Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are not enough for many denizens of the twenty-first century. In their search for a more palatable Jesus, novelists such as Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code, feminist theologians such as Elaine Pagels, and their acolytes in the media and pop culture are turning to the apocryphal gospels of the early heretics. These are alleged to contain a valid, alternative version of early Christianity, one that can support today’s feminism and moral permissiveness. But comparing the New Testament Gospels to those written centuries later only confirms that these writings are works of history.
Do you remember the furor over the recent discovery of an ancient manuscript entitled The Gospel of Judas? The media reported that the document presented Judas as a good guy who turned Jesus over only because Jesus told him to. The reports implied that the church had gotten it wrong over all these centuries, that Judas was no sinister betrayer but a leading disciple to whom Jesus imparted special knowledge. The media coverage indicated that we would now have to re-evaluate our knowledge of Jesus. The translation became a best-seller and National Geographic, which was behind the publication of the text, made a TV documentary on the subject.
But have you heard the rest of the story? The media that hyped The Gospel of Judas has not been as vigilant in reporting how scholars have been shooting down all of these claims, to the point of accusing the National Geographic of “scholarly malpractice.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, though, has shown how genuine scholarship got hijacked by media sensationalism, pop-culture superficiality, and commercial temptations.
The media left out the little detail that the manuscript had Judas not turning in Jesus at His request to atone for the sins of the world; rather, Judas was bent on sacrificing Jesus to a demon named Saklas. So much for this being an alternative Christian tradition.
But the biggest problem was that the manuscript was dishonestly translated. What the National Geographic translated as “spirit” (with Judas being described as the “13th spirit”) should be rendered as “demon” (with Judas being the “13th demon”). The best-seller said that Judas has been “set apart for the holy generation.” It should read “set apart from the holy generation.” Perhaps the most flagrant mistranslation was leaving out a negative, saying that Judas “would ascend to the holy generation.” The manuscript actually says that Judas “would not ascend to the holy generation.”
The National Geographic translators rendered the text so that it read the opposite of what it actually said. Apparently, even the Gnostic heretics who wrote this document did not think much of Judas.
But in today’s religious climate, anything Gnostic has a special appeal. The Gnostics believed that the material world is an illusion and that the spirit is all that counts. Thus, the body and what you do with your body has no significance. For today’s theologians, this means that whether you are a man or a woman makes no difference; such physical details of the body have no bearing on spiritual issues. Thus, we have the Hollywood starlets, notorious for their promiscuity and substance abuse, going on about how “spiritual” they are.
Far from being a legitimate strain of Christianity—before, allegedly, patriarchal churchmen declared it a heresy so that they could oppress women and construct orthodox Christianity as a way to impose their power—Gnosticism is more like the opposite of Christianity.
The actual Gospels underscore the difference. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are realistic histories. They are not written in poetry—as were the mythic accounts of Homer and Virgil—but in prose, a style used for history. As C.S. Lewis has observed, if the Gospels are fictional, that would be a miracle in itself, since that kind of realistic prose fiction would not be invented for sixteen centuries. The Gnostic Gospels, by contrast — such as the gospels of Mary Magdalene, Philip, and Judas—are mostly philosophical dialogues modeled after those of Plato. Furthermore, the biblical Gospels draw from the actual, physical world—mangers, weddings, lilies of the field—that the Gnostics rejected.
The canonical Gospels present a common picture of Jesus. His personality, though unlike any imaginative creation, is recognizable and consistent throughout them all, even the very differently written gospel of John. The picture that emerges from the Gnostic Gospels is very different. In addition to the jargon-ridden philosophical mysticism of the dialogs, we have the petulant child of the Infant Narratives who zaps bullies with his super powers.
The resurrection accounts of the Gospels are especially telling. Their narratives seem disjointed. But look at them closely. They come from the point-of-view of particular individuals, so that we see through the eyes of Mary Magdalene, Peter, the walkers to Emmaus. That is to say, the narratives are eyewitness accounts.
Jesus—whose risen body eats fish, bears its scars, and can be touched—is the incarnate Son of God who died by torture and rose again to save us from our sins. That is a historical fact. The false Gospels, and the novels and scholarship that supports them, are pure fiction.