Religion professor says "Gospel of Judas" provides interesting perspective on early Christianity

Thursday, April 13, 2006
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A long-lost religious text from the fourth century that relates the last days of Jesus Christ from the perspective of Judas Iscariot is a fascinating document but will not change Christians' views of their religion and Jesus, according to a University of North Texas philosophy and religion studies professor.

The surviving copy of text, referred to as the "Gospel of Judas," was made public last week by the National Geographic Society and was the subject of a recent program on the National Geographic Channel. Rather than painting Judas as Jesus' betrayer who handed him over for crucifixion, as the canonical gospels of the New Testament do, the text says Judas was the only apostle who knew Jesus' true identity as the son of God, and Jesus asked Judas to turn him into Jewish authorities for crucifixion.

Dr. Joseph Barnhart says the text is part of several apocryphal gospels written in the centuries following Jesus' death.

"Early Christians generated a lot of materials on Jesus, and there was a big debate over the selection process over what became the four Gospels of the New Testament," he says. "When you generate a lot of material, you generate lots of variation. The question is, ‘What part of that material is reliable?'"

Barnhart says the 13-page "Gospel of Judas," written in the Coptic language sometime in the fourth century, provides a window into the varying beliefs found in the early Christian church. However, it does not contain any mentions of the crucifixion or resurrection.

News on this text comes as some researchers are reevaluating Judas' role in the gospels, he says.

"There are those Biblical scholars don't think there was really a Judas; for example, there is no reference to Judas in any of the letters of Paul. But to have good literature, you need conflict, and some scholars think this might be the case with Judas being inserted into the gospels," he says.

Barnhart points out that it wasn't until 382 A.D. that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were accepted and codified in the New Testament.

"Christianity grew up out of a flood of apocalyptic literature. Many people expected the world would end soon," he says.

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