The Gospel of Judas" is a long-lost bit of Gnostic apocrypha. Now that archeologists have found a copy, the media is abuzz with speculation that this ancient document will shed new light on or even change Christianity.
According to "The Gospel of Judas," Jesus tells Judas to betray Him. This will enable Jesus' spirit to escape from its fleshly container. Jesus also is said to call Judas the only disciple who truly understands His message. Much of the rest of the "gospel" is just disembodied dialogue about "spirit" as opposed to matter, in sharp contrast to the historically detailed Gospels of the New Testament.
No serious scholar, even of the most liberal variety, believes this text-which is dated nearly 200 years after the death of Christ-has any connection to the historical Jesus or the historical Judas. It would be as if an American in the 1950s wrote a book purporting to come from George Washington claiming that Benedict Arnold was really a double agent. And yet, "The Gospel of Judas" is being taken seriously, riding the wave of theological revisionism whose goal is to turn Christianity into a different religion.
The Gnostics were eastern mystics who taught that the physical realm is intrinsically evil and that the spirit can be freed from its bondage to physicality through the attainment of secret knowledge (or "gnosis"). They rejected the Christian doctrine of creation (saying that the material world is evil). They denied the incarnation (saying that Christ was a spiritual being who brought the secret knowledge and denying that He became "flesh"). And they denied the redemption (saying that sin is not a moral failure-since what we do in the flesh does not affect our spirits-but simply a lack of spiritual knowledge).
Many Gnostics went so far as to teach that the Creator portrayed in the Old Testament is really a demon. After all, only an evil being would create something so evil as the material world. The being who rebelled against this false deity and his physical creation is Satan, who is thus the "good guy." After all, in his manifestation as the serpent in the Garden, Satan offered Adam and Eve "knowledge."
One group of Gnostics went even further in their inversion of the Bible. The church father Irenaeus, in his book Against Heresies written in a.d. 180, tells about the Cainites. Members of this sect claim to trace themselves back to Cain, called in the Old Testament the first murderer, but whom they claim "derived his being from the Power above." The Cainites, said Irenaeus, also turn the other bad guys of the Bible-such as Korah, who rebelled against Moses, and the residents of Sodom-into good guys. And they have even produced a "fictitious history," reports Irenaeus, "which they style the Gospel of Judas."
The Gnostics wrote a number of other "gospels" (e.g., "The Gospel of Thomas," "The Gospel of Philip," "The Gospel of Mary"), as well as epistles and apocalypses to garb their teachings in apostolic clothing and to compete with the Christian scriptures.
Today the Gnostics are back in vogue. Feminist theologian Elaine Pagels of Princeton argues that Gnosticism is more open to women, since the body makes no difference to the spirit. She maintains that the early church labeled Gnosticism a heresy as part of a patriarchal plot to oppress women.
And the Cainites have come back in pop literature. Philip Pullman, in the His Dark Materials fantasy novels for young people-currently being made into a motion picture-presents God as the villain and Satan as the hero. Dan Brown in the mega-seller The Da Vinci Code draws on Gnostic writings and continues their tradition by making up history to create the impression that Christ's real message was feminism and sexual liberation.
Gnosticism lets you be "spiritual"-as an inner mysticism-without worrying about objective truth or what you do with your body. But, like Judas, it betrays Christ.