The reporting on the Gospel of Judas has been breathless. “Ancient Manuscript Suggests Jesus Asked Judas to Betray Him,” reports the Fox News website. The NY Times writes that the Gospel of Judas, “gives new insights into the relationship of Jesus and the disciple who betrayed him….” So, just what is the Gospel of Judas, why are we only hearing about it now, and is the reporting accurate?
What is the Gospel of Judas?
The Gospel of Judas is a recently translated 7-page religious writing likely written around the middle of the second century AD. The author is unknown. The Gospel of Judas purports to be “The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week three days before he celebrated Passover.” The English translation of the surviving version is available here. Unfortunately, media reports about its discovery and translation have failed to emphasize that the surviving text is very choppy. Many parts of it are missing, including paragraphs, lines, parts of sentences, and words within sentences.
The Gospel of Judas is of Gnostic origin. The Gnostics were a broad religious movement that influenced sects in different religions, including Christianity and Judaism. Among their most basic tenants was the belief in “cosmological dualism—and opposition between the spiritual world and the evil, material world.” E.M. Yamauchi, “Gnosticism,” in Dictionary of the New Testament Background, page 414. In practical terms, this meant that they rejected matter, including the body, as evil. Thus, certain notions common to traditional Christianity were anathema to the Gnostics, such as the belief that Jesus was born as a human being, that he was fully human, and that his resurrection was a bodily one. When Gnostics incorporated these early Christian beliefs, they altered them to suit their Gnostic bent. For example, according to the Gnostics, Jesus was not born. He simply appeared on earth. The Gospel of Judas reveals just such a bent when it says that “When Jesus appeared on earth, he performed miracles and great wonders for the salvation of humanity.” Also, the Gospel of Judas contains a brief creation account which throws off traditional Jewish views of creation which were accepted without question by the original Jewish Christians and which is instead vintage Gnosticism, such as the Demiurge. Because the creator of the universe created matter, he could not be the good and perfect God of Jesus. Thus, Gnostics believed in another powerful force – the Demiurge labeled in various ways – who created the world in its imperfect and evil form. This being was not the God of Jesus, who -- being good -- could not be responsible for the creation of the material world. Thus we have gone from one all-powerful God responsible for creation and salvation to two powerful beings, with one responsible for creation and another one responsible for salvation from that material creation.
Another characteristic of the Gnostics was their belief in “secret knowledge.” Whereas traditional Christianity stressed the public and open teaching of the Gospel as passed down by the apostles and followers of Jesus (Luke describes this tradition as what was “handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word,” Luke 1:2), Gnostics stressed secret teachings that were supposedly taught by Jesus and secretly passed from deserving disciples to deserving disciples. This not only fit Gnostic beliefs about “secret knowledge,” but conveniently explained why their teachings differed from those that Christians had been handing down for decades prior to their own Gnosticized brand of Christianity, which arose in the second century. This Gnostic influence is seen clearly in the Gospel of Judas by its reference to the “secret account” of Jesus’ teaching.
This theme continues through the Gospel of Judas. All of the other disciples are depicted as incompetent and misunderstanding Jesus’ teachings. Only Judas is worthy and favored by Jesus and only he receives the mysteries of the Kingdom. Although the fragmentary nature of the surviving text makes it difficult to be sure, it seems that Jesus asks Judas’ to betray him and commends him for his actions. This also is revealing of its Gnostic nature because Jesus say to Judas, “You will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” This is a reference to the Gnostic belief that the shedding of the (evil) mortal body was true salvation. There is no talk of resurrecting the body, as the body is evil and not worthy of restoration.
Why are we hearing about the Gospel of Judas now?
The existence of the Gospel of Judas is no surprise to scholars and informed laypersons. As early as the end of the second century early orthodox Christians have known of it. The early Christian writer Irenaeus refers to it around 180 AD, noting that it is a Gnostic document and therefore not trustworthy. However, while the existence of the Gospel of Judas has been known for hundreds of years, the contents of it were not. Then, in 1970, a Coptic version of the Gospel of Judas was discovered. The history of the discovery and restoration are explained at the National Geographic website:
The codex, containing the Gospel of Judas, was discovered in the 1970s near El Minya, Egypt, and moved from Egypt to Europe to the United States. Once in the United States, it was kept in a safe-deposit box for 16 years on Long Island, New York, until antiquities dealer Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos bought it in April 2000. After two unsuccessful resale attempts, Nussberger-Tchacos—alarmed by the codex's rapidly deteriorating state—transferred it to the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Basel, Switzerland, in February 2001, for restoration and translation. The manuscript will be delivered to Egypt and housed in Cairo's Coptic Museum.
The version found is not in Greek. Rather, it is a translation from Greek to Coptic. Coptic is a later form of the ancient Egyptian language. Additionally, whereas the Gospel of Judas was likely written around the middle of the second century AD, the Coptic version found in the 1970s was written in the early fourth century AD.
Although found in the 1970s, the Gospel of Judas was only released in the last week. The delay is due to the need to test, reconstruct, verify, and properly translate the codex.
Is it another version of early Christianity comparable to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?
There has been talk about how the Gospel of Judas is evidence of the “diversity” of early Christianity and how it shows that what we think of as “Orthodox” Christianity is really just the sect that won the fights. This is inaccurate. The fact is, no matter how boring or unpleasant some might find it, that our best historical records about the historical Jesus and early Christianity are the canonical books of the New Testament. Jesus’ crucifixion took place around 30 AD. Paul’s letters, most of which are undisputed and are the earliest Christian writings available, were written from around 48 to 62 AD. The Epistle to the Hebrews was likely written after Paul’s letters but near in time to them. The consensus of scholars puts the Gospel of Mark no later than 70 AD, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke no later than 85 AD, and the Gospel of John sometime in the 90s AD. The Gospel of Judas, on the other hand, was clearly written much later. The most likely date is the mid-second century AD. This puts it decades after most of the early orthodox Christian writings and over a hundred years after the deaths of Jesus and Judas.
As noted by James M. Robinson, an expert in ancient Egyptian texts, the Gospel of Judas tells us nothing about the historical figures of Judas and Jesus. It simply does not provide us with any information about the first century, however useful it is going to be in understanding Gnosticism or second-century religious diversity. The Gnostic gospels, like the Gospel of Judas, are not competitors with the early orthodox Gospels. They were written much later, are of little or no historical worth in understanding Jesus and early Christianity, and in fact tended to be reactions to the already established early orthodox Christian writings.
In short, the Gospel of Judas is an interesting historical find that should shed some light on Gnostic thought and second-century interactions between Christians and Gnostic Christians. As compared to the Christian Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, not to mention Paul’s letters, they are worthless as sources of information about the real Jesus and about the beliefs of the earliest Christians.
Update: My co-blogger BK has done some good work on the Gospel of Judas here (noting the upcoming April 9 National Geographic show on the subject), here (persuasively explainings its lack of relevance to historical Jesus studies), and here (observing the relationship between The Da Vinci Code and these "lost gospels").
Update 2: Ralph the Sacred River has a good post on the Gospel of Judas. I like his conclusion:
I suppose it bears repeating: (1) none of the Gnostic gospels, which date from at least a century after the time of Christ, have any credible claim to provide evidence about the historical Jesus; (2) none of the early New Testament canons ever included any gnostic Gospels, therefore those Gospels could not have been "edited out"; (2) any theological perspective held by grown-ups on the formation of the canon should be able to accommodate both the governing hand of God and the presence of "historical and political forces."
Update 3: Nymphette puts it somewhat crudely, but I confess that she mirrors some of my feelings on how the Gospel of Judas is playing out in the media.