Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
--C.S. Lewis--

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Judas Stabs His Buddies In The Back Again

Ok, not literally. But apparently, there is a new controversy surrounding the Gospel of Judas. It seems that bad scholarship, and possibly even bad faith, led the scholars working on the text to interpret it in a manner that may have been more sensational than accurate.

For those who don't know, the Gospel of Judas is a gnostic text that (until now) was said to portray Judas as a willing and friendly assistant to Jesus, who turned him over to the Romans at Jesus' own request. Now, it turns out that other Coptologists believe the team working on the text (there is only one extant copy) mistranslated key words in a way that changed the meaning of the text by 180 degrees. Considering that the team included people like Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels, I can't say it's really all that astonishing. These are people who have built a cottage industry out of attacking the transmission of the Bible, so it isn't all that astonishing that they would jump to the interpretation that best supports their position.

I might try to write something on Gnosticism and the issue of the Gnostic texts a little later, but for now, I think there are two major points that need to be identified in this story. The first is the difficulty of doing historical work well. Old texts are not books to be read. Many times they are fragments to be pieced together, with smeared inks and missing sections. The languages they are written in may only be partially understood, or may change dramatically over time. We miss this when we see archaeological artifacts on display with neat labels, or transcribed into English.

On top of this you have the inherent biases of the humans working on the texts. While I have less than positive feelings about people like Pagels and Ehrman, can they really be blamed for seeing confirmation of something they've spent years defending in an ambiguous text? Can any of us say we know for sure that we'd really be above choosing the convenient translation over the one that is more accurate? Hopefully so, but no one knows for sure until they're actually in such a situation.

The more important lesson is this though. While we can get caught up in all of the arguments and sensationalist books, we need to remember that God doesn't need us defending him. This doesn't mean that such historical work is without value, or has no evangelistic potential. Merely that we shouldn't take it too seriously. God is bigger than any historical disagreement, and Christians who fall into despair anytime that some controversial text comes to light need to re-examine who and what it is that they believe in. God's word speaks directly to the hearts of those willing to listen to it. Those who aren't willing to listen probably won't be further convinced by arguments over the radiocarbon dating of a papyrus codex. Let him speak and defend himself.

"For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart."
Hebrews 4:12
Hat tip, Al Mohler.

***Update: 1st link corrected***