On the Church and Society
May 1, 2006
Has someone ever stuck up for you, but that defense came up short or even raised its own problems?
That's the case for Christians with Bill O'Reilly, the pugnacious, populist television talker on Fox News, who wrote a newspaper column recently addressing the much-hyped Gospel of Judas.
Contrary to impressions one might get from the media, the Gospel of Judas is not a newly discovered text. It's estimated that it was written in about 180 A.D., and this particular manuscript was discovered in a cave in Egypt in 1978. A Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) statement notes: "In writing against ancient heresies, the church father Irenaeus (130-200 A.D.) said that the Gospel of Judas originated in a Gnostic sect called the Cainites." Irenaeus wrote: "They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they label the Gospel of Judas."
O'Reilly observes that the Gospel of Judas "says that Jesus ordered the apostle Judas to betray him to fulfill God's will. In other words, Jesus wanted Judas to deliver him to his enemies and Judas did that as a friend."
Well, that does not seem to be exactly the case. Paul Maier, a professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University and a vice president in the LCMS, explains: "In fact, there is only one line of interest in the thirteen pages of the document that have survived. Jesus supposedly says to Judas: "But you will exceed all of them [the disciples]. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.' From that line, of course, sensationalists are making a cottage industry out of redoing the Passion story, making of Jesus a Neo-Platonist, and turning Judas from villain into hero."
About this Gnostic text, O'Reilly declares in his column: "My third-grade teacher at St. Brigid's School, Sister Mary Lurana, would not be having any of this." So far, so good. But then O'Reilly strays: "The good sister understood that the Gospels were teaching tools, not history..." And a bit laterr: "The good sister would likely say that the Judas tract explodes nothing. It is simply another early Christian writing explaining an author's viewpoint on this apostle and his relationship with Jesus. Again, the Scriptures are not history; they were written to instruct people as to how Jesus lived and what his message was."
Let's first understand that the Cainites and other Gnostics were not Christians. Rather, Gnostic teachings were deemed heretical by the early church, and remain so today. Therefore, this was not "simply another early Christian writing." It was not Christian at all.
Then there is O'Reilly's declaration that "the Scriptures are not history." Really? And he was taught this many years ago at a Roman Catholic elementary school?
Well, perhaps that is what he was taught. After all, there unfortunately are various priests, pastors, and teachers in the Christian world who actually will teach something contrary to Christianity. Or perhaps more likely, O'Reilly is imposing his current opinions onto his past.
To the Christian faithful, Holy Scripture, properly understood and interpreted, is history. About Jesus Christ, Christians declare in the Apostles' Creed that he "was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again from the dead." While the secular and the religious can debate, for the Christian, that is history.
Since O'Reilly is implicating his third grade nun, it also should be noted that the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" declares that the Old and New Testaments were "written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit" and "teach the truth."
In the end, O'Reilly seems confused by saying on the one hand that the Gospels are not history, yet are supposed to be used to "instruct people as to how Jesus lived and what his message was." Well, how can one teach such things without the historical truth?
Either the Gospels are history, or Christianity is a fraud. That's the choice.
Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, can be reached at ChurchandSociety@aol.com.
Copyright © Raymond J. Keating