A couple years ago, the whole world gasped as National Geographic introduced them to the intriguing world of the Gnostic Gospels. The Gospel of Judas commanded center stage in the annual pre-Easter media frenzy trying to discredit and sow seeds of doubt among Christians concerning the atoning death and resurrection of Christ. Of course this hostility to apostolic Christianity is nothing new. It was precisely this hostility that inspired the Gnostic sect known as Sethians, who supposedly had a favorable view of Judas, to write this supposed gospel. Gnostic is a term used for many different religious movements, some of which even predate Christianity. These religious movements held in common a disdain for the physical world, and were heavily influenced by the philosophy of Plato. Because of their disdain for “material” they denied the resurrection of the body, and were at fundamental odds with Christianity. However, Christ became somewhat of a spiritual superstar toward the end of the first century, and many different religions tried to incorporate Him into their belief systems, often corrupting the teaching of Christ in the process. This was the goal of the Gospel of Judas, to incorporate Jesus to their overall belief system, by distorting his teachings.
Today it isn’t so much the Gospel of Judas that is making the news, but the very terrible scholarship that went into the National Geographic documentary. Scholars like April Deconick, author of “The Thirteenth Apostle” immediately noticed serious errors in the translation of the Gospel of Judas. National Geographic in its rush for publicity wanted to make Judas the hero of the gospel. However, when DeConick sat down to do a cursory translation of the text she found that far from being the hero of the Sethian sect, Judas was actually considered to be a demon. It would be a nice thought to think that such unsound scholarship was the exception when it comes to sensationalist television documentaries concerning the Christian faith. It would be a nice thought. Unfortunately, it would also be wrong. Sound scholarship tends to uphold the Christian Faith, and makes for very lousy television.
Television, though, normally gets away with a poor quality of scholarship, because most Christians, even those who have read the Bible, know almost nothing of how the books from Genesis to Revelation were selected to fill the pages of the Old and New Testament. One myth says the Council of Nicea arbitrarily decided the matter. Actually, though the topic came up, no official Canon was ever decided on there, or at any other of the early ecumenical Councils that convened to hash out the differences among the sects. Canon is Greek for list or rule. It is a word often used in discussion of scripture to discuss which books are proper and which ones are not. Eusebius, a fourth century Christian historian, who attended the council, records that in his day books were classified into one of three categories: Those that are certain, those that are less certain, and those that are entirely rejected. There is no doubt that the Gospel of Judas fell into the third category. The books of the New Testament are often divided into two categories to this very day. Though there are more technical terms for the division the often-used “books of the first rank” and “books of the second rank” will do for our purposes.
Books of the first rank are the most authoritative in the New Testament because there is no doubt that they were written or approved of by the apostles who knew, and saw Jesus Christ, and were witnesses to His resurrection. These books include the four gospels, the thirteen epistles of Paul, the Acts of the Apostles, 1 Peter, and 1 John. These books make the first rank, because no one ever contested their authorship. They were known beyond a doubt to have been written by the apostles for the benefit of the Church. Peter’s grocery list, even if it were known, would not have been considered Scripture. The pedigrees of these letters were confirmed also by their use in Churches and citations by other first and second century theologians and church leaders. These letters were by men such as Polycarp, who knew and studied under John in Ephesus, Ignatious of Antioch, and Clement of Rome. These men are also known as the apostolic Fathers, because of their close proximity and relationships to the Apostles themselves. These were men who were able as no others to ascertain the validity of the letters. If they had cited or as often was the case, quoted the books, then if nothing else it was known that the book predated them and was written at the time of the apostles.
The books of the second rank are books whose contents were not at odds with what the books of the first rank had written, but whose authorship was less certain for various reasons. These books include, Hebrews, James, Second Peter, second and third John, Jude and Revelation. It was decided that these books were beneficial for Christians, but could not be used to establish doctrine such as the short terse statements of dogma recorded in the Nicene Creed. They could be quoted though as secondary support for doctrines established by the books of the first rank. Some have tried to do away with these distinctions, but the fact is without being able to prove who the author was books of the second rank will never have the authority as those of the first rank.
However, because reasonable men using logic and historical evidence were able to ascertain the apostolic validity of the books of the first rank, they were also able to dismiss many other spurious books, such as the Gospel of Judas. They could do this by analyzing what had been written to see if it was in agreement or at odds with those books of which they were certain. Of prime importance here, was whether or not the book spoke of Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross, and the forgiveness of sins that accomplished for the world. If it did not teach that our sins are forgiven on account of Christ’s death and resurrection then, like Peter’s grocery list, it didn’t need to be read by Christians, at least not for their spiritual benefit. A Christian may find a car manual beneficial, but not spiritually. However, many books, such as the Gospel of Judas, not only did not teach of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, but were actually written to deny the benefit of Christ’s death on the cross for us. Often times the bishops of Nicea and others were able to determine not only that the book was of recent authorship, but the Gnostic Sect that it originated from. For this reason they were not even considered for inclusion in the Christian canon.