A sober look at the Gospel of Judas, now that the hype about it had died down.
Just over a year ago – in 2006 – there was a great interest in Jesus stories. Dan Brown’s novel “The DaVinci Code” had been on top of the best-seller lists after making the sensationalist claims that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had had a child together, and the film-of-the-book had just been released. Although the book was careful never to actually claim that it was historically accurate, the author and publishers certainly implied that it was. Readers lapped it up and wanted more; and in an attempt to quell this desire and protect the faithful from the dangerous ideas promoted in the book, “refutations” of Dan Brown’s novel started appearing in print and on the Internet from Christian apologists eager to rescue “their” Jesus from such speculation.
At the height of this fad, the public’s hunger for sensational revelations regarding the “hidden truth” about Jesus was fed once again – and not by a work of fiction this time. A group of scholars sponsored by the National Geographic released an English translation of a “newly discovered” document – the Gospel of Judas – which, if you believe the tabloid hype, finally told the “truth” about Judas Iscariot.
The apologists, of course, went wild. It wasn’t just limited to the usual evangelical suspects, either. Mainstream Anglican and Catholic Church spokesmen felt the need to come out and attempt to discredit the Gospel of Judas too.
So what was the fuss all about? If we look behind the hype from both sides, what are the actual facts?
The first record of there being a “Gospel of Judas” is made circa 180 CE by the apologist Irenaeus in his five volume work “ On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis”. In these early years of Christianity – before there was an “orthodox” church or a standard canon – there were many competing beliefs and sects all claiming to be the “true” Christianity. Each of these sects had its own holy writings, some of which were shared between sects who disagreed on the proper interpretation (or even the proper wording) of them.
Many of these were Gospels. Indeed although these days most Christians have only heard of the four Gospels that were later included in the Biblical canon, at the time that Irenaeus was writing there were well over 20 Gospels floating around – some of which varied wildly from each other. Unfortunately for historians, once the fighting was over and one group of Christians won (the group that – of course – retroactively labeled themselves as having been “Orthodox” Christianity all along and labeled all the other variants as “Heresies”) the writings that this particular group disagreed with were suppressed and burned. Those that survived suppression were often simply discarded as their followers died out.
The result of this is that although people like Irenaeus mention lots of other writings, much of that writing is lost to us and, somewhat ironically, the only record we have of them are the denouncements of them by apologists like Irenaeus. These denouncements, just like the Christian denouncements of atheism today, offer exaggerated caricatures of their targets portraying them as being full of immorality and even of being inspired by Satan himself in order to deceive the faithful. Plus ça change…
It is against this background that the finding of a copy of the Gospel of Judas in the Egyptian desert in the 1970’s (bound together with the “Apocalypse of James” and a “Letter from Peter to Philip” in a codex called the “Codex Tchacos”) caused excitement in the antiquities market. Unfortunately, the nature of the market meant that like many documents of its type it was passed from dealer to dealer and collector to collector getting more and more damaged along the way. It eventually emerged only in 2001, when it was passed to an academy in Switzerland for study. Tragically by this point over a dozen pages had become separated from the text and are still missing.
The particular papyrus itself dates from around the start of the fourth century (280 CE +/- 50 years) and was therefore written about 100 years after Irenaeus wrote. The text on the papyrus is also written in Coptic rather than Greek. The text is therefore a later translation of the work rather than an “original” copy.
It is amusing to see apologists pointing out this fourth century date as proof that it must be “fake” and not really by Judas himself. This is, of course, nonsense. Firstly it is the equivalent of picking up an NASB Bible and saying that since it was printed in 20th century then it must be a “fake”. Secondly, although the text is known as the “Gospel of Judas” it is – just like the four canonical Gospels – anonymously written. It is called the Gospel of Judas because it is about Judas, not because it was written by Judas.
So what does it actually say?
The text opens with a bit of narrative where Jesus berates the twelve disciples for not understanding who he is and what his mission is. He tells them – by interpreting a vision they had – that they and their followers will not be the ones to inherit the Kingdom of God and their lack of understanding will mean that what they teach their followers will be wrong and misleading. However, he takes Judas (the only one who can look him in the eye) off to one side to give him the “secret truth”.
There then follows the main bulk of the Gospel – which consists of Jesus’s secret teachings to Judas, given to him out of earshot of the other disciples. This starts with basic cosmology (although cosmology quite unlike that which we now think to be “traditional” Christian cosmology; but detail of Gnostic cosmology is far too large a subject to get into in this article) and then moves onto abstruse mystical talk about the nature of souls.
A key theme of this is that Jesus’s coming sacrifice is necessary for mankind’s salvation (rather than something that should be avoided). This sections ends with Jesus laughing at his (absent) disciples once again and claiming that Judas is far superior to the others because whereas they will only sacrifice material things, Judas will sacrifice God himself in the form of Jesus. As Jesus finishes his monologue, he directs Judas to look up, and Judas is drawn up into a luminous cloud that hovers above them.
Unfortunately, most of the text that tells what happened to Judas whilst in the cloud is missing – the fragments that we have seem to indicate the voice of God coming from the cloud and talking about Judas being blessed for his special role, but there are no real surviving details. There is then an abrupt scene change and the Gospel finishes with an epilogue of sorts as Judas goes to the priests to “betray” Jesus and set in motion the whole crucifixion.
What are we to make of this text? Well, it is clearly Gnostic in theme, dwelling as it does on mysticism and the concept of there being inner secrets hidden from most mundane followers of Christ and only revealed to those with special knowledge (Greek: Gnosis). Given the time at which it was written (in the mid to late second century CE, when rivalry between Christian sects was at its height) it is clear that the scenes of Jesus laughing at the other disciples are propaganda against the sects which claimed to be following tradition handed down from those other apostles – just as the canonical book of 1 Timothy, written at approximately the same time, contains the opposite propaganda: warning that you should check where writings come from before trusting them (with the implication that only those that do come from the apostolic tradition are trustworthy).
The treatment of Judas raises interesting theological questions too. The canonical Gospels make it clear that Judas is the enemy for betraying Jesus – yet also make it clear that the whole point of Jesus’s mission on Earth was to be sacrificed. If Judas hadn’t betrayed Jesus then God’s whole sending-down-his-son-to-die-in-our-place plan would have been ruined. By portraying Judas as understanding the necessity of Jesus’s sacrifice and being commanded by God to betray him (rather than being tempted by the Devil to betray him), the Gospel of Judas neatly avoids the problems with this part of the story.
To sum up, then: The Gospel of Judas is interesting from an historical context because of the light it sheds on the beliefs of the Gnostic community. But it is neither the earth- (and faith-) shattering revelation that tabloid hype would have you believe nor the late and heretical “fake” that the apologists would have you believe is so different from the Gospels in the Bible. In practice, it is another anonymous Gospel reflecting the beliefs of a different early Christian sect – no more or less valid than those of the sect that became the “Orthodox” church and got to define what went into the Bible and what didn’t.