Recently Dr. Wallace was asked a question about the canonicity of the Gospel of Judas by a friend who was very troubled with an article published in New York Times. The general perception that was communicated to the public is that the Gospel of Judas is just as good of a contender for a reliable source of information about the life of Christ as the traditional gospels. Scholars today do not recognize the Gospel of Judas as authentic of really belonging in the New Testament canon, both because it is certainly not written by Judas and because it’s not very early. James Grant interviewed Dr. Wallace concerning this particular issue.
(James Grant): The New Yorker had an interesting article written by Joan Acocella titled, “Betrayal: Should We Hate Judas Iscariot?” The article examines the history of different perspectives on Judas, especially since the discovery of the Gospel of Judas. What is the Gospel of Judas?
(Dan Wallace): The Gospel of Judas is a document that was discovered in Egypt in c. 1978, but whose contents were not made public until 2006. The manuscript is written in Coptic—an ancient Egyptian language written mostly with Greek letters, dating to the third or fourth century. Many scholars are convinced that the original form of this gospel would have been from the second century and written in Greek. Lots of hype surrounded the unveiling of this new gospel, and, predictably, various groups jumped on the bandwagon. All historians of ancient Christianity should be pleased with the discovery of another ‘gospel,’ and Judas is no exception. But some have made rather unwarranted claims about it. For example, Elaine Pagels, one of the scholars who worked on the translation, claimed in The New York Times in 2006, “the Gospel of Judas has joined the other spectacular discoveries that are exploding the myth of a monolithic Christianity and showing how diverse and fascinating the early Christian movement really was.” I’ll evaluate her comment below.
Why wasn’t it included in the canon?
There are several reasons why this was never considered for the canon. First, the Gospel of Judas is a Gnostic document. Gnostics held that spirit was good and that matter was bad. The God of the Old Testament, because he created the world, was not the ultimate deity (in Gnosticism, there are numerous deities). Indeed, one of the characteristic features of Gnosticism is its rejection of Old Testament theology. Salvation comes through knowledge—secret knowledge, no less— rather than faith. Thus, for Gnostics there is a devaluing of history and verifiability. These three features—matter as evil, rejection of the Old Testament, and salvation through secret knowledge—also mean that the Incarnation of Christ as the Messiah, the hope of Israel, the Son of God, cannot be tolerated. In short, the Gospel of Judas never had a chance because it was so diametrically opposed to orthodox Christianity. Second, it did not pass the test of antiquity. All of the books of the New Testament are first-century documents. In order for a book to be considered on the short list for canonicity, it had to be from the first century. The Muratorian Canon (late second century) is the first orthodox canon list. It discusses the Epistle of Barnabas, an orthodox writing that was written in the second century. And although the Muratorian Canon commends it, it pointedly notes that it was written ‘in our time’ and thus could not be considered authoritative. Third, it did not pass the test of apostolicity. That is, it was not written by an apostle or an associate of an apostle. No scholar thinks that Judas wrote this gospel. Finally, it did not pass the test of catholicity. That is, it was not accepted by the Church. These four tests—orthodoxy, antiquity, apostolicity, and catholicity—are what governed the ancient church’s decisions as they examined books that vied for inclusion in the canon. The Church did not always get things right—some of the NT books were on the fringe for a while because of doubts about authorship, for example. But in due time, those on the fence were sorted out. Some—such as 3 Corinthians and the Apocalypse of Peter—ended up on the cutting block because they were seen to be spurious. Others—such as 2 Peter and Revelation— were finally accepted. This fourfold test should also govern us today as we think about any of these new discoveries. The irony is that radical scholars want to include more books into the canon—like the Gospel of Thomas—even though they agree that such could not pass the tests of the ancient church.
In terms of the article’s survey of different perspectives on Judas and this “alterative” view of Christianity, is it fairly accurate? Is it a helpful survey?
Well, some of the article is written in a very provocative way, no doubt intended to engage the reader. But the author doesn’t always correct the impression that such language can create in the mind of the reader. For example, she says, If Jesus informs you that you will betray him, and tells you to hurry up and do it, are you really responsible for your act? Furthermore, if your act sets in motion the process—Christ’s Passion—whereby humankind is saved, shouldn’t somebody thank you? No, the Church says. If you betray your friend, you are a sinner, no matter how foreordained or collaterally beneficial your sin. And, if the friend should happen to be the Son of God, so much the worse for you. This first sounds like the ends justify the means; and the Church’s response looks cold in light of it. It also looks like fatalism, in which human beings are not responsible for their actions—only to be condemned by the Church. In other words, she could have given more nuance to her words. Elsewhere Acocella says, “Of the many gospels circulating, they chose four, called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which, by reason of their realism and emotional directness—their lilies of the field and prodigal sons—were most likely to appeal to regular people.” As we have discussed above, this is not a very good representation of why these four Gospels, and only these four Gospels, were accepted into the canon. Acocella also takes some cheap shots at evangelicals, but overall her treatment is pretty balanced. She interacts with some loony views and rightly dismisses them as such. And she comes down on the side of recognizing that Judas was the betrayer of Jesus (though she’s not sure that he ever really existed!), that he was not a good guy, and that we can’t pin the Holocaust on the New Testament’s portrait of this Jewish man, since Jesus, too, was a Jew.
Does the Gospel of Judas change our perspective on either Jesus or Judas or the shape of early Christianity?
Probably the most remarkable statement in this gospel is Jesus’ whisper to Judas: “You will exceed all of them [the other apostles presumably, although a dozen lines are missing in the text just before this statement]. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” When I first read the Gospel of Judas, I thought that this was a brilliant statement. It takes Gnosticism to its logical conclusions, but one which other Gnostic documents had not dared to do. Recall that in Gnosticism, the body is evil. Hence, for Judas to betray the human garment that hides the real Jesus—who is only spirit, not matter—is fully consistent with Gnostic teaching. Rather than tell us anything about earliest Christianity, it tells us only the depths to which some Gnostic groups would go with their aberrant theology. Now, when Elaine Pagels says that this book does change our understanding of early Christianity by adding yet another nail to the coffin of the notion of a monolithic faith, she overstates her case. On the one hand, she is really describing second-century and third-century Christianity, but not first-century Christianity. Note that radical scholars rarely speak of earliest Christianity as so multifaceted. That’s because they can’t. The evidence that any of the Gnostic writings were from the first century is virtually nil (only the Gospel of Thomas could possibly qualify, yet most scholars believe it was written between AD 120 and 140). On the other hand, she is right that Christianity has always struggled for its own identity. There were several factions in the early church, as the NT makes plain. But what is not usually mentioned by radical scholarship is that the struggles over how to define the faith were played out within a much tighter circle than one that included Gnosticism or other ancient heresies. A line was drawn in the sand. All of the apostles embraced the death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ as the bedrock of the faith. In this respect, first-century, apostolic Christianity could be considered monolithic. In the article, Acocella observes that other authors have “rehabilitated” Judas since the discovery of this document. That rehabilitation is very positive, but the author asks, “Why shouldn’t we entertain the idea of an archetypal betrayer?” What do you think the Biblical picture of Judas tells us about human behavior and ourselves? Oh, that’s a loaded question! For Acocella, I think Judas is simply a prototype of the kind of evil that we human beings are capable of. The Holocaust certainly showed that. But he is more than that. He was a flesh-and-blood human being who made choices. As I said, Acocella is not even sure that Judas really existed. How then could he be an archetype of the most heinous evil possible? Could we say the same thing about the Nazis if they were only a ruse? Could ‘Auschwitz’ evoke the same revulsion in us if the Holocaust was a fiction? The picture we see of Judas tells us that we really are capable of the deepest acts of depravity. As soon as we doubt his existence, that bite loses its sting. As one of my seminary profs used to say, “Once you think you’re not capable of a certain sin, that’s when you’re in real danger.”
What do you think it means that a publication like Τhe New Yorker can run an article like this in our day and time?
Christianity is under severe attack right now, with an intellectual fervor that has not been seen for a long time. I’m not saying that Acocella is on the front lines, taking aim at believers, but rather that any form of Christianity that deviates from orthodoxy—especially if it has ancient roots—captures the attention of the media. In short, Jesus sells. Sadly, it’s not the historical Jesus who sells most of the time (just witness the slew of books by radical scholars that are making it on the New York Times Bestsellers List). The Jesus who sells is not the one who says, “Who do you say that I am?” but “Who do you want me to be?”
One final question: how is the ministry at the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts? Can you give us an update on your work?
The past fourteen months have been incredible. We sent teams to ten different countries to take high-resolution digital photographs of ancient Greek New Testament manuscripts. We took more than 60,000 pictures, traveled for 43 weeks, and discovered about 40 manuscripts. Most of these have been posted on our site, www.csntm.org. The Wall Street Journal interviewed me, when I was in Athens, for a piece that appeared in May. We are grateful for the visibility, but more importantly, we are eager to finish the work of digitizing the NT manuscripts. There are 2.6 million pages of text to shoot—over 5700 manuscripts—and we shoot them one page at a time. If any of your readers would like to get monthly updates on our work, a sympathetic group known as “The Friends of CSNTM” has started a newsletter. These folks send out this e-Newsletter once a month, updating folks on our work. They can be contacted at friendsofcsntm.com.