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This past spring, just in time for Easter, the National Geographic Society released a documentary on The Gospel of Judas, along with the text of the gospel and a book about its discovery. That gospel was a fourth-century copy of a second-century text, purporting to describe a secret conversation between Jesus and Judas Iscariot. It did not tell us anything historically valuable about Jesus or Judas, although it did give us interesting information about a small sect of second-century Christian heretics.
So why did The Gospel of Judas get so much attention? In my opinion, the answer to that question involves three things: money, history, and novelty.
The National Geographic Society intentionally timed the release of The Gospel of Judas at Easter in order to boost sales of the documentary and books. What better time to sell a book about Jesus than a time when people are thinking about him?
The profit motive was only one factor, however. The Gospel of Judas was a genuinely important historical find. It deserved to be published because of what it tells us about the interaction between orthodoxy and heresy in the second century.
A third reason why The Gospel of Judas garnered so much attention was the average Americans’ desire for spiritual novelty. We are a restless people. We like whatever is new and improved. When it comes to cars and dishwasher soap, new and improved may be a good thing. But when it comes to matters of the spirit, novelty is not always in our best interest.
In Romans 16.17-19, Paul warns us about people who peddle spiritual novelties:
I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people. Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I am full of joy over you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.
For Paul particularly, and for biblical Christianity generally, there is a real distinction between orthodoxy and heresy. In this passage, he speaks of “the teaching you have learned.” That teaching was rooted in Scripture, proclaimed by Jesus, and promulgated by the apostles. It included such basic doctrines as justification by faith, the theme of Paul’s letter to the Romans. To depart from that teaching was to walk away from Scripture, Jesus, and the apostles he himself appointed to carry on his work.
And so, Paul warns the Romans to be on guard against anyone who tempted them to depart from orthodoxy. Be wary of the motives of people who proclaim spiritual novelties in the name of Christ. Pay attention to their rhetoric. Do they use smooth words to advance heretical teachings? And in general, use your brain. God gave us minds, and he wants us to use them. “Be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.” That’s good advice in every century, whether the first or the twenty-first!