on your perspective - for publishing a newly-discovered gospel.

When the antiquities dealer, Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos, bought an ancient papyrus book in April 2000 containing the Secret Gospel of Judas, he could not even find a buyer.

He can have had no idea that by the time a translation was published the most talked about book in the western world would be a conspiracy thriller about suppressed gospels and the secret origins of Christianity.

The Da Vinci Code has turned this 2nd-Century tract from a talking point at theological conferences to a media event, perhaps even a blockbuster.

The translators' press release said the "launch is due in Easter 2006" - and New Testament scholarship very rarely gets to be "launched", it is just published in journals.

Scholars to dollars

So what's the story with the Gospel of Judas? Will it rehabilitate the supposed traitor and arch-villain of the Easter story, not unlike what Da Vinci Code author, Dan Brown, has tried to do with Mary Magdalene?

Gospel of Judas
Biblical scholars have researched several other alternative gospels

Will it add another layer of intrigue and mystery to the tangled web of religious history? Will it give Christian scholars nightmares, or a good laugh? Should we take it with a pinch of salt, or as gospel?

The first thing to say is that we do not know much about the precise contents yet. National Geographic has put the whole text online, but with only half a dozen short pages in translation, so those of us whose Coptic is a little rusty will have to wait a while.

What we do know is that the Gospel of Judas was condemned in 180AD by Irenaus the Bishop of Lyons. So it existed by then and had made its way from Egypt to Gaul.

National Geographic has had a variety of tests carried out on the remains of the document, from carbon dating to handwriting analysis, which place it in about the 4th Century. So we can be pretty confident that this is the original Gospel of Judas and not a modern forgery.

It evidently portrays Judas sympathetically. Rather than betray Jesus to the religious leaders, he is told by Jesus to hand him over. More than that, he is Jesus's closest friend and the one to whom Jesus chooses to unveil all his most deep and secret teachings.

Silver lining

This puts the Gospel of Judas on what is actually a pretty crowded shelf of "secret gospels" from the 2nd Century. Alternative histories of Christianity were about as popular 1,800 years ago as they are now. A new gospel is exciting for scholars, but it is hardly the first.

There are four gospels in the New Testament. But by the time Irenaus attacked this writing, there were according to some estimates, more than 20 known Christian gospels doing the rounds.

This means there is nothing very revolutionary or scandalous in itself about another new gospel turning up. We have the Gospel of Peter, for example, in which Jesus is not hurt by his crucifixion, and the Gospel of the Ebionites in which he is a vegetarian.

There is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas where the child Jesus makes birds out of mud and they come alive, and then a boy bumps into him and he kills him.

What is clear from Irenaus, and from as much of Judas as we have seen so far, is that it is a gnostic gospel. Gnosticism was a very broad religious movement - there were Christian and non-Christian gnostics.

Rival histories

They tended to believe that matter was evil, and created by the shoddiest of all gods, and that Jesus was disembodied spirit come to deliver selected souls from matter by revealing secret "knowledge" (gnosis).

As these ideas violently contradicted the version of Jesus and his teaching given by all leaders of the church in the 1st and 2nd Centuries, and by all the 1st Century gospels, they were put into "secret" gospels.

In these Jesus tends to take one chosen disciple aside - John, Thomas, Mary Magdalene - and reveals secret truths about God and heaven too deep for the rest of them.

Thus gnostics hoped to explain why the people whom Jesus had left in charge of his church did not seem to know any of his most important teachings.

So we can expect the Gospel of Judas to have a lot of esoteric religion in it. Whether there is anything as page-turning as Dan Brown is another matter.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

St Irenaeus points out in his criticism of Gnosticism that the way to be sure of the teachings of Christ is by reference to the Church he founded (cf. Matt 16:18), that is, to the teaching of the successors of the apostles, the bishops. More intuitively, the Gnostic gospels were written later than the four in the Bible, so you'd think them a less reliable source of information on Jesus. Over the centuries the Church settled which gospels could be trusted. The idea that there were secret teachings Christ deliberately hid from most of his disciples seems a little crazy. At least, it seems like a rather ineffective way to set up a church.
Chris Hack, Cambridge

As a self-confessed heathen, I look simply at the gospels as a historical account of a time in history from a religious point of view. I don't understand when there is an outcry from religious leaders about other points of view, which should be encouraged as productive arguements into religion and faith can come about. By denying outright that these can be accepted immediately alienates them from the people who can make the church (and society) a better and more understanding forum.
Mike, Liverpool

In his novel "A Time Before Genesis" Les Dawson (of all people) tells us that at the last moment Judas had a change of heart and picked out one of the other apostles and not Jesus. This explains how the eloquent speaker of the sermon on the mount became the sullen, inarticulate person interviewed by Pilate, and of course the resurrection. He goes on to say that Jesus married, had children, and travelled to see the holy men in Kashmir where he died and is buried. Where did Dawson get this tale from, because I can't find it anywhere else?
Alan, London

The Jesus Scroll by Donovan Joyce which was published in 1971 also points out that Judas is not treated as a traitor in the Orthodox churches, and suggests that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, had a son, survived the cricifixion, but died at Masada in 73AD. None of these ideas, whether it is the Da Vinci Code, the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, hidden or stolen scrolls or whaever, are new.
Ann, Stevenage

Although the Gnostic gospels are of historical interest, they are hardly the stuff that would give "Christian scholars nightmares". The four established gospels as written in the New Testament are by far the earliest writings and therefore must be taken as the most historically accurate. The fact that there are four, and they are in broad agreement and written within the lifetime of the eye-witnesses gives further weight to their accuracy. Until we find Gnostic gospels which pre-date the Matthew, Mark, Luke or John I will continue to read my Bible knowing it is historically the most accurate account of what happened.
Jason Fell, Oswestry, Shropshire

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