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Gospel of Judas

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld's (1794-1872) depiction of Jesus washing his disciples feet; Judas Iscariot is depicted in the back without a halo.
Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld's (1794-1872) depiction of Jesus washing his disciples feet;
Judas Iscariot is depicted in the back without a halo.

Date before 180, mentioned by Irenaeus
Attribution no attribution
Location El Minya, Egypt near Beni Masar,
Sources no academic consensus
Manuscripts Codex Tchacos, references in early Christian writings
Audience Cainites / Sethians - Gnostic sects
Theme Judas as the chosen disciple, Gnostic cosmology

The Gospel of Judas is a Gnostic gospel purported to document conversations between the apostle Judas Iscariot and Jesus Christ. The document is not claimed to have been written by Judas himself, but rather by Gnostic followers of Jesus. It exists in an early fourth-century Coptic text, though it has been proposed, but not proven, that the text is a translation of an earlier Greek version. The Gospel of Judas is probably from no earlier than the second century, since it contains theology that is not represented before the second half of the second century, and since its introduction and epilogue assume the reader is familiar with the canonical Gospels. The original Coptic document has been carbon dated to AD 280, plus or minus 50 years.

According to the canonical Gospels of the New Testament, (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), Judas betrayed Jesus to Jerusalem's Temple authorities, which handed Jesus over to the prefect Pontius Pilate, representative of the occupying Roman Empire, for crucifixion. The Gospel of Judas, on the other hand, portrays Judas in a very different perspective than do the Gospels of the New Testament, according to a preliminary translation made in early 2006 by the National Geographic Society: the Gospel of Judas appears to interpret Judas's act not as betrayal, but rather as an act of obedience to the instructions of Jesus. This assumption is taken on the basis that Jesus required a second agent to set in motion a course of events which he had planned. In that sense Judas acted as a catalyst. The action of Judas, then, was a pivotal point which interconnected a series of simultaneous pre-orchestrated events.

This portrayal seems to conform to a notion current in some forms of Gnosticism, that the human form is a spiritual prison, and that Judas thus served Christ by helping to release Christ's spirit from its physical constraints. The action of Judas allowed him to do that which he could not do directly. The Gospel of Judas does not claim that the other disciples knew gnostic teachings. On the contrary, it asserts that the disciples had not learned the true Gospel, which Jesus taught only to Judas Iscariot.

During the 1970s, a leather-bound Coptic papyrus  was discovered near Beni Masah, Egypt. This has been translated and appears to be a text from the 2nd century A.D. describing the story of Jesus's death from the viewpoint of Judas. The conclusion of the text refers (in Coptic) to the text as "the Gospel of Judas" (Euangelion Ioudas).

According to a 2006 translation of the manuscript of the text, it is apparently a Gnostic account of an arrangement between Jesus and Judas, who in this telling are Gnostic enlightened beings, with Jesus asking Judas to turn him in to the Romans to help Jesus finish his appointed task from God.

During the second and third centuries AD, various Christian sects composed texts which are loosely labeled New Testament Apocrypha; these texts are usually but not always “pseudeponymous”, i.e. falsely attributed to a notable figure, such as an apostle, of an earlier era.

The text is extant in only one manuscript, a fourth-century Coptic manuscript known as the Codex Tchacos, which surfaced in the 1970s, after about sixteen centuries in the desert of Egypt . The existing manuscript was radiocarbon dated "between the third and fourth century", according to Timothy Jull, a carbon-dating expert at the University of Arizona's physics centre. Only sections of papyrus containing no text were carbon-dated, because carbon dating is physically destructive.

Today the manuscript is in over a thousand pieces, possibly due to poor handling and storage, with many sections missing. In some cases, there are only scattered words; in others, many lines. According to Rodolphe Kasser, the codex originally contained 31 pages, with writing on front and back; when it came to the market in 1999, only 13 pages, with writing on front and back, remained. It is speculated that individual pages had been removed and sold.

It has been speculated, on the basis of textual analysis concerning features of dialect and Greek loan words, that the current Coptic fourth century text may be a translation from an older Greek manuscript dating to approximately AD 130–180. Cited in support is the reference to a “Gospel of Judas” by the early Christian writer Irenaeus of Lyons, who, in arguing against Gnosticism, called the text a "fictitious history" (Refutation of Gnosticism, bk. 1 ch. 31). However, it is uncertain whether this text mentioned by Irenaeus is in fact the same text as the Coptic “Gospel of Judas” of the extant fourth century text, and there remains no solid evidence for an early Greek version.

A. J. Levine, who was on the team of scholars responsible for unveiling the work, emphatically stated that the Gospel of Judas contains no new historical information concerning Jesus or Judas. However, the text is helpful in reconstructing the history of Gnosticism, especially in Coptic-speaking areas.

Ancient controversy
Irenaeus mentions a Gospel of Judas in his anti-Gnostic work Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies), written in about 180. He writes there are some who:

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.

This is in reference to the Cainites, an alleged sect of Gnosticism that especially worshipped Cain as a hero. Irenaeus alleged that the Cainites, like a large number of Gnostic groups, were semi-maltheists believing that the god of the Old Testament — Yahweh — was evil, and a quite different and much lesser being to the deity that had created the universe, and who was responsible for sending Jesus. Such Gnostic groups worshipped as heroes all the Biblical figures which had sought to discover knowledge or challenge Yahweh's authority, while demonizing those who would have been seen as heroes in a more orthodox interpretation.

The Gospel of Judas belongs to a school of Gnosticism called Sethianism, a group who looked to Adam's son Seth as their spiritual ancestor. As in other Sethian documents, Jesus is equated with Seth: "The first is Seth, who is called Christ" although this is in part of an emanationist mythology describing both positive and negative aeons.

For metaphysical reasons, the Sethian Gnostics authors of this text maintained that Judas acted as he did in order that mankind might be redeemed by the death of Jesus' mortal body. For this reason, they regarded Judas as worthy of gratitude and veneration. The Gospel of Judas does not describe any events after the arrest of Jesus.

By contrast, the canonical Gospel of John, unlike the synoptic gospels, asserts that Jesus said to Judas, as the latter left the Last Supper to set in motion the betrayal process, "Do quickly what you have to do." (John 13:27) (trans. The New English Bible). Interpretations include: this was a direct command to Judas to do what he did; Jesus was speaking to Satan rather than to Judas (thus "Satan entered into Judas"); or Jesus knew what Judas was secretly plotting.

Some two centuries after Irenaeus' complaint, Epiphanius of Salamis, bishop of Cyprus, criticized the Gospel of Judas for treating as commendable the person whom he saw as the betrayer of Jesus, and as one who "performed a good work for our salvation." (Haeres., xxxviii).

The Gospel of Judas itself attacking other beliefs
According to the Gospel, Judas was the only one of Jesus’ followers to fully understand the Gnostic teachings: "Knowing that Judas was reflecting upon something that was exalted, Jesus said to him: Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the Kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal. For someone else will replace you, in order that the twelve disciples may again come to completion with their God."

The Gospel of Judas goes even further, showing Jesus in various instances criticizing the other disciples for their ignorance and their followers of immorality.

When they tell Jesus about a vision, he points out its true meaning as follows: "Those you have seen receiving the offerings at the altar — that is who you are. That is the God you serve, and you are those twelve men you have seen. The cattle you saw brought for sacrifice are the many people you lead astray before that altar. (. . .) will stand and make use of my name in this way, and generations of the pious will remain loyal to Him."

Modern rediscovery
The initial translation of the Gospel of Judas was widely publicized but simply confirmed the account that was written in Irenaeus and known Gnostic beliefs, leading some scholars to simply summarize the discovery as nothing new.

However, it is argued that a closer reading of the existent text, as presented in October 2006, shows that Judas may have been set up to actually betray Jesus out of wrath and anger:

Truly [I] say to you, Judas, [those who] offer sacrifices to Saklas, the great fool, [... exemplify ...] everything that is evil. But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me. Already your horn has been raised, your wrath has been kindled, your star has shone brightly, and your heart has [been hardened...]

The initial translators might have been misled by Irenaeus' summary, which although an exciting idea was not necessarily accurate. Their theory is now in dispute.

According to Elaine Pagels, Bible translators have mistranslated the Greek word for "handing over" to "betrayal".[5] There is a different Greek word for "betrayal", so the original "handing over" should have been applied to make the text read correctly. The Greek word for "handing over" is used in the original texts of the bible in the letters of Paul and the Gospel of Mark.[citation needed]

Like many Gnostic works, the Gospel of Judas claims to be a secret account, specifically "the secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot."

Over the ages many philosophers have contemplated the idea that Judas was required to have carried out his actions in order for Jesus to have died on the cross and hence fulfill theological obligations. The Gospel of Judas, however, asserts clearly that Judas' action was in obedience to a direct command of Jesus himself.

The Gospel of Judas states that Jesus told Judas "You shall be cursed for generations" and then added, "You will come to rule over them" and "You will exceed all of them, for you will sacrifice the man that clothes me." [6]

Unlike the four canonical gospels, which employ narrative accounts of the last year of life of Jesus (in the case of John, three years) and of his birth (in the case of Luke and Matthew), the Judas gospel takes the form of dialogues between Jesus and Judas, and Jesus and the twelve disciples, without being embedded in any narrative or worked into any overt philosophical or rhetorical context. Such "dialogue gospels" were popular during the early decades of Christianity, and indeed the four canonical gospels are the only surviving gospels in narrative form. The New Testament apocrypha contains several examples of the dialogue form, an example being the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.

Like the canonical gospels, the Gospel of Judas portrays the scribes as approaching Judas with the intention of arresting him, and Judas receiving money from them after handing Jesus over to them. But unlike Judas in the canonical gospels, who is portrayed as a villain, and excoriated by Jesus ("Alas for that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It would be better for that man if he had never been born," Mark 14:21; Matthew 26:24, trans. The New English Bible), the Judas gospel portrays Judas as a divinely appointed instrument of a grand and predetermined purpose. "In the last days they will curse your ascent to the holy (generation)."

Elsewhere in the manuscript, Jesus favours Judas above other disciples by saying, "Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom," and "Look, you have been told everything. Lift up your eyes and look at the cloud and the light within it and the stars surrounding it. The star that leads the way is your star."

In the New Testament, Judas is said to have died by hanging himself (Matthew 27:3-10), or by bursting open after a fall (Acts 1:16-19). The Gospel of Judas does not specify the fate of Judas, although in the gospel, Judas tells Jesus he has had a vision where he is stoned to death by the eleven remaining apostles.

"The Kiss of Judas" is a traditional depiction of Judas by Giotto di Bondone, c. 1306. Fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.The content of the gospel had been unknown until a Coptic Gospel of Judas turned up on the antiquities "grey market," in Geneva in May 1983, when it was found among a mixed group of Greek and Coptic manuscripts offered to Stephen Emmel, a Yale Ph.D. candidate commissioned by Southern Methodist University to inspect the manuscripts. How this manuscript, Codex Tchacos, was found, in the late 1970s, has not been clearly documented. However, it is believed that a now-deceased Egyptian "treasure-hunter" or prospector discovered the codex near El Minya, Egypt, in the neighbourhood of the village Beni Masar, and sold it to one Hanna, a dealer in antiquities resident in Cairo.

Around 1980, the manuscript and most of the dealer's other artifacts were stolen by a Greek trader named Nikolas Koutoulakis, and smuggled into Geneva. Hanna, in collusion with Swiss antiquity traders, recovered the manuscript and introduced it to experts who recognized its significance.

Sale and study
During the following two decades the manuscript was quietly offered to prospective buyers, but no major library felt ready to purchase a manuscript that had such questionable provenance. In 2003 Michel van Rijn started to publish material about these dubious negotiations, and eventually the 62-page leather-bound codex was purchased by the Maecenas Foundation in Basel, a private foundation directed by lawyer Mario Jean Roberty. The previous owners now claimed that it had been uncovered at Muhafazat al Minya in Egypt during the 1950s or 1960s, and that its significance had not been appreciated until recently. It is worth noting that various other locations had been alleged during previous negotiations.

The existence of the text was made public by Rodolphe Kasser at a conference of Coptic specialists in Paris, July 2004. In a statement issued March 30, 2005, a spokesman for the Maecenas Foundation announced plans for edited translations into English, French, German, and Polish once the fragile papyrus has undergone conservation by a team of specialists in Coptic history to be led by a former professor at the University of Geneva, Rodolphe Kasser, and that their work would be published in about a year. A. J. Tim Jull, director of the National Science Foundation Arizona AMS laboratory, and Gregory Hodgins, assistant research scientist, announced that a radiocarbon dating procedure had dated five samples from the papyrus manuscript from 220 to 340 in January 2005 at the University of Arizona. This puts the Coptic manuscript in the third or fourth centuries, a century earlier than had originally been thought from analysis of the script. In January 2006, Gene A. Ware of the Papyrological Imaging Lab of Brigham Young University conducted a multi-spectral imaging process on the texts in Switzerland, and confirmed their authenticity.

Over the decades, the manuscript had been handled with less than sympathetic care: some single pages may be loose on the antiquities market (one half page turned up in Feb. 2006, in New York City); the text is now in over a thousand pieces and fragments, and is believed to be less than three-quarters complete. "After concluding the research, everything will be returned to Egypt. The work belongs there and they will be conserved in the best way," Roberty has stated.

In April 2006, an Ohio bankruptcy lawyer claimed to possess several small, brown bits of papyrus from the Gospel of Judas, but he refuses to have the fragments authenticated and his claim is being viewed with skepticism by experts.

Responses and reactions
Scholarly debates

Professor Kasser revealed a few details about the text in 2004, the Dutch paper Het Parool reported. Its language is the same Sahidic dialect of Coptic in which Coptic texts of the Nag Hammadi Library are written. The codex has four parts: the Letter of Peter to Philip, already known from the Nag Hammadi Library; the First Apocalypse of James, also known from the Nag Hammadi Library; the first few pages of a work related to, but not the same as, the Nag Hammadi work Allogenes; and the Gospel of Judas. Up to a third of the codex is currently illegible.

A scientific paper was to be published in 2005, but was delayed. The completion of the restoration and translation was announced by the National Geographic Society at a news conference in Washington, D.C. on April 6, 2006, and the manuscript itself was unveiled then at the National Geographic Society headquarters, accompanied by a television special entitled The Gospel of Judas on April 9, 2006, which was aired on the National Geographic Channel.

Terry Garcia, an executive vice president for Mission Programs of the National Geographic Society, asserted that the codex is considered by scholars and scientists to be the most significant ancient, non-biblical text to be found since the 1940s. However, James M. Robinson, one of America's leading experts on ancient religious texts, predicted that the new book would offer no historical insights into the disciple who betrayed Jesus, since the third-century manuscript seems to derive from an older document. Robinson suggests that the text will provide insights into the religion situation during the second century rather than into the biblical narrative itself.

One scholar on the National Geographic project believes the document shows that Judas was "fooled" into believing he was helping Jesus.

Another scholar, April D. DeConick, a professor of Biblical studies at Rice University, reports in the New York Times [13] that the National Geographic translation was critically faulty in many substantial respects, and that based on a corrected translation, Judas was actually a demon, truly betraying Jesus, rather than following his orders.

DeConick, after re-translating the text, published The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says to assert that Judas was not a daimon in the Greek sense, but that "the universally accepted word for “spirit” is “pneuma ” — in Gnostic literature “daimon” is always taken to mean “demon”, as she wrote in presenting her conclusions in The New York Times, 1 December 2007. "Judas is not set apart 'for' the holy generation, as the National Geographic translation says", DeConick asserted, "he is separated 'from' it." A negative that was dropped from a crucial sentence, an error National Geographic admits, changes the import. "Were they genuine errors or was something more deliberate going on?" DeConick asked in the Op-Ed page of the Times.

Religious responses
In his 2006 Easter address, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, strongly denied the historical credibility of the gospel, saying

This is a demonstrably late text which simply parallels a large number of quite well-known works from the more eccentric fringes of the early century Church.

He went on to suggest that the book's publicity derives from an insatiable desire for conspiracy theories:

We are instantly fascinated by the suggestion of conspiracies and cover-ups; this has become so much the stuff of our imagination these days that it is only natural, it seems, to expect it when we turn to ancient texts, especially biblical texts. We treat them as if they were unconvincing press releases from some official source, whose intention is to conceal the real story; and that real story waits for the intrepid investigator to uncover it and share it with the waiting world. Anything that looks like the official version is automatically suspect.

Later the same year, Biblical scholar Louis Painchaud argued that the text suggests Judas was actually possessed by a demon.

The uniqueness of the codex
The president of the Maecenas Foundation, Mario Roberty, suggested the possibility that the Maecenas Foundation had acquired not the only extant copy of the Gospel, but rather the only known copy. Roberty went on to make the suggestion that the Vatican probably had another copy locked away, saying:

In those days the Church decided for political reasons to include the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in the Bible. The other gospels were banned. It is highly logical that the Catholic Church would have kept a copy of the forbidden gospels. Sadly, the Vatican does not want to clarify further. Their policy has been the same for years – 'No further comment.'

Roberty provided no evidence to suggest that the Vatican does, in fact, possess any additional copy. While the contents of one part of the Vatican library have been catalogued and have long been available to researchers and scholars, the remainder of the library is, however, without a public catalogue, and though researchers may view any work within, they must first name the text they require, a serious problem for those who do not know what is contained by the library. The Pope responded on April 13, 2006

The Vatican, by word of Pope Benedict XVI, grants the recently surfaced Judas' Gospel no credit with regards to its apocryphal claims that Judas betrayed Jesus in compliance with the latter's own requests. According to the Pope, Judas freely chose to betray Jesus: "an open rejection of God's love". Judas, according to Pope Benedict XVI "viewed Jesus in terms of power and success: his only real interests lay in his power and success, there was no love involved. He was a greedy man: money was more important than communing with Jesus; money came before God and his love". According to the Pope it was due to these traits that led Judas to "turn liar, two-faced, indifferent to the truth", "losing any sense of God", "turning hard, incapable of converting, of being the prodigal son, hence throwing away a spent existence".

Spokespersons say the Vatican does not wish to suppress the Gospel of Judas; rather, according to Monsignor Walter Brandmüller, president of the Vatican's Committee for Historical Science, "We welcome the [manuscript] like we welcome the critical study of any text of ancient literature".[19] Even more explicitly, Father Thomas D. Williams, Dean of Theology at the Regina Apostolorum university in Rome, when asked:

Is it true that the Catholic Church has tried to cover up this text [Gospel of Judas] and other apocryphal texts?

answered as follows:

These are myths circulated by Dan Brown and other conspiracy theorists. You can go to any Catholic bookstore and pick up a copy of the Gnostic gospels. Christians may not believe them to be true, but there is no attempt to hide them.

In AD 367, the bishop of Alexandria did urge Christians to “cleanse the church from every defilement” and to reject “the hidden books.” It is possible that, in response to letters such as this one, some Christians destroyed non-canonical gospels.


The Betrayer's Gospel
By Eduard Iricinschi, Lance Jenott, Philippa Townsend

The Gospel of Judas from Codex Tchacos· June 8, 2006

Knowing that Judas was reflecting upon something that was exalted, Jesus said to him, "Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal."

In the newly published Gospel of Judas, the arch-villain of the traditional story is transformed into Jesus' most loyal disciple. The reader of the New Testament will notice that the Gospel of John portrays Jesus as complicit in his own betrayal, as he exhorts Judas to "do quickly what you are about to do." The Gospel of Judas tells how this happened. Here, Jesus chooses Judas to be the recipient of secret revelations, and he commissions Judas to hand him over to his death.

The famous critic of heresy and bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus, writing in about 180 CE, tells us that some Christians were reimagining the story of Judas only decades after the original gospels were written. In his Refutation of All Heresies, he writes that some people

declare that Judas the traitor... 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 fabricated work to this effect, which they entitle the Gospel of Judas.
For nearly two thousand years, the indignant bishop's description was our best source for these people and their text. But now, with the discovery of a copy of the long-lost gospel, preserved for centuries in an Egyptian desert grave, all that has changed.

The Gospel of Judas, released to the public for the first time in April, is one of the most important contributions to our sources for early Christianity since the discovery of thirteen papyrus codices near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945. Those fourth-century manuscripts, probably buried by monks from the nearby monastery of Pachomius, contained Christian writings originally dating from the second and third century CE. Condemned as heretical by bishops such as Athanasius of Alexandria, they were excluded from the New Testament canon and disappeared from Christian history without a trace, save for having been denounced in the polemics of early writers on heresy. Often referred to as the Gnostic gospels, these texts have most recently attracted much attention as one of the sources of inspiration for Dan Brown's controversial novel The Da Vinci Code. Quite apart from their sensationalist appeal, however, writings including the Gospel of Mary and Gospel of Thomas have provided scholars with an unprecedented opportunity to expand our understanding of early Christian controversies over such issues as gender, heresy, and church leadership.

Like the Nag Hammadi texts, the recently uncovered Gospel of Judas survives in a third- or fourth-century papyrus codex and is written in Coptic, the ancient language of Egyptian Christianity (though scholars believe the original was in Greek). It was first discovered in the 1970s by some Egyptian peasants in a burial cave near the village of Qarara in Middle Egypt. Probably searching for the ancient treasures that the sands of Egypt still occasionally yield, they stumbled across a skeleton wrapped in a shroud, with a limestone box lying beside it. Inside was a cache of papyrus manuscripts whose true importance would not be recognized for another thirty years.

The gospel was badly damaged in its long journey from the darkness of that burial cave near the Nile to its recent publication. One of the manuscript dealers who purchased it and then tried to resell it kept it for some years in a bank vault in Hicksville, Long Island, causing deterioration. Another dealer put the gospel in a freezer, damaging it further. By the time the renowned Swiss papyrologist Rodolphe Kasser got hold of it in 2001, it was in a heartbreaking condition. In an essay published with the recent edition of the gospel, Kasser recalls that he let out a cry when he first saw it:

It was a stark victim of cupidity and ambition. My cry was provoked by the striking vision of the object so precious but so badly mistreated, broken up to the extreme, partially pulverized, infinitely fragile, crumbling at the least contact.

Enlisting the help of Florence Darbre, chief restorer at the Bodmer Foundation in Switzerland, Kasser undertook the painstaking task of putting the codex back together. Each of the fragments had to be fitted together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Not only the shapes of the fragments but also the individual fibers had to be matched. Darbre used a powerful microscope to view fibers so fine they were invisible to the naked eye. Only then could Kasser proceed with the transcription and translation of the Coptic script. Fiber by fiber, then letter by letter, a story unread for over 1,500 years began to unfold, although a considerable number of gaps remain in the text, which was finally issued this year under an exclusive arrangement with the National Geographic Society.

The figure of Judas, notorious for his heinous yet indispensable act of betrayal, personifies the paradoxes of evil: Why does a good and omnipotent God allow evil things to happen, and if they are part of the divine plan, how can human beings justly be held accountable for them? In the New Testament accounts, Jesus' famous prediction sums up the problem, while leaving it unresolved:

For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.
(Mark 14:21; cf. Matthew 26:24and Luke 22:22)

Luke goes further than the other two gospel writers in exploring the motivations of Judas' act, attributing it to possession by Satan (Luke 22:3); but in so doing, he actually deepens the paradox, making the devil responsible in some sense for the salvation of humanity. John's account is the most complex, suggesting that Judas was possessed by Satan at the instigation of Jesus himself:

Jesus answered 'The one who will betray me is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread....' Then dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him.
(John 13:26–27)

The Gospel of Judas puts a different emphasis on the insistence of previous gospel writers that Jesus had foreknowledge of his death and consented to it. In the Gospel of Judas, not only Jesus but also Judas was in on the secret mission.

Written decades after the canonical gospels, perhaps around 140 CE, the Gospel of Judas does not provide a basis on which to reevaluate the historical Judas. But it raises the question of why a second-century Christian would be interested in rehabilitating Jesus' archenemy. What would inspire a writer to produce this particular response to the enigma of the betrayal, recasting the infamous traitor as Jesus' most loyal disciple and rewriting the Christian story in his name? Many second-century Christian texts claim to record secret revelations given to eminent apostles, such as Peter and John, or to other figures known to have been close to Jesus, like Mary Magdalene. By contrast the author of Judas apparently commits what must have been seen as a subversive act by associating his gospel with a figure already stigmatized among ancient Christians. This must have been a carefully considered choice. One possible explanation for this decision is that the author of Judas was part of a Christian group that had been attacked by the leaders of his church, ostracized, and perhaps cast out altogether. He may have been a victim of escalating attempts to exclude those who dissented from the bishops and to brand them with the newly developing label of "heretics." For a community of people attacked as apostates and traitors, the rewritten story of Judas could have provided a way to reinterpret their experience, and to present themselves not as outcasts from the Christian faith but as its most loyal and misunderstood defenders. In fact, Irenaeus, the second-century critic of heresy who is our earliest witness to the Gospel of Judas, suggests that the community of Christians who read this text indeed conceived of themselves as misunderstood and identified not only with Judas but also with other vilified figures from the Bible, such as Cain. While such a reconstruction of the situation of the author must remain speculative, it would make sense of what might otherwise seem a bizarre choice of patron saint.

Scholars have commonly approached such noncanonical texts as the Nag Hammadi writings by assuming that they presuppose a particular worldview known as Gnosticism. In the newly published edition of the Gospel of Judas, Marvin Meyer and Bart Ehrman both use this approach to interpret the text. Summing up one of the basic tenets of Gnosticism, as he understands it, Ehrman writes: "This world is a cesspool of pain, misery, and suffering, and our only hope of salvation is to forsake it." The cosmos, in this view, is the evil creation of a malevolent lower being, who created humans by trapping sparks of divinity in material bodies; but not everyone has this "divine spark," and only those predestined few who do can be saved. Salvation is not a matter of faith or of ethics, however, but of acquiring spiritual knowledge—gnosis. Finally, according to this interpretation of the Gnostic gospels, Jesus' death has no part in the salvation of humanity, except as an example of how death releases the true self from the body: "In the Gospel of Judas, as in other gnostic gospels, Jesus is primarily a teacher and revealer of wisdom and knowledge, not a savior who dies for the sins of the world."

None of these beliefs is explicitly set out in so-called Gnostic texts, as Ehrman has freely admitted elsewhere,[1] nor do we have any evidence that the authors of these works considered themselves to be "Gnostics," rather than just Christians. Instead, the Gnostic credo is the construction of modern scholars, who have compiled it in part by drawing on the polemics of such critics of heresy as Irenaeus, and in part by creating a synthesis of ideas found in the various Nag Hammadi writings as well as other texts. Such scholarly categorizing can, of course, be useful, and there is no doubt that certain elements of the tenets of "Gnosticism" can be found in some of the Nag Hammadi texts, as well as in the Gospel of Judas itself. However, presupposing a "Gnostic worldview" when approaching these non-canonical texts creates several major, and related, problems. The most obvious is that much gets read into the texts that is not actually there. Another is that the differences between the individual texts become muted, while their differences from the canonical writings are highlighted. This has led to a view of the Nag Hammadi texts as a kind of "anti-canon," a mirror image of the New Testament ("Christianity turned on its head" as Ehrman describes Judas), when it is more productive to view all these early Christian texts as differing positions in the same debate, discordant voices in the same conversation.

The text is identified on the first page as "The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot" shortly before the days leading up to Passover, when Judas collaborated with the Jewish authorities. The gospel begins by telling us:

When Jesus appeared upon the earth he performed signs and great wonders for the salvation of humanity, because some were walking in the path of righteousness and others in the path of their transgression. Now the Twelve were called as disciples, and he began to speak with them about the mysteries above the world and those things which will happen at the end.[2]
The gospel is then divided into three scenes. In the first scene, Jesus comes upon the twelve disciples as they are sitting together, giving thanks over their bread, and he laughs. They ask why he is laughing at their thanksgiving, saying they have "done what is right," and he replies that he is not laughing at them, but that they are doing the will of their God. Confused, they reply that he is the son of their God; but he tells them, "Truly I say to you, no race of the people that are among you will know me." When they heard this, "the disciples became angry and infuriated and began blaspheming against him in their hearts."

What does Jesus mean by apparently dissociating himself from "their God"? As the editors of the Gospel of Judas point out, we can understand Jesus' remarks in the light of similar texts from Nag Hammadi. These attempt to explain the imperfect nature of our world by attributing its creation not to the true God but to a lower, malicious divinity, identified with the God of Israel. Later the Gospel of Judas gives us more detail about its cast of cosmic characters, but at this point, Jesus' comments make it clear that the disciples are mistakenly worshiping an inferior being rather than the highest god, an accusation that understandably upsets them. Recognizing their indignation, Jesus issues a challenge: "Let any one of you who is strong enough among human beings bring out the perfect human and stand before my face." The text continues:

They all said, "We have the strength."

But their spirits did not dare to stand before him, except for Judas Iscariot. He was able to stand before him, but he could not look him in the eyes, and he turned his face away.
Judas said to him, "I know who you are and where you have come from. You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo. And I am not worthy to utter the name of the one who has sent you."
Barbelo, according to some Nag Hammadi texts, is the divine virgin mother and the partner of the true God. By identifying Jesus as from the "realm of Barbelo," Judas makes it clear that he alone understands who Jesus is and that he has been sent by the highest divinity. Jesus is impressed enough with Judas' spiritual perceptiveness to take him aside for special revelations: "Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal." Judas then asks when Jesus will tell him these things, but Jesus leaves, keeping Judas—and the reader—in suspense.

In the second scene, Jesus appears to the disciples again and when they ask where he went when he left them, he replies, "I went to another great and holy race." His disciples are once again confused and ask, "Lord, what is the great and holy race, exalted above us, which is not in these realms?" Jesus laughs and replies, "Why are you thinking in your hearts about the strong and holy race? Truly I say to you, no one born of this realm will see that race." The word for "race" here is translated by the editors of the gospel as "generation," but "race" is in fact a more natural translation and fits with both Jewish and early Christian descriptions of themselves as a race or a people.

The disciples are again understandably upset at Jesus' seemingly dismissive words—are they not to be a part of the holy people?—but worse criticism of them is still to come. They ask Jesus to interpret a vision they have had, in which they saw twelve wicked priests making sacrifices at an altar:

Some sacrifice their very own children, others their wives, all the while praising and behaving with humility toward one another; some sleep with men, some murder, some commit many sins and transgressions. The people who are standing over the altar are invoking your name.
Jesus' interpretation is less than flattering to the disciples:

It is you who were conducting the services at the altar that you saw. That god is the one you serve, and you are the twelve men whom you saw. The animals you saw being brought as sacrifices, this is the crowd whom you are leading astray upon that altar.
Here the critical portrayal of the twelve disciples draws on ambiguities that are already apparent in the canonical gospels, developing them in new directions. In the New Testament, after all, the disciples frequently come across as rather dim, petty, and fickle; they misunderstand parables, fall asleep in the garden of Gethsemane, and disown Jesus as he faces death. Even so, the resurrected Jesus ultimately bestows authority on them and in the end they become faithful missionaries of his message. By the second century, the apostolic succession—the doctrine that religious authority had been passed on from the apostles through an unbroken succession of bishops—was well established, and bishops claimed to have inherited their authority directly from the disciples, excluding Judas of course. The extremely negative depiction of the apostles in the Gospel of Judas (which only increases as the text continues) along with the elevation of Judas, the one disciple whom church authorities did not claim as their forebear, must therefore have been intended to criticize the bishops themselves. After all, if the bishops' authority was inherited from a group of people who had worshiped the wrong god and had never learned Jesus' secret teachings, it was surely illegitimate.

If the twelve disciples do indeed stand for the bishops who claimed apostolic authority, what could the text mean by suggesting that they were leading the crowd astray like sacrificial animals upon an altar? It seems likely that this is a criticism of the bishops' endorsement of martyrdom, and the consequent acceptance by early Christians of execution by the Roman authorities. The author of the Gospel of Judas apparently views martyrdom as a vain sacrifice, and blames the church leaders for leading their sheep-like congregations to the slaughter. The editors miss this aspect of the Gospel of Judas, translating the text as saying: "This is the crowd whom you are leading astray before that altar." However, the Coptic literally says "upon."

By the second century, the risk of death at the hands of the authorities was very real for Christians, as Christianity was held in deep suspicion by many people in the Roman world. To those who believed that the peace and prosperity of the empire depended on divine good will, Christians' refusal to honor the gods and their repudiation of ancestral traditions seemed to endanger society as a whole. The Roman authorities were particularly suspicious of a cult that encouraged its members to opt out of participation in the festivals and rituals that were central to the public life of the empire, and to do so in favor of secretive meetings in private houses. Such behavior seemed to many people inexplicably withdrawn from society, and hostile to it.

Despite these perceptions of the Christian religion, the prosecution of its members in the second century was sporadic and aimed principally at attempting to get Christians to change what were seen as antisocial practices and not at physically punishing them. Generally, to escape conviction on the charge of being a Christian, a member of the church had to deny his or her faith and make a gesture of willingness to participate in worship of the Roman gods, for example by sprinkling some incense on an altar. Roman judges often gave Christians numerous opportunities to recant before finally sentencing them to death. But many church leaders, for example the second-century bishop of Antioch, exhorted their congregations not to avoid martyrdom, but rather to embrace it. Recalcitrant Christians were held up as glorious examples to others; the idea that martyrs were participating in Jesus' passion made suffering something to be not only endured, but desired. Ignatius of Antioch, for example, writing to the church in Rome as he is escorted there to face death, implores the congregation not to use their influential connections to save his life:

Allow me to be eaten by the beasts—that is how I can reach God; I am God's wheat and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread of Christ.... Pray to Christ for me, that by these means I may become a sacrifice.
As this quotation suggests, the imagery of martyrdom as sacrifice became a powerful way for Christians to identify themselves with Christ. In their view, the martyrs were reenacting Jesus' death, which they believed had been a sacrifice on behalf of all humanity. The author of the Gospel of Mark symbolically interprets the bread and wine consumed at the Jewish feast of Passover as Jesus' body and blood, the "blood of the covenant which is poured out for many" (14:22–25). The Gospel of John makes this symbolic point even more strongly by readjusting the timing of the crucifixion, so that it takes place not on the day after Passover, but on the day of the Passover meal itself: Jesus thus becomes the sacrificial lamb.

However, despite the monolithic picture of early Christians' willingness to die at the hands of the authorities that we have inherited from martyrologies and much other literature, not to mention such movies as The Sign of the Cross, martyrdom was in fact a controversial issue at the time. Some Christians objected to what they saw as a pointless waste of life, and they believed that public confessions of faith were unimportant. One of the texts found at Nag Hammadi, The Testimony of Truth, expresses this opinion. Like many of the Nag Hammadi writings, it is somewhat fragmentary, but the point its author is making is clear enough:

The foolish, thinking in their heart that if they confess "We are Christians," in word only but not with power, while giving themselves over to a human death, not knowing where they are going or who Christ is, thinking that they will live while they are really in error, hasten toward the principalities and the authorities.

Here the principalities and authorities that are referred to may be those of the Roman Empire; or they may be demonic powers who hold sway over the world. While we don't know much about the people who wrote and read this text, it is likely that they believed inner commitment was what mattered. In the same way that Paul advised the Corinthians that it was acceptable to eat meat sacrificed to the pagan gods, because they didn't really exist, these Christians may have felt that publicly renouncing their beliefs and taking part in sacrificial rites was not a betrayal as long as one privately maintained one's personal commitment to the Christian faith.

The Gospel of Judas seems to express a similar attitude toward martyrdom; but rather than criticize the martyrs themselves, it implicitly blames the bishops as wicked priests who are invoking Jesus' name, yet offering their followers up like dumb animals on the altar of a false god. Just as in the first scene, in which Jesus laughs at the disciples because their thanksgiving rituals are directed toward the wrong god, here too he criticizes the apostles and, by implication, their successors the bishops as misunderstanding what the true God wants:

For it has been said to the human races, "Behold, god received your sacrifices through the hands of priests," that is, the servant of error. But it is the Lord—he who is the Lord over the All—who commands that they will be judged in the last days.

This criticism of the apostolic authorities should be read as presenting a contrast with the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus. As we shall see, the culmination of the gospel is Jesus' special commission to Judas to "sacrifice that man that carries me": in other words to offer up the human part of Jesus in death. Through the imagery of the wicked priests and their false sacrifices, Judas implicitly points to the perfection of Christ's sacrifice. Moreover, by identifying the priests who appear in the disciples' vision with the apostles and, by implication, with the leaders of the apostolic church, he is also turning some of the commonplaces of anti-Jewish rhetoric, used by the "orthodox" bishops themselves, against the apostles. Early Christians often denigrated traditional Jewish sacrificial ritual as inadequate and "fleshly" rather than spiritual, and argued that Jesus' death had superseded it. The New Testament Letter to the  Hebrews, for example, says:

For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!

Later Christians, such as Melito, the second-century bishop of Sardis, took these ideas even further, arguing that the sacrifices made by the Jews had merely been a symbol of what was to come in the person of Christ.

The theology of the Gospel of Judas appears to share these conceptions, but draws out their logical implications much further, suggesting that the bishops are hypocrites; they preach that Jesus was the final and perfect sacrifice, while they exhort their followers—even their wives and children—to offer themselves up as human sacrifices in martyrdom. According to the Gospel of Judas, the bishops are just like the Jewish priests they criticize, erroneously worshiping an inferior god, rather than the transcendent one who no longer required sacrifice of any kind.

In the final scene, the other disciples are no longer present and we reach the climax of the gospel, in which Jesus reveals to Judas the secrets of salvation and the universe. This part of the gospel offers the most difficult interpretative challenges to the modern reader, filled as it is with mythological references and complex cosmologies. First, the recurrent idea of the "holy race," and Judas's relation to it, is elaborated in some detail. Judas tells Jesus about a vision he has had:

I saw myself in the vision, and the twelve disciples were stoning me and persecuting me greatly.... I saw a house...and its size my eyes are not able to measure.... And in the middle of the house there was a crowd.... Teacher, receive me also with these people.

Jesus' reply seems discouraging: "No one born of mortal man is worthy to enter the house which you saw, for that is the place kept for the holy ones.... Behold, I have told you the mystery of the kingdom."

Judas becomes anxious at this: "Teacher, surely my seed is not subject to the rulers?" The editors of the gospel assert in a footnote that "seed" here refers to "the spark of the divine within" but this interpretation is unnecessary. This phrase "divine spark," which appears over and over again in Ehrman's commentary, never once appears in the gospel itself. "Seed" here would be more naturally understood in its usual sense of Judas' offspring, or the seed from which he comes. Judas' question seems to be about whether he and his progeny are subject to the demonic powers who hold sway over the world. Jesus tells him:

You will become the thirteenth and you will be cursed by the rest of the races and you will rule over them. In the last days they will condemn your turning upward to the holy race.

Judas will be cast out from the community of the Twelve; but in the end he will join the holy race and rule over everyone else, including his former adversaries.

At this point, Jesus is ready to unfold the deepest mysteries of life to Judas. He tells him how the true God, called the great Invisible Spirit, created the universe through a series of emanations of lights and angels, which then vastly multiplied. To modern readers this may all appear dizzyingly esoteric, but an ancient reader familiar with Greek astronomy and science would have understood it as an illustration of how the heavens exist in perfect numerical harmony and balance. One of the angelic beings, Jesus says, created a figure called Adamas. It is this heavenly Adamas who creates the "race of Seth," that is, the holy race about which we have heard much in this text.

In ancient Judaism and Christianity, a reference to the race of Seth symbolically designated membership in the group of God's righteous people who descended from Seth, the good son of Adam and Eve, who, as Genesis tells us, was given to them by God to replace Abel, whom Cain murdered. And since the "race of Seth" was thought to have preexisted in the heavenly realms, it meant that all those who belonged to it on earth had their true home in Heaven.

At this point, the Judas gospel introduces the reader to another realm beneath the heavens, called "the realm of Chaos and the Underworld." This is where our own world is located. A heavenly power summons the angels Nebro and Saklas to rule over it. It is these angels who create the material bodies of Adam and Eve, using the form of Adamas as a blueprint. But while these lower beings create the humans' bodies, it is the transcendent God, as the Gospel of Judas explains, who gives them spirit and soul.

Presupposing the "Gnostic" myth in which the creator is wicked, Ehrman assumes that, in the Judas gospel, our world is the handiwork of the fallen angels Nebro and Saklas. But in fact the Gospel of Judas introduces "the realm of Chaos and the Underworld" as if it had always existed. Nebro and Saklas don't create Chaos; God appoints them to rule over it, in an act of divine providence that extends order throughout the universe. However, as Ehrman stresses, the Judas gospel gives a negative portrayal of the cosmic rulers, despite the fact that they have been commissioned by God; Nebro's face is described as "spewing forth fire" and "his likeness was [defiled] with blood." Moreover his name, we are told, means "rebel." But the theme that rebellious angelic powers rule the world is hardly unique to so-called Gnostic theology. The Gospel of John, for example, describes the devil as "the Prince of this world"; and the Epistle to the Ephesians proclaims that "our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness" (6:12). Like Satan, whom the Gospel of Luke tells us Jesus saw "fall from heaven like lightning" (10:18), the figures of Nebro and Saklas give the author of the Judas gospel a way of explaining evil in the world as somehow both independent of, yet ultimately subject to, a perfect God.

When we consider the extensiveness and detail of cosmological description in this text, we can understand why the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik found it unappealing in a recent review:

"The Gospel of Judas" turns Christianity into a mystery cult—Jesus at one point describes to Judas the highly bureaucratic organization of the immortal realm, enumerating hundreds of luminaries—but robs it of its ethical content. Jesus' message in the new Gospel is entirely supernatural. You don't have to love thy neighbor; just seek your star.[3]
Gopnik is right that the Gospel of Judas is very different from those that were included in the canon; but part of that difference is a matter of genre. As Gopnik himself points out, Judas is not a gospel in the sense that we have come to understand the term, as a narrative of Jesus' life on earth; rather it takes a particular episode from the familiar story and explores its implications. The dizzying cosmological myths of these texts may not easily engage the sympathy of those of us used to a more earthy Christianity of the manger and the shepherd, of parables and miracles of ministering to the poor, but they were no less part of a struggle to answer the perennially troubling question, Unde malum?: Where does evil come from?

The understanding that this gospel gives its readers of themselves is complex. Its theology of good and evil is far from a simple, world-hating dualism; one could argue, for example, that it presents a more nuanced universe than the New Testament Gospel of John, with its stark images of darkness and light, divinity versus the devil. The Gospel of Judas teaches its readers that they were created by inferior angels, yet in the divine image of perfect humanity; that they have the potential to reclaim their authentic heavenly identity, and also the potential to die without ever realizing who they really are. Salvation in this text is certainly related to knowledge and revelation, but it is also a matter of ethics. In fact, Judas makes it clear at the beginning that Jesus' mission on earth is to save humanity because "some were walking in the path of righteousness and others in the path of their transgressions." Specific acts are singled out as immoral throughout the gospel, including murder, homosexuality, improper ritual observance, and endorsement of martyrdom. Further, we should all aspire to be members of a race repeatedly described as pious or holy (not wise or "Gnostic").

At the end of the initiation of Judas into the mysteries of the universe, Jesus returns to the theme of sacrifice, apparently once again condemning in a few barely legible lines those who offer sacrifices to Saklas, the cosmic ruler. Then he finally gives Judas his special mission: "But you yourself will be greater than all of them, for you will sacrifice the man who carries me." It seems strange to deny the significance of this sacrifice as dismissively as Ehrman does: "In [the New Testament] view, Jesus' death was all-important for salvation.... Not so for the Gospel of Judas." For Ehrman, the fact that the gospel doesn't include a crucifixion scene demonstrates that Jesus' death was not central to the theology of Judas. But when we consider that the entire text revolves around an interpretation of the events leading up to Jesus' death, this omission is more convincingly explained by the fact that the events of the crucifixion were assumed to be already familiar, and the author of Judas had no wish to dispute them. What he was concerned to convey to his readers was a different explanation of how and why the crucifixion came about.

Unfortunately, the text at this point is frustratingly fragmentary, but Jesus' final words to Judas are legible:

And the image of the great race of Adam shall be lifted up, because before heaven and earth and the angels, that race existed throughout the eternal realms. Behold, you have been told everything. Lift up your eyes and see the cloud and the light within it, and the stars surrounding it. And the star that leads the way, that is your star.

These enigmatic lines suggest that more than Jesus' return to the heavenly realm depends on Judas' actions; the salvation of humanity is indeed at stake. Judas' star will lead the other stars, or souls, into the luminous cloud where the heavenly Adamas and his holy race dwell. Judas accepts his divine commission: "[He] lifted up his eyes and saw the luminous cloud and entered it."

Now that its important points have been made, the gospel switches tone abruptly and ends with the following brief and relatively prosaic lines:

Their high priests murmured because he [i.e., Jesus] had gone into the guest room for his prayer. But some scribes were there watching carefully in order to arrest him during the prayer, for they were afraid of the people, since he was regarded by all as a prophet.
They approached Judas and said to him, "What are you doing here? You are Jesus' disciple."
Judas answered them as they wished. And he received some money and handed him over to them.
The text has deposited us unceremoniously back in the narrative territory of the canonical gospels; but after witnessing Judas' visions, this once-familiar landscape will never look the same again.

The Gospel of Judas is unlikely to shake many Christians' faith in the traditional account of Jesus' betrayal and crucifixion, but it does provide us with a sophisticated meditation on the relationship between God and evil—one that was perhaps inspired by personal experience as much as philosophical curiosity. (After all, the experience of being demonized—as the author may have been—would understandably lead an early Christian to rethink the problem of evil.) The answers that this author came up with are far removed from the clichés of Gnostic dualism. In fact, by bringing Judas into the fold, this text actually ends up domesticating evil, at least in implying that the greatest betrayal can turn out to be an act of pious obedience. How convincing, or satisfying, we find such an interpretation is another question altogether. In the end, to quote Bob Dylan's song, it's up to us to decide "whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side."

[1] See, e.g., The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 173.

[2] All translations of the Gospel of Judas are by the authors and in some cases differ from the recently published translation.

[3] See The New Yorker, April 17, 2006.

See also
The Gospel of Judas - Barbelo & Long-Kept Secrets
Forgiveness without repentance?

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