"All the news that's fit to print" indeed!
The NY Times offers an article on the Gospel of Judas that, like most articles appearing recently on the subject, advances the notion that the book is largely about an alternative understanding of the passion narrative, one in which Jesus conspires with Judas to bring about his death. The Times article prominently notes a quotation from near the end of the manuscript, where Jesus says to Judas, "But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me."
Apparently, however, the Times reporters haven't actually read the entire translation of the manuscript, or didn't care to note that this quotation, suggesting the very thing that they mention, actually plays a role in a much larger thrust to the book. Specifically, the Gospel of Judas seeks to discredit the rest of the twelve disciples as corrupt, immoral and deceptive, and to advance the notion that Judas, alone among the twelve, was entrusted by Jesus with the secret spiritual knowledge that leads to enlightenment and salvation.
Oddly enough, it is this very kind of rhetorical move that the Times article is alluding to when it says that the Gospel of Judas illustrates the diversity and conflict among early Christians. On this, we must provide some scholarly background to the discussion.
Historically Christians have always talked about orthodoxy and heresy in the early years of their movement. They understood the primary historical sources (the NT and the early church fathers) to indicate that there was plenty of alternative interpretation of Christian thought at every stage of their history. However, they understood that these were not just competing ideas with relative equality. Rather, they understood that one set of ideas, one theology, one doctrine, had an authentic pedigree. It had been taught from the beginning--with development and elaboration, but still from the beginning--by those most closely associated with Jesus. It was preserved in the church's continuous teaching, memory and experience, and more particularly it was preserved, they came to assert, in a set of books that had been regarded as having special authority from the time of their appearance (i.e. what we call the books of the New Testament).
More recently, however, much scholarly discussion has taken the line of the very important German scholar, Walter Bauer. Bauer [insert clever remarks about 24 and CTU here] is best known as the author of the most important lexicon of New Testament Greek, but he may be most influential as the author of Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. In this work, Bauer synthesized a view of early Christianity in tune with modernity. He saw the movement as a collection of competing ideologies. These competed with all the political tools to overcome the others and become predominant. The group that won--and winning finally meant getting the Roman emperor on their side--wrote the history, styling themselves authentic and "orthodox" and the others "heretical."
That perspective is reflected, of course, in the Times article. And it is the source of much uninformed angst among believers, who accept the analysis without understanding its roots.
What is to be said in response to Bauer and the Times? Well, one must examine the primary sources with a view to the question of priority. Which has the better claim to have come first, the "orthodox" Gospels or the "heretical" ones?
Let's take the Gospel of Mark as an example of the first kind. Mark narrates a story that recounts events purporting to take us from John the Baptist to Jesus' resurrection (perhaps minus resurrection appearances, which are nevertheless assumed). The entirety of the story comes together to portray Jesus as a powerful worker of wonders and an impressive, albeit mysterious teacher, who goes willingly to his death, surrendering himself to his enemies with a deliberateness that bespeaks a belief that he dies in fulfillment of God's will. It is a complete story, offering an "apology for the cross" (Robert Gundry) that contrasts the power of Jesus the miracle worker and teacher with his death to underline that he is not taken by forces greater than himself but dies willingly.
By contrast, the Gospel of Judas narrates almost nothing. It consists largely of mysterious, visionary, allegorical teachings of Jesus in exchange with Judas, who is singled out as the one who liberates Jesus from the "clothing" of his body by handing him over to death. It mentions the twelve prominently but does not discuss who they are or how they came to be. It says nothing of Jesus' works of power, and it doesn't even narrate his death.
In other words, it takes for granted that the reader knows Jesus as a powerful figure, one who called twelve disciples, and as one who dies by crucifixion after being handed over by Judas to the "scribes." Without that prior knowledge, its reader couldn't make heads or tails of it.
So, the historian asks, which came first, a story like the Gospel of Mark's, or a story like the Gospel of Judas'? The answer is obvious enough.
This, of course, is an observation decisively in favor of the traditional way of understanding diversity in early Christianity as opposed to Bauer's modernist revisionism. Was there a political struggle between factions in early Christianity? Of course. But there was still an original story of Jesus, an original way of interpreting his life and death and resurrection. Other stories came later. One can choose to follow them, but they don't have the same pedigree, the same claim to connect to the figure of Jesus himself, the same claim to have been believed by his closest followers.
To make the claim that they do connect to Jesus, the followers of Jesus must be discredited and the true teachings of Jesus must be presented as a secret entrusted to someone who has passed them on secretly to a chosen few.
Now, if any of this sounds to you like what Dan Brown did with The DaVinci Code, you're getting the idea.
So in sum, the Gospel of Judas isn't so much about a different view of what Judas did as it is about a wildly different interpretation of everything about Jesus. It displays no signs of a primary narrative of the life of Jesus. Everything about it suggests that it is secondary to the canonical Gospels' accounts of Jesus.
And the media's coverage of the Gospel of Judas is less about the book and more about the way that the book and others like it are used, against all evidence, to suggest that orthodox Christianity is merely the winner of a political struggle. It was that, but it was much, much more. And these books demonstrate that.