Reflections on the “Gospel of Judas”
Ethan R. Longhenry
While The da Vinci Code mania continues to develop and grow throughout the world and while “other gospels” and “alternative Christianities” have become popular, we now see revealed to us yet another “lost gospel,” the Gospel of Judas. The National Geographic Society has done a good job of marketing this discovery and are profiting heavily from it; the media splash guarantees that it will be the topic at many a water cooler in offices throughout America. Since there is such a great commotion regarding this discovery, it is good to spend some time examining this Gospel of Judas.
Origins and Discovery
The Gospel of Judas that has been found is part of a codex, a term used to describe ancient “books” of folded paper, a codex entitled Codex Tchacos after the father of the antiquities dealer who transferred the document to scholars for preservation and safekeeping. The Gospel of Judas is not the only text on this codex: it also contains what is being called the Apocalypse of James, the Letter of Peter to Philip, and the fragments of the Book of Allogenes. So far the Gospel of Judas has been the most popularized; we may learn more of the other documents at a later time.
The codex was discovered near El Minya, Egypt in the 70s, and eventually wound up in the United States where it remained until purchased by the previously mentioned antiquities dealer in 2000. The manuscript will eventually be delivered back to Egypt and placed in the Coptic Museum in Cairo.
The codex itself dates to around the late third century or early fourth century CE. While we can have no firm dates as to precisely when the Gospel of Judas was written, we do know that it must have originated before 180, for Irenaeus in his work Against Heresies writes regarding the book the following:
[some] 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.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; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictional history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas, (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., I. 31. 1).
While it is possible that there was another work styled the Gospel of Judas, most believe that the manuscript found concords to the work concerning which Irenaeus spoke. It should also be noted, therefore, that although we did not actually possess any copies of the Gospel of Judas previously, people knew about it through Irenaeus’ citation above.
The Authorship and Provenance of the Gospel of Judas
No one really doubts the group of people who are responsible for the creation and promulgation of the Gospel of Judas: it comes from a group of Gnostics. Judas Iscariot was by no means its author, nor could he ever have been the author-- the text comes far later than his demise.
In 1945, a similar find was made near Nag Hammadi in Egypt, where some Bedouin came across many codices of mostly Gnostic texts also written in Coptic and dating from the same general timeframe as the Gospel of Judas (it should be noted that Egypt was not the only place where Gnostics flourished; the discoveries of texts there are on account of the happy circumstance of Egypt’s dryness, which tends to preserve ancient documents better than in other, wetter places). Many different types of Gnostic texts, along with some parts of Plato’s Republic, were discovered in this find, including many gospels such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Philip, and so on and so forth.
All of these texts help us better understand the nature of the beliefs of the Gnostics. In many ways, it is as difficult to generalize about Gnostic beliefs as it is to generalize about Christian beliefs, since they disagreed amongst themselves in many ways. They never called themselves “Gnostics” proper; such was a nineteenth century term to describe the variant belief systems that emphasized secret knowledge (Greek gnosis) and the idea that by knowing these secret things will lead to salvation. Gnosticism overall represents an attempt to assimilate Christian ideas into Hellenistic philosophies. The Gnostics tended to envision a spiritual world with many gods on different levels, and a “Demiurge”, or creator god, at the bottom, foolishly believing that he is the only god. The Logos, a “higher god”, so to speak, comes to earth to help give those humans who can understand the special knowledge so as to get around this creator god and be saved. To this end, most Gnostics considered all physical things to be evil and were generally known for their ascetic practices. Gnosticism flourished from the second through fourth centuries, and despite its decline had a significant impact on various sectarian groups deep into the medieval era. Many ancient authors-- Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and others-- wrote extensive tractates condemning the doctrines of the Gnostics, and until recently represented the only knowledge we had regarding such groups.
The Gnostics that seem to be behind the Gospel of Judas, at least according to Irenaeus, would perhaps be called “Cainites,” since they believed that they had some association with Cain and other such persons. The Gnostics behind the Nag Hammadi documents tended to be of the Sethian version, believing and speaking regarding the “great Seth”; other groups included the Valentinians, the Carpocratians, the Encratites, the Marcionites, and others. Despite the differences in these groups, we can see many common Gnostic themes permeating this Gospel of Judas, as can be noted below:
1. In the Gospel of Judas, Jesus mocks the disciples for offering thanks for their bread to their god, acting as if he is not his son (Gospel of Judas 34); this corresponds to the general Gnostic attitude that put Jesus at odds with the God of the Old Testament.
2. In the Gospel of Judas, Jesus mentions a figure named Barbelo (35), who is present in the Apocryphon of John and other texts discovered at Nag Hammadi.
3. In the Gospel of Judas, Jesus mentions the “corruptible Sophia” (44), who is also mentioned in many of the Gnostic versions of creation.
4. In the Gospel of Judas, Judas sees a vision and Jesus confirms for him that only he could see it and understand it (44-46), correlating well to the general Gnostic idea of secret spiritual knowledge.
5. The Gospel of Judas has Jesus present a discussion of the creation, and in said discussion speaks of the creation of Yaldabaoth, or Nebro (“the rebel”), who was to rule over the “chaos and the underworld” (50-51); this is also consistent with the Gnostic versions of creation, perverting the Hebrew Yahweh into “Yaldabaoth”.
These are only some of the numerous parallels that exist between the Gospel of Judas and the other Gnostic literature that we have discovered and also that is chronicled in patristic literature. It is most certainly Gnostic in every way.
The Gospel of Judas and the New Testament
Having examined the text we can now focus on the question that everyone will be asking: how does the Gospel of Judas relate to the New Testament? Was it “removed” from the New Testament? Is there some truth in it that is trying to be hidden by Christians?
These same questions have been asked regarding the Gnostic documents found at Nag Hammadi and even more so since the popularity of The da Vinci Code, and the answers remain the same.
Christians of the second through fourth centuries, when determining for themselves what works were inspired and thus canonical and what were not, used very straightforward guidelines, and most “orthodox” Christians came to similar conclusions. To be inspired, and thus profitable for understanding per 2 Timothy 3:16-17, a book had to have apostolic certification by being written by an apostle or the direct associate of an apostle. With the exception of a few radical scholars in regards to the Gospel of Thomas, there is unanimity that all the Gnostic works were written after the demise of the Apostles and their associates; they have no claim to inspired authenticity. The Gospel of Judas falls into this category: no one believes that it was written by Judas Iscariot or any other apostle.
We can see, therefore, that the Gospel of Judas was never considered a part of the New Testament, and if even ever considered, would have been rejected on the basis of not bearing the imprint of inspiration alone.
Many, however, desire to believe that Gnosticism has some truth in it and that Gnosticism should be considered an “alternative Christianity,” one that could have the same claim to truth as the New Testament. While people can certainly believe that Gnosticism is correct if they so desire, such does not mean that Gnosticism is really a form of Christianity and certainly does not mean that its claims of truth would stand scrutiny. While many postmodern scholars would like to take a bit from the Gospels in the New Testament and a bit from the Gnostic works and try to paint a portrait of the “historical Jesus,” the result is terribly unsatisfying: both groups did not accept one another. Both groups thought the other was wrong. The modern attempt to create some form of harmonization between Christianity and Gnosticism is misguided: the result is a belief system to which no one in the ancient world adhered.
In the end, one must either believe in the Gnostic gospels or the Bible; one cannot have both. The two are diametrically opposed. While the Gospel of Judas would claim that the god who created the world is a lower god and not really connected to Jesus, the Bible portrays God as a benevolent Creator, and Jesus as His Son, working with the Father in the creation, one with the Father, sent to do His will (Genesis 1, John 1:1-3, John 4:34, John 10:30). While the Gospel of Judas would posit the existence of many gods, the Bible speaks only of one (Deuteronomy 6:4, James 2:19). While the Gospel of Judas would proclaim Judas to be the only real disciple of God, reminiscent in many ways of the movie The Last Temptation of the Christ, the New Testament reveals Judas to be the thieving, traitorous betrayer who killed himself on account of his deeds (John 12:4, 13:2; Matthew 27:3-5). While the Gospel of Judas would revel in secret knowledge, Paul warns Timothy to not be seduced by the knowledge (gnosis) falsely so called (1 Timothy 6:20). It is manifest, then, that one either believes in the God of the Bible or the gods of the Gnostics; the two do not meet.
It is my hope that this material has helped you gain a better understanding of the Gospel of Judas and will help you be able to defend the hope that is in you in Christ Jesus (1 Peter 3:15). If you would like more information, the best place is to visit the National Geographic website and look at their material:
FAQ on the Gospel of Judas
Download a PDF of the text of the Gospel of Judas in English (http://www9.nationalgeographic.com/lostgospel/_pdf/GospelofJudas.pdf)
For more information on Gnosticism and the New Testament, please visit A Study of Denominations: Appendix J: Gnosticism (http://www.deusvitae.com/faith/denominations/gnosticism.html).
Let us not be disturbed in faith by the discovery of more Gnostic documents that are sensationalized in the media, yet let us take the opportunities given to us to allow the truth of the Gospel to shine in the midst of such darkness.
For many deceivers are gone forth into the world, even they that confess not that Jesus Christ cometh in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. Look to yourselves, that ye lose not the things which we have wrought, but that ye receive a full reward, (2 John 1:7-8).
Ethan R. Longhenry firstname.lastname@example.org www.deusvitae.com
Back to Religious Issues