Of the many works promising new insight into Christian origins, much was made two years ago of the Gospel of Judas, an early Christian text highlighting the figure of Judas, the betrayer of Jesus. The National Geographic Society’s publication of the gospel—the first since it was discovered in Egypt in the 1970s—received thoughtful reviews in this and other literary journals, Two works devoted to it have appeared in the last year. Elaine Pagels, of Princeton, and Karen King, of Harvard, both serious contributors to the study of ancient Christianity, combine forces in their new book, aimed at a popular audience. Bart Ehrman, a prolific writer who has done much to popularize scholarship on the history of the early Church, and who also had a hand in the original publication, has written another accessible book.
The Gospel of Judas is part of the body of Christian literature from the second and third centuries that reflects the intense debate among followers of Jesus. Christians argued over what they should think about themselves, the God whom they worshiped, the fate that lay in store for them, the significance of Christ, and the means by which they were to reach their heavenly goal. The faction that won these debates promoted its own version of the history of the times and suppressed dissenting voices. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, who lived in the second century, was one leader who vociferously favored centralizing the Church hierarchy and banning unacceptable texts. “Irenaeus and his fellow bishops,” write Pagels and King,
…decided that the marks of the “true Church” were to be creed, clergy, and canon. Irenaeus was among the first to insist that all true Christians must confess the same things, joining together to say a common creed that states what all believe. He also divided the churches between bishops and priests, and “the laity”…arguing that the latter must “obey the priests that are in the church,” and receive baptism and eucharist only at the hands of bishops and priests he called “orthodox.”
Pagels and King explain that the texts approved of by Irenaeus and other Church leaders tended to be
those that helped him and other bishops consolidate scattered groups of Jesus’s followers into what he and certain other bishops envisioned as a single, united organization…. The diverse range of Christian teachings that they denounced as “heresy” could be antithetical to the consolidation of the church under the bishops’ authority.
The victors in the debates over the canon continued to mention their former opponents, but only as marginalized heretics whose story could be appended to the narrative of Christianity’s triumphal march. The official account of the Church’s development viewed alternative voices as expressing the views of a misguided minority, craven followers of contemporary culture, profligate sinners, or worse.
Although the suppressed voices have long aroused fascination, interest in them grew in the last century when a number of manuscripts written by the losers …