Book Review: Judas and the Gospel of Jesus

N. T. Wright, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus: Have We Missed the Truth about Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006). Jacketed Hardcover, 160 pages. $18.99

(Review copies courtesy of Baker Publishing Group.)
Judas and the Gospel of JesusPurchase: WTS | Amazon | CBD

ISBNs: 0801068347 / 9780801012945

Tom Wright is the bishop of Durham in the Church of England. Wright has taught New Testament studies for twenty years at Cambridge, Oxford, and McGill universities.  His popular writings include What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Eerdmans, 1997) The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (IVP, 1999), Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), Evil And the Justice of God (IVP, 2006), and Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008).  His academic writings include The New Testament and the People of God (Augsburg Fortress, 1992), Jesus and the Victory of God (Vol. 2. Augsburg Fortress, 1997), and The Resurrection of the Son of God (Vol. 3. Augsburg Fortress, 2003).

In Judas and the Gospel of Jesus, N.T. Wright explores and critiques the recently rediscovered “Gospel of Judas” and, in particular, the following two National Geographic publications that present the finding of this document along with a translation and commentary:

  1. The Gospel of Judas, edited by Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer and Gregor Wurst, with additional commentary by Bart D. Ehrman (Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2006).
  2. Herbert Krosney, The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot (Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2006).

The second volume listed above tells the exciting story of the manuscript’s discovery in the 1970s near the Nile in Central Egypt to its eventual home in the hands of scholars practically thirty years later. As suggested by the title and subtitle of this little book, Wright focuses on what he calls “genuine Christianity” contrasted with the pseudo-gospel presented in this ancient document. Wright’s presentation is in a readable straightforward style, with sharp yet gentile criticism of the original commentator and translators (volume one listed above). Throughout his discussion, Wright directs the read toward other works in which he deals with various theological and historical issues at length (i.e., the Bar-Kochba revolt, Jesus in his historical context, resurrection, Pauline theology, and so on.). Along the way Wright takes the opportunity to draw parallels between right-wing and left-wing Christianity to key Gnostic elements. In the end, he concludes that this document in no way disproves Christianity as we know it; instead, the discovery of this document presents a historic account of how certain groups were interpreting said faith.

After his introductory chapter, Wright continues providing an overview of second-century Gnosticism, specifically noting that many of these Gnostic followers must have believed themselves to be Christian (underlying the danger this text represents to us presently) due to the opposition from many of the leaders in the Christian church at that time. Wright follows with an excellent comparison of the Judas of history and the Judas of this document. He first notes that in every other document uncovered, which tends to lean toward a Gnostic direction Judas is portrayed in a “uniformly negative” light. Therefore, it is even more of a surprise to discover that it is in fact Judas who is the hero to first liberate and save the first person, Jesus, from this material world. Judas is the hero in this version simply because it is Jesus who has commanded Judas to help him do all of this. After all of this, Wright concludes this section noting that similar Gnostic writers did the same twisting to Cain—the typical villain in Genesis 4.

In comparing the New Testament gospel accounts with the “Gospel of Judas,” Wright presents many reasons for why Gnosticism was not authentic Christianity. One of the great strengths of this book is his focus on genuine Christianity and the effects this gospel has on us today. He rightly asks the question, “is ‘salvation’ an act of undeserved divine love and grace … Or is it an act of revelation, and of discovery of what is already there?” (p. 105). He then follows this question up with another more pressing one, “what is going on in the present time when scholars and popularizers not only make texts like the ‘Gospel of Judas’ freshly available … but also urge it upon us commending it as a new and exciting angle on Jesus and Christianity?” (pp. 105-106). These are excellent questions that implore the reader to think about the current state of Christianity and their specific beliefs. From a scholarly standpoint, Wright correctly asserts that an underlying movement exists aiming at underlying true Christianity and spinning Judas and Gnostic teachings as real Christianity. Throughout, his presentation he debunks many popular views, including the notion that an ecclesial force was attempting to gain control over this new religion. Gnosticism clearly teaches a distinct version of Christianity that would avoid persecution from the authorities of that era, thereby allowing their leaders (not the other way around) to enact control over their followers. Wright further contends that the appeal of Gnosticism fits well within the contemporary notion of discovering one’s true self.

However, Wright draws an unfounded correlation between Christian fundamental dispensationalism and Gnosticism: “The radical dualism embodied in the ‘Gospel of Judas’ has a good deal in common with the equally radical dualism embodied in the dispensationalist fundamentalism so popular in many parts of North America … The main aim in both, after all, is to escape from this wicked world and go off to a different one” (pp. 130-131). Wright draws his conclusion not from biblical passages about the second coming but from the popularized presentation of dispensationalism found within the “Left Behind” series. However, his oversimplification of escaping this wicked world does not appear to be justified. Wright explains that according to the Bible we are to “seek for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven” (p. 131); and it is this notion that directly contradicts dispensationalism. Yet even in popularized dispensationalism, the reader constantly looks forward to the day when the protagonists would see the return of Christ and His millennial reign (i.e., an anticipation of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven).

Interestingly, he continues noting that underlying both right and left religious Christian beliefs are closer to Gnosticism than “classic Christianity.” It is here at the end of his work where he claims that both “conservative” and “liberal” Christians are just two “wings of the same essentially wrongheaded movement” (p. 142). He overlays the historical fact, that second- and third-century Christians were persecuted while their Gnostic counterparts were mostly not, on top of the presently non-persecuted “Western Protestants.” He then leaves the reader with a few questions. “Has ‘Judas’ exposed the nonsense within the whole thing? Is it not clear that if we go with the new Myth and its version of neo-Gnosticism we are ultimately saying something about the meaning of the word ‘god’ which ought to give us pause?” (p. 143). It is this reviewer’s assertion that Wright’s comparison of Gnosticism to Protestantism is skewed. Instead, he should be comparing the heresy to the philosophical, post-Christian, emergent movement. Their prime writers stress the implication that we as a society and as individuals need to “be liberated from the vicious, addictive cycles of our suicidal framing stories” (McLaren, Everything Must Change, p. 270). By his own definition, McLaren is referring to the gospel itself. “By framing story, I mean a story that gives people direction, vision, and inspiration by providing framework for their lives” (p. 5). McLaren and others of the emergent movement are doing precisely what Wright claims protestant Christianity is guilty of. By removing the narrative framework and attempting to discover the “true message” of Christ, one that will shatter our world and liberate us in ways we can only dream of (which would summarize McLaren’s “theology” all too well), the emergent church and Gnosticism share the same notion that Christ’s message is not a simple and straightforward message of salvation, but that a “secret message” is found within the Christ message.

In the end, Wright does an excellent job of presenting the Gospel of Judas in its proper light; sadly his sections with a heavy theological emphasis are lacking in any noticeable insight and ends up confusing a non-discerning, knowledge- seeking reader. I would recommend this book for anyone interested in researching historical Gnosticism or the “Gospel of Judas,” for the information is presented well. However, the last two chapters appear to be written with an agenda, most likely inserted in order to get published. Does he ask the right questions concerning the validity and historical impact? I would respond, “Yes,he does.” Sadly, when moved into the contemporary context, he forces his personal theology onto the reader instead of allowing the reader to come to his or her own conclusions.

maclean.jpgStewart MacLean Jr. teaches Music K-8 at the Hope of Detroit Academy (Detroit, MI) and provides woodwind instrument classes for Detroit intercity youth through the Southeastern Michigan Arts Forum. Stewart is a Member of Lakes Baptist Church (Walled Lake, MI) and holds a B.A. in Music Education from Wayne State University (Detroit, MI) and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Northland Baptist Bible College (Dunbar, WI). Stewart is currently pursing a Master of Divinity from Faith Baptist Theological Seminary (Ankeny, IA). Visit his blog.

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