From all the hullabaloo in the press over the Gospel of Judas, one might easily conclude that something like the plot of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code had suddenly been demonstrated as historical fact rather than fiction.
Much of the mainstream media coverage of the Gospel of Judas, of which an ancient manuscript was recently discovered, authenticated and translated by scholars, has followed the story line of Brown's best-selling action thriller.
According to the same story line, the traditional account of Jesus and his disciples is nothing more than propaganda crafted by the Christian establishment to suppress the real truth, which can be found in many of the numerous Gnostic gospels that proliferated from the second century onwards and were denounced in the early centuries by orthodox theologians such as Tertullian and Irenaeus.
The Gospel of Judas is simply the latest of these Gnostic texts to be uncovered. About 50 other similar documents, including The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of Philip, were found and identified by archaeologists in the 1940s and have since been translated and made public as well.
During the second century there was a ferocious struggle between the Gnostics and those who are now recognized as the precursors to orthodox Christianity over the meaning of Jesus' life, his message and his mission.
The Gnostics believed that Jesus neither died on the cross nor was resurrected. Instead they regarded him as a kind of California-style guru with mystical insight and magical powers who imparted to his apostles a type of “secret knowledge,” or gnosis, which ordinary people were incapable of grasping.
The Gnostics were denounced by ancient church leaders, not only because so much of this secret knowledge seemed silly and absurd, but because it justified what many believed was an ethically perverted view of other human beings.
The Gnostics were self-styled religious aristocrats who held the masses of humanity in the utmost contempt and resembled what today we would call “racists.” They were also decidedly “anti-Semitic,” insofar as they regarded the values and traditions of Judaism as spiritually corrupt and inferior.
In particular, the Gnostics regarded the biblical demand for good behavior as ignorant and unenlightened. Very often the Gnostics would reputedly perform morally outrageous acts, such as murder or infanticide, in order to prove that their spiritual superiority placed them, as the philosopher Nietzsche would later say, “beyond good and evil.”
Many modern scholars, such as the late, great political scientist Eric Vogelin, have traced the roots of fascist and Nazi thinking to ancient Gnosticism. In my own book, The Interruption of Eternity: Modern Gnosticism and the Origins of the New Religious Consciousness, published a quarter-century ago, I showed how some of the most amoral excesses of the 1960s counterculture — for example, the Charles Manson slayings — could be traced back to the Gnostic legacy of self-exaltation through excess.
If The Gospel of Judas we have today is the same one mentioned by Irenaeus in his Against Heresies, then it is probably a key document of the Cainite sect, which revered the world's first murderer.
Many of the Gnostic gospels were not intended as “gospels” at all in the sense of the “good news” for those seeking salvation, as the etymology of the English word suggests. On the contrary, they served mainly as internal “cult” propaganda designed to authorize and reinforce an insider perspective.
The Gnostics hated the egalitarian values of the early Christian church, and had to come up with their own contrarian narrative about Jesus in order to buck the tide of religious revolution that was threatening the prerogatives of Rome's ruling aristocracy.
The relativistic, “beyond-good-and-evil” outlook of the various Gnostic subcultures is totally incompatible with what we know was the strict ethical monotheism of the first Christians, who were predominantly Jewish. Thus the suggestion that the Gnostic Gospels in general, and The Gospel of Judas in particular, somehow more accurately reflect the prevailing mind-set of the first few generations of Christians is patently absurd.
There is no way that Jesus, whom his contemporaries called “rabbi,” could have been preaching some proto-New Age philosophy that sounds more like Scientology than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Jesus' message centered on the divine imperative of mercy and the forgiveness of sins, not some arcane metaphysical formula that denies the reality of sin, or the contest between right and wrong.
Recent media hype about recovery of the latest Gnostic gospel throwing into question the credibility of historic Christianity is akin to 31st century field researchers reconstructing fragments of The National Enquirer and concluding that conventional versions of present-day history were all wrong.
It is not surprising that our media elites somehow think that what might be deemed ancient tabloid Christianity somehow should be taken more seriously than 2,000 years of complex, diverse and sophisticated church history and theology.
Now that we know from the same respected sources that Jesus preferred Judas to all his other disciples and had sex with Mary Magdalene, should we not now recognize the obvious — that he was also a space alien?
Carl Raschke is professor of religious studies and chair of the department at the University of Denver. His most recent book is The Next Reformation: Why Evangelical Christians Must Embrace Postmodernity.