Summary by Jeff Stauffer
Editors Note: This article is part of the Book Summary Project, an initiative designed to provide Christians with summary statements of the main ideas of each chapter of important books. Inclusion in the Book Summary Project DOES NOT constitute endoresment of a book. Rather, inclusion in the Book Summary Project indicates that we believe followers of Jesus should we aware of the book and its central ideas.
Chapter 1: Not Another New Gospel?
In this introductory chapter, Wright laments the difficulties faced by the historian of ancient documents. Texts from antiquity are almost always found in fragments and often find their way into the academic setting through not so fortuitous routes. For this reason he is always delighted in discovering new documents regardless of their condition, or the implications they may make on modern Christianity. In the case of the Gospel of Judas, this document took 30 years from discovery to publication, passing through several hands, private dealers, collectors, etc. before being published. Scholars generally agree; however, that despite its modern wanderings the Gospel of Judas is believed to be authentic (in the sense of a being a legitimate ancient document rather than a forgery), and in fact an ancient writing describing some of the beliefs known as “Gnosticism,” which will be discussed in the next chapter.
Chapter 2: Second-Century Gnosticism
Wright points out that the Gospel of Judas portrays the basic tenets of Gnosticism, an ancient group sometimes described as a spinoff from Judaism, whereas others categorize it as its own sect:
There is a “dark dualism” in the world, where the physical universe is considered a bad place created by an evil lesser god.
There is a separate and greater divine being, sometimes referred to as “Father,” who is pure and wise.
The goal of all people; therefore, is to escape this evil world and be delivered into the spiritual realm where everything is pure and good. We are at fault for worshipping the malevolent creator God of this world.
In order to achieve the spiritual world, one requires special knowledge or “salvation.” (The word Gnosticism itself contains the root for knowledge, “gnosis”). This knowledge can only come from one who is from the spiritual realm, often referred to as the “revealer.”
From the Gospel of Judas and other Gnostic writings, a theme emerges that tends to turn one’s view of the Old Testament on its head: because the physical world is an evil place, and its creator not worthy of worship, Gnostics were very critical of the Jewish community and their view of the creator God from the OT. This in turn led Gnostics to paint a very different picture of Jesus: a man who comes from the spiritual realm proclaiming that our problem is not sin, but materiality and that we need to escape this world.
Chapter 3: The Judas of Faith and the Iscariot of History
Beginning with some initial comments about Judas from the Bible, Wright points out that Judas’ name was fairly common during that time period. Nothing about his name implied any sort of status as a traitor. Wright also dispels opinions that Judas was a fictitious character, arguing that his story is too tightly woven into early source material for this to be a realistic option. Wright then goes on to present the basic story of the Gospel of Judas:
Jesus is the first person to experience “salvation” from this earthly world, and has returned to share this knowledge with us. The God of Israel and the Old Testament is belittled as a “lesser god,” one that created the Earth and all the evil within. Jesus asks Judas to free him from his physical body, thus allowing Jesus’ “divine spark” to escape. Thus, Judas is the hero in this gospel version, not the villain.
Chapter 4: When is a Gospel not a Gospel?
There is a fairly clear transition beginning in chapter four. Wright is finished talking about the Gospel of Judas and begins his critique of it instead. He starts with a strong statement: “Anyone knowing the relevant history must realize there is no chance of the Gospel of Judas giving us access to the genuine, historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth.” He places the like date for the composition of the Gospel of Judas to be mid-second century at best, compared with mid to late first century at worst for the four biblical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John. While early church fathers are found to have been quoting from the biblical gospels in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries, no one from antiquity was quoting from non-canonical sources like the Gospel of Judas until the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries.
Wright also begins to generalize what we find in Gnostic writings as compared to the biblical gospels. For one, the Gnostic writings tend to be largely a gathering of sayings or advice. They don’t write history or narrative like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John do. They also do not have consistent theological themes throughout like we find in the four biblical accounts, such as the coming of God’s kingdom, the life of Jesus, or a recounting of God’s relationship to Israel.
Chapter 5: Lord of the World or Escaper from the World
Those who are excited about Gnostic writings (Wright includes Dan Brown, Elaine Pagels, and Bart Ehrman) want to paint a picture of the Gnostics as “radical alternatives to the oppressive and conservative canonical gospels.” But Wright goes on to argue that the exact opposite is true based on the historical data. One of the common myths from this era (Wright expands on this in chapter six) is that the Christian Church shut down all rebellions and destroyed any document that threatened their power structure. However, Christians were not yet even in control of the culture. This would not begin for a few centuries yet. They were vulnerable, and martyrdom was quite common among Christian leaders as they lived in fear from Roman rulers. The Gnostics on the other hand, were quite happy to “blend in” and even recant their beliefs if needed. He also points out the clear financial incentive on the part of publishers to market this idea to sell more books, asking what’s more enticing, an academic book to sell to a few colleges, or a “racy, now-at-last-we-know-the-truth” presentation?
Chapter 6: Spinning Judas: The New Myth of Christian Origins
Modern proponents for Judas want to spin him as a hero, begins Wright; one who does Judaism a favor instead of contributing to the ancient condemnation the Jews received for their role in Jesus’ death. However this modern reinterpretation is again contrary to the historical facts. Gnostic scholars such as Marvin Meyer or Bart Ehrman want to usher in a new direction of dialogue with modern Judaism, based on the teachings of the Gnostics. However, this wouldn’t be a mere slight shift, states Wright, but a fundamental change in the Jewish worldview. Remember that Gnostics were highly critical of the God of the Old Testament and how they worshipped this “lesser God.” To somehow present Judas as a “continuation of Judaism” as Ehrman puts it, is “wishful thinking,” says Wright.
Wright concludes this chapter with a fascinating overview of the “New Myth of Christian Origins.” The main points of this philosophy include:
Jesus was not divine but merely a teacher who was a catalyst for many new movements. He did not intend to die and was certainly not resurrected.
There were varieties of early Christianity, each producing different “gospels.” It wasn’t until the Roman emperor Constantine in the 4th century that the four traditional gospels were chosen and all others destroyed as part of a greater goal of power and control.
The true meaning of Jesus’ teaching was supposed to be an inward search for meaning, divinity and goodness. It was not about a need for atonement or forgiveness. In essence it was a “soft version of Buddhism.”
Other cultural factors come into play as well. Wright states that Americans in particular are fond of conspiracy theories and rebelling against “the establishment.” So we tend to prefer inner experience over exterior appeal to authority or evidence. This feeds the myth and provides lots of opportunities to allow Gnostic thoughts to invade culture and even the Church. Therefore, “the quest for the divine turns out to be a quest for self-discovery.” We take the “pursuit of happiness” to further and further heights of escapism. No need to change the world… we’re just passing through!
In terms of politics, we see this play out on both the right and left. On the right you have the “prosperity gospel” since we are members of God’s elite. On the left you have a complete disregard of sexual norms, since our innermost experience is “the ultimate test of spiritual validity.” Searching for our own sexual identity is part of the journey.
Chapter 7: The Challenge of “Judas” for Today
In this brief final chapter, Wright calls us to see the Gospel of Judas for what it truly is: It is “…dark, so uncompromising, so utterly dualistic… the only thing to hope for is bodily death.” This world is a dark and wicked place with no promise of it being anything else. Wright wants us to see that if the ordinary citizen was given this honest portrayal of the Gospel of Judas, not many people would accept it. So its proponents must fluff it up with language about “finding your inner light” or the “divine spark within.” The true gospel, he concludes, is a world created by a benevolent all-powerful God, who loved us so much he sent us a Messiah to make eternal life possible, eternal life in a physical place that is worthy of settling down in, not one that needs escaping from.