Friday, April 07, 2006

The Gospel of Judas


The publication of the Gospel of Judas has provided some excitement for the web in biblical studies. And the New York Times is in on the action.

1) This is a very high-powered team that was asked to do the work on this new codex. I know some of them personally. Stephen Emmel of Muenster is someone I met in Germany, and Emmel is brilliant. Robinson is well-known internationally, and one of the leading biblical scholars of the last generation. Ehrman is currently the best-known specialist in New Testament textual criticism in North America. Putting all of these guys (and others) together on one project is the Dream Team of biblical scholarship.

2) The codex itself is certainly authentic. It is written in Coptic. The carbon-14 experts date it to AD 280 +/- 60 years. Emmel thinks the handwriting dates from around 400. Most of my work is with Greek palaeography rather than with Coptic, but since the alphabets are mostly the same, the Greek is frequently used as a cross-check on the Coptic. I haven't had time to do a systematic study of the fragments, but at an initial glance I would tend to concur with Emmel: mid-to-late fourth century AD at least in terms of the Greek characters, possibly early fifth century AD.

3) This means there is some discrepancy between the palaeographical date and the carbon-14 date. Unfortunately, carbon-14 dating has often proved unreliable in dealing with ancient manuscripts: when documents with known dates are tested with carbon-14, the carbon-14 dates frequently prove to be badly off. I haven't been able to locate the publications of the carbon-14 team, but the carbon-14 date of AD 280 +/- 60 may well be too old: mid-to-late 300s may well prove closer to the mark when the codex is studied in detail.

4) There is a difference between the codex and the text. The codex was copied after the text--just as your printed Bible in your house is a recent copy of a much older text. Although the codex of the Gospel of Judas looks fourth century AD, the Gospel text itself is much older: it must have been written prior to the time of Irenaeus of Lyons, who mentions it in his book Adversus Haereses (Against the Heresies) in c.AD 180.

5) Irenaeus writes: "They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas." (AH I.31). So the Gospel of Judas itself must have been written before the time of Irenaeus of Lyons c.AD 180, even though the codex which we have now was copied perhaps two hundred years later.

6) There isn't a chance in the world that Judas actually wrote the Gospel. And there's very little chance that any biblical scholar will try to claim otherwise.

7) Nor is there any meaningful chance that the Gospel of Judas contains any new historical facts about Jesus himself. As always, one wants to be cautious until a thorough study has been made, but the chances that it contains anything true about Jesus that isn't already in the Gospels is near zero.

8) The most interesting thing about the codex--at least from the standpoint of palaeography--is the fact it contains the title at the very end: The Gospel of Judas. If you look carefully at the last two lines of the picture, you may be able to pick out the letters: EUANGELION IOUDAS.
(The last line looks like an O Y Delta A C=Ioudas).

9) Many modern biblical scholars think the biblical gospels were originally anonymous, and that the titles were added later by the scribes. But the German scholar Martin Hengel has written that the titles are authentic. The Gospel of Judas provides some additional supporting evidence that Hengel is right: the normal way for ancient books to be written is with titles, either at the end or the beginning of the manuscript. This in turn supports the traditional belief that the Gospels were not written anonymously, but by known individuals whose names were part of the titles.

10) In and of itself, the presence of titles does not prove that the Gospels were originally written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John: the Gospel of Judas contains a title and was certainly not written by Judas. But it does add to the evidence that the titles were very old, and the probability is that the titles were accepted by the early Catholic Church precisely because they were thought to be correct.

11) I doubt that the Gospel of Judas will strengthen the case for skepticism about the Gospels among biblical scholars. I do think it should add evidence to Martin Hengel's case for the traditional titles of the Gospels. The most important long-term effect of the discovery of the Gospel of Judas may well be to enhance rather than to question the historicity of the Gospels.

[My apologies to biblical scholars for oversimplifying a complex debate on the authorship of the Gospels and the significance of the titles!]

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