Werner's Reviews > The Lost Gospel of Judas: Separating Fact from Fiction

The Lost Gospel of Judas by Stanley E. Porter
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Aug 19, 2009

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bookshelves: biblical-studies, history
Recommended for: Readers who are curious about Gnosticism, but know little about it

For decades at least, popular culture has been periodically excited by discoveries of various ancient Gnostic writings, as sensationalized press and TV accounts eagerly proclaim that each of these discredits the very foundations of traditional Christianity; the Gospel of Judas is the most recent of these. The mythos is fueled by fiction and movies such as The Da Vinci Code and The Gnostic Secret, which hordes of readers imagine are fact-based. Many people are understandably confused by the whole thing, and wish they had some solid facts. This book is an attempt to provide those facts, and put them in an evidence-based, serious historical perspective.

Porter is a New Testament scholar, and Heath a historian of Christianity, at McMaster Divinity College, Canada's premier evangelical seminary; both are well-respected and competent academics in their fields. Here, though, they're intentionally writing for ordinary laypeople, so their presentation is short and simple (though they do use footnotes), presupposing no special knowledge of the subject. After introducing the controversial and hyped splash made in popular media by the 2006 release of the translated text of the Gospel of Judas, they set the document in the broader context of Gnosticism as a whole, and give a thumbnail sketch of that movement. As they note, that task is complicated by the fact that there were many varied Gnostic sects, though they had some basic ideas and attitudes in common; a root idea of all Gnostics, though, is the idea that "the physical or material was something evil that needed to be escaped from; only the spiritual was good." They also note that this is based on the ideas of Plato (actually, though they don't trace it that far, this strand of thought antedates Plato; it was introduced into Greek philosophy centuries earlier by Pythagoras, who had traveled in India and returned with many Hindu ideas) though they don't indicate how pervasive this mindset was among educated Greek-speakers in the Hellenistic era. (The writings of Paul and John both explicitly combat heretical ideas in the first-century Church that are clearly proto-Gnostic; and the mainstream strand of Christianity that became the Catholic and Orthodox churches, while never going as far as the Gnostics, absorbed a lot of this attitude, as evidenced by the steadily mounting glorification, in the early Christian centuries, of celibacy, asceticism and monasticism, and comments such as Clement of Alexandria's serious assertion that Jesus never had a bowel movement because that would have compromised his divinity. But Porter and Heath don't deal with those facets of the subject.)

Our authors then discuss the first mention of a Gospel of Judas, by Irenaeus late in the 2nd century, who associates it with a Gnostic sect called the Cainites; they go on to summarize the few other extant Patristic references to the Cainites or to the document. (They point out that there is no evidence that the work Irenaeus and Epiphanius mention is necessarily the same one as the recently discovered text, but in their chapter summary they seem to assume that it is. This is one of several features of the book that indicate rather hasty composition, without careful proofreading; obviously, that's a negative feature.) This is followed by a brief discussion of the finding of the manuscript itself, mostly to set it in the context of the extensive discoveries of papyrus documents in Egypt and Palestine, beginning in the late 1800s. One chapter summarizes and explains the content of the Gospel of Judas.

Finally, the remaining four chapters, broadly speaking, deal with the significance of the document (which they contextualize clearly as part of the Gnostic tradition of "rehabilitation literature" of marginal or disparaged Biblical figures), if any, for our confidence in the validity of traditional Christian faith. (The authors particularly critique Bart Ehrman's revisionist claim that the Gnostic interpretation of Christianity is just as legitimate as the traditional one.) Probably their weakest argument is the assertion that the cumulative evidence of extensive correspondences of elements in the Gospel of Judas with elements in the canonical Gospels proves or suggests literary dependence on the latter; one could just as well argue that they simply share a common source in Christian tradition. But in toto, they make a cogent and convincing case that, first, the real question is not (as postmodernist philosophy would ask), what would I personally like for Jesus' teaching to have been? but rather, what does objectively evaluated historical evidence suggest that his teaching actually was? --and, second, that every line of evidence we have tends to confirm that the canonical New Testament, and the mainstream tradition of the Church, much more faithfully represent Jesus' teachings than the later Gnostic writings (which even Ehrman recognizes date from no earlier than the 2nd century). The latter, on the other hand, reflect a radical rejection, not only of the original Christian preaching and teaching, but of the entire Old Testament foundation that Jesus built upon.

As noted above, this book does have its flaws of hasty composition and occasionally weak argumentation. A few sentences read clumsily, and there is a minor factual error when the authors say that James the brother of Jesus is not mentioned in the canonical Gospels (he is mentioned in Mark 6:3). The brevity of the text (120 p., plus the two indexes and the bibliography) means that this is not a source for an in-depth view of the subject and its related issues --though the two- page list of "Selected Reading" points the reader to sources that would provide an in-depth education in New Testament background. But it certainly is a good starting point for interested laypeople who want a basic framework for evaluating the extravagant claims being made for the Gnostics in some popular media. (There have been a spate of other books written that seek to do the same thing, and also from an evangelical perspective; but I've read only this one.)
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