A Bogus Gospel and the Rule of Truth
There has recently been a great deal of discussion in the news media about the literature of early Christianity. Every year around Easter we see the usual spate of “historical Jesus” news reports, in which an earnest reporter tells his or her readers that “recent discoveries” have “challenged” the way people think about Jesus of Nazareth. This year the hype has been especially intense due to the recent publication by the National Geographic Society of the so-called “Gospel of Judas.”
This Gospel of Judas was written sometime in the second century A.D. for use by a community of heretical Christians commonly known as “Gnostics.” This particular text is typical of the Gnostics, in that Jesus is presented there as a revealer of secret truths to a specially chosen disciple. The character of this secret knowledge frequently involves genealogies of the angelic hosts or discussions of the structure of the eternal realms. It is completely unlike the teachings of Jesus found in the New Testament. This, for example, is a typical saying of the Gnostic Jesus found in the “Judas Gospel”: And a luminous cloud appeared [in Heaven]. He said, ‘Let an angel come into being as my attendant.’ A great angel, the enlightened divine Self-Generated, emerged from the cloud. Because of him, four other angels came into being from another cloud, and they became attendants for the angelic Self-Generated. Obviously, this Gnostic Redeemer is very different from the Jesus we know from the Sermon on the Mount! The leaders of mainstream ancient Christianity knew these late, spurious Gnostic writings well, and they universally rejected them as contrary to the Christian faith handed down to the Church by the Lord’s first apostles.
By the early second century A.D. the structures of the Christian Church were becoming well-defined. This Church was clearly distinguished from the newly-invented Gnostic sects, both in its leadership and its doctrines. The bishops of the Church could trace the lineage of their offices directly back to the original apostles of Christ. As St. Clement of Rome recalled in a letter written in 96 A.D.: “Our apostles knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect foreknowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterward gave instructions that when they should fall asleep other approved men should succeed them in their ministry.” While the Gnostics claimed to possess special knowledge passed down from one apostle or another in secret, mystical writings, the bishops of the Church shared in a direct, public line of “apostolic succession.” There was nothing “secret” about the authority of these bishops to lead and teach the Church. It descended to them in an unbroken line from Christ’s gift of the Spirit to the apostles on Easter evening (John 20:22-23) through the public “laying on of hands” from that first apostolic generation down to their own time.
Bishops standing in the apostolic succession preached and defended an understanding of the Christian faith that was already known as Catholic (from the word for “universal” in Latin) and Orthodox (from the words for “right belief” in Greek) early in the second century A.D. This Catholic faith was summarized in a short formula known as “the Rule of Faith” (or "the Rule of Truth"). St. Irenaeus of Lyons, writing around 180 A.D., describes this Rule of Faith as “believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendor, shall come in glory, the Savior of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent.” This second-century Rule of Faith became the touchstone of Christian orthodoxy throughout the Roman Empire. Any teachings that did not conform to this Rule, even if they bore the name of an apostle, were rejected as heretical. Affirming the Rule of Faith was a precondition for baptism, and it is the foundation for the Apostles’ Creed the Church still recites today.
Whenever a Catholic, orthodox bishop of the ancient Church was presented with a newfound writing claiming authorship by a figure of the apostolic age, the bishop compared its contents to the Rule of Faith. If the writing’s teachings agreed with the Rule of Faith, then further efforts were made to establish its antiquity and authenticity. But if the teachings of the newfound text did not agree with the Rule of Faith, however, it was rejected as a forgery. In this way the canon of the New Testament was slowly built up in the second and third centuries. Text by text, a consensus developed among the bishops as to which early writings truly reflected the Word of God and which did not. Dozens of heretical texts were excluded from the Scriptures of the Church, including the Gnostic “Gospel of Judas.”
We can see this process at work in a letter written by Bishop Serapion of Antioch in the early 200’s A.D., in which the bishop instructs priests in his diocese to avoid a bogus work known as “The Gospel of Peter.” Serapion writes his clergy: “We, my brothers, receive Peter and all the apostles as we receive Christ, but the writings falsely attributed to them we are experienced enough to reject, knowing that nothing of the sort has been handed down to us. … I have been able to go through the book and draw the conclusion that while most of it accorded with the authentic teaching of the Savior, some passages were spurious additions.” Faithful bishops all over the Roman world defended the faith of the Church in just this way from contamination by heretical forgeries purporting to contain the teachings of Jesus or His apostles. Every time we open our Bibles we are heirs to their painstaking efforts to preserve the Truth of our faith. May God make us properly thankful for the incomparable treasure those early bishops have bequeathed to us in the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament.