Bishop's Message

Lessons from a Stone Age tribe

Jun 2006    

DON and Caroline Richardson went to live with the Sawi tribe, a Stone Age people in Irian Jaya, in the 1960s. There they learned the language and tried to understand the customs of the people.

The Sawi were illiterate and were ignorant about iron; their tools were made of stone and wood. They also had some strange customs – they considered treachery as the highest virtue.

When the Richardsons told them the story of Jesus, the people were particularly interested in His crucifixion. When Judas was mentioned, the Sawi listened very attentively. When they were told that Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, they let out a gleeful shout and gave Judas a hearty applause. This was their favourite part of the story. Judas was the hero of the story, their hero. The missionaries were at a loss. Later they found a way to tell the biblical story, using the Sawi cultural concept of the “peace child” and they finally got through. The Sawi responded to the Gospel and were transformed by its truth and power. All this is told by Don Richardson in his well-known book, Peace Child.

During this year’s Holy Week, the media threw up a story about the long-lost Gospel of Judas. This book was discovered in Egypt in the 1970s and after having gone through the soiled hands of the antiquities blackmarket, it finally landed in Switzerland. The National Geographic documentary that introduced the Gospel of Judas claims that the manuscript is real, implying that, therefore, it is also true (which does not necessarily follow). The documentary is a classic case of how the media can twist the facts and mislead, keeping the discussion one-sided or producing the illusion of a debate.

It is evident that there was a Gospel of Judas by the end of the second century. We know this because the Church Father Irenaeus mentioned it in his writings around 180 AD. The godly and learned Irenaeus wrote:

“Others again declare that Cain derived his being from the Power above, and acknowledge that Esau, Korah, the Sodomites, and all such persons, are related to themselves. On this account, they add, they have been assailed by the Creator, yet no one of them has suffered injury … They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal … They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.”

It is clear that while Irenaeus knew of its existence, he also condemned the Gospel of Judas as heretical and anything but Christian. This book was produced by a Gnostic sect called the Cainites. The Gnostics had a broad range of beliefs centred around the notion that matter was evil and that the Creator of the universe was a fallen god, and therefore evil. The true God can only be known through secret knowledge (an idea Paul vigorously condemned in his letter to the Colossians; see chapters 1 and 2). The Gnostics were considered by the Church as not Christian, and therefore heretical.


‘We have the four canonical Gospels that tell the truth about Jesus. They have authority for us, and were written so that we may know the certainty of the things we have been taught (Lk. 1:4).’

The Cainites, who probably produced the Gospel of Judas, celebrated Cain, Esau, Korah, and the Sodomites as the real heroes of the biblical story. What an inversion of values! It was obviously an attempt to subvert the biblical message and the truth about God. Irenaeus therefore condemns the Gospel of Judas as a fictitious story, made up to challenge Christianity and promote heretical Gnostic ideas and values. Its claims that Jesus commanded Judas to betray Him so that He could be released from the body which clothed Him (a clearly Gnostic idea) were certainly false and contrived.

We can dismiss the Gospel of Judas and its claims quite readily. But why is it that these days there is so much interest in the so-called alternate “Gospels”. There are people who have an axe to grind against historical and orthodox Christianity who are trying their best to argue that there were diverse and equally valid forms of Christianity. The recent discoveries of long forgotten and discarded heretical texts provide them with an opportunity to cast doubts and subvert Christianity. They want heresies to be embraced by the church again. But this is not first century diversity; it is the 21st century’s postmodern ideology at work, trying to impose its patterns on the silent voices of the first century. SUPPOSE alternate but false accounts

of the Holocaust are being written. In fact, recently British historian David Irving was sentenced to three years in prison for denying in his speeches and publications that the Holocaust took place, or that there were gas chambers. Suppose that in the mid 21st century, with values having changed and living memory having faded, more books were written by people like Irving. And suppose that after 1,000 years, some of these books are rediscovered, and scholars suggest that the Holocaust may not have happened, that in fact, it was a group of powerful people who created the “myth” of the Holocaust, and that they persecuted and suppressed the works of people like David Irving. We would be outraged, and rightly so, because that would be a serious distortion of the facts.

If the first century Christians were here today to hear the discussions about the alternate “Gospels” such as the Gnostic Gospels, I believe they would be equally outraged. To attribute to Jesus Gnostic ideas, inconsistent with His Jewish context (which is what the Gospel of Judas and other such false Gospels do) is like portraying Isaac Newton discussing Marxism with his friends around the dinner table. It is clear that the heretical Gospels are later inventions which do not ring true.

We have the four canonical Gospels that tell the truth about Jesus. They have authority for us, and were written so that we may know the certainty of the things we have been taught (Lk. 1:4). It is strange that in our postmodernist environment, what a Stone Age tribe did out of ignorance, is being repeated, more out of rebellion rather than ignorance. True wisdom, indeed, is in short supply.


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