N.T. Wright has written a wonderful little book entitled Judas & the Gospel of Jesus that I might’ve wished I’d gotten my hands on sooner if it weren’t for the fact that it came to me at just the right time. In the past year I’ve been exposed to a wider range of thought than I ever knew existed, and at times this exposure has been downright challenging to my faith in Jesus Christ. One view in particular I’ve had to grapple with is that perception on life and spirituality commonly referred to as Gnosticism, which Wright deals with at length in this book.
The gospel of Judas is an ancient Gnostic writing that was discovered in the 1970’s and published in 2006. Essentially it is a collection of supposed teachings of Jesus and his conversations with Judas Iscariot, who is portrayed as the hero who does the will of Jesus in handing him over to death rather than the villain who betrays him to be murdered. According to Wright,
The gnostic “gospels,” of which this “Gospel of Judas” is one, regularly speak of Jesus and his followers in ways that turn heroes into villains and the villains into heroes.
In the book, Wright begins by affirming the value of this document as a legitimate work of history. But he wonders about the true meaning behind all the fuss surrounding its publication from those who trumpet its message as a valid alternative to the story of Jesus found in the canonical gospels. Wright’s arguments are balanced yet very bold, and he is not afraid to call out what seems to him to be a clear agenda on the part of those who would offer readers from the western world an ancient affirmation of the things they already want to believe and dis-believe. After a thorough consideration of the time, effort, and merchandising spent on this “new” gospel, he wonders,
Was it really, we may ask, worth all the trouble and expense just to hear a second-century writer saying what so many in North America and elsewhere already believe?
From there the book unfolds into an overview of second-century Gnosticism, including its origins, variations, and key concepts. In doing so Wright creates a certain historical context in which to understand the Gospel of Judas. On this basis he proceeds to contrast the “Judas of faith” with the “Iscariot of history.” He similarily compares the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John with the Jesus of “Judas.” What the reader discovers is in harmony with what James M. Robinson had to say about the “Gospel of Jesus”, whom Wright quotes from Newsweek in 2006:
[This new work] tells us nothing about the historical Jesus and nothing about the historical Judas. It tells only what, 100 years later, Gnostics were doing with the story they found in the canonical Gospels.
In my opinion, the best stuff Wright has to say on this subject is found in his comparisons of the gospel of Judas with the canonical gospels and especially in his comparisons of the Jesus of the New Testament with the Jesus found in Gnostic literature. It is a tremendous portrayal and exaltation of Christ as preeminent over all things, not to mention a very insightful look at the implications of the Gnostic “gospel” (which is no gospel at all) with the message of the kingdom of God preached and embodied by Jesus. You can feel Wright’s passion bleeding through each page as he delves straight to the heart of the issue, which he calls “the new myth of Christian origins.” Wright believes the main motivation behind certain people’s enthusiastic promotion of this new Gospel of Judas and its Gnostic alternative to a real and living faith in Jesus Christ is found in a desire to re-define the person and work of Christ in such a way to better suit out anti-religious tastes. In his opinion, the Gnostic teaching
was not at all about the Jewish and early Christian vision of the kingdom of the creator God coming on earth as in heaven. It was about seeking true meaning inside oneself-and, more than true meaning, true goodness and even true divinity. It had nothing to do with the need for an atonement; humans, at least the special ones, were not sinners in need of forgiveness, but sparks of light who needed to discover who they were. It had nothing whatever to do with the dream, let alone the reality, of resurrection. It offered a different kind of religion, more like a soft version of Buddhism…
…and more in tune with the hopes of liberal American academics from the 1960’s onwards, especially those who had grown up in somewhat strict versions of the Christian faith, whether traditional Catholic or traditional (and perhaps Fundamentalist) Protestant.
The point, he says, is that
the fashion for favoring gnostic texts, even admittedly very bizzare ones, over against the canonical scriptures has a great deal more to do with social and religious (or indeed anti-religious) fashions in North America than with actual historical research.
If you haven’t noticed already, Wright is very quotable as an author. Also, though he is a scholar, and a top-notch one at that, he is quite readable. Forgive the expression, but he is very good at speaking in “layman’s terms.” I found this work of his, the first I’ve ever read, to be incredibly informative and without a great deal of the fluff that accompanies most writings. Wright is brief and to the point. He does not overstate his claims or dress up his arguments in flowery language. I like that about any author. I could go on but I will leave it at that. As far as I know this book is now out of print, but you can obtain a copy at Amazon for only a couple dollars. I highly recommend it.