The Real Significance of the Gospel of Judas


by Doug Ward

There are many ancient books that we know about only because other ancient books make reference to them. Several such texts are mentioned in the Bible; for instance, the "book of the wars of the Lord" (Num. 21:14), the "book of Jasher" (Joshua 10:13; 2 Sam. 1:18), and the "book of the Acts of Solomon" (1 Kings 11:41) are no longer extant. Another example: Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History mentions a number of sources that were available to Eusebius but have not survived to the present day.


The discovery of a long-lost text is a noteworthy event and a cause for celebration among scholars. One such discovery attracted major headlines in 2006. In April 2006, the National Geographic Society announced the restoration of a copy of the Gospel of Judas, a Gnostic text previously known only from a brief mention in the writings of the second-century church father Irenaeus. This papyrus copy, which has been dated to the end of the third century A.D.,1 was bound with three other Gnostic works in a leather-bound book (now designated Codex Tchacos) found in the late 1970s in a limestone box in an Egyptian burial cave. Like a number of the books in the famous Nag Hammadi Library, it is a Coptic translation of a text that was probably originally written in Greek in the second century A.D.


The translation and publication of the Gospel of Judas garnered even more publicity than would normally accompany such an important discovery. There are most likely several reasons for this, including the following:

The juxtaposition of "gospel" and "Judas" is unexpected and intriguing. We associate the word "gospel" with good news about Jesus, while Judas is known as the one whose betrayal of Jesus led to Jesus' arrest and subsequent crucifixion.

The bestselling novel The DaVinci Code has generated tremendous interest in Gnostic gospels.

The National Geographic Society cleverly marketed the Gospel of Judas, airing a television documentary and releasing two books on the subject ([1], [2]) just in time for the Paschal season.

The story of what has happened to Codex Tchacos since its original discovery is fascinating all by itself.2


The amount of hype surrounding the Gospel of Judas has made it initially rather difficult to determine the actual significance of the discovery. In particular, Herbert Krosney's book [2] contains several misleading and overblown claims about the supposed implications of the Gospel of Judas for the way Christians understand their faith. Fortunately, information that can help us make a more accurate assessment is available. (See especially [1], which contains the English translation and much helpful discussion of the text's background and meaning.) This article represents my personal effort to arrive at such an assessment. To begin, it will be helpful to examine what is known about the community that produced the Gospel of Judas.


The Irenaeus Code

Before the discovery of Codex Tchacos, the existence of the Gospel of Judas was known to us only from the writings of Irenaeus, the Christian bishop at Lugdunum in Gaul (today's Lyons, France) in the late second century A.D. Irenaeus was a lifelong Christian who had been exposed to the preaching of Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John, when he was young. He was thus well acquainted with the traditions that the apostles had passed down to the next generation of Christians.


During the second century, those traditions were challenged by people who claimed to be the recipients of special revelation from God, revelation that they said was a source of valuable secret knowledge. These people have come to be called Gnostics, from the Greek word gnosis ("knowledge"). To counter the Gnostics, Irenaeus wrote a book called Against Heresies. In this five-part work, Irenaeus contrasted apostolic teaching, as he understood it, with the doctrines propounded by the various Gnostic groups.


Irenaeus reported that the Gospel of Judas was the product of a Gnostic sect called the Cainites. In Book 1, Chapter 31, of Against Heresies, he had this to say about the Cainites:


"Others again 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. On this account, they add, they have been assailed by the Creator, yet no one of them has suffered injury. For Sophia was in the habit of carrying off that which belonged to her from them to herself. 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 fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas."


According to Irenaeus, this Gnostic group identified itself with Cain, the perpetrator of the first recorded murder in the Bible; Esau, who had sold his birthright for a bowl of soup; Korah, who rebelled against Moses during Israel's wilderness wanderings; the notorious sinners of the ancient city of Sodom; and Judas, the betrayer of Jesus. But why would anyone champion the "bad guys" of the Bible, and who were "the Power above" and "Sophia"? Irenaeus's description of the Cainites is puzzling, to say the least.


To decode this perplexing paragraph, we will need to learn more about the teachings of the Gnostics. Today much information about Gnostic beliefs is available to us, thanks to the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945. Let's take a look at some of this information so that we can understand what Irenaeus was saying about the Cainites.


Gnosticism 101

The Gnostics held views about God and creation fundamentally at odds with those of the first Christians. Jesus and his original followers were Jews, and like other Jews, they upheld the truth and inspiration of the Hebrew Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16). Those scriptures, along with the books of New Testament, teach that the material universe is the good creation of the God of Israel (Gen. 1:31). Though the creation has been scarred by sin, it ultimately will be fully restored by God, the benevolent ruler over all (Gen. 3; Rom. 8:19-21).


Gnostics, on the other hand, had a much different explanation for the existence of evil in the world. They believed that the supreme God has no contact at all with the material universe. This God, the "Power above" in Irenaeus's description of the Cainites, is "ineffable, defying prediction, surpassing comprehension, and strictly unknowable."3 In the Gnostic view, the physical creation is the inherently flawed product of a lesser being, an ignorant and malevolent entity known as a demiurge. This demiurge was the "Creator" referred to by Irenaeus.


Gnostic writings-including the Gospel of Judas-often contain elaborate descriptions of how the world came to be created. According to these accounts, the supreme God brought forth other spiritual beings called aeons. At that point, all that existed was a divine realm consisting of God and the aeons. Then one of the aeons made a crucial mistake that led to the creation of other divine beings outside the realm of the supreme God. It was one of these "rogue beings" that created the material world.


In some of the Gnostic cosmologies, the one responsible for this state of affairs was named Sophia ("Wisdom"). For example, a Gnostic text called the Secret Book of John explains that Sophia made her mistake when she acted without consulting her (male) partner:4


"Now Sophia, who is the Wisdom of Insight and who constitutes an aeon, conceived of a thought from herself, with the conception of the Invisible Spirit and Foreknowledge. She wanted to bring forth something like herself, without the consent of the Spirit, who had not given approval, without her partner and without his consideration. The male did not give approval. She did not find her partner, and she considered this without the Spirit's consent and without the knowledge of her partner. Nonetheless, she gave birth. And because of the invincible power within her, her thought was not an idle thought. Something came out of her that was imperfect and different in appearance from her, for she had produced it without her partner. It did not resemble its mother, and was misshapen" (Secret Book of John II.9-10, quoted by Marvin Meyer in [1], pp. 150-151).


Gnostics believed that it was this "misshapen" entity, or another being produced by it, that was the Creator of the material world. They also taught that the material world is corrupt but not entirely disjoint from the divine one. Trapped inside the bodies of some people were "sparks of divinity" that the Creator had taken from the divine realm. For such people, salvation consisted in learning about how these inner divine sparks would be liberated so that they could return to the world of the supreme God.


With this background in mind, we are in a position to understand what Irenaeus wrote about the Cainite Gnostics. Like other Gnostics, the Cainites believed that the God of Israel, the Creator of the world described in the Hebrew Scriptures, was an inferior being who had trapped their true selves in vile material bodies. Based apparently on the principle that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," they sided with those who had opposed the God of Israel. Since they did not believe that the physical creation, including their material bodies, had any value, they weren't concerned about the consequences of their opposition to the Creator. They were confident that Sophia, as part of an effort to make up for her previous error, would take their divine sparks ("that which belonged to her" in Irenaeus's words) back to the supreme God.


If the newly-published Gospel of Judas is the same as the book of that name mentioned by Irenaeus, we are now in a position to learn more about the Cainite Gnostics, as well as to check the accuracy of Irenaeus's statements about them. Next let's look at this text that has aroused so much recent interest.


The Gospel of Judas

Dr. Rodolphe Kasser, the eminent Coptologist entrusted with supervising the restoration of the Gospel of Judas, was shocked when he first saw the poor condition of Codex Tchacos. The sixteen years that the ancient book had spent in a safe deposit box in New York had taken their toll. Even more disastrous was the short time the codex had spent in a freezer. Freezing had caused deterioration of the sap holding the fibers of papyrus together, making the pages very fragile. The result was, in Kasser's words, "the weakest folios of papyrus that professional papyrologists had ever seen" ([1], p.61).


The task of restoring the text was like putting together a difficult jigsaw puzzle. All of the pages had been split in two by a "deep fold" in the codex, and the pieces were scrambled. Freezing also made the pieces more difficult to read, since it caused the water in the fibers to move toward the surface of the pages. The water carried with it some of the pigment in the fibers, making the pages darker. The restoration team took on a daunting assignment.


To date, the task of reassembling the pages is not complete, but remarkably, most of the Gospel of Judas has been pieced together. Moreover, scholars can make educated guesses about the contents of some of the fragmentary sections of the book, based on their knowledge of other Gnostic works.


The English translation of the Gospel of Judas ([1], p. 19) begins as follows:


"The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week [literally, "during eight days"] three days before he celebrated Passover."


This introduction, with its promise of secret inside information, immediately identifies the book as a Gnostic text. Further indications of the Gnosticism of the Gospel of Judas appear just a few lines later. After mentioning Jesus' miracles and the calling of the twelve, the text continues with a description of Jesus' instruction of the twelve:


"He began to speak with them about the mysteries beyond the world and what would take place at the end. Often he did not appear to his disciples as himself, but he was found among them as a child."


Both the content of the teaching ("mysteries beyond the world") and the manner of Jesus' appearance point toward a Gnostic Jesus. Since Gnostics saw the physical creation as evil, they did not believe that Jesus, a visitor from the divine realm, could have been a real flesh and blood human being. Instead, Jesus only appeared to be human (a view called docetism) and could take on various forms at will, including the form of a child. His manifestation as a child in the Gospel of Judas presumably symbolized his innocence and purity ([1], pp. 107-108).


After the introduction comes a scene in which Jesus appears to his disciples while they are praying. As the disciples give thanks for their bread, Jesus laughs. (A laughing Jesus also occurs frequently in Gnostic writings, particularly in contexts where Jesus perceives a lack of understanding in those around him.) He says that in their worship they are praising "their God." When the disciples protest that he himself is the son of "their God," Jesus replies, "How do you know me? Truly [I] say to you, no generation of the people that are among you will know me."


The notes accompanying the English translation ([1], p. 21) give insight into how this scene functions as part of the Gnostic polemic against the "emerging orthodox Christianity" that based its teachings on traditions passed down from Jesus' Jewish disciples. Orthodox Christians, like the disciples pictured in the Gospel of Judas, worshipped "their God," the Creator God of Israel, and Jesus as the Son of that God. Gnostics, on the other hand, distinguished between the God of Israel, whom they believed was an ignorant demiurge, and the unknowable true God that had sent Jesus. According to the Gnostics, it would be impossible for the unenlightened majority to ever know the real Jesus.


When the disciples are told that they will never really know Jesus, they become angry. Jesus states that it is "their God within them" who is the source of the anger, and he invites them to "bring out the perfect human and stand before my face." Here the notes suggest that Jesus is challenging the disciples "to allow the true person-the spiritual person-to come to expression and stand before him" ([1], p. 22). The only disciple who can do so is Judas, who states, "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."


Readers who are familiar with the New Testament may be reminded of a scene from the canonical gospels. At one point Jesus challenges his disciples with the question, "Who do you say I am?" (Matt. 16:15). In Matthew's Gospel, Peter then proclaims, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:16). The Gospel of Judas seems to be giving its own version of this scene. In the Gnostic version Peter is replaced by Judas, hero of the Cainites, who gives a Gnostic answer to Jesus' question.5


Polemics, Not History

After Judas's declaration about Jesus, Jesus speaks to Judas privately, offering to tell him "the mysteries of the kingdom." Jesus informs Judas, "It is possible for you to reach it [i.e., the kingdom], but you will grieve a great deal. For someone else will replace you, in order that the twelve may again come to completion with their god." This passage refers to the events recorded in Acts 1:15-26, where Matthias is chosen to replace Judas as one of the twelve (the core group of twelve disciples of Jesus) after Judas's death. Note also the continued emphasis on the claim that the twelve worship a God different from the supreme God.


There is further criticism of the twelve in subsequent sections of the Gospel of Judas. In one scene, Jesus tells the twelve that it is impossible for them to have any association with the realm from which he has come. In a later section, the disciples describe to Jesus a vision they have seen. In their vision are twelve priests who serve at the Temple. These priests invoke Jesus' name, but they are immoral. They "commit a multitude of sins and deeds of lawlessness". Jesus tells the twelve that they themselves are the twelve immoral priests in their vision:


"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 have seen brought for sacrifice are the many people you lead astray before that altar" ([1], p. 27).


There is an anachronism in this passage. Before the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, no one was invoking his name in worship, and his disciples were not yet in positions of authority that would allow them to lead anyone, astray or otherwise. Here we have an indication of the purpose of the Gospel of Judas. This text was not intended to record the historical events of Jesus' ministry on earth. Instead, it was written as part of a second-century Gnostic polemic against the Christian leadership of their era. It was these leaders, the successors of the twelve, who were accused by the Gnostics of being immoral and leading people astray.


Secret Revelations for Judas

As the opening sentence of the book indicates, the Gospel of Judas is largely devoted to private teaching allegedly received by Judas from Jesus. Part of that teaching concerns Judas's ultimate fate. At one point Jesus tells Judas, "... you will be cursed by the other generations, and you will come to rule over them" ([1], p. 33). Later, in response to a question from Judas about the destiny of those who are baptized in Jesus' name, Jesus says, "But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me" (p. 43).


This second passage gives further evidence of the docetic, Gnostic nature of the book along with an explicit rationale for making Judas the hero of the story. In the Gnostic worldview, Judas' act of betrayal becomes a good deed, because it enables the "real" Jesus to escape from his prison of flesh and return permanently to the eternal realm.


The longest section in the Gospel of Judas is a complicated account of the creation of the universe, similar to the creation stories in other Gnostic texts. It begins in a "great and boundless realm, " where "a great angel, the enlightened divine Self-Generated," emerges from a "luminous cloud" and creates lots of angels of various types, including "aeons," "luminaries," and "firmaments" (pp. 33-35). Eventually an angel appears


"whose face flashed with fire and whose appearance was defiled with blood. His name was Nebro, which means `rebel`; others call him Yaldabaoth. Another angel, Saklas, also came from the cloud" (pp. 37-38).


It is Saklas (whose name means "fool" in Aramaic) who is the creator of human beings and, presumably, the God of Jesus' disciples.


This creation account, like the rest of the reconstructed text, is fragmentary in places. In the portion we have, there is no mention of Sophia, who in other Gnostic books is the mother of Yaldabaoth or Saklas. However, the phrase "corruptible Sophia" appears earlier in the Gospel of Judas (p. 30), an indication that Sophia probably plays a negative role in the book's cosmology.


At the conclusion of his revelation to Judas, Jesus says,


"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.


Judas lifted up his eyes and saw the luminous cloud, and he entered it. Those standing on the ground heard a voice coming from the cloud, saying, ..." (pp. 43-44).


At this point the text becomes fragmentary again. What we have of this scene, with the cloud and the heavenly voice, is reminiscent of the description of the transfiguration of Jesus in the canonical gospels (Matt. 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:34-35). Certainly the implication is that Judas is destined for some highly exalted status.


After this transfiguration scene the book wraps up quickly. Judas hands Jesus over to Jewish authorities and receives some money for his trouble.


Information from the Gospel of Judas

Although there are a number of gaps in our reconstructed text of the Gospel of Judas, enough of the book is available to allow us to reach several conclusions. First, this is definitely a Gnostic document, one much like the books in the Nag Hammadi library. It was bound together with three other Gnostic texts in Codex Tchacos.


Second, this is surely the book mentioned by Irenaeus. It portrays a Judas coinciding with Irenaeus's description, one who knew "the truth as no others did." Scholar Bart Ehrman comments,


"That this is the gospel Irenaeus knew is confirmed by its contents. For in this gospel Judas is the only disciple who understands who Jesus really is, and he is the only disciple to whom Jesus delivers his secret revelation that can lead to salvation" ([1], p. 91).


Third, we have enough information to give a fairly reliable date for the initial composition of the Gospel of Judas. Since Irenaeus knew about the Gospel of Judas by 180 A.D., it must have been written before that time. On the other hand, it implicitly assumes that the canonical gospels and the book of Acts are familiar to its readers, so it was written later than those books. Moreover, it contains a fairly elaborate Gnostic cosmology, which suggests a date in the middle of the second century A.D. Ehrman states, "Scholars will differ on when it was first composed, but most will probably date it to 140-160 or so " (p. 91).


Since the Gospel of Judas was probably written over a century after the crucifixion of Jesus, we cannot expect it to give us any new historical information about Jesus or Judas. Indeed, as we have seen in our survey of its contents, its purpose was polemical rather than historical. Therefore, claims (like those in [2]) that the Gospel of Judas will revolutionize our thinking about Jesus and Judas are simply false.


Furthermore, the Gospel of Judas has a significant amount of overlap with other Gnostic texts. It seems to be a pretty typical example of the "Gnostic gospel" genre. Still, it is a valuable find, for at least a couple of reasons.


For one thing, the Gospel of Judas gives us a fascinating example of how the Gnostics interpreted and used the Christian scriptures. It shows us how they incorporated bits and pieces of the already accepted texts of Christianity into their alternate version of reality. It also illustrates the ways in which they parodied the canonical texts in their ongoing argument with proto-orthodox Christianity.


In addition, the Gospel of Judas helps corroborate what Irenaeus wrote in Against Heresies. Sources from the Nag Hammadi Library have already illustrated how "bad guys" like Cain and the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were perversely portrayed by some Gnostics as "good guys"(see [1], p. 138). The Gospel of Judas significantly adds to this evidence, confirming the essential accuracy of Irenaeus's description of the Cainites.


In recent years some scholars of early Christianity have called into question the patristic accounts of early Christian history, charging that "history written by the winners" is inherently suspect. While we should always take into account the biases of historians when we evaluate their work, the evidence we have indicates that the patristic descriptions of ancient "heresies" are largely accurate. The Gospel of Judas lends support to the reliability of Irenaeus, one of our most important sources on Christianity in the second century.


Evaluating Gnosticism

One likely reason that the Gospel of Judas and other Gnostic texts have remained undiscovered until fairly recently is that Gnosticism never really caught on. This offbeat variant of Christianity ultimately died out, and there was little interest in making copies of its texts.


After surveying the Gospel of Judas, we are in a position to draw some tentative conclusions about why Gnosticism eventually disappeared. Was it, as a few writers seem to suggest, arbitrarily stamped out by ruthless "thought police" who were enemies of diversity? Or were there other reasons for its demise?


As we have seen, Gnosticism centered around the alleged revelation of secret knowledge. Its leaders were people who claimed to be the recipients of such special revelation. This characteristic by itself probably limited the growth and potential of Gnosticism as a coherent movement. In particular, what happened when two Gnostic leaders had revelations that contradicted each other? Who would decide which, if either, was right? What presumably happened was that the different leaders each had their own followings, and these disparate groups probably didn't work together very well. In contrast, the Christianity of the apostles had an agreed-upon core of basic teachings that gave coherence to the movement (see e.g. I Cor. 15:1-8).


Another characteristic of Gnosticism was what we today would call "elitism." Gnostics believed that some people had a "divine spark" within them and others didn't, and that was just the way it was. The Gospel of Judas, for example, claims that Judas belonged to the first category-those possessing the divine spark-but the twelve were in the second group. In one passage, Jesus explains to Judas that only people in the first category can have eternal life (see [1], pp. 42, 112). (Conveniently, the leaders of the Gnostic groups always belonged to the first category.) Such a belief would have automatically limited the potential appeal of Gnosticism. Gnostics would have had little interest in associating with the "unenlightened" masses who possessed no divine spark, and those people in turn would not have found Gnosticism attractive. Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, appealed to a wide variety of people from all walks of life.


Gnostics taught that the supreme God has no contact with this world and that the physical universe is the creation of a lesser being. As a result, they largely rejected the teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures and had a strong anti-Jewish bias. Their worldview attached little value to human existence. What could Gnostics do with themselves except collect secret revelations and wait impatiently for the time when their divine sparks would be released from their bodily prisons? Theirs was truly an "amputated and truncated Christianity" ([3], p. 36).


Apostolic Christianity, by contrast, is based on the rich body of moral, historical, and wisdom teaching found in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament. It brings people into intimate relationship with the true Creator, the loving God of Israel. It teaches that this life is important and directs people to live fulfilling and abundant lives of service to others. It offers eternal life to more than an "enlightened" few.


Comparing these two systems of belief, is it any wonder that orthodox Christianity proved to be far more popular and enduring than Gnosticism? I, for one, am grateful that orthodox Christianity thrived while Gnosticism faded away. As conservative New Testament scholar Darrell L. Bock commented in a recent Beliefnet interview, "My premise is that, yes, history is written by the winners. But sometimes, the winners deserved to win."6


One final lesson from our study of Gnosticism and Gospel of Judas: While it is true that important aspects of Christianity's "Jewish roots" have too often become obscured over the last two thousand years7, Christianity has also done much through the centuries to preserve its Hebraic foundations. The rejection of Gnosticism was a key step in this preservation, one for which we can be very thankful.


1. Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, editors, The Gospel of Judas from Codex Tchacos, National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C., 2006.

2. Herbert Krosney, The Lost Gospel: the Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot, National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C., 2006.

3. Edwin Yamauchi, "The Gnostics and History," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 14 (1971), 29-40.


1Specifically, carbon dating of a small piece of the papyrus yielded the result 279 A.D. 47 years ([2], chapter 15).


2Briefly, the codex was originally purchased by Hanna Asabil, a Cairo antiquities dealer. The most valuable items in Asabil's inventory were stolen in 1980, but he was able to recover the codex a few years later. Meetings were arranged with prospective buyers in Switzerland (1983) and New York (1984), but the codex remained unsold because of Asabil's exorbitant asking price. The codex then spent sixteen years in a safe deposit box in Hicksville, New York, slowly deteriorating in the humid American climate. Deterioration accelerated when Bruce Ferrini, a dealer in Akron, Ohio, briefly stored the codex in a refrigerator. The process of restoration and translation finally began in 2001, when European dealer Frieda Tchacos Nussberger rescued the codex and delivered it to the Maecenas Foundation of Ancient Art in Switzerland. See [2] for more details.


3Hans Jonas, quoted by Dr. Edwin Yamauchi in [3], p. 30.


4Contrary to the impression given in The DaVinci Code, Gnosticism did not have a higher view of women than the Christianity of the canonical New Testament.


5Two things in Judas' declaration point to Gnosticism. One is the idea that the name of the supreme God is unutterable. (See Saying 13 of the Gospel of Thomas for a similar statement.) The other is the phrase "immortal realm of Barbelo," a Gnostic name for the divine realm. According to Prof. Marvin Meyer ([1], p. 140), Barbelo "often assumes the role of our mother in heaven" in Gnostic writings.


6The interview is entitled Why the Gnostic Gospels Lost..


7See the book Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith by Prof. Marvin R. Wilson (Eerdmans, 1989).

Issue 22



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