Author’s Note: This is a preliminary article to provide an immediate response to the recent publication and promotion of the Coptic Pseudo-Gospel of Judas. This article will be updated by a more comprehensive treatment of the topic in a few months when more material is available.
In April 2006, the National Geographic Society of Washington D.C. held a press conference in which they announced the coming publication of a document they called the Gospel of Judas. This document, they stated, would be published in an English translation (Kasser et al.), as well as being the subject of the Easter edition of National Geographic magazine, and a DVD and television documentary to be produced by the National Geographic Society.
In both the press conference itself and in resulting press coverage, the Gospel of Judas is presented as a dramatic and important discovery which, like the (equally fictitious) Da Vinci Code threatened the “official” doctrine of the church by presenting an alternative account of the Gospel story.
In this one, we are told, Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus in the canonical Gospels, is seen as the hero and one who was given more revelation and played a more significant part than any of the other apostles. In this account, Judas hands Jesus over to the Jewish authorities only because Jesus Himself had actually instructed him to, rather than because of his greed as portrayed in the canonical Gospel accounts (Luke 22:1-6; John 12:4-6; Acts 1:16-18).
In the press reports this is described as “giving new insights into the relationship between Jesus and the disciple who betrayed him,” and being “deeply troubling for some believers” (Wilford & Goodstein). It has also been described as a “more positive portrayal of Judas” (Gugliotta & Cooperman, p. A10).
Is this in fact the case? Does the Gospel of Judas really undermine and invalidate the traditional Gospel account of the betrayal and crucifixion of Christ? Should this document cause Christians to re-evaluate their faith, and does this document indeed give any valuable insight into the relationship between Christ and Judas Iscariot? This preliminary article is intended to provide some answers to these immediate questions, and determine whether the Gospel of Judas does indeed provide Christians with any cause for concern.
The History of the Gospel of Judas
In actual fact, knowledge that there was a document called the Gospel of Judas and of its basic content has always been known. The early Christian writer Irenaeus mentioned it in his work Against Heresies, in which he attacked the various unbiblical doctrines which were being taught by various groups in his time. Writing in about A.D. 180, Irenaeus describes a group called the Cainites who revered various characters in the Bible including Cain, Esau, Korah and Judas, whom the Biblical text described as evil. This Gnostic sect, Irenaeus tells us, taught that these were all actually doing God’s will, and in reference to Judas he informs us that:
“They claim that the betrayer Judas was well informed of all these things, and that he, knowing the truth as none other, brought about the mystery of the betrayal. . . they produced a spurious account of this sort, which they call the Gospel of Judas” (Irenaeus Adv. Haer. I.31.1).
When this statement is compared to the text which has recently been published (see below) there is little doubt that the two “Gospels” of Judas are indeed one and the same document.
The manuscript now under discussion was uncovered in cave near El-Minya in Egypt in the late 1970s, in an area in which Gnostic groups such as the Cainites are known to have been particularly strong in the second and third centuries A.D. Numerous collections of Gnostic texts dating from this period, including the famous Nag Hammadi library, have been uncovered in Egypt. These contain numerous false Gospels and other “pseudepigraphal” &> literature produced by these various Gnostic groups, many of which are known to Irenaeus and other writers of the period.
After many vicissitudes and languishing for many years in a safety deposit box in the U.S.A, the codex was finally purchased for preservation and publication in 2004. The codex consists of 62 papyrus pages, and contains numerous other Gnostic texts and other writings from the period on its pages, in addition to the Gospel of Judas. The text itself is in the Coptic language, almost certainly translated from Greek originals.
The codex has been dated by Carbon 14 dating and by paleographic techniques, and found to date from approximately A.D. 300. The Gospel of Judas itself of course must have been written well before this to have been mentioned by Irenaeus in A.D. 180. New Testament scholars H.C. Puech and B. Blatz, writing without knowledge of the new codex, believed that the Gospel of Judas would have been written at some time between A.D. 130-170 (p. 387).
The National Geographic Society has announced that at the completion of their studies the codex will be donated to and housed at the Coptic Museum in Cairo, Egypt.
The Nature and Significance of the Gospel of Judas
The opening words of the Gospel of Judas instantly confirm Irenaeus’ identification of it as a Gnostic document. The opening words are “The secret account of the revelation Jesus spoke. . . to Judas Iscariot.” These words, and terms like them, are extremely common among Gnostic literature.
The Gnostics taught that there was a special secret knowledge (the term “Gnostic” comes from the Greek gnosis, “knowledge”) that was communicated over and above the revelation that was communicated in the Bible. The nature of that knowledge varied greatly amongst the different Gnostic sects, but was almost invariably characterized as “secret” and/or “hidden,” which the Gnostic text or sect now purported to reveal.
These Gnostic documents come from at least the second century A.D., at the time the Gnostic sects were rapidly expanding. There is no evidence that any of these texts was in existence before about A.D. 130, and therefore they were all written well after the writing of the canonical Gospels.
While they are certainly useful for determining the doctrines and practices of these sects, they reveal to us nothing about the origins of Christianity and the doctrines of the first century A.D. church (McKechnie, Ch. 1). There is, therefore, no reason to assert that the Gospel of Judas can tell us anything about the belief or practice of the mainstream church of the first century A.D., or indeed of the historical reality of Judas and his relationship with the Lord.
Irenaeus is indeed frequently derided for allegedly suppressing “alternative” accounts of the beginnings of Christianity while promoting the Gospel accounts that were later accepted as canonical. This idea is related to the concept that the church determined the canon of Scripture, accepting some books while rejecting other equally important books.
While the theory might sound good, the fact is that Irenaeus and others defended and promoted the canonical Gospels and rejected other books (including the Gospel of Judas), not because of doctrinal preference but because of the evident superiority of the canonical books.
While the canonical Gospels are attested from a very early stage and are cited and attested in early Christian writings in the late-first and early-second centuries A.D., the Gnostic writings are unattested in this period. While the canonical Gospels enjoyed widespread acceptance among all the early churches, the Gnostic documents generally did not receive acceptance from any but the Gnostic sect that originated them. Certainly there is no evidence whatever that the Gospel of Judas ever received any acceptance beyond the narrow and rather strange Cainite sect.
Besides its contradiction of the canonical Gospels’ accounts of the betrayal of Christ and its lack of attestation and acceptance among the early Christian community, there are several other pertinent points to ask about the Gospel of Judas. As it purports to be a secret account of a conversation between Jesus and Judas (but is written in the third person, indicating it was written by neither), we might pertinently ask who did write it? If indeed it were an historical account, how would the details of this secret conversation be known to anyone but Jesus and Judas, neither of whom could have written the book? This brief account is certainly difficult to regard as a remotely historical work; it is quite evident that it can teach us nothing about the actual betrayal and crucifixion of Christ.
Essentially, Irenaeus rejected the Gospel of Judas for very good reasons; it is a late and unhistorical production of a fringe Gnostic sect that was characterized by some very unbiblical beliefs. We can certainly learn a good deal about the beliefs of some Egyptian Gnostics in the second century A.D., but we cannot regard it as a legitimate viewpoint of what was believed about Judas in the churches of Christ in the early Christian period, let alone an account of the truth about Judas Iscariot and his role in the betrayal and crucifixion of the Lord.
Evidently, then, the Gospel of Judas, while being an interesting document which tells us much about the Cainite and other Gnostic sects in Egypt, tells us nothing about the relationship between Christ and Judas, and in no way overturns, or even threatens, what some are pleased to call the “official” or “traditional” viewpoint of the betrayal of Christ as portrayed in the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Sadly, the desire for an attention-grabbing headline sometimes tends to overshadow the cold hard facts in matters of religion and history. Such ideas, as presented in fantasy-like The Da Vinci Code, encourage people to imagine a secret and concealed truth which was suppressed by the early church.
There is much of this sort of thing in the media hype surrounding the publication of the Gospel of Judas. While it may appeal to conspiracy theorists to imagine that the church has suppressed an equally valid alternative history, the fact is that the Gospel of Judas was rejected by the early church because it was just what Irenaeus said it was: an unhistorical, late, and entirely imagined document which was produced by, and served the interests of, a small and highly unusual heretical sect of the second century A.D. In no way should it cause any Christian to reject the Biblical account, because it is evidently inferior in every way to the historical accounts of the canonical Gospels.
Note: We appreciate very much Gary Young’s permission to use this most informative article that puts the so-called “Gospel of Judas” into its proper historical perspective. Dr. Young is an Australian Christian scholar (Ph.D. in Roman history) whose web site we encourage our readers to visit.