Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Book Review: The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot

TitleThe Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed
AuthorBart D. Ehrman
Tagsearly christianity, gnosticism

Bart Ehrman is such a fascinating writer. His knowledge of early Christianity, and what we have found out about it with discoveries of previously lost texts, makes for interesting reading. In this book he talks about the Gospel of Judas Iscariot, which has been recently translated from its original Coptic. The text itself seems to have been written in the second century.

It is not, of course, a document giving the facts of Judas' life, and certainly not written by him. It is a text that shares the secrets of Gnosticism, that the material world is evil, created by an inferior god, and that Jesus came to bring the secret of how some souls can escape the evil material plane and enter the purer realms. Judas, according to this text, was not Jesus' betrayer, but the only one of the disciples to understand Jesus and do what was necessary for Jesus to escape the material world.

The importance of the work lies in a fuller understanding it gives of the history of the early Church, which had an astonishing variety of beliefs and sects. Ehrman talked more about this variety in his book Lost Christianities.

One of Ehrman's more interesting points in the book is on the nature of oral cultures, which, given a literacy rate of about 10 percent, the ancient world was. "In oral culture there is not a concern for what we in written culture might call verbatim accuracy. In oral societies it is recognized that the telling of a story to a different audience or in a different context or for a different reason calls for a different version of the story. Stories are molded to the time and circumstance in which they are told....This is the case with the Gospels of the New Testament. Even when one of the authors used another of the authors as the source for his stories - for example, when Matthew copied some of his stories from Mark - he changed the stories. Why would he do that? Because he lived in an oral society where hardly anyone thought there was a problem with changing the stories. Of course the stories were to be changed when the audience, the occasion, or the situation had changed. The widespread notion that stories never should be changed but should be repeated without alteration every time is an innovation of modern written cultures. Before the creation of the printing press this was not a widely shared view." (p. 36). This seems important to me because I've felt for a while that the writers of much of the Bible never meant for the text to be taken literally, and Ehrman confirms that this was just not a major concern of oral cultures.

Ehrman is an excellent writer in that he is a scholar able to write to a lay person's level of understanding. I've enjoyed all the books of his that I've read.
PublicationOxford University Press, USA (2006), Hardcover, 208 pages
Publication date2006
ISBN0195314603 / 9780195314601

No comments: