The standing joke about Tom Wright goes like this: An inquiring student gives Dr Wright a call. His secretary says,” Sorry, but he is busy writing a book”. To which the student caller replies, “That’s OK, I’ll hold”.
NT Wright is one of our most prolific New Testament scholars. It seems just a few months ago the media broke the story about the discovery of the so-called Gospel of Judas. And here we have a major critique of the find and the claims surrounding it.
The gospel was in fact discovered three decades ago, but for various reasons, was only made public in April of 2006. The media made much of it, and it tied in nicely with the film release of The Da Vinci Code. Both were over-hyped and cast aspersions on the canonical gospels and the real Jesus. And both fed into conspiratorial claims about church cover-ups and the need to reinvent Christianity.
Here Wright takes on the hype and the search for an “alternative Jesus”. He demonstrates that this new find offers very little to our understanding of Jesus, and shows how far apart Gnostic teaching is from biblical truth claims.
The document in question, a Gnostic gospel, is authentic, but from third or fourth century Egypt. Like other Gnostic writings, this Judas document presents an unbiblical dualism: this world is evil and needs to be escaped from, and a secret knowledge (gnosis) will help one to achieve that. Jesus and the early disciples, by contrast, taught that God’s kingdom was breaking into this world. While this material world is in need of restoration, it is not evil in itself. Indeed, God created it, and will one day recreate it altogether.
In orthodox Christianity, the goal of salvation is the redemption of this world, along with the resurrection of our bodies. In Gnosticism, the aim is to escape this evil material world. Thus the biblical gospels are this-worldly, while the Gnostic gospels deny this world. The message of the two are worlds apart.
And so too is the dating. The canonical gospels are early (written within a generation of the lifetime of Jesus) while the Gnostic gospels are late (second and third centuries). And the genre differs as well. The canonical gospels are sustained narratives, while the Gnostic writings are usually loose collections of teaching. While the Gospel of Judas is a bit different, it still is closer to the latter than to the former.
Wright correctly points out the irony of modern-day scholars trying to persuade us that the Gnostic gospels were radical alternatives to the ‘conservative’ canonical gospels. Quite the opposite. The New Testament message was truly radical, and resulted in suffering and death. The Gnostic message was similar to the mystery religions of the day, and Gnostics rarely faced persecution for it.
In other words, “the Gnostics were the cultural conservatives, sticking with the kind of religion that everyone already knew”. In contrast, the orthodox Christians “were breaking new ground, and [were] risking their necks as they did so”.
So why are certain scholars so intent on promoting Judas and other Gnostic ideas and writings? Suggests Wright, the desire to champion even bizarre Gnostic texts over against the canonical writings “has more to do with social and religious fashions in North America than with actual historical research”.
Gnostic beliefs fit very well into the American and Western fixation on self: the ideals of self-discovery, self-awareness, self actualisation, and self-salvation. They certainly make far lesser demands on people than do the radical requirements of Christian discipleship. Indeed, such Gnostic leanings, whether ancient or modern, have nothing to do with biblical Christianity.
In sum, the Gospel of Judas, like the other Gnostic writings, is totally incompatible with the New Testament gospels. They differ in genre, theology and time of writing. If the claims of the former are true, then Christianity (and Judaism) cannot be true. Conversely, if the biblical version of events is correct, then the Gnostic perspective must be wrong.
Fads and trends in theology will continue to plague us. But the everlasting gospel is not so easily disposed of. A debt of gratitude must be accorded to NT Wright for making these distinctions so clear.