Scholar exposes Gospel of Judas, bares own soul
COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Amidst all the hullabaloo surrounding Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, another religious bombshell, The Gospel of Judas, is about to steal the headlines, thanks in part to a two-hour feature airing on the National Geographic Channel the evening of April 9.
According to press hype, The Gospel of Judas a document dating back some 1700 years and discovered in Egypt in the mid-1900s presents a new account of the life of Jesus from the perspective of the man who betrayed him. Some have even labeled it "one of the most important finds in biblical archaeology."
In the light of all this, how will the gospel of Jesus fare?
One of the world's foremost biblical scholars and an expert on such questions has lived right here in Cochrane for the past three years. He also happens to be a loyal coffee companion.
James M. Robinson readers of this column should address him simply as "Jim," he says is Professor Emeritus of Religion, Claremont Graduate University, California. The former director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity has been highly honoured for his part in the scholarly quest for the historical Jesus, and for his definitive work on Q, the collection of sayings attributed to Jesus and found in the synoptic gospels of Matthew and Luke but absent in the Gospel of Mark.
He is best known, however, for his work on the Nag Hammadi Codices and as the General Editor of The Nag Hammadi Library in English, the area of research that bears most directly on the current discussion around The Gospel of Judas. The Nag Hammadi Codices are a collection of fourth-century papyri found in central Egypt and written mostly in the now-extinct Coptic language.
"The Gospel of Judas adds nothing to our knowledge about Judas or Jesus," Jim says. Here's his take on the document:
Jim has detailed the history, intrigue and significance of The Gospel of Judas in a just-published book, The Secrets of Judas: the Story of the Misunderstood Disciple and His Lost Gospel (HarperSanFrancisco).
Renowned scholar and Cochrane resident James M. Robinson, who says
The Gospel of Judas adds nothing to knowledge of Jesus or Judas.
But it is another book of his, published a few months ago, that is a far better reflection of Jim's life work. The Gospel of Jesus: In Search of the Original Good News (HarperSanFrancisco) encapsulates in a highly readable form his conclusions on the core teachings of Jesus based on his scholarly consideration of the documents and literary forms that underlie the four Gospels.
"The focus of Jesus' gospel was God taking the lead in people's lives, God remaking the world through people who listen to him," Jim writes in the Introduction. This is all about the "kingdom of God," better translated as the "reign of God" or "God reigning."
Jim says "this book is intended less to provide information about Jesus than it is to let you listen to what he had to say back then, so that you can respond to what he may still have to say today."
Writing with such passion as he does has surprised some who are more biblically conservative than Jim, especially in view of his rigorous application of critical methodology to the study of the Bible. I asked him about this, and here's his response:
I asked Jim how he'd compare these two recent books of his The Secrets of Judas and The Gospel of Jesus. He responded:
Interestingly, his view on the Judas sensationalism is not too different from his view on the book and soon-to-be-released movie, The Da Vinci Code, to which I alluded at the beginning.
"The movie will produce a new sensation," Jim says, "but it and the book will have no standing academically and will, I hope, fade from the scene shortly."
© 2006 Warren Harbeck