The Gospel of Judas


Robert C. Newman
Biblical Theological Seminary

With a press conference on Thursday, April 6, 2006, National Geographic made public the discovery of the only known surviving manuscript of the ancient Gospel of Judas.  This manuscript is part of a collection of three Gnostic works contained in a leather-bound booklet (codex) written in a dialect of Coptic and dating from about AD 300.  The discovery is being heavily hyped in the media, so I have been asked to comment on this find for visitors to our website.

The existence of a Gospel of Judas has been known since early in church history, as it is referred to by the Christian apologist Irenaeus in his massive work Against Heresies  (book 1, chapter 31, section 1) written about AD 180.  This chapter, titled “Doctrines of the Cainites,” begins as follows (my comments in brackets):

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 [the Cainites].  On this account, they add, they have been assailed by the Creator [the lesser, ignorant god who made the universe], yet no one of them has suffered injury.  For Sophia was in the habit of carrying off that which belonged to her from them to herself.  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 fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.

It looks like we now have the text of this work, which previously had been known only by name and by general descriptions of this sort, this one by Irenaeus being the earliest.  His remarks indicate this Gospel was in circulation by AD 180, so it was probably originally written in Greek sometime in the range 130-170.  The text, as it has been released so far, may be found at the New York Times website or (free) at http://www.tertullian.org/rpearse/manuscripts/gospel_of_judas/.

Briefly, the Gospel of Judas opens with a statement that reminds us of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot…”  Gnostics typically claimed that their information was kept a secret, and that is why the early Christians had never heard of these teachings.  An early conspiracy theory!

Jesus laughs when the disciples give a prayer of thanksgiving for a meal, saying that by this prayer “your god” will be praised, apparently distinguishing their god, the Creator, from Jesus’ God.  This is a standard Gnostic motif, since the Gnostics believed that matter was bad and could not have been created by the highest God.

Judas then shows himself to have greater spiritual insight than the other disciples, and says to Jesus, “I know who you are and where you come from.  You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo” [one of the lesser Gnostic gods, or aeons; the immortal realm would be the Gnostic pleroma].  “And I am not worthy to utter the name of the one who has sent you” [presumably the highest god, variously named in the different Gnostic theological systems].

There follows a somewhat obscure section in which Jesus speaks of having visited “another great and holy generation” of which “no one born of this aeon” can see or associate with, and “no host of angels of the stars will rule over.”  Here we have the Gnostic theme that spirit beings guard the celestial spheres, and that to experience salvation (that is, to escape from this world of matter), one must know the secret knowledge necessary to get by these guardians.

Later Judas tells Jesus of a vision he has had, in which the twelve disciples are stoning and persecuting him (Judas).  Jesus tells him that he will be the thirteenth disciple and be cursed by the twelve, but that he “will come to rule over them.”

Jesus then teaches Judas the real (Gnostic) creation account, as distinguished from the Genesis account.  Here the great, invisible, nameless Spirit calls into being the angel Self-Generated, who in turn calls into being lesser aeons and angelic beings.  Other beings such as Adamas and Seth appear (the Cainites are a subset of the Sethian Gnostics), Seth being identified with the Christ.  There are apparently some twelve aeons, seventy-two heavens, three hundred and sixty firmaments, and innumerable angels.  Then twelve angels are created to rule over chaos and the underworld, one of whom is Saklas, the creator of humans.

After some further discussion of the destiny of Adam and mankind, Jesus tells Judas how he (Judas) will surpass all mankind.  “But you will exceed all of them.  For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me” [i.e., Judas will bring about the death of Jesus’ body, so that his spirit may escape from the world of matter].

The Gospel of Judas closes with him accepting the money from the high priests and handing Jesus over to them.

After surveying the contents of the Gospel of Judas, I think we can agree with one prominent scholar in Gnostic studies that we are here looking at second-century mythology, not first-century history.

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Last updated: October 5, 2005