Who are the Gnostics?
?For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.? If he had not given himself
away before this, the writer of Judas makes it clear what his philosophical
perspective is when he put these words into the mouth of Jesus. This is a clear
statement of the Gnostic idea. It is not possible to understand the origin or
message of the Gospel of Judas without some background in the Gnosticism of
the first, second and third centuries AD. Let us consider the nature of Gnostic
It is important to bear in mind that Gnostics who called themselves Christians
in the early centuries AD had a broad range of beliefs. The teaching of the
orthodox Christian church varied somewhat, but the church?s doctrines and organization
was fairly consistent. That was definitely not the case with the Gnostics.
It is also important to recognize that the source of Gnostic teaching was not
Christianity. From their writings, we can observe that the teachings of the
Gnostics was based principally in the Mystery religions (such as the cults of
Dionysius and Osiris), Near Eastern Dualism (such as Zoroastrianism and Mithraism)
as well as neo-Platonist philosophy as exemplified by the teaching of Plotinus.
At the risk of oversimplifying, Gnostic practice was based on the Mystery religions,
its theology was based on dualistic religion, its philosophy was based on neo-Platonism,
and its story was based on Christianity. When scholars study the Gnostic writings,
such as the Gospel of Thomas, and in particular when we study the Gospel of Judas,
it is fair to describe these ?gospels? as Gnostic religion dressed up to look
like Christianity. As an example of this, the Nag Hamadi, a library of Gnostic
writings found in Egyptin the 1940s, contains two similar books. One of them,
the ?Book of Eugnostos the Blessed? is a Greek neo-Platonist speculation. Another
of them, known as the ?Sophia of Jesus Christ,? has virtually the identical
material, except that the words of Greek philosophical speculation in Eugnostos
are put into the mouth of Jesus Christ in the latter work. Clearly Greek philosophy
has been given a ?Christian? veneer.
The cultic practice underlying Gnosticism finds its roots in the Mystery religions
which pervaded the Roman Empireat that time. The Greek mystery religion was the cult
of Dionysius. The equivalent in Egyptwas the cult of Osiris. The Mysteries
were ritualistic/symbolic rites which led the initiates into an ever deeper
knowledge of ?God.? The practitioners were sworn to secrecy with regard to
these rites. Followers of the mystery cults were given successively deeper knowledge
of the meaning of the cultic practices. This is the source of the word Gnostic,
which comes from the Greek gnosis, or knowledge. We do not know a lot about
the actual mystery rites because of the enforced secrecy, but hints from Greek
writers give us some glimpses into the Baccanalia?the chief festival of the
Dionysius cult. This days-long festival included sexual activity, alcohol and other
inducements which produced an ecstatic religious experience for the participants.
The influence of the Mystery religions on the Gospel of Judas is obvious. The
Judas letter has Jesus saying to Judas, ?[Come] that I may teach you about [secrets]
no person [has] ever seen. For there exists a great and boundless realm, whose
extent no generations of angels has seen.? (GJ, p. 47). In the Judas account,
Jesus is a sort of personal spiritual guru, with Judas as his closest student.
Jesus says to Judas, ?step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries
of the kingdom.? (GJ, p. 39). The question to be asked is this: Which is more likely; that
the writer of the Gospel of Judas was influenced by the actual relationship
between Jesus and Judas or that he was influenced by the Mystery religions?
The theology of the Gospel of Matthew is at least in part explained by influence
from the many dualistic religions common in the Near Eastat that time. Most familiar
to modern readers is Zoroastrianism, because a small remnant of this religion
lives on today, mostly in India. The religion finds its roots in present-day Iran. Zoroa
strianism, Manichaeism and Mithraism all find their beginnings in Persiaor the
?Eastern Roman Empire. Of course these groups had beliefs which varied, but their
chief relevant quality for us is found in the belief that the world is in a
more or less equal battle between the forces of good and evil. The god of good
and the god of evil are in battle over earthly souls. Dualism finds its influence
in Gnosticism and in the Gospel of Judas. The Gnostics believed that Jehovah,
the God of the Old Testament was an evil God who brought destruction on God?s
people. According to this view, Jesus is a teacher of the God of good. He is spiritual,
whereas Jehovah is physical and earthly. As an example of this connection between
dualism and Gnosticism, consider the theology of one of the most influential
Gnostic teachers, Marcion. We know from his writings that he rejected the entire
Old Testament, as well as most of the gospels because they were too Jewish and
because they were influenced by the teaching about Jehovah. Marcion taught
that Jehovah is the enemy of true spirituality?that he is a worldly and evil
?god. Marcion based his canon principally on the writings of Paul. Influence
of dualism on the Gospel of Judas is found in the section already mentioned
in which Jesus tells the apostles, ?the cattle you have seen brought for sacrifice
are the many people you lead astray.? (GJ, p. 39). The Gospel of Judas paints
the picture of temple sacrifice as blasphemously sinful.
Lastly, but perhaps most profoundly, Gnostic writings such as the Gospel of
Judas are influenced by Greek philosoply?especially neo-Platonism. Greek philosophy
from the time of Pythagorus, through Plato, and most significantly for Gnosticism,
Plotinus, had created a picture of the earth as a physical and therefore a very
evil place. The goal of every human was to escape the physical world through
Mystery religion practices or through philosophical speculation, in order to
move to the higher, spiritual plane of existence. In diametric opposition to
this picture, the Old Testament, confirmed by the New Testament, creates the
picture of the created world as being essentially good (Genesis 1:31 ?God saw
all that he had made, and it was very good.?). Not so with neo-Platonism. The
physical world, as represented by Jehovah or by Adam, is essentially evil.
The goal is to escape the physical to experience the spiritual quintessence.
This explains the central teaching of Gnostics about Jesus. According to them
, Jesus was not a physical being at all. He could not be. The person we recognize
as Jesus was an illusion, or perhaps he was a shell which was temporarily occupied
by the entirely spiritual Jesus Christ. Thus the statement of Jesus to Judas
as mentioned above: ?For you shall sacrifice the man that clothes me.? In
the Gospel of Judas, Jesus is a spiritual being who has been trapped in a physical
body. The body is not Jesus. In that case, Jesus was not killed on the cross.
e, Judas did a favor to Jesus by freeing him from the sinful, gross physical
reality of a human body.
Of course, this is in diametric opposition to what is the commonly accepted
theology of virtually both God and human being. This well-established doctrine was put
in writing at the Council of Nicea in AD 325. It is just this heretical teaching
(that Jesus was not flesh) which is being opposed by John in 1 John 1:1, ?That
which was from the beginning, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have
looked at and our hands have touched?this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.?
In Gnosticism (and in neo-Platonism), the true, spiritual God is a lofty being,
far separated from the world. This ?God? is certainly not interested in a personal
relationship with human beings. This is the God of the Gospel of Judas. The
real God is so distant from human beings that out of his thoughts he created
lesser beings, known as ?aeons.? These neo-Platonic ?aeons? are the same beings
identified by Jesus to Judas in the recently published letter. One of the aeons is
Sophia (Greek for wisdom), also knows as Barbelo. Both find themselves in the
Gospel of Judas. To Gnostics, Sophia?s thoughts led to the creation of an evil
god, Ialdabaoth (also known as Nebro), who later created the god of Genesis, YHWH,
Jehovah. All of these neo-Platonic characters are found in the Gospel of Judas.
This bumbling, evil god created a disastrous world in which little sparks of
the divine are trapped inside an evil body. From neo-Platonism we get Gnostic phi
losophy/religion, from which we get the Gospel of Judas. The line of connection
is absolutely clear.
In the final analysis, Gnostic ?Christianity? is not Christian at all, and neither
is the Gospel of Judas Christian. This statement is true if we define a Christian
teaching or writing as being based on the teachings of Jesus Christ. Gnostic
belief is based on an amalgam of the popular philosophy and religion of the E
astern Mediterranean, with only a thin veneer of pseudo-Christian teaching. Gnostic teachers
are called the antichrists in 1st John chapter two, and for good reason, because
?no one who denies the Son has the Father.?
How is This Discovery Relevant to Our Understanding of Christianity?
What is the relevance of the Gospel of Judas to Christianity? The simple answer
is little if any. This discovery will be of great interest to the scholars
of Near Eastern religion in the Roman Empireduring the Pax Romana. Such scholars already
have a number of such documents, especially from the Nag Hamadi library, but
the Gospel of Judas will be an interesting addition to the extant Gnostic literature.
Having said that, we will learn nothing new at all about Jesus, his life, his
teaching or his ministry from this obvious Gnostic treatise because it has virtually
no basis in the life of Jesus Christ. If we read the recent National Geographic article,
announcing the completion of the restoration and translation of the Gospel of
Judas, we will get a very different picture. The editors of the article imply
that there were a number of competing versions of Christianity as well as a
number of competing written gospels in the second and third centuries AD. The
Marcionites, the Ebionites, the Gnostics, the Carpocratians and what we now
consider the orthodox Christians all had more or less equally valid interpreta
tions of the teaching of Jesus, if National Geographic is to be believed. By
extention, the Gnostic writings, including the Gospel of Judas had equal footing
with the canonical Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. To quote the NG writer, ?In
fact it is unclear whether the authors of any of the gospels?even the familiar
four?actually witnessed the events they described.?
The problem with this viewpoint is that it is completely disproven by the facts
as we know them. Those who seek to stir up trouble for crusty, conservative,
old, boring Christian belief (the kind through which people will be saved) want
to create the false impression that these alternative gospels and other apocryphal
writings have equal authority with the accepted New Testament books. Let us
consider the evidence.
First let it be noted that the Gnostics were stepchildren of the Mystery religions.
The practitioners of the Mystery cults used mythical stories as an allegorical
means to tell a deeper story. For the Gnostic, the use of myth and symbolic
story, with no basis in actual, historical fact, was standard operating procedure.
When one reads the Gospel of Judas, it is worth bearing in mind that the author
did not expect the reader to take the story as history. This certainly is not
the case with the writers of the four canonical gospels. For example, in both his
gospel, and Acts, Luke went out of his way to mention places, the names of rulers,
the direction of travel from one place to another and the specific titles of
leaders of different cities. Historians and archaeologists have confirmed many of
Luke?s facts. To date, not a single one of his historical details has proven
false. Luke interviewed eye-witnesses (Luke 1:1-3). All of the gospel writers
included minute details in the events they described (thirty pieces of silver, details
of distances, time of day and so forth), creating an unmistakable sense that
they were first hand accounts. One gets the strong impression that the gospel
writers were including such small details as if to say, ?If you are not sure,
ask the people who were there.?
The author of the National Geographic article on the Gospel of Judas tries to
instill doubt about whether the gospels are indeed reliable. One means to that
end is to create the impression that the gospels were not written until the
second century. The problem with this is that the evidence does not allow for
such a late composition of the canonical gospels. Support for this comes from
at least two sources. First, we have a number of actual manuscripts of New
Testament writings from as early as the second century. The earliest confirmed
date for a manuscript is the Rylands Papyrus, which has been dated by both carbon-14
and by script style to about AD 125. In addition, there exist a large body of
letters written by the early church ?fathers? such as Clement of Rome, Polycarp,
Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and others. These early Christian writers from the very
late first and the second century AD quoted extensively from every part of the New
Testament. The letters known as the Epistle of Barnabus, the Didache and the
Letter of Clement of Rome have all been dated from around 100 AD. These authors
quote from Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, Romans, I Corinthians, Ephesians, Titus, Hebrews,
I Peter and others. The early church father Ignatius was martyred in 115 AD.
In a set of letters he composed on his way to his execution in Rome, he quoted
from nearly every New Testament book. One could continue by mentioning the
much more extensive writings of Justin Martyr from around 150 AD, and those
of Iranaeus, from near the end of the second century. Justin called the gospels
the ?memoirs of the apostles.? Experts have claimed that using quotes from early Christian
writers in the second century, one could reconstruct nearly the entire
of the New Testament. Nearly all scholars agree that Matthew Mark and Luke
were written before AD 70. John was almost certainly written before AD 90, and
probably at least ten years before that.
Let us compare the evidence for the early authorship and accurate history of
the canonical gospels to Gnostic works such as Thomas and Judas. There is no
evidence that these or any of the dozens of Gnostic letters were given any authority
at all by the early church. The only time the early church writers referred to
such books was to show why they were heretical. It is interesting to note that
the earliest actual list of inspired books is that of the Gnostic leader Marcion.
Because he rejected the God of the Old Testament, the only gospel he included
in his accepted list of books was Luke, but we can tell from his writings that
he was aware of the other three. What is notable is that even Marcion did not
include any of the pseudepigraphical Gnostic writings in his canon. Presumably,
even the followers of the Gnostic philosophy were aware that the Gnostic letters
did not have apostolic authority. Please do not be confused by those whose goal
is not to discover the truth, but to confuse the minds of those who put their faith
in the Bible as the inspired Word of God. There is no justification for putting
the Gospel of Judas in the same category as the four gospels.
The Gospel of Judas is an interesting discovery, especially to scholars who
study Gnosticism and the influence of Greek philosophy and Near Eastern religion
on heretical Christian groups. Those who have implied that this book represents
a story of the life of Jesus which is to be taken as seriously as the traditional
gospels are flat wrong. The bizarre story of Judas being the favorite of Jesus
apostles?the one to whom he entrusted the secret, deep knowledge (gnosis) is
simply not credible. This story was made up out the imagination of a Gnostic
writer, with the intent of putting the precepts of non-Christian Gnosticism
into the mouth of Jesus. The four canonical gospels are eye-witness accounts
of the actual events in the life of Jesus Christ, with apostolic authorship or the
stamp of apostolic approval. To compare the Gospel of Judas to the Gospel of
Matthew is to commit a gross error of logic and of scholarship.
John Oakes, PhD
 The author acknowledges use of an article on the subject by John Madden,
a friend and philosophy professor at CerritosCollege.
 Some have claimed that the Gospel of Judas, if accepted, might lead to a
reduction in anti-Semitism. The argument is that if Jesus wanted to be free
from his body, then Judas was doing him a favor and the Jews would be less likely
to be blamed for killing Jesus. The exact opposite is the case. The Gospel of Judas
is extremely anti-Jewish in sentiment. It pictures Judaism as sinful in its
essence and Jehovah as an evil God. This picture would certainly not have reduced
the blatant anti-Semitism of Medieval and later Christianity.