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New testament: Judas redeemed
BY LINDA MORRIS
The Sydney Morning Herald
A fifth gospel challenges one of the basic Christian beliefs, writes Linda Morris.
IN DECEMBER 1945 an Arab peasant digging in the reaches of Upper Egypt stumbled on a red earthen jar containing 13 leather-bound papyrus books.
He was not to know it at the time, but his archaeological discovery - which came to be known as the Nag Hammadi Library - was to prompt a re-evaluation of early Christian thinking.
Nor could he have comprehended its role 60 years later in the modern publishing phenomenon that is The Da Vinci Code.
What he had unearthed was a collection of 50 texts thought to have been destroyed during the early struggle to define Christian orthodoxy. The crumbling manuscripts included the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Truth - scriptures denounced as heretical by the early church.
They were the works of a Christian sect that flourished in the second century, but whose beliefs survive today within some New Age sects.
Until this morning, the manuscripts were the limits of scholars' primary knowledge of the theology and beliefs of this long-dead sect. But overnight, with great hoopla, the National Geographic Society unveiled an ancient, 66-page Coptic manuscript, written by this group and dating from the third or fourth century.
It is said to contain the only known surviving copy of the Gospel of Judas, which challenges the portrayal of Judas as the reviled traitor, and suggests the disciple was acting under orders.
The society describes the find as one of the most important in biblical history, adding new understanding to the world's culture and history.
For academics, a new third-century Coptic manuscript was always going to be big news. "This is one more piece of evidence for the complexity of Christian thought in the second century, and for how long that view persisted," says Malcolm Choat, a research fellow in the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University. "It further fills out a view of how multifaceted Christian belief was and provides further evidence of how that refracted in other countries, in other languages."
But, while the new text might prove a valuable addition to historical knowledge, many scholars believe it is not the document that will rewrite Christian teachings and change history. Like other gnostic texts, it is written too long after Christ's death to be considered entirely reliable.
The biblical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are not first-hand accounts, but most modern scholars believe they are the earliest oral accounts of Jesus, written down in Greek. Collectively, they are seen to illuminate the thinking on what a first generation of Christians believed His life to be and, from the writings of the hyperactive missionary Paul, the nature of the spread of Christianity.
As early as the first half of the second century, the Christian bishop Irenaeus reported that the four gospels were circulating together as authoritative sources in the church. By contrast, the Gospel of Judas is a much later document, allegedly copied down much later, sometime around AD300.
Choat says it is important to understand the manuscript is not supposed to be the work of Judas Iscariot but that the original was probably written by an elder, some time in the second century, as an alternative narrative of the life of Jesus to that of the prevalent Christian orthodoxy. That it is copied in Coptic, and not as an original Greek manuscript, also opens it to losses or mistranslations.
But misgivings go further. As Brian Powell, a lecturer in the New Testament at Morling College, points out, the gnostic gospels have never been trusted or recognised as sacred by either the Eastern or Western churches.
And the Coptic Orthodox Church has distanced itself from the Gospel of Judas and its companion texts. These texts, it says, are neither reliable nor accurate Christian texts and are "historically and logically alien to the main Christian thinking and philosophy of the early and present Christians".
"The persons who wrote these books were attempting to create a false amalgam of the Christian and the Greek mythology and the mystical Far-East religions," says Metropolitan Bishoy, a theological leader of the church. "The teachings of the gnostic gospels are diametrically opposed not only to the Christ of the New Testament, but also to the Christ preached by the Old Testament. Both Testaments believe in 'God Incarnated', while the gnostic gospels propagate a 'Sensual Human' elevated to be a god."
Choat says the gnostics, for want of a better label, represented an alternative stream of Christian thinking. "They would have called themselves Christians, but were Christians united in a couple of beliefs; that secret knowledge was the way to salvation rather than the redemptive narratives of the New Testament. They had a dualistic world view that the creator god, the Old Testament God, was a lesser, evil god, and hand in hand with that view was that this earthly stuff of our bodies was inherently evil and the good god is the father of Jesus and He is the source of light."
Nor did their images of women and Mary Magdalene necessarily fit with traditional Christian teaching. In the gospels uncovered in the Egyptian desert, the gnostics wrote of a claim that Jesus's most beloved disciple had been a woman - Mary Magdalene, His consort. They related that God had established five great sacraments or mysteries - "a baptism and a chrism, and a eucharist, and a redemption, and a bridal chamber".
Choat says the poor condition of the manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas makes it impossible to say if the authors were alluding to a physical relationship between Jesus and Mary.
That didn't stop Dan Brown, who wove his fictional plot for The Da Vinci Code around these pages, drawing on ideas of the Sacred Feminine - that God is neither male nor female in the Bible, but primarily Spirit - and of a special physical relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
But the stuff of popular 21st-century fiction never cut it with Irenaeus, at the forefront of a campaign to have only the four biblical gospels included in the canonical New Testament. It was he who declared the writings of the gnostic Christians heretical and confined their gospels to the dustbin of history.
That hasn't prevented the conspiracy theorists suggesting the early church conspired to suppress the alternative Christian writings. The Da Vinci Code asserts that after the Roman Empire became Christian under Constantine, the church and government persecuted believers who didn't play along and later controlled which New Testament books made it into the Bible.
"I suppose the question should be, why would the churches suppress these gnostic gospels?" says Metropolitan Bishoy. "What would be the benefit - Christianity lived and flourished in the midst of the most bloody and violent era of the first, second, third, fourth and fifth centuries.
"Christians were never known to be cowardly - particularly the Christians of Egypt. Over the centuries, millions have been murdered for the sake of upholding the truth. The gnostic gospels were deemed false by the churches because they were untrue, not historical and have no support from the foundation of the Christian faith."
One of Australia's leading Catholic scholars on the New Testament is Father Frank Moloney, the provincial of the Salesians of Don Bosco. That one stream of Christianity gained currency over another is a reflection of the adage that the victor writes history, he suggests. "Christianity has been around for 2000 years. This yearning for meaning and finding an answer outside the Christian tradition has always been around and has every right to be around. I think they are wrong, mind you. They deny the salvific impact of the teaching of the resurrection of Jesus."
Powell says the New Testament existed long before Constantine, and ponders the modern fascination with conspiracy theories about the church and its alleged suppression of the gnostic gospels. "I think some of the reactions to the material found outside the New Testament are more trusting than of the documents contained in the New Testament itself." Part of the answer, he says, lies in a rusted distrust of the institutional church and independent searching for the real figure of Jesus Christ.
Moloney says the books of the Bible were not meant to be a comprehensive retelling of history. "They are narratives that use narrative forms of literature to communicate an understanding about what God has done, first in the history of a chosen people, and then what God continues to do through Jesus Christ."
Says Choat: "Conspiracy theories are something humanity likes to indulge in ... There is more to the picture than the four canonical gospels and the New Testament. They are not the whole truth, by any means, but what they are not is a complete fabrication and suppression of reality."
Jesus says: 'You will exceed all of them.'
THE Gospel of Judas reveals:
* In the first scene Jesus laughs at his disciples for praying to "your God", referring to the gnostic notion of a lesser Old Testament God who created the world.
* The disciples turn away when Jesus challenges them to look at him and understand him.
* Judas is singled out several times for special status: "Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal."
* In the key passage, Jesus tells Judas: "You will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me."
* Jesus tells Judas: "You willbe cursed by the other generations - and you will come to rule over them."
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