Monday, April 10, 2006

The Gospel of Judas: skepticism strikes out

I just finished watching National Geographic's two-hour special on the Gospel of Judas. At one point I told some friends who were watching it with me: they've got two hours and some of the world's greatest biblical scholars, and I bet at the end they can't find a single one who thinks there's any historical credibility to the Gospel of Judas.

Sure enough, not a single one of their international panel of scholars was willing to endorse the historicity of the Gospel of Judas.

1. This is a great manuscript find--but so far it tells us absolutely nothing about the true history of Jesus. Few of the scholars on the program would be identified with any traditional form of Christianity. But none was willing to claim the Gospel of Judas as evidence that would undermine the traditional Gospels. There are good reasons why even skeptics won't endorse the Gospel of Judas. In part, any gospel written in the second century is going to be a dubious source of truth about Jesus. But mostly, there's no serious evidence that the Gospel of Judas has any contact with any credible historical tradition.

2. The discussion of the carbon-14 dating in the television special renews my skepticism about the accuracy of the carbon-14 date. The carbon-14 team thinks the manuscript dates from AD 220-340. But they never calibrated their carbon-14 readings against papyri from this period with known dates. Which means their estimate of AD 220-340 is much less credible estimate than they may realize. The handwriting of the papyrus looks about a century later than that given by the carbon-14 team. I would like to believe that the carbon-14 estimate is right: it would mean that a substantial batch of late Roman manuscripts are about a century older than scholars have so far estimated. But it is more likely that carbon-14 date is wrong.

3. Bart Ehrman repeats in the special the standard claim of many biblical scholars that the gospel were originally anonymous. Lots of biblical scholars agree with that, but the Gospel of Judas itself suggests that this is wrong. The camera focusses on the title at the end of the gospel, which reads Gospel of Judas in letters so clear many non-scholars could probably read it. The new manuscript is yet another piece of evidence that it was very rare to see gospels without titles. There is little reason to believe that the gospels now in the New Testament ever circulated without titles. So as I pointed out on Friday, the Gospel of Judas actually lends some support to the traditional view of the gospels.


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