126 of 139 people found the following review helpful
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The standing joke about Tom Wright goes like this: An inquiring student gives Dr Wright a call. His secretary says, "Sorry, but he is busy writing a book". To which the student caller replies, "That's OK, I'll hold".
NT Wright is one of our most prolific New Testament scholars. It seems just a few months ago the media broke the story about the discovery of the so-called Gospel of Judas. And here we have a major critique of the find and the claims surrounding it.
The gospel was in fact discovered three decades ago, but for various reasons, was only made public in April of 2006. The media made much of it, and it tied in nicely with the film release of the Da Vinci Code. Both were over-hyped and cast aspersions on the canonical gospels and the real Jesus. And both fed into conspiratorial claims about church cover-ups and the need to reinvent Christianity.
Here Wright takes on the hype and the search for an "alternative Jesus". He demonstrates that this new find offers very little to our understanding of Jesus, and shows how far apart Gnostic teaching is from biblical truth claims.
The document in question, a Gnostic gospel, is authentic, but from third or fourth century Egypt. Like other Gnostic writings, this Judas document presents an unbiblical dualism: this world is evil and needs to be escaped from, and a secret knowledge (gnosis) will help one to achieve that. Jesus and the early disciples, by contrast, taught that God's kingdom was breaking into this world. While this material world is in need of restoration, it is not evil in itself. Indeed, God created it, and will one day recreate it altogether.
In orthodox Christianity, the goal of salvation is the redemption of this world, along with the resurrection of our bodies. In Gnosticism, the aim is to escape this evil material world. Thus the biblical gospels are this-worldly, while the Gnostic gospels deny this world. The message of the two are worlds apart.
And so too is the dating. The canonical gospels are early (written within a generation of the lifetime of Jesus) while the Gnostic gospels are late (second and third centuries). And the genre differs as well. The canonical gospels are sustained narratives, while the Gnostic writings are usually loose collections of teaching. While the Gospel of Judas is a bit different, it still is closer to the latter than to the former.
Wright correctly points out the irony of modern-day scholars trying to persuade us that the Gnostic gospels were radical alternatives to the `conservative' canonical gospels. Quite the opposite. The New Testament message was truly radical, and resulted in suffering and death. The Gnostic message was similar to the mystery religions of the day, and Gnostics rarely faced persecution for it.
In other words, "the Gnostics were the cultural conservatives, sticking with the kind of religion that everyone already knew". In contrast, the orthodox Christians "were breaking new ground, and [were] risking their necks as they did so".
So why are certain scholars so intent on promoting Judas and other Gnostic ideas and writings? Suggests Wright, the desire to champion even bizarre Gnostic texts over against the canonical writings "has more to do with social and religious fashions in North America than with actual historical research".
Gnostic beliefs fit very well into the American and Western fixation on self: the ideals of self-discovery, self-awareness, self actualisation, and self-salvation. They certainly make far lesser demands on people than do the radical requirements of Christian discipleship. Indeed, such Gnostic leanings, whether ancient or modern, have nothing to do with biblical Christianity.
In sum, the Gospel of Judas, like the other Gnostic writings, is totally incompatible with the New Testament gospels. They differ in genre, theology and time of writing. If the claims of the former are true, then Christianity (and Judaism) cannot be true. Conversely, if the biblical version of events is correct, then the Gnostic perspective must be wrong.
Fads and trends in theology will continue to plague us. But the everlasting gospel is not so easily disposed of. A debt of gratitude must be accorded to NT Wright for making these distinctions so clear.
30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
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N. T. Wright's scholarly works are often ponderous tomes characterized by forty-word sentences, endless paragraphs, and an exasperating delay in getting to the point. This slim volume does not share those faults. Quickly, clearly, and concisely, Wright takes aim at the recent popular fascination with Christian gnosticism and the small group of scholars who have been at the forefront of this well-publicized effort to re-imagine the origins of Christianity. In his own polite way, Wright is saying, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore."
The occasion for Wright's salvo is the recent publication of "The Gospel of Judas," a second-century gnostic tract that surfaced about thirty years ago but was held back from publication as its various owners tried to maximize its financial payoff. Now that the gospel has finally seen the light of day, it has been the subject of several popular works and celebrated as providing important new insights into Jesus, Judas, and early Christianity.
The highlight of the gospel is the claim that - contrary to the New Testament - Judas was the apostle who understood Jesus best, and was in fact ordered by Jesus to turn Jesus over to the authorities. The purpose of this was to hasten Jesus's death so that his spirit could be liberated from the confines of his mortal and corruptible body. This is in line with the core gnostic belief that the world was created by an inferior, malevolent god or demiurge, and that salvation consists in liberating the spirit from its connection to matter.
Authors such as Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman, and Marvin Meyer have popularized the idea that the gnostic writings provide a legitimate alternative to the New Testament portrayal of Jesus and Christian origins.
"Nonsense," says Wright. He points out that the scholarly consensus still overwhelmingly places the gnostic writings at a minimum of 50 to 100 years later than the writings collected in the New Testament, and that there is no reason whatsoever to think that the gnostics had a better understanding of Jesus than the authors of the New Testament.
Quoting some of the more incomprehensible and pretentious passages of "The Gospel of Judas," Wright questions whether all this talk of "aeons" and "archons," and the gnostic contempt for material reality, is really as in tune with contemporary sensibilities as the popularizers claim. Wright accuses them of presenting a sanitized version of gnosticism as well as a false characterization of early, mainstream Christianity. I think he is pretty much on the mark.
If I have a quibble with Wright, it is in his generalized claims about the contempory Christian Left and the Religious Right. He accuses both of escapism into a world of private religious experience and of a failure to contend against the "principalities and powers" of this world. Notwithstanding elements of escapist New Age-ism on the Left, and Rapture-ism on the Right, I think Wright is wrong about both the Christian Left and the Religious Right. I think both are very concerned with real-world issues, with practical concerns, and with politics. Both, in their different perspectives, are confronting what they regard as the "principalities and powers" of the world, even if they don't agree on what the principalities and powers are.
Moreover, Wright never specifies what he thinks an authentic Christian engagement with the "principalities and powers" would entail. For example, he seems to oppose the American war against Saddam Hussein, so is he therefore a pacifist? Or does he just oppose this specific war? And what is the authentic Christian response to brutal dictators, in Wright's view? And what is the authentic Christian view on gay marriage, or homosexuality, or pornography, or abortion, or Islamo-fascism, or any other issue which divides Left and Right? Wright does not tell us. He assures us that Left and Right are wrong, but never tells us what the Middle should do. Nor does he quite come to terms with the fact that the representatives of Christian orthodoxy - both secular and religious - committed many historical acts which Wright would in no way countenance. If escapism is a vice, real-world engagement also carries its dangers. How does one change the world without getting one's hands dirty?
Those quibbles aside, I can recommend this book to anyone who is still on the fence regarding the significance of Christian gnosticism. People who read Wright first might save themselves the trouble of reading - and being taken in by - a lot of nonsense emanating from scholars who should know better.
57 of 72 people found the following review helpful
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The Gospel of Judas has had its fifteen minutes of fame. It is but another in an endlessly long line of stories or documents meant to shake the foundations of the Christian faith. Like its many predecessors, it gave National Geographic and anti-Christian authors an opportunity to voice their dissension with the biblical story of Jesus. A book titled The Gospel of Judas shot to near the top of the bestsellers lists and nearly as quickly, shot straight back down. Still, while its popularity was short-lived, it allowed Bart Ehrman and other revisionists a chance to laud the epistle for its new insights into the life of Christ. Surely Ehrman forever cast doubt upon his credibility as a historian when he blathered, "(The Gospel of Judas) is one of the greatest historical discoveries of the twentieth century. It rivals the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Gnostic Gospels of Nag Hammadi."
National Geographic describes the importance of the document in this way: "The Gospel of Judas gives a different view of the relationship between Jesus and Judas, offering new insights into the disciple who betrayed Jesus. Unlike the accounts in the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, in which Judas is portrayed as a reviled traitor, this newly discovered Gospel portrays Judas as acting at Jesus' request when he hands Jesus over to the authorities." A classically dualistic, gnostic document, The Gospel of Judas presents a Jesus who is seeking to escape from the corruption of this physical world and asks Judas to betray Him so He can be free of this wickedness. Judas complies and shows himself to be a hero, rather than a villain. No longer the betrayer, He is a faithful friend to Jesus Christ.
Renowned New Testament scholar N.T. Wright is the first Christian to my knowledge to write a thorough refutation of the teachings of The Gospel of Judas. Judas and the Gospel of Jesus is due for publication in October of 2006 and will be published by Baker Books. It is a short book, weighing in at only 144 pages, but provides a thorough treatment of the subject matter.
Wright is fair to this newly published document. He does not say that there is no value in The Gospel of Judas for surely there is, for it tells us much about the gnosticism that was a great opponent of early Christianity. It gives historians access to an authentic, original document. But it tells us nothing about the real Jesus and the real Judas. Those who would have us believe that this letter provides details about the real life of the real Jesus can be little more than revisionists. Wright shows that such people believe in what he calls "the new myth of Christian origins." This myth, popularized by men such as Bart Ehrman, has three main teachings: first, Jesus was not as the canonical gospels portray Him; second, there were a great many different varieties of early Christianity, and they produced a large number of different "gospels," all of which circulated among Christians more or less unchecked; third, when Christianity became consolidated in the fourth century, many teachings about the "true" Christian faith were rejected.
"Classic Christianity," he says, "has a lot more life and promise than have ever been imagined by those who propose the new Myth, or by those who offer newly discovered gnostic texts as the panacea for our ills. It is a shame that the churches have been so muzzled, so often self-blinded to the full dimensions of the gospel they profess, the gospel of Jesus himself."
Through this short book, Wright asks good questions and insightfully shows where The Gospel of Judas simply cannot be held as equal in any way to Scripture. He shows himself to be a New Testament scholar the equal of any involved in promoting this new gospel. While the document appears to be genuine, it is little different and little more significant than the multitudes of other gnostic writings which have come down to us, even two millenia later.
It is perhaps somewhat ironic that N.T. Wright, who has reimagined and reinvented many of the teachings of Paul (and thus Jesus), would be the first to make a stand for the truth against others who would seek to reinvent Jesus. Unfortunately, Wright's New Perspectives are glimpsed, even if only dimly, through much of the text of this book. Still, he offers a compelling response to Ehrman and others and one well worth reading. I would tend to believe that, for most people, The Gospel of Judas is best ignored. It offers little that would be of interest to the average person. For those who do have interest in it, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus will no doubt prove an interesting response to the irrational views espoused by those who wish to reinvent Christianity and to cast doubt upon Scripture.