Yesterday, the public learned about the discovery of a document dating from the early days of Jesus worship, the Gospel of Judas. This manuscript raises a host of fascinating questions for those who care about the origins of the Christian faith. Almost all Americans, about ninety percent, either were raised in or currently practice some form of Christianity that is rooted in Catholic orthodoxy. (Protestants draw their core doctrines from the orthodox Catholic tradition.) Steeped in these teachings, it is easy to see the Judas manuscript as a curious outsider and to ask how it compares to the true histories recorded in the more familiar gospels named after Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
This question misunderstands history, and so it is a false question. During the first centuries of Christianity, the cult or worship of Jesus took many forms. Some groups taught that Jesus only appeared to be human, others that he was one of many divine intermediaries between God and humanity. Some incorporated Jesus into their worship without insisting that he was God. Some taught that God has three forms (now known as the Trinity) and others saw this as polytheism. Some saw Jesus as a perfect human sacrifice for human sin; others saw this notion as vile and pagan. Some Jewish Jesus worshipers insisted that Jesus must be honored within the structures of the Jewish ritual and law. Others rejected these rites and rules.
Each of these groups competed to establish itself as the true bearer of Divine Truth. It was not until the fourth century that a single group, shaped primarily by the teachings of Paul of Tarsus, won out. A council of bishops, with input from the Roman authorities, decided on a specific set of doctrines and created a list of officially sanctioned texts that today make up the Bible. Christian orthodoxy was established, and competing sects of Jesus worshipers became heretics. In the following centuries, they were suppressed and texts like the Gospel of Judas were destroyed when possible. In other words, although the Judas text became a renegade, it did not start life that way. In the beginning, it was simply one among hundreds of competing interpretations of the Jesus story which included those gospels that made it into the Bible.
Treating the Gospel of Judas (or any gospel) as a history, also misunderstands the texts themselves. Gospels were not written as literal histories but as devotional documents, designed to illustrate and underscore key points of worship and faith. The authors did not intend to create a historical record for the people of the future, but rather to capture the essence of God and goodness, as they perceived both. To truly appreciate these ancient manuscripts, it is crucial that we not distort them through the lens of modernity. We must avoid projecting modern scholarly intent onto the writers and orthodox Christian teachings onto the texts themselves. Only then can we get a glimpse into the vision of the writers and into our own history.