NT Wright gives short shrift to the “Gospel of Judas” in his Maundy Thursday sermon, As One Who Serves. He points out that it is just yet another manifestation of “the manyheaded worldview known as Gnosticism”, a worldview that from the earliest days of the church has provided “siren voices” eager to soften the “revolutionary, world-changing spirituality and vocation” of the gospel:
The world and its power-structures are irredeemable, some thought; let’s not try to challenge or change it, let’s instead escape into our own private spirituality, let’s pursue an altogether different kind of kingdom. Let’s follow a different dream, live by a different story, claim a different heritage rather than the difficult and craggy Jewish one … And let’s pretend that Jesus himself is happy that we rewrite the story in this way. Let’s tell the tale a bit differently, to make it clear that Jesus’ true message was about helping us discover who we really are.
Today, this viewpoint can be seen in the “astonishing popularity of The Da Vinci Code” or in those:
…who put it about that second-century fragments like the Judas piece, like the so-called ‘Gospel of Thomas’, represent the true strain which boring, conformist old orthodoxy hushed up, and which offer today a more exciting pathway than regular mainline Christianity.
Wright has no time for this neo-Gnosticism:
My brothers and sisters, I have to tell you that it’s a lie. I was studying this newly discovered little tract, the ‘Gospel of Judas’, yesterday morning, and reading what some of its editors had written about it; and there crept over me the horrible sense of a lie cheerfully told, a lie which people are eager to believe, a lie which could sap the vital energy of the church and individual Christians unless we name it for what it is, see the danger, and know why we reject it.
He proceeds to demolish the “Gospel of Judas”, which “has no historical worth at all”:
It tells us nothing about the true Jesus, or for that matter about the true Judas. It breathes a totally different air from that of early first-century Palestine. It’s like finding a document purporting to be about Napoleon and his senior advisors, and discovering that they’re talking about nuclear submarines and B52 bombers. It is that crass.
As for suggestions that the “Gospel of Judas” represents a more pro-Jewish perspective to counter “the church’s use of the figure of Judas as a stick to beat the Jewish people with”:
…that is ridiculous: the ‘gospel of Judas’ is deeply, structurally anti-Jewish in every line. The last thing the gnostic wants is the enthroned son of David launching the project of new creation.
Indeed, Wright even objects to the use of the term “Gospel” to describe works such as this:
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are good news about a good God who made a good world and who loves this world so much that he has rescued and redeemed it, has defeated the evil which has intruded into it, and has launched his project of new creation. That’s why we celebrate these great gospel events over the next three days.
‘Thomas’, and ‘Judas’, and the other so-called ‘gospels’, have no such good news. They don’t want to hear about the saving cross and the powerful resurrection. They only have advice: you’d do better not to worry about this world, but to find a way of escape, and in the meantime search deep within yourself to discover who you really are.
As ever, the rule is: if you ain’t got gospel, all you got is law.
Finally, this document “cuts the nerve of working for God’s kingdom in the real world”. This can be seen when we compare what happened to those who were reading the “Gospels” of Judas, Thomas et al in the 2nd and 3rd centuries with what happened to those reading the canonical gospels:
Let’s be quite clear: despite the sneers of so many who say that the New Testament was written, edited and then chosen out of a much larger collection of books in order to sustain the church’s political power and prestige, the truth is that in the second and third century, long before anyone thought of the Constantinian settlement, it was the people who were reading Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Acts, Romans and the rest who were being thrown to the lions, burned at the stake, beaten and bullied and beheaded. Why would Caesar worry about ‘Thomas’, ‘Judas’ and the other pseudo-gospels? The rulers of this world are not bothered when yet another little group invents a new form of private spirituality.
Rather, what truly challenges Caesar is the idea that Jesus has “inaugurated and modelled” a different way of power and rulership, and that this new way is lived and celebrated by Jesus’ church “in sacrament and vocation and healing”:
And that, my friends, is the vocation we are signing on for yet again in this service. Gnosticism laughed at the sacraments; in the ‘gospel of Judas’ Jesus himself laughs at the eucharist. Gnosticism doesn’t bother about healing for the body and things like anointing with oil, because the point is not to heal the body but to escape from it. Gnosticism doesn’t envisage the followers of Jesus going out to make the kingdom happen out on the street, because it’s only interested in nurturing its private spiritual interiority. We are here today because we want to follow the real Jesus and seek the real kingdom in the real world.