There is something vaguely troubling about National Geographic presenting the Gospel of Judas as a viable alternative to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – on Palm Sunday no less. Is there really anyone who believes in Jesus, in all the forms that belief assumes, who would believe that Judas was the greatest and most trusted of the 12 apostles?
The suggestion that the newly found and authenticated document challenges the established story of Jesus undercuts the historical value of the find. Unfortunately, that “question” is repeated often in the special presentation of The Gospel of Judas.
Historically, early Christians shared the story of Jesus orally, usually in home churches around the breaking of the bread. The modern Catholic Mass follows this tradition. In the first half, the Liturgy of the Word, stories for the Bible are read, and officially, following along with the written missal is discouraged. The second half, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, is the meal that follows the sharing of the stories.
The written versions of Jesus’ life followed later. Mark, the earliest, was not written until approximately 30 years later, AD 60. Far more than four versions of the Gospel were written. The Catholic Church compiled the New Testament about 200 years after that, declaring that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the accurate accounts.
In recent decades, we have become aware of some of the other gospels, most notably the Gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdalene. The “rejected” Gospels are generally from the Gnostic tradition, which preached that secret divine knowledge was the secret to heaven, rather than faith. That philosophy was rejected as heresy in the second century. The selection of faith was and is good news for the majority of Christians not in possession of any secret divine knowledge.
The Gospel of Judas is the most recently discovered ancient “gospel.” The National Geographic channel did a good job of presenting the fact of discovery and authentication. There is no reason to think the papyrus is a forgery. It almost certainly is a second century copy of a document entitled the Gospel of Judas. That’s a far cry from any indication that the words in it are, in fact, true.
In the document, Judas is the only apostle who understands the true greatness of Jesus and heaven. Jesus took him aside at the last supper and tells him the secret divine knowledge, which only Judas, of all the twelve, could understand. Jesus also promises Judas that he will attain the promised heaven.
That whole betrayal thing? Jesus made him do it.
Look, if you don’t believe in Christianity, or God, or religion, none of this matters. If you do believe, you’re not likely to suddenly realize that Judas is the greatest disciple who holds the secret to heaven. So it’s unclear why the National Geographic Channel presents it as if they have discovered a new religious truth. If we found some historically verifiable documents telling tales of Zeus, would it inspire new worship of the Gods of Olympus?
The stronger message, woefully misplayed, lies in the opinion of one of the experts who speaks at the end of the hour: The find tells us more about second century Gnosticism than it tells us about Jesus or Judas.