On 30th December last, in his excellent blog “Captain Ranty” set some of his reasons why he was unhappy with organised religion, and Christianity in particular. One of the reasons for his problem with organised Christianity was that he thought the Bible was incomplete. There were many books missing from the official version, he observed, and he argued he wanted to have a full picture. He posed the question; what was it that had been cut out and hidden and why?
What a very, very good question.
Now, two points. First, anything which touches on religion tends to cause a considerable kerfuffle on the net, so let me say at once that this piece is NOT intended as a religious tract or to advance any particular view or argument (at least not consciously). It is written from the perspective of the amateur historian, with the emphasis very much on “amateur”. So if I am happy to be corrected if I have got matters wrong.
Second, I don’t propose to try to give a full answer, because I am not sure anyone knows the full picture. I certainly don’t.
Instead, I propose to dwell on the story of the “Gnostic Texts”, and of their re-partial discovery – which is a matter of fact, and not theology. It is, in my view, a fascinating story and with more true life twists and turns than a Dan Brown novel – with whom, as many will know, there is a connection.
Now where to begin?
It is the second century AD.
Christianity is a persecuted religion. Many Gospels are in circulation; perhaps as many as thirty, and many other Christian texts. But there are schisms and sects within Christianity.
In 180 AD Bishop Irenaeus of Lugdunum (now Lyons) writes a polemic attacking what in shorthand we can call “Gnosticism.”
Quite what Gnosticism was is a matter which bears some consideration. “Gnosticism” derives from the Greek “Gnosis” meaning “knowing” or “those who know”, and this branch of Christianity appears to have preached tradition of secret knowledge handed down from Jesus. There were other more profound differences with what might now call traditional Christianity. Put rather crudely, one is that the physical world is essentially painful, even evil, and is not the work of a creator God because it is imperfect. God was thus not the creator of the world in the way usually associated with traditional Christianity, although he is the Supreme Being. Thus, to be released from the evil of the world and inhabit the spiritual realm is a good thing.
In his polemic, Irenaeus attacks the Gnostics. He argues there are only four true Gospels, those today called the Canonical Gospels: Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, and what are now called the so called “Gnostic Texts,” were in fact heresies.
There was one of these “Gnostic Texts” in particular that Irenaeus had it in for:
“They [the authors] declare that Judas the Traitor, alone knowing the truth as no others did accomplished the mystery of the betrayal. They produce a fictitious story of this kind, which they style “The Gospel of Judas….” [My emphasis]
So, from Irenaeus’ tract we can be sure of some key facts. First, that there were many Christian Gospels and tracts in circulation by 180AD. Secondly, that many of these were from the “Gnostic” viewpoint. Thirdly, that one of these was the so called “Gospel of Judas.” Fourth, that whatever that was, it claimed Judas was possessed of some secret knowledge, unknown to the other Apostles, and that he accomplished something special. And finally, that Irenaeus hated what it said.
We now move forward to 367 AD. The Church is more firmly established. Athanasius of Alexandria is now a leading Christian Bishop and intellectual. Athanasius writes to his followers declaring that there are only twenty seven texts written after the birth of Jesus which should be read. These include the four Canonical Gospels. These, and ONLY these, he said, were approved scripture. Any text or Gospel other than those he named was heretical and should not be read. Indeed it was these twenty seven texts which ultimately formed what we now call the New Testament. The others were either suppressed or fell into disuse, and lost.
We now move forward 1,500 years to 1896. In Egypt, two British archaeologists are excavating ancient papyri written in Greek and Coptic (second and third century Egyptian) found in what appears to be an ancient rubbish dump.
Within the many thousands of fragments of papyri is one which lies unnoticed for years, until someone notices that it refers to “Mary”. Although only a small fragment remains, the text refers to a vision of Jesus which “Mary” has had soon after Jesus’ death and her discussion about it with the other disciples. The text records an argument. The disciple Peter appears to resent the fact that Jesus has made himself known in a vision to a woman rather than the other Apostles.
This is the so-called “Gospel of Mary Magdalene”, although it is right to say that no mention of the name Magdalene is made. But it suggests that a female figure, Mary, had a significant role within Jesus’ close followers at and after his death, or indeed according to some, that she was his closest disciple.
It is now 1945. Three hundred miles south of Cairo is a place of deserts and caves called Nag Hammadi. Egyptian farmhands searching for a type of fertile soil find a skeleton, and with it a sealed jar. At first they do not open the jar because they fear it might contain an evil Jinn. But the lure of gold tempts them. When they break open the jar they find not gold, but thirteen leather bound papyrus codices. How these then survive is itself a minor miracle (no pun intended) since the farmhands rip up the texts to divide them amongst themselves, some are discarded in a back yard and some of these dusty old papers are designated as kindling. But in the main they do survive. These are the Nag Hammadi texts, and they contain more than fifty early Christian texts, written in Coptic and dating from the 3rd or 4th century AD. They now reside at the Coptic Museum, Cairo.
They include the almost complete Gospel of Thomas, which is not a narrative but a list of 114 sayings of Jesus, at least half previously unknown, many decidedly cryptic, The Sophia (“wisdom”) of Jesus (an important Gnostic concept is “Sophia”), and The Gospel of Philip.
It is The Gospel of Philip which causes the most controversy, because it suggests that Jesus had a very close (though not necessarily sexual) relationship with Mary Magdalene. Tantalisingly some words have been destroyed, but the usual translations of the key parts are as follows:
“There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.
And the companion of [the saviour was Mar]y Ma[gda]lene. [Christ loved] M[ary] more than [all] the disci[ples, and used to] kiss her [often] on her [mouth]. The rest of [the disciples were offended by it and expressed disapproval]. They said to him “Why do you love her more than all of us?” The Saviour answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.”
As I mentioned above, it does not necessarily follow that this involves a sexual relationship; it could be that in the context of the time the act of kissing on the mouth – if that is the correct translation – is a spiritual symbol for the exchange of wisdom, the spirit, or spiritual knowledge. Once again, however, the figure of Mary Magdalene is very much to the fore in Jesus’ life. Please note that I am expressing no view on the authenticity or significance of the account – that is for each individual. But the document is a genuine 3rd century papyrus. However, it is this text which in part gives rise to the theory that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, which forms the basis of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.
Finally, and most controversially, in 1978 and again in Egypt, a farmer searching for treasure allegedly finds leather bound codex in a cave. The book is in decent condition and finds its way to Cairo and from thence to the international antiques market. It is a murky word, and a web of intrigue then surrounds who owned or (perhaps) stole the book. In 1982 attempts are made to sell it to an American university at an asking price of $3 million. The academics who examine it can see it is significant, and can recognise the repeated references to “Judas”, but do not have that amount of money and are not given time to study the text in detail. The deal goes off. Ultimately, the codex is left in an American bank vault for 17 years without appropriate protection. The result is that the papyrus begins to dry out and degenerates significantly. Nevertheless, rumours of what the codex might be abound in the antiquities market. In 1998 an antiquities dealer receives a “mystic urge” to track down the codex (or make money, depending on your view). She does so, and negotiates a purchase. She takes then the now crumbling papyrus to Harvard University.
When properly examined, it is found that it is entitled “The Gospel of Judas.”
Is it genuine? Experts note its similarity to the Nag Hammadi texts and vouch for its authenticity. Carbon dating confirms the date of the document to circa 280 AD. It is genuine, at least in the sense of being from the 2nd or 3rd century AD.
The document has become desiccated and utterly fragmented, but in an astonishing feat of patience experts slowly reconstruct it; a fragile million piece jigsaw in an ancient language. About 85% is restored and readable.
This Gospel turns the traditional image of Judas on its head. According to this account, Judas is closest to Jesus and his understanding of Jesus’ teaching is more profound than the other disciples. Jesus imparts Judas with special knowledge of the Kingdom of Heaven, and according to this version, it seems that it is on Jesus’ own instruction that he “betrays” Jesus, knowing that he does so at his own cost because he will be hated by the other disciples. Jesus seems to choose Judas to do this, because it is only Judas has the strength to do what Jesus believes is necessary. Note how this matches Irenaeus’ complaint about this Gospel above:
“Judas the Traitor, alone knowing the truth as no others did accomplished the mystery of the betrayal…….”
And this is by no means the end of the story. There are many more “mainstream” documents that did not make it into the New Testament. An example is The Gospel of Peter, which was known to exist but thought lost until a part was found by French archaeologists in 1886. One might think a text by the first acknowledged leader of the Church would have made the grade, but it did not.
I do not propose to suggest why. Instead, if a reader is interested, I merely say I draw much of this account from the excellent BBC documentary “The Lost Gospels” by Anglican priest Peter Owen Jones, who has the time and space to explore the issues, and with whom viewers may agree or disagree at their own leisure. I commend it. It can be found via YouTube, beginning here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-L7cQ3BrD5U&feature=related
There is also a rather cheesily over the top but still informative National Geographic documentary on the Gospel of Judas. Ironically, in true archaeological style it is slightly incomplete, but it is still a most interesting watch when the experts give their views. Here is a link to the start. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ywJdMezcqio
Finally, I emphasise again that I am NOT advancing any theory on these topics. Faith (or lack thereof) is a private matter and I have no monopoly on truth. Indeed, a summation of my life would suggest that I have a talent only for error. But I hope you found the story of some of what was cut, and what turned up, an interesting one.
Gildas the Monk
 “Against Heresies”
 I think “Gnosticism” survived on in the form of the Cathar religion until it was ultimately and horribly violently suppressed in the 13th Century. I commend a reading of Kate Mosse’s excellent novel “Labyrinth”