When in New York there are few things I enjoy more than browsing the elegant pages of the New York Times while sipping a cup of a well-brewed coffee. Those pages often make me mad, but usually make me think. Friday’s edition only made me mad.
I’m referring to the article about the “Gospel of Judas.” It offered a dumbed-down, ideology-driven report on the ancient text discovered in Egypt in the 1970’s and recently translated into English by the National Geographic Society. The text depicts Judas Iscariot, the traitor, in a good light. Hard to do, you might say. Yes, it is, but only if you trust authoritative, eyewitness sources like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
The New York Times apparently does not.
For all their purported progressive thinking, one would surmise the 17 centuries separating the Gnostic authors of the “Gospel of Judas” (self-proclaimed “progressives” of their day) and the editors at the Times would produce greater evolution of thought. But the paper’s Friday edition read like the diary of an anti-Christian Gnostic apologist of the late second century AD. For when it comes to Christianity, both are incapable of distinguishing between fact and fiction. Here’s what the article said and here’s why it’s wrong.
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NY Times: “An early Christian manuscript, including the only known text of what is known as the Gospel of Judas, has surfaced after 1,700 years.”
Father J: The "Gospel of Judas" is not an early Christian manuscript. It belongs to the well-known body of Gnostic writings condemned by the early Christian community as heretical (anti-Christian). One of the early Christian Fathers, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, specifically rebuked the text as “unorthodox.”
NY Times: “The text gives new insights into the relationship of Jesus and the disciple who betrayed him, scholars reported today.”
Father J: Scholars didn’t report new insights into the relationship between Judas and Jesus. They reported new insights into what some second century writers conjectured about the relationship. The early Christian community discarded those conjectures because they didn’t match with eyewitness accounts.
NY Times: “The discoveries of Gnostic texts have shaken up Biblical scholarship by revealing the diversity of beliefs and practices among early followers of Jesus.”
Father J: This is ridiculous. The hundreds of second and third century apocryphal texts, of which the “Gospel of Judas” is a part, have nothing to do with biblical scholarship, since they tell us nothing about the Bible. Moreover, scholars have known for centuries that there was a diversity of beliefs and practices in the early centuries of Christianity. The Christian community sifted through the contradicting beliefs and classified some as faithful representations of the teachings of Christ (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and others as imposters (Gnostic writings, among others).
NY Times: “As the findings have trickled down to churches and universities, they have produced a new generation of Christians who now regard the Bible not as the literal word of God, but as a product of historical and political forces that determined which texts should be included in the canon, and which edited out.”
Father J: So much confusion in so few lines! New generations who don’t believe in the Bible as the Word of God may be very good people, but they are not Christians. This is not to say the Bible was dropped from the clouds, or was dictated word for word by Jesus. Christian theology teaches the canon of Scripture was determined by human beings inspired by the Holy Spirit. Amazingly, the New York Times gets things almost exactly backwards. Gnostic texts produced in the second century stem from a clear historical and political agenda, whereas the first century canonical Gospels reflect an attempt by eyewitnesses to put into writing what they had seen and heard.
NY Times: "For that reason, the discoveries have proved deeply troubling for many believers. The Gospel of Judas portrays Judas Iscariot not as a betrayer of Jesus, but as his most favored disciple and willing collaborator."
Father J: The discoveries are troubling only for believers who give equal value to all ancient writings, no matter their credibility. At least two of the four Christian Gospels were written by eyewitnesses. The “Gospel of Judas,” on the other hand, was written over 120 years after the death of Christ by an author explicitly condemned as a false teacher by the early Christian community.
NY Times: "At least one scholar said the new manuscript does not contain anything dramatic that would change or undermine traditional understanding of the Bible."
Father J: At least one? From my assessment of the reports that have come out, this has been the norm among all serious scholars. I hope this last quote from the Times is not a feigned attempt at unbiased reporting!
There is good reason to accept the authenticity of this text as part of a body of Gnostic writings, but not as part of early Christian beliefs. The Times repeatedly insinuates the text represents new historical data on Jesus and the beliefs of early Christians. This is completely out of the bounds of professional journalism. As soon as Gnosticism raised its head, the early Christian community recognized it as incongruent with what they knew from first-hand sources about Christ and his teachings.
The New York Times has a tradition of excellence in newsgathering and reporting dating back to 1851, when Henry Jarvis Raymond founded the paper. During the Civil War it stood out for its speed and accuracy in the publishing of eyewitness accounts. Later, during the civil rights movement, it lent its bully pulpit to those who would bring down slavery.
But on this story about the foundation of Christianity, the paper’s unwillingness to trust eyewitness accounts is baffling. I must say, the silliness of giving the same credibility to the “Gospel of Judas” as to the Christian Gospels is unworthy of the venerable tradition of my morning paper. When I read dumbed-down, ideology-driven articles like this one, the coffee, even good coffee, just doesn’t taste the same.
God bless, Father Jonathan
P.S. In the coming weeks we’ll examine the relationship between Gnosticism and “The Da Vinci Code,” just in case the NYT doesn’t get it right.
Write to Father Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org.