The Gospel of Judas (National Geograhic; 2006)
Bill Long 4/17/06
A Review and Preliminary Assessment
Great excitment (i.e., 'hype') attended the release last week by National Geographic of an English translation, with notes, and several scholarly articles on The Gospel of Judas. The purpose of this and the next five essays is to understand the background to this publication, describe the "flow" of the Gospel of Judas and give a preliminary analysis of the importance of this document for the study of early Christianity. This essay puts the Gospel of Judas in the context of the current study of early Christianity. The next essay describes what the early Church knew about the Gospel of Judas. The final four essays deal with leading themes in the Gospel of Judas and my evaluation of its historical and literary importance for early Christianity.
Getting Our Bearings in the Study of Early Christianity
When I earned my Ph. D. in the History of Religions: Early Christianity (1982) from Brown University, all the rage for the understanding of early Christianity was a deep knowledge of Judaism in Late Antiquity (from about 200 B.C.E. to 100 C.E). The Dead Sea Scrolls had been discovered in the late 1940s, and new texts and translations of the scrolls were appearing fairly regularly--leading scholars to develop theories regarding the diversity of Judaisms around the time of Jesus. Thus it was not unusual that when I won a fellowship to study at the German university of my choice, I decided to study among some of the leading scholars of Judiasm in Late Antiquity (at the University of Tuebingen).
Yet, even in those days the scholarly winds were starting to shift, and a person with a nose for the future of the field might have "smelled" that the action would soon shift to the 2nd-4th centuries C.E. Why? Because the Nag Hammadi documents, a collection of about 50 Christian/Gnostic texts from the late 4th century C.E. (in Coptic, the language of Hellenistic Egypt), texts that represented the beliefs of those who "lost" in the struggle with the orthodox Christians, were coming to light. These texts had actually been discovered a few years before the Dead Sea Scrolls but their publication was delayed until the late 1970s-early 1980s. Indeed, when I was heading off to Tubingen to study the "Jewish world" of early Christianity, another one of the graduate students in the program at Brown (Karen King) was heading off to East Berlin to work with some renowned Coptologists. She chose right (and she is a very good scholar), and now she holds the endowed chair in Early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School. The trajectory of her career has neatly dovetailed with the trajectory of discovery, publication and commentary on these Gnostic Christian texts from Nag Hammadi in Egypt.
The Gospel of Judas Emerges
The Gospel of Judas was only discovered in the Egyptian sands near Al Minya in Middle Egypt in 1978. Thus it is not a "Nag Hammadi" text, but it comes from the same milieu as those texts. Other web sites and publications have described the shadowy and heartbreaking saga of the life of this text from its being stolen out of Egypt and making its way to Europe, its being placed with no effort at preservation in a safe deposit box at a Citibank bank branch in Hicksville, NY for sixteen years, and finally to its being bought (or, more accurately stated, rights to publish it being bought) by a Swiss Foundation in 2000. By 2000 the Gospel of Judas was in such poor state of preservation that it was, according to Professor Rodolphe Kasser, the individual selected by the foundation to head up the translation and publication effort, the most fragile such ancient text he had ever seen. Nevertheless, after five years of work, the text has been restored to a large extent.
This last sentence needs to be clarified. The editors of The Gospel of Judas claim that only about 10-15% of the text was lost (p.75) even though its "message has survived largely intact." But then, as you read between the lines of Kasser's article regarding the text, you learn that some of the remaining 85-90% of the document is preserved in papyrus fragments ("unfortunately very numerous") that have not yet been connected to the main flow of the Gospel. The reason for this is that the papyrus codex in which the Gospel was preserved was split horizontally about 1/3 down the page (with the page numberings at the top), with the bottom 2/3 of the page shredding and eroding, so that small fragments became separated from their proper pages. Because of the desire to get the Gospel published, the "jigsaw puzzle" of the fragments is not completely solved--even by a long shot. Yet, when the scholarly photographic version of the text comes out later this year, the fragments will be available for study. Thus Kasser can say:
"These pieces will not be fully identified and placed in their place of origin without considerable future efforts....These fragments, irreplaceable because of their authenticity, will remain in waiting in this photographic conservatory, because, little by little, they will be identified by zealous and shrewd readers during the future decades" (72).
Thus, what we have is a preliminary attempt to bring the Gospel of Jesus to contemporary readers; further refinements are to come.
This background information should prepare us to understand the nature of the text discovered. The next essay probes this issue.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long