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  Professor Douglas Lancashire  

The Gospels: The Struggle between Fact and Speculation

           In the April 16th issue of Time Magazine, reference was made to a recent report of the U.S. National Geographic Society that “a 1,700-year-old papyrus copy of a document called the Gospel of Judas” had been found, which contradicted the information given in the Bible that Judas was a traitor, and which portrayed him “as a favored disciple”, saying that his role is described as one who sacrificed “Jesus’ physical being (“the man that clothes me”)”, thereby being elevated above the other Apostles.(1)

           Although clearly more research into the provenance of this fragment of papyrus requires to be carried out, it would appear to be a product from that group of thinkers and speculators whom the Church quickly branded as heretical, and the views of which find a classical analysis in St. Irenaeus’ work
Against Heresies.

           Irenaeus was first a presbyter, and later bishop of Lyons in the second century, a time when Lyons could be described as a lesser Rome, serving as “a commercial city at the head of navigation on the Rhone, [and as]… the seat of a garrison, and capital of one of the Gallic provinces….[It] was the headquarters of the imperial cult for three provinces, …and a gateway between the Mediterranean world and the provinces north of the Alps.”(2) It is not surprising, therefore, that it should also prove to be a good vantage point from which to view and comment on the range of popular philosophical and religious systems and ideas current in Irenaeus’ day.

           The two chief targets of Irenaeus’ attack were Valentinus and Marcion, though a number of lesser lights is also criticised. The systems represented by these men fall under what is commonly called Gnosticism, which, broadly speaking, was concerned with the issue of the relationship between deity, in all its fullness, and the physical world with its obvious limitations, and the manner whereby the ‘spiritual’ in man could find release from these physical limitations. In the light of this, one can immediately see how the Christian doctrine of the incarnation would pose a problem for those obsessed by this seeming incompatibility, and why some, otherwise attracted to Christianity, might come to believe that far from condemning Judas for being the instrument of Christ’s death, he should rather be admired, since he was actually doing him a favour by bringing about the release of the divine within him from the limitations of the physical man, Jesus. The writer of John’s gospel might glory in his opening words, expressing his belief, that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth…”, but Gnostic “Christians”, in their speculations, would be inclined, rather, to consider the divine Word, in whatever way this may have been understood, as having become imprisoned in an unworthy, and for some even evil, substance from which He needed to be liberated. The author of the
Gospel of Judas may have been one who regarded Judas’ betrayal as having achieved this, and therefore, for it to have been an act of love. For the orthodox Christian, however, it is God the Father who is the liberator, and who, by raising Jesus, the Christ, from the dead, raised humanity itself to a new life in which his humanity reaches its fullest potential. The Christian holds firmly to the view that God, having brought the physical universe into being, pronounced his work, good, thereby provoking it to achieve its full potential.

           Perhaps it is inevitable that there will always be those who are dissatisfied with the straightforward and factual accounts of the lives of Jesus and his apostles as these are presented to us in the Gospels, and as defended by such early writers in the Church as Irenaeus. Certainly history has thrown up a fair number of them, not least in the 19th, 20th, and now at the beginning of the 21st century; but whereas the dissenters and speculators in earlier times frequently felt they were searching for significant and, in their estimations, more meaningful truths underlying the created and unseen worlds, and the seemingly unduly plain orthodox Christian story presented to them, modern attempts at elaboration of that story seem to be motivated more by a desire to shock and titilate the reading public, and thereby to benefit financially by so doing.

Douglas Lancashire

Against Heresies, p. 345. For a full treatment of Irenaeus, his milieu, and his publications, see Early Christian Fathers, p.343-397. (The Library of Christian Classics, vol.1, SCM Press, London, 1953)

2. Ibid.

This version: 19th June 2006

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  Professor Douglas Lancashire