Colby D. Kirkpatrick
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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Despite popular opinion, the Christian bible is not a linear narrative, a comprehensive religious foundation, or an explicit framework for spiritual practice. Rather, it is an interpretive text comprised of human accounts of early human history and the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, the son of God. When viewing the bible through an objective lens, its literary categorization is clear. The Christian bible is an anthology, a collection of selected writings by various authors, in the same literary form, of similar time period. As with any such collection, a conscious decision is inevitably required as to which texts should be venerated as sacred truth and which ones should be excluded altogether. This meticulous biblical editing process provides enlightening insights, both of Christianity’s earliest roots as well as its trajectory for the future.
There is no certain date in which the Christian bible, as it is known today, was formally comprised. In the early days of Christianity, many religious factions existed, each with its own belief systems, holy practices, and preferred sacred texts. As both literacy and Christianity spread throughout the ancient world in the 1st century CE, the church accumulated a diverse collection of writings, including narrative and sayings gospels, acts of the apostles, early Christian homilies, and various accounts of Jesus’ life. Yet, no universal Christian text circulated the ancient world. As Christianity expanded over the next few centuries to become the dominant monotheistic belief system, however, a formal text was needed in order to establish the religion’s prominence and legitimacy in society.
Labelled as a heretic by the ancient church, Marcion, an early Christian figure prominent in the first and second centuries CE, was likely the first to propose a formalized New Testament canon. A devoted student of Christian texts, Marcion believed that the Judeo-Christian Old Testament served no purpose in the evolution of Christianity. For Marcion, if these scriptures specifically address the history of the Jewish community, then they are irrelevant to Christians, only serving to contradict the more modern, Christian-specific teachings of his time (Hoover). Troubled by these apparent contradictions, Marcion proposed a clean slate, a new canon simplistically composed of the Gospel of Luke and the Letters of Paul — a concise, linear narrative free of discrepancy. Though Marcion’s interpretations were never adopted by the mainstream church, his radical ideas sparked debate within Christian leadership: What texts should be institutionally endorsed and how should conflicting messages within these texts be justified in order to adhere to the Christian narrative?
The following years failed to offer a clear resolution to this Christian conundrum as various lists of accepted Christian texts surfaced and resurfaced throughout the following two centuries. Many early Christian figures and scholars — from Eusebius to Tatian — attempted to draft this sacred anthology, each to no universal avail. From these various lists, however, central disputes arose: How old must a text be in order to be considered canonical? How should literary divisions occur? By what manner should contradictions be addressed? In the end, one semblance of an outcome prevailed. The ancient church promoted an ideology that the four leading gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — exist both separately and simultaneously together. Just as four directions — north, south, east, and west — guide humans through the world, four key pillars of Christianity serve to relay the word of God (Hoover). While this hypothesis effectively justified blatant contradictions in the bible, it failed to provide a finalized list of New Testament scriptures.
After years of silence from historical sources, the modern bible’s origin may be pinpointed to a simple letter — the contents of which seem to have provided the definitive New Testament list that Christians have disputed for centuries. In the third century CE, the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, Constantine, sent a request to the bishop of Caesarea, commissioning the printing of fifty bibles constructed of the finest of materials and containing “the divine scriptures” (Hoover). While Constantine’s status as a genuine Christian is continuously debated by religious scholars and pious Christians alike, one fact is clear: as far as historians can conclude, the first instance in which the bible was printed in the entirety of its modern form occurred under the direction of Constantine in the year 331 CE. Meeting the needs of both the emerging Roman state and the expanding Christian church, this publication standardized Christian practice under one single text, provided the conclusive status of canonical gospels, and unified the Roman empire under a new and continuously appealing system of belief. In the present day, various Christian denominations — Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism — each have endorsed their own individually approved canons of roughly 27 New Testament scriptures, but the general framework is derived from a common template: the Constantine bible.
This relatively rigid set of twenty-five New Testament scriptures inevitably exclude many prominent Christian texts, arbitrarily casting them aside less influential, less reliable, and less sacred. Known as the apocryphal gospels, these writings include early Christian works deemed too radical, too controversial, or too divergent from the idealized Christian narrative. Resurfacing every so often, the texts spark debate and controversy around various points of Christian history, values, and practice.
Most notably, the Gospel of Judas sent shockwaves through the Christian community upon it discovery in the 1970s. Finally being attributed by the Maecenas Foundation in the early 2000s, the Gospel of Judas was translated and published by National Geographic in 2006 (Handwerk). National Geographic’s translation of the Gospel of Judas redefines the crucifixion story that Christians across the world have accepted as irrefutable truth for centuries. This account portrays Judas, not as Christianity’s most infamous traitor, but rather Jesus’ most trusted disciple. According to this narrative, Jesus and Judas often engaged in exclusive spiritual discussions and even together plotted the sequence of events that would lead to Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and eventual resurrection (Kasser). If this record is, in fact, accurate, Judas is no traitor at all, but rather Christianity’s most sacrificial martyr. By the parameters of this translation, the Gospel of Judas effectively undermines Jesus’ divinity. Rather than the sequence of events that lead to the crucifixion — the Last Supper, Judas’ betrayal, Jesus’ arrest, and eventual ascension into heaven — being predetermined as the plan of God, Jesus required human assistance from Judas in order to set the plan into motion. In short, this translation calls the religion’s very foundation into question, revising Christian history and upsetting the mainstream interpretation of Jesus as the true son of God.
While many scholars and Christians grappled with these revisionist ideas, one religious scholar did some investigation of her own. April DeConick, published author and biblical studies professor at Rice University, translated the coptic text independently, arriving at directly conflicting conclusions than those of National Geographic. An expert in Coptic language and Gnostic Christianity, DeConick concludes that the gospel affirms Judas’ status as one of the most despised religious and literary figures of all time. The majority of this crucial divergence between the original translation and DeConick’s own rests largely on a single word: daimon. While National Geographic interprets this word to mean “spirit,” DeConick counters that “daimon” is the universally recognized term for “demon” in Gnostic literature. As a result, DeConick’s interpretation possesses an entirely different connotation, one that aligns more logically with the Gnostic beliefs at the time of the gospel’s creation. DeConick identifies Judas a demon known as the “Thirteenth,” a human agent sent to earth by Ialdabaoth, the king of Gnostic demons, to undermine and derail the progression of Christianity (DeConick). As Judas ultimately triggers the sequence of events that led to the crucifixion, one can interpret Jesus’ death as a sacrifice to demonic deities, rather than to the benefit of all humankind.
Ultimately, the Gospel of Judas’ true intended meaning will likely never be known, but its existence in the first place demonstrates an enlightening phenomenon regarding the formation of mainstream Christian practice. Often times, religion is thought of as sacred law, the highest authority in matters of human purpose, practice, and morality.. However, the history of the bible and the Gospel of Judas undermines this framework, by revealing to contemporary society the very human role in the construction of the canon. This text reflects that Christianity did not evolve linearly, from one common root. Rather, it was funneled by early Christian leaders from a diverse collection of loosely related beliefs into a more structured, more standardized practice. While this consolidation did not withstand the tests of time as scores of Christian denominations sprang up over the following centuries, the larger effect is all the same. The Gospel of Judas stands out as a radical Christian text, but this common perception is built upon the notion that the bible is the true word of God. However, neither Jesus Christ, nor God himself, compiled the anthology that forms the Christian bible. Rather, the sacred work was assembled by human hands — hands working to serve not only religious but social and political purposes as well. Today, it is all too easy to over the multifaceted history that has given birth to the modern Christianity. Perhaps if this complicated past was widely-recognized, Christianity would become more appealing, accepting, and welcoming to those whom are currently felt excluded by its falsely rigid teachings.
Deconick, April D. “What the Gospel of Judas Really Says.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Dec. 2007. www.nytimes.com/2007/12/02/opinion /02iht-edeconick.1.8558749.html.
Gospel of Judas. Trans. Rodolphe Kasser, et al. Washington D.C.: National Geographic, 2006. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/lostgospel/_pdf/GospelofJudas.pdf.
Handwerk, Brian. “Gospel of Judas Pages Endured Long, Strange Journey.” National Geographic, National Geographic, 6 Apr. 2006. https://news.national geographic.com/news/2006/04/0406_060406_gospel.html.
Hoover, Roy W. “How the Canon Was Formed.” Westar Institute, The Fourth R, 1 Jan. 1992, www.westarinstitute.org/resources/the-fourth-r/how-the-canon-was-formed.