The Authenticity of the Gospel of Judas

Katherine Weber of the Christian Post asked me some questions this week about the recent revelation that the Gospel of Judas had been authenticated by a number of means. See http://science.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/04/08/17656331-scholars-reveal-how-they-scrambled-to-authenticate-gospel-of-judas for the news report, and http://www.christianpost.com/news/gospel-of-judas-free-of-forgeries-but-still-fake-heretical-says-new-testament-scholar-93781/ for Katherine’s article (published 11 April 2013).

Below are her questions and my responses. This will also be published in the Christian Post later this week.

1) What are your thoughts on the authenticity of the Gospel of Judas? Is ink testing and comparison, in your opinion, an adequate method of determining the validity of an ancient text?

Paleography—the discipline of analyzing, deciphering, and dating ancient manuscripts—is little known outside of specialized circles. Traditionally, scholars especially use handwriting analysis to date manuscripts. Handwriting changes over time, and ancient Greek papyri, of which there are hundreds of thousands still in existence, give us plenty of illustrations of these changes. Actual dated papyri give us concrete evidence for when a particular style of writing was used. Of course, the manuscripts do not use our modern dating system. Instead, they are indexed to the reigns of the Caesars, mention a known person in an official capacity whose dates are known, or speak of astronomical events. For example, a petition to a government official written in “the 25th year of Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Caesar” was penned in AD 216. By such fixed dates on some of the papyri, scholars can fix the patterns of handwriting of other papyri to a range of dates. On such undated papyri, the range can be as short as fifty years.

But Coptic manuscripts are notoriously difficult to date because the handwriting was more stable than Greek manuscripts. Pinpointing the date to within one hundred years is difficult, if not impossible, in most cases. Ink analysis is important because of the shifts in ancient technology and methods that can be located in time. Radiocarbon dating is not usually used on ancient manuscripts because, until recently, it necessarily destroyed part of the document being analyzed. Apparently, radiocarbon dating was used on the Gospel of Judas, however. (There is a relatively new method for dating manuscripts that is non-destructive. I did not see any discussion of this in the report. Developed by Dr. Marvin Rowe of Texas A & M University and his doctoral assistant, Professor Karen Steelman, the method uses a plasma chamber that does not damage the artifact. See Marvin W. Rowe and Karen L. Steelman, “Non-destructive 14C Dating: Plasma-Chemistry and Supercritical Fluid Extraction,” March 2010, ACS National Meeting 2010. So it would indeed have been possible to get a relatively firm date on this fragment without destroying any text.) One problem with all kinds of radiocarbon dating, however, is that this too cannot give a precise date. Depending on the age of the artifact, the range can vary widely.

The recent revelations by Joseph Barabe indicate a date of “approximately A.D. 280,” but this seems to be more precise than the technology would suggest. Most likely, the confluence of ink analysis and radiocarbon dating have both legitimately authenticated this codex and fixed the date to the late third to early fourth century.

2) What criticisms do you have of the Gospel of Judas’ authenticity?

It is important to distinguish two concepts regarding its authenticity. First, there is the issue of whether this document is a modern forgery or a bona fide ancient text. The evidence seems to be quite strong that this is the latter. Second, when we hear the word ‘authentic’ regarding an early sub-Christian writing it is natural to conclude that authentic = true as regards the historicity of the Christian faith. This is not the case in this instance. All that is being claimed is that the manuscript really was produced in the late third century.

3) If it became a fact that the Gospel of Judas were real, how would this change the study of the New Testament?

Most likely, the original Gospel of Judas was written in the second half of the second century. Irenaeus, writing in about AD 180, condemned a gospel by this name as a fake, and described its contents as revealing that Judas “alone, who knew the truth as no one else did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal” of Jesus. This fits well with the contents of the codex, in which Jesus praises Judas as the one who will set his spirit free from the bonds of his physical body. This is vintage Gnosticism, which made a hard distinction between the spiritual and material world, branding the one good and the other bad. But does this mean that there is any historical truth to the Gospel of Judas, that it actually tells us the real story about the relation of Jesus to Judas? Hardly. Not a single scholar thinks that this conversation has any historical credibility. Irenaeus was right: this is a fake gospel which promotes a heretical idea about Jesus of Nazareth. The discovery and authentication of the Judas codex does nothing to disturb that assessment.