Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Gnostic Gospel of Judas

Just as interesting and significant as the Dead Sea Scrolls are the Gnostic Gospels, known mainly through manuscripts discovered in Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1948 (about the same time as the Dead Sea Scrolls were found). Like the DSS (briefly described here and here), the Nag Hammadi collection includes a lot of non-canonical religious literature from later antiquity. "Non-canonical" means that these are writings that did not get on "the list" of approved or authoritative works drawn up by "Church Fathers." In other words, there are surviving gospels that are not included in the standard New Testament, including for instance the Gospel of Thomas (a page is pictured above). Most theologians do not believe that these non-canonical writings go back to the times of the apostles, or necessarily represent the views of the people after whom they are sometimes named, but that they were written later to promote "gnostic" interpretations of Jesus's message. (Here is one view of gnosticism by people who take it pretty seriously.)

Mainstream scholars see these works as a gateway into the rich religious world of the 2nd and 3rd centuries C.E. (A.D.); however, you can understand that lots of people get excited when the word goes out that the Gospel of Judas may become available, published by the National Geographic Society next month.

As important as what the text may actually say -- given that it is probably a 2nd century creation -- is the ethical question posed by the NGS publication. This manuscript has been known to exist since at least 1983, and it hasn't surfaced yet because it can be regarded as stolen property -- it was dug up and taken from Egypt without authorization, as in the case of so many finds before. The current owners (holders?) have been trying to sell it for millions ever since.

Scholars have been torn. Pony up the money and get the text into the public forum? Indeed, save what may be a very brittle manuscript by making sure it's being cared for properly? Or will paying the holders legitimize their activities and make sales of illegally obtained manuscripts more likely and more lucrative in the future?

A tough question indeed.

Curiously, I was unable to find a copy of the National Geographic Society's official statement on their site. The best treatment is the Christian Science Monitor's story.

UPDATE on April 6, from National Public Radio. Also see my more recent post.

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