?The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation
with Judas Iscariot.? These words begin a startling new discovery, announced
to the world in April of this year. First there was the Da Vinci Code, now
there is the Gospel of Judas. It seems like when it rains it pours. On the face
of it, the apostle who betrayed Jesus is an unlikely candidate for writing an
inspired account of the life of Jesus, especially if we consider that he killed
himself the day Jesus died. When did he write this book? If we are to believe
the National Geographic article which announced the translation of the Gospel
of Judas from the Coptic language, this is one of a number of equally valid
traditions about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. If this is true, then
it will radically change our concept of the relationship between Jesus and the
disciples. In the newly discovered gospel, Judas is the closest of all the
apostles to Jesus. He is the one who received a special, deeper knowledge of the
Kingdom of God from Jesus. Is the manuscript a legitimate ancient copy of the
Gospel of Judas? What is the basic message of this ?gospel?? What is its relevance
to Christianity and to the accepted canon of scripture? Does it throw any new
light on the canonical gospels?
Is the Gospel of Judas a Legitimate Document?
Perhaps some of us hope that this whole thing will turn out to be
a hoax. Like it or not, the Gospel of Judas is very real, and the manuscript
uncovered in the desert in Egypt 1970?s, is certainly not a forgery. After
its discovery, the twenty-six page manuscript (actually, part of a longer, 66-page
codex which includes other Gnostic writings) languished untranslated for over
two decades in the collections of various dealers in antiquities because its
owners did not realize its significance. The codex is made of very fragile
papyrus and it had deteriorated significantly in the nearly thirty years since
its recovery. Although the original Gospel of Judas was almost certainly in Greek, this
manuscript is written in Coptic. This was the local language of Egypt in the
early centuries AD. Coptic script is very closely related to Greek writing. Finally,
in 2000, the Coptic language scholar Rodolphe Kasser got a hold of this papyrus.
He must have been shocked to realize he had in his hand a copy of the long lost
and long reviled Gospel of Judas.
It is important to note that the existence of this ?gospel? has been known to
scholars for centuries. Although no manuscript of the letter was discovered
until this century, the early church father, Irenaeus, mentioned the book in around
AD 180. He quoted from it in his polemic treatise Against Heresies. Irenaeus fiercely
denounced the message of Judas for its Gnostic underpinning, calling it a ?fictitious
history.? From Irenaeus? reference, scholars have guessed that this apocryphal
letter was written somewhere around AD 150. The original was in Greek, so the
manuscript discovered in Egypt is a translation. Its authenticity had been
confirmed, both by the composition of the ink used and by Carbon-14 dating,
which places the papyrus between AD 220 and 340.
What is the Message of the Letter?
The controversy over the Gospel of Judas manuscript does not stem
from a debate over its authenticity. It is the message and the events portrayed
in the letter which has generated a lot of heat. We should bear in mind, however,
that although we have a lot of new information about this letter, the general
thrust of its content was already known from the comments of Irenaeus.
Let us consider the content of this very controversial manuscript.
First of all, it is important to note that it is not really a gospel, if we
allow the four canonical gospels to define the term. It is not a biography
of Jesus. It does not include the passion events, it does not show him healing
people or preaching to the people. It does not provide any sort of chronological
picture of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. This letter is only about
3200 words long, which makes it equivalent to three or four chapters worth of material
from one of the canonical gospels. The document contains a number of very obtuse
allegorical/philosophical statements which are obviously a reflection, not of
genuine events from the life of Jesus, but of Gnostic philosophical speculation
(more on Gnosticism below).
The reader should bear in mind that the Gospel of Judas is just
one of dozens of known Gnostic pseudo-gospels. Others include the Gospel of
Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Secret Book of John, the Gospel of Phillip and
many more. These books are considered pseudepigraphal, which means that the authorship
is clearly not by the person after whom the book is named. No scholar claims
that Mary wrote the gospel of Mary or that Thomas wrote the Gospel of Thomas.
The same can be said for the Gospel of Judas. Whatever its source, it certainly
was not written by or even influenced by Judas.
If the National Geographic sponsors of the translation are to believed
(See the May, 2006 volume of National Geographic), the historical reliability
of Matthew and John are more or less on par with this book. The National Geographic
authors claim that the Ebionites, the Marcionites, the Gnostics and the main
stream of Christianity?the one which eventually won out?are equally Christian.
Their picture of Christianity in the first three centuries is one of a fluid
religion with no clear ?correct? teaching or story of Jesus. We will see that this
view does not hold up to good scholarship.
Let us consider some of the ?historical? events portrayed in this document.
When we do so, we will soon see that the content of the Gospel of Judas is nothing
short of bizarre by comparison to the accepted gospels. There are a few passages
in Judas which are vaguely familiar. Jesus tells his followers not to sow seed
on rock and expect to harvest the fruit, reminiscent of Matthew 13:5. He also
describes coming from a place which no eye has ever seen and no thought of the
heart has ever comprehended (recognize 1 Corinthians 2:9?). Beyond a small
number of familiar allusions, the book veers dramatically from the four gospels.
In the book, Jesus heaps contempt on the apostles. He often laughs at them
for their ignorance of the deeper mysteries. The disciples tell Jesus of a vision
of the temple with twelve priests before an altar accepting gifts. The priests
sacrifice their wives and children, engage in homosexual acts and commit other
heinous sins. Jesus tells the apostles that the priests in the vision are symbols
of the apostles themselves (and by implication, the Jews). ?Those you have
seen receiving the offerings at the altar?that is who you are.? ?That is the
God you serve.? (Gospel of Judas p. 38). For those not familiar with Gnosticism
?this may seem strange. However, if we understand that the Gnostics, including
the writer of the Gospel of Judas, considered the God of the Old Testament to
be an evil God, then this passage makes sense. Another passage in Judas confirms
this Gnostic perspective. ?The cattle you have seen brought for sacrifice are
the many people you lead astray (Gospel of Judas, p. 39)
Most of the last half of the Judas letter puts a confusing treatise on Gnostic
cosmology into the mouth of Jesus. ?Come, that I may teach you about [secrets]
no person [has] ever seen. For there exists a great and boundless realm, whose
extent no generation of angels has seen?? (GJ, p. 47). The secret cosmology which
Jesus reveals to his closest apostle, Judas, includes seventy-two luminaries,
or perhaps it is three hundred and sixty, or perhaps it is twelve. That is
unclear. There are twelve aeons (see below on Gnosticism) and six heavens for each
of the aeons to dwell in, along with five firmaments for each of the seventy-two
heavens. Unfamiliar characters in this cosmology (except to the initiates of
Gnosticism, of course) include Nebro Yaldabaoth, Saklas, Galila, Yobel and Adonaios.
Jesus is also known as Seth, and he is one of the five rulers over the underworld.
The key line of the entire gospel is found near the end. ?But you [ie. Judas]
will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.? (G
J, p. 56). The Judas letter writer has Jesus praising Judas as the greatest
of all the apostles. Why? Because he betrayed him to the Jewish leaders for execution.
Believe it or not, as we will see below, this statement actually makes sense
if one follows Gnostic philosophy. The bizarre content of the Gospel of Judas
begs the question: Is it reasonable to believe that these are the actual words
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 Egypt in 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 Empire at that time. The Greek mystery religion was the
cult of Dionysius. The equivalent in Egypt was 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
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 Judas is at least in part explained by influence
from the many dualistic religions common in the Near East at 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 Persia or
?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
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 recogn
ize 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. Therefore, 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 all of those who call themselves Christians today. From
the beginning, the church has taught that Jesus was both God and human being. Th
is 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 wi
sdom), 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 philosophy/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 Empire during 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 Go
spel 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 interpretations 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 text
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. http://www.cerritos.e
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.