by N. T. Wright, Baker Books Grand Rapids, MI, 2006. Reviewed by Ella M. Rydzewski, August 13, 2015: As a renowned scholar and the Bishop of Durham of the Church of England, Wright has authored more than 30 books. He wrote this one to shine the light of New Testament history on a Gnostic document discovered in the 1970s but not translated for 30 years. In 2006 it was edited and published with a commentary by Bart Ehrman. Ehrman is a liberal New Testament scholar at the University of North Carolina and is featured in the Great Courses DVDs.
Its publication became a center of excitement since, as Wright says, its first editors, Meyer and Ehrman’s comments “reveal precisely that longing for new evidence to set against classic Christianity.” He infers it can be no coincidence it came out just before Easter and sported a snazzy-up cover for popular consumption.
Wright says this new “Gospel of Judas” tells us nothing about the real Jesus or Judas. Its enthusiasm only exposes the agenda in a quest for an “alternative Jesus” and provides sensational material made popular in books like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Having written extensively elsewhere about Jesus of Nazareth in His historical context Wright does not repeat that material.
The document has proved authentic from third-or-fourth-century Egypt and reveals why second-century Christians rejected the Gnostic Christian alternative. But it doesn’t disprove Christianity. It does tell how some in the past reinterpreted that faith and how some want to reinterpret it now.
There were different varieties of Gnosticism, Christianity, and Judaism in the second century, but they held common central beliefs. Irenaeus says they referred to themselves as “people of knowledge” or gnostikoi. According to Wright, Gnosticism has four major features:
1) A dark dualism in which the material world of space and time are perceived as bad and created by an evil god; this includes humans in their physical bodies.
2) The world was made by a bad god, but there is a pure, wise, and true divinity different from the creator god and sometimes called “Father.”
3) The human goal is to escape the wicked world and human existence; salvation is to obtain deliverance from the material cosmos.
4) The way to this salvation is through a “secret” knowledge acquired by learning about the true god. This comes through a revealer (Jesus was seen as a revealer) from the upper spiritual world to the chosen few that have “within themselves the spark of light, the divine identity hidden deep in their shabby, gross outward material form.”
Irenaeus and other early Christian teachers document these distinguishing marks. In the Gnostic texts themselves, are the codices from Nag Hammadi and elsewhere and now the Gospel of Judas. The texts are relentlessly hostile to the main lines of ancient Judaism, even as they attempt to reinterpret the Old Testament. But much later we find Gnosticism in the Jewish movement Kabbalah. Wright notes that astral immortality was a pop notion in the ancient world, as it is today.
The author noted a familiar feel in parts of The Gospel of Judas that reminded him of letters he occasionally receives with page after page of rambling cosmological speculations, blocked letters, and underlining. I’ve seen those sorts of letters while working for a religious magazine.
In spite of Ehrman and others’ attempts to connect Gnosticism with Judaism, the author states it is clearly in opposition to a mainline Jewish worldview of the goodness of the material world. The canonical gospels are early; the Gnostic ones late. Wright shows the difference between the two.
Why suggest the Gospel of Judas offers new insights? Wright concludes some scholars in North America are eager to teach and believe a story “even at the cost of writing what most historians will
regard as manifest nonsense. This is what I call the New Myth of Christian Origins.” It has more to do with social and anti-religious fashions than in historical research, he says.
I found this an intriguing book from which one can trace the current presence of dualism in Christianity through the ages. It’s a theological battle the disciples faced in the first century and still persists in different forms.
By Ella M. Rydzewski