Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 02/20/2009 by Ian Clary.
Recommended. An informed, balanced, layperson's guide to this gnostic "gospel."
Christians have become so accustomed to the cycle of articles and television specials “debunking” the faith that appear at Christmas and Easter time that it has become something of a joke. It would be almost shocking if something objective were published or produced that showed Jesus, Paul or early Christianity in a positive, historically accurate and consistently biblical light. Thankfully the church is not left without defense in the academy and popular culture. When the Gnostic document known as the Gospel of Judas caused an uproar in the media, numerous scholars both conservative and liberal began to write about it.
One of the best books to come out of the controversy over whether Judas is an authentic Christian gospel is The Lost Gospel of Judas: Separating Fact from Fiction by Stanley E. Porter and Gordon L. Heath. Both authors are academics from McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario. Porter is the president, dean and professor of New Testament while Heath is assistant professor of church history and the Director of the Canadian Baptist Archives.
Although this book is written with the layperson in mind, it is informed, well documented and does a good job at appropriating the gospel of Judas in its historical and theological setting.
Porter and Heath provide the background to Judas’ finding by historians and the initial reaction to it. They focus on the person of Judas himself and explain the church’s understanding of him both biblically and historically. Because the Gospel of Judas is a Gnostic text, the writers explain what Gnosticism was - namely a Platonic-influenced Christian heresy. Related to this last point, they conclude the book with a discussion of the Bauer hypothesis on orthodoxy and heresy that is in many ways worth the price of the book. A number of chapters are taken up with the content and authenticity of Judas as well as its relationship to the New Testament itself.
In terms of content the Gospel of Judas has “many of the features of both typical Coptic Gnostic literature and New Testament literature." However, the term “gospel” as applied to it only refers to the title it gives itself, not that it is a proper gospel about Jesus. "Judas" supposes itself to be the recording of a secret discussion between Jesus and his betrayer Judas before the last supper. Following in the stream of other Gnostic texts, the emphasis here is on secret knowledge (gnosis) that is a staple of Gnostic teaching. Jesus is reported to have explained a reality to Judas that is based squarely within the Gnostic worldview that distinguishes between matter and spirit, where the former is evil and the latter good. Indeed, Judas is the one who will “‘sacrifice the man that clothes Jesus” by betraying him and having him brought to death. This is a good thing in Gnosticism because the soul is thus liberated from the evil, material body. “Rather than being the cursed betrayer of Jesus, Judas is here seen as the necessary functionary in the grand plan."
Porter and Heath argue that "Judas" is of a late date and therefore not contemporaneous with the time of Jesus: “The testable scientific evidence makes clear that the physical document itself dates to somewhere in the third to fifth centuries." It cannot be dated earlier than the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John because "Judas" uses each of these gospels in one form or another as well as Acts. This is significant because “the Gospel of Judas reflects a common pattern in which the later apocryphal gospels…draw upon and even allude to or cite the canonical Gospels." Based upon the physical features of the papyrus, the ink and the paleography as well as by carbon-14 dating, Porter and Heath believe that it was likely written around 300-350 AD.
Porter and Heath have written a very useful book that all Christians (and indeed all people) who are interested in the Gospel of Judas should read. It is not written in an overly apologetic tone, but rather states the facts as they are as objectively as possible. For Christians who are shaken up by such finds – and more such findings are sure to arise – The Lost Gospel of Judas is a welcome relief. For those who challenge the faith by arguing that such early documents disallow for a fixed, orthodox canon of the New Testament, Porter and Heath give serious pause for thought.