Summary: It had been less than 24 hours since National Geographic had broken their story, “The Lost Gospel.” Yet as I spoke at an open-forum “Q & A” the next day at a Virginia college, the first question I got was, “Is this new Gospel accurate? I mean, what other
The Gospel of Judas- An authentic copy of an ancient lie?
by Alex McFarland
It had been less than 24 hours since National Geographic had broken their story, “The Lost Gospel.” Yet as I spoke at an open-forum “Q & A” the next day at a Virginia college, the first question I got was, “Is this new Gospel accurate? I mean, what other secrets about my Bible should I know?”
One of the professors quoted in the National Geographic article said that the content of the Judas document, “…would be very difficult to falsify.” This quote seems to imply that the The Gospel of Judas belongs in the Bible. In reality, it simply means that this ancient manuscript is thought to be an accurate copy of something with (for Christians, at least), no real theological significance.
The Gospel of Judas- so prominently featured in recent news reports- is an example of an ancient Gnostic document. “Gnostics” were second and third century sects which taught that spiritual growth came about through the acquisition of mystical knowledge and secret truths. The nature of Gnostic teaching was esoteric (hidden, understandable only by certain individuals). Christianity, on the other hand, has always been exoteric (the message of the Gospel is intended to be understood by all).
In 1945, a collection of Gnostic writings dating from the fourth century was discovered in Egypt (often called “The Nag Hammadi Gospels”). We have no record that ancient Christians ever embraced the Gnostic writings (of which The Gospel of Judas is a part) as Scripture.
When cultural happenings like The Gospel of Judas or The Davinci Code raise questions about Christianity, church history becomes a vital tool in defending the faith. An important early apologist was Irenaeus (130-202 AD), who argued effectively for the authenticity of the Christian Scriptures. Irenaeus had been discipled by Polycarp- a disciple of John- who, of course, had been with Jesus. In his work entitled, “Against Heresies,” Irenaeus had specifically spoken against The Gospel of Judas. So, the content of the Judas document represents nothing new. Christian leaders such as Irenaeus were aware of such Gnostic texts 1800 years ago- and had rejected them as not belonging to the canon.
The term “canon” means, “measuring stick.” God has given the world the “canon of Scripture” as a tool for separating truth from error. But without printing presses, mass communication, or research aids, how did the people of God recognize which books were canonical, or “divinely inspired?” Some of the “tests” or questions for canonicity were as follows:
Authorship: Was the book written by a recognized prophet of God or one of the apostles?
Credentials: What acts of God validated the author’s credibility?
Content: Does the book contain truth about God, corresponding with other known revelation?
Power: Does the writing possess the Spirit’s anointing- does it instruct, build up, equip, and edify readers?
Acceptance: Has the book been received by the people of God?
Some today have doubts and questions regarding early Christianity and how the Bible developed. How God both inspired and preserved His Word is an interesting story indeed. In Matthew 24:35, Jesus said that, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” The history surrounding the Bible illustrates that God has certainly fulfilled this promise.
The divine authority of most Old Testament books was never disputed in the least. Of the thirty nine Old Testament books, the canonicity of only five (Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Ezekiel, and Proverbs) was ever questioned. All discussion was resolved over time as the people of God accepted these particular books with the same reverence as given to other known Scripture. By the time of Christ, questions over the content of the Old Testament had long been settled. In our New Testament, a little over ten per cent of Christ’s words are direct quotes from the Old Testament.
From as far back as 100 AD, individuals had compiled listings of and citations from the canonical books. By the end of the second century, every New Testament book had been at least cited as authoritative, if not fully endorsed by recognized leaders. At both the Council of Hippo (393 AD), and the Council of Carthage (397 AD), leaders collectively went on record as accepting the 27 books of our New Testament as the full and final form of God’s written revelation. With known recognition of the books by godly individuals, one may wonder why it wasn’t until the 390’s that the canon would be so clearly spelled out by a church council?
From a modern perspective, it may seem that recognition of the Biblical books came about at a suspiciously slow pace. Was this because Christians were confused over what to believe? Was there (as works like The Davinci Code assert) a “power struggle,” with only the bullies and their books surviving? A consideration of the early church era sheds light on the question of why acceptance and circulation of the Biblical canon was gradual. Apologist Norman Geisler observes, “Prior to 313, the church faced frequent persecution that did not allow leisure for research, reflection, and recognition. As soon as that was possible, it was only a short time before there was general recognition of all canonical books.”1