I have been talking about how I came to learn about the Gnostic Gospel of Judas, the most significant Christian document discovered in modern times (since the 1940s). Now I want to explain what the Gospel is. I have just called it a “Gnostic” Gospel, and so to begin I need to say something about what Christian Gnosticism was. It is a fascinating topic, but widely misunderstood.
The reading-public-at-large was *somewhat* introduced to it in the 1950s with the publication of the Gospel of Thomas (which scholars today are reluctant to label “Gnostic,” as it turns out); but it became much more widely known in the 1970s when Elaine Pagels published her blockbuster, The Gnostic Gospels. She too has changed her views on lots of things (including the Gospel of Thomas), but her book is still a terrific read. I assign it to my undergrads.
I talk about Gnosticism in a number of my books. The following is some of the basic information from my textbook on the New Testament. In the next post I’ll get a bit more into the weeds to talk about the major views of a dominant form of Gnosticism, the one that the Gospel of Judas is related to and derives from.
Gnosticism: Problems of Definitions, Sources, and Dating
Over the past fifty years scholars have engaged in heated debates over how to define Gnosticism. These debates are intimately related to the problems that we have with the ancient sources that describe Gnostics or were written by Gnostics. Until about a hundred years ago, our only sources for understanding Gnosticism were the writings of its most vocal opponents, the proto-orthodox church fathers of the second, third, and fourth centuries. In our discussion of the Johannine epistles, we have already seen some of the problems with reconstructing a group’s beliefs and activities on the basis of an attack by its enemies. With regard to Gnosticism the problems are even more severe. Proto-orthodox church fathers such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian saw Gnosticism as a major threat to the success and unity of Christianity and pulled out all the stops in their assaults on it. Many of their charges—for example, their claim that certain groups of Gnostics engaged in wild sexual orgies and bizarre nocturnal rituals that involved eating babies—must be scrutinized with care.
One of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century provided us with an entirely new source of information about Gnostics, a source not produced by its opponents but by Gnostic Christians themselves. In 1945, just over a year before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, some Egyptian peasants stumbled upon a jar containing thirteen ancient books. These books contained some fifty-two literary works, most of them previously unknown. When they finally made their way through antiquities dealers into the hands of competent scholars, it became clear what they were. These peasants had accidentally unearthed a collection of ancient Gnostic texts written in Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language.
The books themselves were manufactured in …
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