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The Gospel Truth?: Scholar says Gospel of Judas and other ancient texts must be read within historical context of early Christianity

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When National Geographic revealed the discovery of an ancient text it is calling the Judas Gospel, the news swept across the globe. Judas Iscariot, the scorned disciple who betrayed Jesus to Roman soldiers with a kiss, was suddenly redeemed. The gospel presented Judas as a hero, the disciple who knew Jesus best and understood his identity as the son of God. It was to him Jesus said, “You will exceed all of them.”

L. Michael White
Dr. L. Michael White teaches classes on the rise of Christianity and biblical literature, often leading students through Paul’s papyrus letters in their original Greek.

To many this finding was confusing and even disturbing. Judas was the most hated man in the New Testament. Does this discovered text change the way we read the four gospels of the Bible? Does this text change everything?

Not exactly, according to Dr. L. Michael White, the Ronald Nelson Smith Chair in Classics and Christian Origins at The University of Texas at Austin. And not so fast.

“Step back, take a deep breath and don’t worry,” says White, who also directs the Institute for the Study of Antiquity and Christian Origins. “Because it’s more complicated than that. We have to put these things in a historical framework to understand why they were even being written and for whom they were written.”

White’s recent book “From Jesus to Christianity,” winner of the university’s prestigious Hamilton Book Award, leads readers through the first 200 years of early Christianity, when followers sought to create a unified religion and tell the story of Jesus’s life. As a scholar with a background in religious studies, classics and archaeology, White understands that contexts of the time—historical, social and cultural—are critical to understanding all the gospels, newly discovered or not.

With that perspective, the Gospel of Judas may tell us less about Judas than about early Christians themselves and what they were thinking about and meditating on. The document can offer a wider education to both scholars and modern Christians.

“You can’t discard the gospel either,” White says. “It is nonetheless an important piece of information in our larger historical picture, even if we’re not going to say that this is what really happened to Judas.”

Nag Hammadi Codices

The Nag Hammadi library, a collection of 13 leather-bound papyrus books written in Coptic, was discovered in a large clay jar in 1945. The discovery transformed scholars’ understanding of early Egyptian Christianity and contained the Gospels of Thomas, Philip and Truth.

Image: Institute for Antiquity and Christianity

Despite the hype, the Judas Gospel is hardly the first gospel to be discovered. In fact, the arid caves of Egypt are so well suited for preserving ancient materials that many manuscripts that might otherwise be destroyed have been found in the modern age.

In the 1880s papyrus stashes began to be uncovered. Among ordinary paperwork—wills, contracts, laundry lists—ancient and biblical literature was discovered. Scholars believed they’d found a gospel in those first texts, though all they could confirm from the fragments of the document was that it talked of Jesus and of Thomas.

“People said, ‘Ah, if this is a gospel, it’s not one of our regular ones. It must be one of the apocryphal gospels we’ve heard about,’” White explains. “And sure enough, that’s what it turned out to be.”

The text was part of the Gospel of Thomas, which was found in full in 1945 buried in a large clay jar in Egypt, part of what became known as the Nag Hammadi Codices. The codices, some of the most important manuscripts ever discovered, were made of 52 pieces of literature in 13 volumes. They included the gospels not just of Thomas, but of Peter, Mary and Truth as well.

White says he can count more than three dozen gospels that have been discovered but aren’t part of the New Testament. So why all the fuss about the Gospel of Judas?

Book cover for L. Michael White's 'From Jesus to Christianity'

For scholars, the manuscript confirms a reference to the Judas gospel that was first made in the second century by Irenaeus, a bishop of Lyons. Irenaeus had already nominated the four familiar gospels as the only ones that Christians should read. In fact, he railed against gospels he considered heretical, including the Gospel of Judas. Ireneaus was also the first to use the terms Old Testament and New Testament.

In part, the fuss over the Gospel of Judas is also a function of timing. There could hardly be a better time for Judas to make his comeback. The phenomenal popularity of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” already has people thinking about alternative gospels. More than 50 million readers have followed the novel’s characters, Sophie Neveu and Robert Langdon, as they untangle 2,000 years of Western history, much of which is connected with the secret Gospel of Mary Magdalene.

While there indeed is a Gospel of Mary, White points out that “The Da Vinci Code” is a simply a novel.

“It’s all fiction,” he says. “None of it is true. It keeps the familiar vocabulary, but everything is turned in a different direction. And that’s what makes it attractive to people. There’s got to be just enough qualities that make you ask, ‘Could this be true?’”

That’s the question people also bring to the discovery of the Gospel of Judas. And the discovery itself makes a great story.

The Judas Gospel was first discovered by a farmer near El Minya, Egypt, in the 1970s. The gospel, which had lain quietly in a cave for 1,700 years, then went on an extensive journey through antiquities dealers and shady hotel room meetings that landed it in a safe deposit box in Hicksville, N.Y., for 16 years.

It emerged again in 2000 when it was purchased by Egyptian-born Greek dealer and was eventually translated with a guarantee of its ultimate return to Egypt. When it finally made it to scholars’ hands, they had to begin by making sure the manuscript was real.

Over and above how or when these writings came about, we must also consider what was happening to the people who wrote and read them. They are the real-life part of the story; they are the storytellers. So it will become important to discern what they were thinking and saying about Jesus, about their own experience, and in some cases about one another.  It is a very human story, after all. --L. Michael White, 'From Jesus to Christianity'“The first question you have to ask when someone gets hold of a manuscript,” White says, “is ‘Is it a forgery?’ or ‘Is it authentic?’ And by authentic we mean, in this case, just ancient.”

The techniques to determine a manuscript’s authenticity have grown more and more sophisticated with new technologies. Researchers analyze the paper, the ink, the handwriting and the document’s language.

“All of those things can be, to a greater or lesser degree, pinned down to the period in which they were produced,” White says. “So for the Gospel of Judas, we could determine that it is indeed an ancient Christian document. We also know that the manuscript is not in Greek, but in Coptic, the native language of early Egyptian Christianity. That already tells us that it’s a later copy and translation of what should have been the original Greek work.”

The confusion comes when people assume that because a work is determined to be from a historical time period, whatever it says must also be considered true.

In fact, the early Christian gospels may have been written for any number of reasons. They may be the theological explorations of early Christian monks. Or they may be attempts to reframe disciples who play less of a role in other gospels into primary roles, to bring secondary characters to the forefront. They may be studies that went too far, causing them to be labeled heretical. In any case, they were all seeking ways to reflect on the figure of Jesus.

“Even the very first gospels, the ones that are chronologically closest to Jesus—that is, the ones in the New Testament—are telling stories so that the way you tell the story is really a comment about Jesus and the characters in the stories are reflecting on Jesus,” White says.

The gospels and other books that ultimately became the New Testament were not finally decided on until the very end of the fourth century at the Council of Carthage. It may have been after that time that the other gospels were hidden away in caves. Their discovery reminds us that the debate about what would constitute the basic tenets of Christian belief went on for hundreds of years.

Team of students works at excavation site in Ostia Antica, the port city of ancient Rome
Each summer White takes a team to Ostia Antica, the port city of ancient Rome, to excavate one of the oldest synagogues of the Greco-Roman world. The project hopes to provide a complete architectural and social history of this ancient Jewish community.

“These gospels are useful for telling us that early Christianity is a bit more diverse than we might have first assumed,” White says. “It’s regionally, theologically and chronologically diverse. A lot of changes take place over time.”

There is every reason to believe that more gospels and more early Christian manuscripts will be uncovered, each of them shedding some light on the biblical story. And as new technologies continue to be developed, scholars will have new tools for reading and translating those manuscripts and ones already in possession.

This makes for an exciting field, something quite clear in White’s enthusiasm for his work and his desire to share it not just with students, but with readers and people in the community. Each summer he takes a team to Ostia Antica on the Italian coast to continue excavation of an ancient synagogue. He’s also leading a team in digitizing documents found at St. Catherine’s in Sinai, a project that uses technology to make ancient works available to everyone.

It’s a far reach for a man who prides himself on being a sixth generation Texan. Having traveled all over the world and back to the roots of Christian belief, White is clear in his message. Discovering new work is good for everyone, especially when we understand it within the context in which it was written. It enriches our understanding of the Bible, early Judaism and the origins of the Christian religion.

“What I want to suggest is that this does not have to be destructive or threatening,” White says. “It can be, in a sense, liberating and enlightening for deeper understanding of the traditional gospels.”

BY Vivé Griffith

IMAGE on banner graphic: Excerpt from “The Last Supper”
by Leonardo da Vinci, 1498, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan

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  Updated 15 May 2006
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