The Gospel of Judas

  • Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, Gregor Wurst
  • Apr 1, 2006
  • Series: Volume 9 - 2006

Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, eds., The Gospel of Judas, with additional commentary by Bart D. Ehrman. Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2006. 185 pp. $22.00. ISBN 1-4262-0042-0.

The spring of 2006 should go down in history as the season in which the Gnostic Gospels finally got their due�all the attention they could merit and much more! Dan Brown�s The Da Vinci Code has already vaulted the Gospels of Philip and Mary into the limelight every bit as much as the Gospel of Thomas commanded interest throughout the 1990s�the decade of the Jesus Seminar and their color-coded voting on the historicity of every verse in the five Gospels�Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Thomas! Now with almost the sensationalizing hype and misleading advertisements one has come to expect from fiction like Brown�s (or Baigent and Leigh with their failed lawsuit claiming Brown plagiarized their earlier works), the Gospel of Judas bursts onto the scene. What on earth (or is it from elsewhere) is going on?

The most interesting part of this story is not the contents of the Gospel of Judas, but the mystery thriller, not unlike those accompanying the discovery, sale and preservation of the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Nag Hammadi Library just after World War II, of how a 1600-year old Coptic document unearthed in Egypt in the early 1970s managed not to get in the hands of responsible scholars who would take pains to preserve, reconstruct, photograph and translate it, until the year 2000. Rodolphe Kasser tells this story in the first of four �commentary� chapters on the text of the document itself. The short version of the story is that a variety of people wanted too much money for the document, or didn�t understand its importance, or didn�t know how to preserve it, with the result that it deteriorated substantially during those three decades.

Still, a sizable percentage of the Coptic codex has been deciphered. It actually contains four Gnostic writings, two of which we already knew of from the Nag Hammadi Library, one which is brand new but filled with largely esoteric Gnostic cosmology, and the Gospel of Judas. Judas we knew only from the references in Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, writing in about A.D. 180, who condemned it as a fabricated work of heresy from the Cainite sect of the Gnostics. Pseudo-Tertullian also makes allusion to such a work from about the same time, and our newly-translated-though-mutilated document matches what little these two writers say. Wurst and Meyer write the last two commentary chapters, respectively explaining in detail the ancient testimony about this Gospel and about Gnosticism more generally and Judas� legacy within it.

So what dramatic new teachings actually appear in this �Gospel of Judas?� What provokes Bart Ehrman (the Chapel Hill scholar who has taken it upon himself to highlight every unorthodox ancient document possible in his unrelenting campaign to argue that our canon is merely the product of the winning side) to declare this to be the most significant historical discovery pertaining to Christian origins in the last sixty years? Sadly, precious little. One understands now why the initial media hype kept quoting the same two or three excerpts from this Gospel. There is little else that does not match what scholars conversant with the Nag Hammadi Library have read many times over in past decades. Ehrman is the other writer to compose commentary for this publication, as he locates Judas among the other unorthodox Gospels, claiming how much our understanding of the diversity of early Christianity continues to broaden. Except that we knew about all this diversity already, though it is of course always significant to recover an actual text that may well be what we previously knew about only from second-hand, Patristic references.

Furthermore, Ehrman (like Elaine Pagels, who is quoted on the front book jacket, and numerous other scholars whose personal religious pilgrimages have left them with transparent axes to grind against historic Christianity) has yet to demonstrate that any of this diversity actually reflects mid-first-century Christianity rather than merely mid-second century Gnosticism. All the rhetoric about the Gospels that lost out to censorship by the orthodox Christians fails to disclose one fundamental feature of the early discussions on the canon: no one, to our knowledge, not even the Gnostics themselves, ever proposed that these later Gospels should be included in the New Testament! No doubt they were valued by the sects that created them, but not a single Gnostic Gospel (or any other apocryphal Gospel) ever puts itself forward as a rival for canonization. Nor does any other writing still in existence which talks about the other Gospels. That they are occasionally condemned means that people were being misled by their teachings, but that is scarcely a proof that anyone was supporting them for canonization.

Indeed, the fact that documents, obviously second century or later in milieu, used names of first-century characters shows that they believed they could not even gain a hearing without borrowing from already acknowledged Christian authorities. There were seven books that ended up in the New Testament that were at times debated (Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation), but not one of them was a Gospel. There were five or six other Christian writings that were sometimes explicitly put forward for inclusion in the canon (Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, Didache, Apocalypse of Peter, 1-2 Clement), but none of them was a Gospel either. The acceptance of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John cannot be reduced simply to the choices of the winners in ancient ecclesiastical politics. But the vehemence with which some people keep repeating this mantra shows that in our increasingly postmodern, ahistorical world, history today can be rewritten and re-invented by those who shout the loudest, whether or not they have the necessary supporting evidence!

So what is in the Gospel of Judas? Not much. In order to create a small hardback selling at the overpriced figure of $22.00, the editors had to compose all of these commentary pieces. The English translation of Judas spans only twenty-six pages, which average only about a half a page of actual text. The rest of these pages contain footnotes that deal with issues of translation, interpretation, filling in gaps in the manuscript, conjectural emendation, and the like.

As with most of the other Gnostic �Gospels,� we have only the barest hints of a narrative here. Most of the document juxtaposes successive scenes of Jesus disclosing secret revelation to Judas (just as he does with Thomas, Philip, Mary, James, Peter, and so on, in the other Gnostic texts). The book�s introduction reads, �the secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week three days before he celebrated Passover.� It proceeds to have Jesus laugh at his disciples because in worshiping the God of Israel, they are following a false god. The disciples retort that Jesus is God�s Son, to which he replies that �no generation of the people that are among you will know me.� They become angry, so Jesus challenges any of them to stand before his face. None dares try save Judas, who �was able to stand before him, but he could not look him in the eyes, and he turned his face away.� Judas displays more insight than the rest by declaring, �I know who you are and where you have come from. You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo [a Sethian Gnostic term for the divine mother]. And I am not worthy to utter the name of the one who has sent you.�

Jesus thus deigns to teach Judas more esoteric teaching in private. Here he discloses that �someone else will replace you [a reference to Acts 1:15-26 and the choosing of Matthias], in order that the twelve may again come to completion with their god.� Jesus disappears. When he later returns to the twelve and they ask where he has been, he refers to a holy generation that not even any �host of angels of the stars will rule over.� Humanity, however, remains irredeemably corrupt. Later the disciples see the temple and ask Jesus about it. Speaking of the priests, he replies, �some sacrifice their own children, others their wives in praise [and] humility with each other, some sleep with men; some are involved in [slaughter]; some commit a multitude of sins and deeds of lawlessness.� Clearly the Gnostics had no attraction to conventional Judaism!

Jesus then offers an allegorical interpretation of the vision of the temple and berates the twelve as no better than the priests. (By this time second-century Christianity had come to see itself as the new Israel.). Afterwards, Judas asks about the fruit of this generation. Jesus� answer reflects classic Gnostic eschatology: �The souls of every human generation will die. When these people, however, have completed the time of the kingdom and the spirit leaves them, their bodies will die but their souls will be alive, and they will be taken up.� Later Judas asks about his own destiny and Jesus answers, �you will grieve much when you see the kingdom and all its generation.� Apparently presuming knowledge of the prediction that he would betray Christ (which this document never actually narrates), Judas then inquires, �What good is it that I have received it [the kingdom]? For you have set me apart for that generation.� Jesus explains, �You will become the thirteenth, and you will be cursed by the other generations�and you will come to rule over them. In the last days they will curse your ascent to the holy [generation].� In other words, his role as betrayer will appear to leave him cursed, but at the end of days he will enjoy a more exalted position than the rest of Jesus� followers.

The next segment quotes 1 Corinthians 2:9 as it prepares the way for more remarkable revelations. �A great angel, the enlightened divine Self-Generated� emerges from a cloud with four attendants. Jesus shows Judas how the emanations of the original godhead came forth and were assisted by myriads of angels. �Adamas� (an alternate form of Adam) was in the luminous cloud and �made the incorruptible [generation] of Seth appear.� He also made seventy-two luminaries appear, who in turn produced 360 more. Spirits continue to multiply. Judas also sees the chaos of the underworld. The five who rule there are Seth, who is also called Christ, Harmathoth, Galila, Yobel and Adonaios. Angels, not God, create humanity with long-lived children. Judas asks if humans have immortal spirits but before we learn if Christ ever fully answered the question, our text tails off. When it picks up again, we are learning about how the stars guide the courses of irredeemable humanity: �they will fornicate in my name and slay their children,� but Jesus laughs at the stars because their six rulers will wander about with the five lords of the underworld, �and they all will be destroyed along with their creatures.�

Finally, Judas asks Jesus what those baptized in his name would do. Again, the text is corrupt but it includes a reference to �everything that is evil.� Then Christ announces, �But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.� In other words, Judas will betray the human Jesus, even though the Christ spirit will live on and, for that matter, has never been fully united with Jesus, since in docetic Gnosticism, Jesus as fully God could only appear to be human. Humanity, after all is inherently evil, and gods can�t become evil.

The concluding lines of this short document read, �. . .their high priests murmured because [he] had gone into the guest room for his prayer. But some scribes were there watching carefully in order to arrest him during the prayer, for they were afraid of the people, since he was regarded by all as a prophet. They approached Judas and said to him, �What are you doing here? You are Jesus� disciple.� Judas answered them as they wished. And he received some money and handed him over to them.�

It is hard to know whether to laugh or to cry when one encounters people who think that literature of this kind forms some kind of threat to historic Christian faith. The apocryphal Gospels and Acts, including some fairly orthodox ones, regularly set out to fill in historical and theological �gaps� in the canonical literature. What was Jesus like as a child? What happened when he �descended into hell?� What else did the apostles do that�s not in the Book of Acts? Did Nicodemus ever become a full-fledged Christian? Judas� suicide, as narrated in the Bible, was tragic enough, but what was one to make of his apparently predestined role as Jesus� betrayer? Orthodox Christianity has normally answered that question by saying that Judas freely chose to betray his Lord, even if, with divine insight, Christ could predict it in advance. As for someone having to turn Christ in so that the plan of atonement would go forward, Jesus made enough enemies during his lifetime that had Judas not handed him over, plenty of other people could and would have done so. Still, one can understand why one sectarian form of Christianity would have preferred to imagine that Judas did not end up in �perdition� at all, but that the betrayal was a prearranged plot which would one day lead to Judas� exaltation. Gnostic theology proved perfectly amenable to this solution, since it posited a radical disjunction between spiritual realities and material entities.

Thus, although we now have one more heretofore untranslated �authentic� text from 1600 years ago, as the media have repeatedly reported, all that �authentic� means in this context is that it really is an ancient text, perhaps the very one Irenaeus condemned. There is not one chance in a thousand that it preserves any accurate historical information that would shed any new light on the historical Judas. Were this a canonical document, redaction critics would quickly point out its agreement in all essentials with mid-second century, full-blown Gnostic thought and dispense with any idea of it representing older Christian beliefs. But because it is unorthodox, some who never tire of attacking the canon apply a double standard and propose far more optimistic theories about the historical truth of the document. The essayists in this volume are for the most part more cautious than this, but one would never have guessed that just from the recently televised National Geographic program on this new Gospel.

What is really sad are the Christians who tell others not to read books like the Gospel of Judas at all (or to see movies like The Da Vinci Code). What a wonderful opportunity for believers to become informed and share intelligently with their non-Christian friends whose interest has been sparked in Christian origins in ways that pure scholarship alone seldom accomplishes. Censorship merely reinforces the stereotypes that we truly do have something to hide, makes Christians look ignorant at best and repressive at worst, and actually makes it harder for certain personality-types to come to the Lord at all. Read the Gospel of Judas, and the other apocrypha and Gnostic writings for that matter. You�ll have no difference sensing in a heartbeat the entirely different philosophical context and worldview in which these documents were written. Your confidence that the church made good choices in its process of canonization will be bolstered. Your faith will be based on your own investigation and you won�t have to just take the word of others, including me. God won�t betray you in the process!

Craig L. Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
April 2006