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):
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.