Sunday, March 4, 2007

Are the people who wrote the Gospel of Judas "Christians"?

Christianity in the second century did not have the rigid boundaries that we might think it did. I think it is more appropriate to understand it as "sectarian." This includes "mainstream" or "apostolic" Christianity. Christianity was only in its youth. It hadn't figured itself out yet. It was trying to determine its relationship with Judaism, its understanding of Jesus, its view of salvation, its use of rituals, its hierarchy, its position on women, its sacred scripture, its interpretation of scripture, and so forth. For every one of these issues, there were Christians with several answers. And many of these Christians formed their own communities. They talked to each other. They argued with each other. They agreed and they disagreed. Sometimes the discussion became heated, turned nasty, included name-calling, false accusations, and real hatred.

Now we have usually identified ourselves with the Christian position developed by the "church fathers," which itself is a problem since their positions were diverse. They disagreed with each other, and after their deaths, some were declared heretics. What do we do with Tertullian who was a Montanist, and who essentially created the tradition of Christianity that would come to dominate the West? Or what about Origen whose theology was later condemned, and yet whose theology formed the cradle for all later eastern Christian traditions? So even our concept of "mainstream" Christianity as some monolithic homogeneous entity is a misnomer.

Enter the "Gnostics" such as the Sethians who wrote the Gospel of Judas. Were they Christians? Well, it depends on who you would have asked. Irenaeaus would have said, "No." But they themselves would have said, "Yes." And they would have said that Irenaeaus wasn't. The Sethian Christians understood themselves to be the only Christians who really got it, who really understood Jesus' message. The mainstream Christians were ignorant, and not real Christians in their opinion.

So again, we come to apologetics, and how it affects the study of Christian Origins. Do we continue to understand the second century from Irenaeus' perspective? Do we continue to allow his "orthodoxy" to be ours? Or do we allow other voices to emerge and be heard, the voices of people who self-identified as Christians, but whose voices were marginalized, suppressed and silenced? For me, the choice isn't even a choice. The only right thing to do as a historian is try to fairly listen to all the voices, and use that to reconstruct what was really going on between the many different Christians in the second century.


Geoff Hudson said...


I gather that your interest is in the sects of second century 'Christians' - Christianity in its youth. Do you believe there was a primary group of first century Christians - nascent Christianity?


April DeConick said...


This is complicated. Yes and no. In the simpliest terms I can for now because I am fast writing the Judas book. I think Christianity began to form in Jerusalem quickly following Jesus' death. It was a mission, so it spread rapidly. Once it located in various geographical places, it adapted to those locations. Paul comes on board, speaks against the tide and for strong Gentile mission and inclusion without becoming Jews. Missions begin to compete. And before long we are in the second century with a continued diversification. Sorry this is so brief. But your question is VERY important so I wanted to say something in response.

Phil S. said...

Again, I agree with you as far as making sure that the different voices of 2nd century Christianity are heard, if only for historical accuracy and better understanding of the period. Yet, I do wonder a little about your comment about apologetics again. Is this a comment about Ireneaus' reliability as a source or is it too a theological statement about 'orthodoxy'? Or is it both? My question is how to integrate Irenaeus and the other 'orthodox' sources with the apocryphal writers to get a clearer picture of 2nd century Christianity in all its forms.

As for your question about who can be called Christian, I suspect it depends rather on the definition of Christian you accept. Personally, I'd say that many of the apocryphal Gospels are Christian, but heretical (that is, in a very different theological tradition from my own).


Josh said...

" And they would have said that Irenaeaus wasn't [a real Christian]. ... The mainstream Christians were ignorant, and not real Christians in their opinion."

Is this necessarily true? If I think back to the Gospel of Judas, Judas is the enlightened apostle who is given the honor of releasing Christ from this mortal coil, but the other apostles are none the less still apostles.

Could Gnostic theosophical elites not have been perfectly willing to concede that folk like Iranaeus were true followers of Christ, inso far as they had received the tradition, paricipated in the rituals, and knew the stories of Chist's mission, even if they didn't fully understand the allegory of it. These dullards were just followers more toward the back of the line.

What I'm getting at is that I wonder if the Gnostic ideal view of the church couldn't have been similar to the Gnostic view of heaven, that there are several tiers: Just as the True God is on top with several lesser divinities emanating in lesser celestial spheres, so Gnostics are on top, surrounded by a comfortable buffer of individuals who are not quite there, but at least pointed in the right direction.


April DeConick said...


I think we were all misinformed about the Gospel of Judas. IN my opinion, there are major problems with the English translation, and also the Coptic transcription that is on-line.

I have written on this now, and hope the book will be out in the fall (Judas the Apostate: What the Gospel of Judas REALLY Says). All I can tell you now is be cautious about any of the books that have been published so far on the Gospel of Judas because they do not seem to be aware of these problems.

Judas is actually quite evil in the Coptic. He is not a Gnostic.

Josh said...

I await the book with bated breath, then. Thanks for the preview.

Alan Gregory Wonderwheel said...

It seems to me that even during the life of Jesus there were "two" groups of followers. First there were the so-called 12 disciples who actually seem (with the exception of Judas) to be more on the outside than on the inside. They appear to be test subjects who are given the teaching but are not included in the inner organizastion. Second, there is a whole network of followers who are not part of the formal disciples. These folks are the ones who assist and supported the whole project without being in the forefront. They include the the people who tethered the donkey at the well and gave the secret signal, those who prepared the last supper ahead of time, and those who bought and prepared the tomb, the various Mary's, Joseph the rich man from Arimathea, etc. Some of these other followers seemed to be more involved and in the know with the planning of events than the 11 disciples (excluding Judas) were.