National Geographic's Gospel of Judas Special

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I've been watching National Geographic's special on the Gospel of Judas (see here for my first post with links to all sorts of information on this work). I'm trying to catalogue all the unscholarly things they've been saying. I think I missed at least one, but there's plenty here to criticize.

First of all, they selected mostly scholars known for Gnostic sympathies or more radical reconstructions of the history of the development of Christianity. Many of these were not mainstream scholars but fringe elements like Bart Ehrman (see the links here for evaluation of his latest popular work) or Elaine Pagels (best known for minority views about Gnosticism that most scholars reject). Craig Evans was the one voice of reason in the whole production, and it felt to me as if they were excerpting him most of the time to fit with what they wanted to get across, putting his rejection of any historical value in this work regarding the actual Judas immediately before a fallacious argument of Elaine Pagels that ignores much historical information about the differences between what we know about the gospels and what we know about this work (see 6 below). My conclusion is that the people who put this together absolutely failed in terms of their journalistic integrity. But what else is new? That usually happens in these specials. There was much that I found enjoyable and interesting in this special, but I'm disgusted enough with the negatives that I'll have to refer you to Mark Goodacre for the positive elements.

On to the specific criticisms:

1. Most scholars think Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were long dead before those gospels were written? This is completely wrong. Most scholars do think John died before his gospel was written. I think they're wrong, but that is an accurate summary of the orthodoxy among NT scholars. The same may be true of Matthew and Luke, although the standard datings of those are much more varied, and common datings of them allow easily that someone born in the first decade could be alive to have written Matthew. Luke may have been born as early as the early 20s (he was much younger than Paul, who might have been younger than Jesus), and if his gospel was completed in the 60s or 70s it's not at all out of the question that he'd still be alive.

Some think Mark was produced about 50. Some place it later, even as late as the 70s. I think a large number of scholars place it in the 60s. If Mark was born in the early 20s, as is likely for a younger companion of Paul. That would mean Mark would have been in his 50s in the 70s. What kind of scholar would assume that Mark couldn't have lived that long? I know of no serious scholar who dates Mark later than that. So why claim that all four traditional authors of the gospels must have been long dead when their gospels were completed? Even leaving aside the issue of gospel traditions that circulated for decades during the lifetimes of almost all the apostles, it's just deceptive to claim that most scholars believe all four traditional authors were long dead by the time their assigned gospels were written. I don't think that could possibly be true.

2. Almost all scholars today believe that the four gospels were written between 60 and 100 AD? Not true, unless "almost" can be true of a mere majority. A very large minority thinks Mark was written earlier than 60, because otherwise Matthew and Luke wouldn't have had enough time to come into existence based on Mark with enough time for Acts to be completed before Paul's final trial in Rome (the best explanation for why it ends suddenly with no account of what happens to Paul).

3. Mark's gospel doesn't present Judas as a traitor? You had to wait until Matthew for that, according to the narrative of this documentary. See the following passages for confirmation of that thesis:

He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. [Mark 3:16-19, ESV]
Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him. [Mark 14:10-11, ESV]
And he came the third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough; the hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.��? And immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man. Seize him and lead him away under guard.��? And when he came, he went up to him at once and said, “Rabbi!��? And he kissed him. And they laid hands on him and seized him. [Mark 14:41-46, ESV]

So I guess there's no indication in the Gospel of Mark that Judas betrayed Jesus.

4. Elaine Pagels pretends the gospels are anti-semitic, and they get more anti-semitic as they get more Gentile. She says this even though Luke is usually thought of as the most obviously Gentile-written gospel, and it's the one scholars who take this line generally accept as less anti-semitic. Matthew, of course, is the most obviously Jewish-written gospel (he's the only one who regularly translates from the Hebrew scriptures rather than just quoting the Greek translation as all the others did). It's words from Matthew that the Jewish Anti-Defamation League got Mel Gibson to remove from his subtitles. So the claim that the Gentile-influenced gospels lead to this kind of language is just wrong.

But it's a strange sort of mindset to begin with that calls these statements anti-semitic. See my comments on John and anti-semitism. The reality is that the Jewish gospel writers were more concerned about pointing out the errors of their own people, which isn't anti-semitism but internal self-criticism in the mold of the prophets, indeed in the mold of Jesus. This sort of claim is as bad as those who claim that it's unpatriotic to point out where you disagree with the leaders of your country. The prophets are rife with the kind of criticism that the gospels contain, and if Pagels wants to argue that the gospels are anti-semitic then she better say the same thing about Moses, Micaiah, Elijah, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Malachi.

5. This isn't technically an inaccuracy, but it's highly misleading. They kept asking if they could establish that this document was authentic. They concluded yes. Will viewers understand what this means? In a few places they say that they established it to be from the ancient world, but what does that mean? The date they assign it is 280 or so. We know nothing of whether it has any source before that. For all we know, it came into existence in the third century. Is it authentic? Yes, if all you mean is that it's from the third century. Perhaps not, if what you mean is that it came from the Greek document Irenaus called the Gospel of Judas. Almost certainly not, if you mean what the narrator and several interviewed scholars keep insinuating, i.e. that this was a rival gospel to the four in the NT from the same time period that should be considered valuable for learning about the life of the real Judas Iscariot. This distinction was never clearly made, and I think the implication is inaccuarate even if they didn't say anything literally false on this issue. The questions they asked invited an assumed answer that is indeed false, or at least extremely speculative beyond any evidence we've got.

6. Here's what they didn't say, and its absence has the same deceptive effect as my previous point. There's no evidence of any Gnosticism like this any time before the second century and no evidence of a Gospel of Judas before 180 (and it's not even clear if this Gospel of Judas is the same one that Irenaus wrote about, because there are strong dissimilarities between his description and this work). There's strong evidence for at least portions of the four gospels in the NT much earlier than that. There's a fragment of John from the early second century, for instance, and that's the one with the weakest claim to closeness to Jesus as most scholars see it.

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For an excellent critque of the biased journalism and misapplied, selective scholarship in National Geographics program on the supposed authentication of "The Gospel of Judas", see Jeremy...

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16 Comments

On a quick read I agree with most everything you say. (Though I'm not sure Bart Ehrman is as fringe worthy as Elaine Pagels.) I'm curious whether you think 1 Timothy 1:4 and 6:20 are references to gnosticism. If so how does the gnosticism referenced there differ from that of later gnosticism as portrayed by the Gospel of Judas?

I think scholars are now tending to see the background of the false teaching opposed in I Timothy as some combination of Jewish wisdom speculation and some Hellenistic thought that had some common features with gnosticism. I'm not sure how genealogies are supposed to be related to gnosticism. Calling something knowledge doesn't amount to gnosticism. Most who hold a view call it knowledge.

There's some sense that the pastorals are opposing a spiritualizing of the resurrection and a sense that the resurrection had already occurred, but all that requires is the overrealized eschatology Paul opposes in the Corinthians letters. It doesn't require the gnostic sense that everything physical is evil or the myths about another earlier God who declares the Hebrew creator God to be evil. It doesn't require seeing our goal to escape the world. One thing especially ungnostic about these teachings is that they overvalue the law and the biblical genealogies in focusing on minor details in a way that perhaps looked much like the Bible Code approach today. The gnostics thought they should be free of the law and the Hebrew scriptures in general. That's a huge difference.

Witherington says some more about this in the comments of the posts I linked to in my earlier post, but I think the main point is that scholars are nowadays calling this sort of thing proto-gnosticism. In the 50s people were treating those verses as being in response to gnosticism, but there's no evidence for full-blown gnosticism in the first century.

There is a strong resemblance in 1John however, to say that Jesus Christ did not come in the flesh (which is exactly what Gnostics would say) amounts to blasphemy.

However, to "full-blown" Gnosticism I would agree, certainly not found. I would also agree with the commenter, Ehrman isn't all that bad. He might be candid and sympathetic, but, not fringe-worthy. I thought his work "Orthodox Corruption" was well done, and well reasoned. But then again I'm not particularly inclined to think that the scriptures are to be given less trust in these situations.

See the comments on the Witherington posts that I linked to in my earlier post. He thinks Ehrman is a fringe scholar, at least on issues like this, and he says most scholars would agree. Witherington is one of the few evangelical scholars to be considered cream of the crop by mainstream scholars. Given that he's constantly referring to complementarians as fringe elements, it's clear that he's more willing to count someone on the more radical end as mainstream than he would evangelicals. Yet even he thinks Ehrman is fringe, and he thinks most scholars would agree. That's hard for me to argue with.

I think the thing about Ehrman that just strikes me as unscholarly is his willingness to treat the ending of Mark, John 7:31ff. about the woman caught in adultery, and the trinitarian formula added in Latin to I John as if they are representative of the sort of thing that most of the NT books are full of. That sort of statement is just completely outside the mainstream of biblical scholarship. It really does justify calling him a fringe element. Most scholars recognize that these three examples are the absolute worst cases in terms of text critical study undermining anything at all in the Bible. Nothing else I even know of, at least in the New Testament, is even in the general ballpark of these. Nothing that affects any major doctrine depends on these, yet he acts as if the support for the Trinity is gone because of the discovery that this late passage was added to I John, as if John 14-17 and Philippians 2 (among other passages) have to be excised simply because this onbe does.

Jeremy,

regarding your last comments--Ehrman is local to me, and though I haven't had any direct contacts with him, I've heard plenty from his students. He is, by all accounts, a very well read and intelligent scholar, but he is quite guilty of pushing the idea of thorough textual corruption of the NT documents.

He apparently lost his evangelical faith through struggling with textual issues during his graduate years and now delights in trying to do the same to his students.

I'm starting to be of the opinion that some fundamentalist formulations about scripture have a tendency to lead to this sort of thing. In defense of a "high" view of scripture, many churches teach things which have little or no basis, then when certain ideas are questioned in collegiate studies, young people take an all or nothing stand. Since they cannot answer all of the objections from their professors, e.g. about textual inconsistencies, they have a full-blown faith crisis.

Our teaching about scripture needs to be resilient enough that even if we can't answer a question about one part of things, our whole faith doesn't depend on some sort of tightly held togther system.

Sorry for the digression. Just on my mind when I think about Ehrman.

This is why blogs are so awesome. The media just cannot get away with pushing just any old tale. Truth is around the corner.

There was also a new 10 Commandments that aired last night. I totally forgot about it. Part II is on tonight.

God Bless,
Raj

I want to add to what Paul said. I have read a good number of bios of people who left the faith. The majority of them seem to have come from a hard fundamentalistic legalistic background. Where they came from - dancing, card playing, etc. were all sins.

Ehrman is no exception from what I remember reading about him in a bookstore.

- Raj

This isn't directly tied to the issue at hand (excellent analysis btw), but it is something I wanted to point out.

Presupposition. Everything depends on if you believe in God or not. It will inform all of your thinking and conclusions.

If you don't believe in God then you will assume that the books of the Bible were written merely by human authors. If this is true, then it is easy to dismiss the authority of the Bible.

But if you do believe in God, then is it so hard to accept that an all-powerful God would be capable of preserving the exact words He wanted the world to hold in its hand (the Bible)? If He could create the world, then surely He could ensure the survival and integrity of the words that reflect who He is. And if you look at history, the Bible was targeted in every generation for destruction, and yet we still have it intact. It survives to this day almost two-thousand years later (for the NT, much longer for the OT).

For the vast majority of people who say they don't believe in God, it is because of personal reasons and has almost nothing to do with intellectual arguments or evidences. Personal reasons include not wanting to change behaviour (usually) but in some cases could be resentment at things that happen in life. But we still must respond to the intellectual and philosophical arguments because they are used effectively to provide a way out for the people that don't want to believe in God for personal reasons.

I watched the special and found it extremely interesting. Different parts rung true and it answered previously unanswered questions.


In response to the main post point 3:- I suppose that the references to Judas being the betrayer could have been added to Mark's Gospel in the same way the resurrection was added.


I think I remember reading somewhere in one of the other Gospel’s something along the lines of:- Jesus said that it would have been better for Judas not to have been born than to have betrayed him. If I remembered that correctly, I can not believe Jesus would of said that as it goes directly against his main message:- Love thy neighbour.

The resurrection wasn't added to Mark. It's before the section that was added. The resurrection and the references to Jesus as a betrayer are in the oldest versions of Mark that we have. Besides, these people were talking about Mark in the form we have it, not some hypothetical proto-Mark that we have zero evidence for. What they said is simply false, and I have trouble believing that they didn't know that it was false.

How does that go against "love your neighbor"? Maybe you're building some assumption into that command, but isn't it more reasonable to figure out what Jesus meant by it by seeing how he himself fleshes it out with other things he says?

Hey Jeremy,


According to my Catholic version of the Bible it states that the Gospel of Mark's original ending end at 16,8.


Okay I understand what you are saying but the first two references to Judas being the betrayer are at the end of the sentence [add some text here].


Jesus:-"Love your enemy��?:: Pope:-[Judas]"... is greedy: Money is more important than communion with Jesus, more important than God and his love. He also becomes a liar, a double-crosser who breaks with the truth". How can the Pope Judge this man? Where is the love?


Why is it that bad figures that I have been brought up as "Catholic" to believe (eg, Mary Magdalene [Prostitute] and Judas [Betrayer]) are not as bad as I was lead to believe?


Anyone know where i can find truthful information on Satan?

Yes, and the resurrection takes place before 16:8. It's reported in 16:6-7. Some scholars think 16:8 was the original ending of the book. I find that plausible. Others think an ending existed that's now been lost that's in essence similar to what's in Matthew's account after the empty tomb and report of Jesus' resurrection. I can't see any reason why either view couldn't be true, but what's clear is that the resurrection is reported in the part of that no one disputes is original.

I'm not sure what your second sentence is referring to. In Mark 3:19, there is no textual evidence that I know of that there are any copies of Mark without the words referring to his betrayal. In the second reference in Mark 14, the whole action of the verses I gave is betrayal. It's not just some added thing at the end of a sentence. The same is true of the third reference, of course, but you just mentioned the first two.

Love is not mutually exclusive from judging. For one thing, judgment is sometimes loving discipline. On the other end, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and asks why they so stubbornly resist God and thus face judgment. He lovingly preaches the message of repentance so that they will not perish and go where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. What Jesus says about judging is that you shouldn't judge someone else's speck of sawfust if you've got a log in your own eye. He doesn't say that you can't state the gospel's declaration that those who reject the Messiah are destined for hell.

Mary Magdalene is more complicated. There's no direct evidence in scripture that she's the prostitute she's sometimes been assumed to be, but it's not as if anyone is condemning Mary Magdalene. They've treated her as the repentant prostitute and thus a redeemed sinner. She's never been cast as a thoroughly evil person headed for hell.

Judas, however, seems to have been as bad as anyone has said he was. The oldest and most reliable reports we have of him are that he was a betrayer of his closest friends. The reports of him stealing from the money-basket are much older and much more reliable than this Gnostic fabrication that at the earliest is many decades after John's gospel.

I'm not sure what you're talking about with respect to Satan. It's clear that lots of stuff in Milton and Dante before him were nothing like the portrait in the Bible, but why not just read the biblical accounts to discover that? It's clear in the NT that Satan is a deliberate agent and not some natural force, that he is a fallen angel and leads fallen angels. He is headed for eternal destruction and not a kingdom that he will reign over in hell.

There are satan/accuser figures and tempter figures in the OT, most notably the snake in Gen 3, the accuser in Job, and the tempter in the Chronicles account of David's census, and those fit nicely with the NT picture, though many scholars think they contain much less than the NT picture. I do think the snake and the accuser in Job can plausibly be identified as an angel with evil purposes, and I think the Chronicles tempter can plausibly be identified as an angelic creature under God's control but who might have his own evil creatures. Those sorts of roles make perfect sense for the NT concept of Satan.

Some people think some of the portraits of kings in the prophetic speeches (most notably to Babylon in Isa 13-14 but also Tyre in the middle of Ezekiel and other places) are in part referring to Satan as much as to any human king. I'm not as sure about that myself, but it's a view I'm open to.

You put forward good points. Though, in Mark's Gospel why would an Angel stationed at the empty tomb refer to Jesus as 'Jesus of Nazareth' and not Christ or the Messiah or say 'tell his disciples and Peter'? Wasn't Peter a disciple? The end of this Gospel is just like the start IMHO. FYI: Mark 16:9 states Jesus rose from the dead ...


Whether it is the second sentence (or for that matter the third) Jesus' words never implicate Judas.


I disagree with your point about Love and Judging. Is not Judgment the seed of hatred?


[/gossip] It would be nice to know what the real truth behind Mary Magdalene is.

John's Gospel: I have attempted reading this Gospel, but a large portion of the words of Jesus in this Gospel are not his own IMHO.

I have never read the OT, though I think I did read somewhere on the internet that the devil and/or demons never existed in the OT.

The most plausible explanation for calling him Jesus of Nazareth is to emphasize that he's the same guy reported about in the entire gospel. The Jesus they knew as Jesus of Nazareth is the risen Jesus. This ties together the one worshiped as Christ with the Jesus Mark has been writing about all along.

I know of two explanations for why Peter would be singled out, and they might both be true. One is that Peter had denied Jesus three time, and this shows that he's not cast aside because of that. The other is that Peter may simply not have rejoined the disciples out of embarassment over what he had done, and they would need to go to the disciples and to Peter separately.

I didn't say Mark 16:9 says or doesn't say anything. I said the resurrection is reported before that. What happens after that doesn't tell us anything about what the oldest manuscripts contain, because that stuff isn't in it. You were saying the resurrection isn't reported until the ending that was added later, and that's not true.

No, judgment is not the seed of hatred. If anything, hatred is what leads to a lot of judging, but that is not always so. Someone might judge something to be wrong without hating the person. This is an extremely common thing. Parents do this with their children all the time. I don't want to reduce judgment to love. It isn't always going to be motivated by love. But it certainly can be.

Almost all the words in John's gospel, as in all the others, are not Jesus' own. Jesus almost certainly spoke in Aramaic most of the time, and the gospels record his words in Greek. But that doesn't mean they're not accurately reporting what he said by capturing the essence of what he communicated. I've read all the gospels many times, and I've read lots of scholarship by people who affirm and others who deny their accuracy, and I haven't really seen any halfway decent reason to believe that John's gospel doesn't accuarately report what Jesus really did and said. All the arguments I've seen are pretty inconclusive at best, and many of them simply misunderstand the reporting methods of the time.

There aren't clear references to Satan or demons in the OT, but there are references to angels, and there are references that most scholars take to be fallen angels, which is what the NT says Satan and demons are. I've listed the most frequent passages that are thought by some to be referring to him. There are several others that are plausibly taken to refer to fallen angels (e.g. in Genesis 6) or spiritual beings who are in combat with angels (e.g. in the apocalyptic second half of Daniel).

Jeremy,
Have you ever seen any statistical analysis of the authority of New Testament documents? I've given a very rough shot at it to that is really only the spark of an idea. You can find it here:

http://mrsmithinwashington.com/?p=30

Anything you can point me to along these lines?

Thanks.

Of course, National Geographic Channel isn't known for its scholarly prowess. And the gospel of Judas didn't get lost because early readers thought it was so precious.
Thanks for your riveting post.
-Arie

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