The rediscovery of the Gospel of Judas, a Gnostic writing suggesting Judas did not betray Jesus but acted to free Jesus from his earthly form, has reignited debate over the nature and beliefs of early Christians. Scholars argue the text indicates a diversity of belief among early Christians, but that variety of church is illusory.
Early Christians knew of the Gospel of Judas and rejected it. Irenaeus, writing in the second century, called it a fiction:
They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas (Irenaeus I, 31, 1).
That a Gnostic doctrine was widespread is self-evident. The apostle John railed against it in his writings to the churches, and historical works depict John as an ardent foe of Gnosticism. The apostle asserted that Jesus came “by water and blood” and not the water only (1 John 5:6), rebutting the Gnostic belief that Christ merely appeared at baptism, and fled the body before his crucifixion. To reject Christ’s death and resurrection was antithetical to Christian belief, wrote John.
Ancient Gnosticism was a conglomerate of religious beliefs that adopted Jesus as its prime figure. It preached salvation was through a secret knowledge, that physical forms were evil (e.g., the human body), and that only a select few could attain full salvation. Its leaders accepted some of the Christian scriptures, but mostly in redacted forms. Marcion received only some of Paul’s writings and a revised Gospel of Luke. The Gnostic church almost universally rejected canonical gospels and Christian orthodoxy. It represented an entirely separate movement, a point lost on many scholars.
The Rev. Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union of Chicago, in an MSNBC.com report states the Gospel of Judas “reveals the diversity and vitality of early Christianity. This diversity among various Christian groups was something taken for granted in the early centuries of the church, but may be a surprise to many people today,” he said.
An even greater surprise would be that any ancient church simultaneously encouraged and discouraged marital relations, celebrated and rejected the resurrection of the Lord, allowed and forbid the eating of meat, and accepted and tolerated every piece of writing concerning Jesus Christ. Senior’s concept of “early Christianity” belies historical truth and abuses the notion of “diversity” as a catchall for a church that never existed.
Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss; these scholars abuse truth with hype.