The Gospel of Judas

On April 9, 2006 National Geographic unveiled The Gospel of Judas. Here are a few succinct thoughts from Mike.

This past April, the National Geographic Society unveiled the Gospel of Judas. The manuscript had been discovered in Egypt in the late 1970s, is written in the Egyptian language of Coptic, and can be read in about fifteen minutes. Because its owner was unsuccessful in his efforts to sell it, the manuscript was placed in a safe deposit box in New York where it remained until recently.[i]

When National Geographic’s television special on the Gospel of Judas ran during Sunday evening prime time, many of us watched with curiosity. Would this find present a new challenge to Christianity? What impact will this have in light of the growing anticipation of The Da Vinci Code movie? After the dust settled, one truth became clear to me: Every Christian can escape the kiss of Judas by understanding three basic issues.

The first issue is the background of the Gospel of Judas. Most of the members of the National Geographic team date the manuscript to c. AD 300. The original Gospel of Judas was probably written around the middle of the second century. The early Church father Iranaeus (c. AD 180) was a disciple of Polycarp who was probably a disciple of the apostle John. Irenaeus mentioned the Gospel of Judas in his book Against Heresies (1.31.1) and reported that it was written by a group called the Cainites who made heroes out of biblical villains such as Esau, Korah, the Sodomites, and Judas. According to Irenaeus, the Cainites taught that the evil Creator had picked on certain individuals who were reported in a negative light in the Bible. The good Goddess named Sophia who is more powerful than the Creator took them as her own. Judas knew these things and the truth as no other. He accomplished the mystery of Jesus’ betrayal and, as a result, all of creation was thrown into confusion. This description is precisely what we find in the recently unveiled Gospel of Judas manuscript.

The second issue is the breed of the Gospel of Judas. Prior to the first century, a religious movement began to evolve that viewed the material world as evil and sought to discover secret knowledge. Modern scholars refer to members of this movement as “Gnostics” (after the Greek word “gnosis” for “knowledge”). Gnosticism had various forms and blossomed in the second century after assimilating some Christian thoughts. Around the middle of the second century, Gnostics began to produce writings in the names of the apostles. Until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library within a few years of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we knew of these only through the writings of the early Church fathers who were critical of them. The Gospel of Judas was certainly penned by a Gnostic. Five names of Gnostic figures are specifically mentioned. Secret knowledge is provided to Judas that no other human knows. And Jesus’ execution is good, since it allows him to escape his material body.

Gnosticism was one of the first Christian cults, much like the teachings of Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are to today’s traditional Christianity. With the lone exception of the Gospel of Thomas, there is nearly a consensus among modern scholars that these Gnostic Gospels do not contain any authentic material from or about Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas was probably written in the early-to-middle2nd-century and likewise contains what appears to be Gnostic influence, although it is not as developed as we see in the Gospel of Judas.

The third issue is the benefits of the Gospel of Judas. What value does the Gospel of Judas bring for Christians? For one, it can help us appreciate the strong foundations of our faith by comparing it with the New Testament writings. Even very skeptical scholars acknowledge that many of the teaching of Jesus and his original apostles have been preserved in the New Testament in at least three different forms. First, although there is much in the New Testament that cannot be proved and must be accepted on faith alone, historians have identified a number of teachings in the Gospels which can be traced back to Jesus. Second, scholars are likewise very confident that the major teachings of the early apostolic Church are encapsulated in many of the sermon summaries in Acts.

Third, scholars are confident that Paul preserves apostolic teachings in his letters. Although it was quite popular fifty years ago to hold that Paul invented Christianity as we know it today, that view was abandoned by even skeptical scholars several decades ago and the few who maintain it are members of an almost extinct species. Paul’s letters contain tradition that is certain to be in agreement with the teachings of the other apostles. In Galatians 2, Paul reports going to Jerusalem where he presented the gospel he had been preaching to the big three Jerusalem apostles: Peter, James, and John. He did this because he wanted to be absolutely certain that he was preaching the correct message. The Jerusalem apostles extended to him the right hand of fellowship. In other words, the accuracy of Paul’s message was certified by the apostolic leadership. Furthermore, a disciple of Peter named Clement of Rome placed Paul on par with his mentor and referred to Peter and Paul as “the greatest and most righteous pillars.”[ii] A disciple of John named Polycarp said that Paul “accurately and reliably taught the word concerning the truth.”[iii] He also quoted Ephesians twice and referred to it as part of the “sacred Scriptures.”[iv] It is highly unlikely that the disciples of Peter and John would maintain this high view of Paul if his teachings contradicted those of their mentors.

In contrast, the Gnostic writings contradict known apostolic teachings on several accounts. When combined with the fact that they were written in the second and third centuries and, thus, could not have been penned by the apostles to whom they are attributed, scholars have justly concluded that these writings are of little or no value when it comes to understanding the historical Jesus and his message.

In addition to appreciating the foundations of our faith, there is another benefit the Gospel of Judasprovides Christians: Since the Gnostic writings are presently a hot topic, the Gospel of Judas is an interesting item that can promote dialogue with our nonbelieving friends. When those in our congregations find themselves in the midst of a conversation at work or during a high school or university class that centers around the Gnostic writings, they will have (if we inform them) the information needed to place these writings in their proper perspective and demonstrate why the New Testament preserves the most accurate traditions of Jesus and the teachings of the early Church.

We are now living in a moment of history when North America is showing a strong interest in the origins of Christianity and the person of Jesus. Seize the moment, understand the Gospel of Judas‘shistory and message, and enjoy the benefits it can provide. In short, you can avoid the kiss of Judas by understanding its background, its breed, and its benefits.

[i] For an informative article written by Craig Evans, a member of the National Geographic Society’s Gospel of Judas committee, click here.

[ii] 1 Clement 5:1-5.

[iii] Pol. Phil 3:2.

[iv] Ibid., 12:1.