The Gospel of Judas Revisited


by Jared L. Olar

More than two years ago, the world witnessed the National Geographic Society's sensational unveiling of the long-lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot, an ancient text that-so the headlines and news reports breathlessly claimed-would bring about "a radical makeover for one of the worst reputations in history." Through the news media and a "Gospel of Judas" cottage industry of books that immediately sprang up, the public was led to believe that this new-found Gospel presented Judas Iscariot not as a traitor, but as the closest friend and confidant of Jesus Christ, who supposedly asked Judas to have Him killed so Jesus could be liberated from His human body.


In Dec. 2006, Grace & Knowledge took a look at the Gospel of Judas in an article by editor-in-chief Doug Ward, "Irenaeus Was Right: The Real Significance of the Gospel of Judas." But as indicated by the title of this article, since 2006 it has become necessary to revisit the subject of the Gospel of Judas Iscariot, due to the eruption of a scholarly controversy regarding the proper translation and interpretation of the spurious Gospel. The "heroic Judas" interpretation presented two years ago has been subjected to an onslaught of criticism and contradiction from numerous expert scholars of Gnosticism, early Christianity, and the Coptic language in which the text of the Gospel is written. According to these scholars, not only is the portrait of Judas Iscariot found in the Gospel of Judas that of a traitor, but it is a darker and more villainous portrait of Judas than that found in the New Testament. Experts in Coptic have also alleged that the translation of this text was executed hastily and incompetently, resulting in the erroneous rendering of several key passages.


Leading this onslaught of criticism is April D. DeConick, a professor of biblical studies at Rice University who is a scholar of Gnosticism and an expert Coptologist. She first aired her concerns in a New York Times column, "Gospel Truth" (1 Dec. 2007). In that column, she wrote, "While National Geographic’s translation supported the provocative interpretation of Judas as a hero, a more careful reading makes clear that Judas is not only no hero, he is a demon."


What does the Gospel of Judas really say?

In her column, DeConick listed several passages where she says the National Geographic team of scholars mistranslated the text. For example, the 2006 National Geographic translation had Jesus tell Judas, "O 13th spirit, why do you try so hard?" Similarly, Karen King and Elaine Pagels (an academic whose books have bestowed on her an unwarranted reputation as an expert in Gnosticism) rendered that passage, "O 13th god, why do you try so hard?" But DeConick countered that the passage actually means, "O 13th demon, why do you try so hard?" The Gospel of Judas is a Gnostic text, and in Gnostic literature the word "daimon" is always rendered into English as "demon," said DeConick.


In another place, the 2006 National Geographic translation said Judas has been "set apart for the holy generation," but DeConick said the Coptic really means Judas was "separated from the holy generation." Again, the 2006 National Geographic translation said Jesus reveals the mysteries of the kingdom to Judas because "it is possible for him to go there," but DeConick wrote that in fact "(h)e receives them because Jesus tells him that he can't go there, and Jesus doesn't want Judas to betray him out of ignorance. Jesus wants him informed, so that the demonic Judas can suffer all that he deserves."


But for DeConick, the single worst error was that the 2006 National Geographic translation had Jesus say to Judas, "They will curse your ascent to the holy generation." In fact, DeConick said, the Coptic means, "You will not ascend to the holy generation."   "To its credit, National Geographic has acknowledged this mistake, albeit far too late to change the public misconception," DeConick wrote.


"So what does the Gospel of Judas really say?" DeConick asked in her column.


"It says that Judas is a specific demon called the `Thirteenth.' In certain Gnostic traditions, this is the given name of the king of demons-an entity known as Ialdabaoth who lives in the 13th realm above the earth. Judas is his human alter ego, his undercover agent in the world. These Gnostics equated Ialdabaoth with the Hebrew Yahweh, whom they saw as a jealous and wrathful deity and an opponent of the supreme God whom Jesus came to earth to reveal. . . . Because Judas is a demon working for Ialdabaoth, the author believed, when Judas sacrifices Jesus he does so to the demons, not to the supreme God. This mocks mainstream Christians' belief in the atoning value of Jesus' death and in the effectiveness of the Eucharist."


Far from presenting Judas Iscariot as the only apostle worthy to receive salvific gnosis, the Gospel of Judas Iscariot was written by a Gnostic heretic as a vicious attack on and mockery of Christianity, presenting all of the apostles as fools and wicked men, with Judas the worst of them all. That point is underscored not only by DeConick, but by another scholar who independently came to very similar conclusions about the Gospel of Judas, Birger A. Pearson ("Judas Iscariot Among the Gnostics-What the Gospel of Judas Really Says," Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2008). Like DeConick, Pearson is very critical of how the National Geographic team translated various passages. In one passage, the 2006 National Geographic translation had Jesus say to Judas, "You will exceed all of them [the Apostles], for you will sacrifice the man that clothes me," but according to Pearson, that should be rendered, "You will do worse than all of them, for the man that clothes me, you will sacrifice him."


In the Gospel of Judas Iscariot, the apostles are portrayed as ignorant of the true identity of the God they worship. The apostles think they worship God, but Jesus reveals that they are really worshipping Saklas or Yaldabaoth. When the apostles "give thanks" over bread (cf. the Eucharist, "thanksgiving"), Jesus laughs at them and says they are under their god's spell. The Father of Jesus is not the god whom the apostles worship, the Gospel claims. The Gospel condemns the apostles not only for offering bread to Saklas, but also for sacrificing their children and their wives to him-apparently an attack on Christians' willingness to die rather than offer incense to false gods, something that many Gnostics did not object to. In this context, DeConick and Pearson argue, the actions of Judas Iscariot would be seen as sacrificing Jesus to Saklas, something that the Gnostic author of this Gospel would have seen as far worse than anything the other apostles did.


Where did the National Geographic team go wrong?

But how could the National Geographic team of scholars, all of them credentialed and reputable, have gotten it so wrong? According to DeConick and Pearson, part of the problem was the great difficulty of reconstructing an incredibly damaged papyrus text, and another part of the problem was the haste and the secrecy that characterised the translation work. The National Geographic team members were sworn to secrecy to prevent inaccurate rumors from leaking out before their work was done, but also to protect National Geographic's "scoop." If the process had been open to other voices, the critics argue, they probably would have avoided the erroneous translations and the faulty interpretation of the "heroic Judas."


DeConick suggests that a commendable impulse to oppose anti-Semitism was probably also at play. In the past, many Christians interpreted Judas Iscariot as the quintessential Jew-unfaithful, treacherous, money-grubbing. A "heroic Judas" would help to exorcise that anti-Semitic demon, so the readiness with which many embraced the "heroic Judas" interpretation was understandable and praiseworthy to the extent it was motivated by opposition to anti-Semitic bigotry. The trouble is that it prevented the correct understanding of this text.


Another key reason the original team went astray, DeConick and Pearson insist, is that they were misled by St. Irenaeus of Lyons, who around A.D. 180 briefly described a spurious Gnostic "Gospel of Judas Iscariot" that, according to the general scholarly consensus, apparently is the same as the Coptic text translated by the National Geographic team. The relevant passage from St. Irenaeus' Against Heresies was quoted in our Dec. 2006 article, "Irenaeus Was Right." Here it is again, from the classic Ante-Nicene Fathers translation:


"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."


Pearson quotes the same passage in his BAR May/June 2008 article, but uses the more recent Foerster-Wilson translation:


"Others again say that Cain was from the superior power, and confess Esau and (the tribe of) Korah and the Sodomites and all such as their kinsmen. They were attacked by the creator, but none of them suffered any ill. For Sophia snatched away from them to herself what belonged to her. This Judas the traitor knew very well, and he alone of all the apostles recognized the truth and accomplished the mystery of the betrayal, by which everything earthly and heavenly is dissolved, as they say. And they produce a fabrication, which they call the Gospel of Judas."


Pearson then comments, "Although this language is sometimes opaque and ambiguous, it is nevertheless clear that Irenaeus is telling us that certain Gnostics transform Judas and other Biblical villains into heroes." However, the Gospel of Judas Iscariot found in the Codex Tcachos presents Judas Iscariot as the worst of all villains, not a hero at all. If the spurious Gospel mentioned by St. Irenaeus is the same as the Tcachos Gospel of Judas Iscariot, then St. Irenaeus was wrong. After all, we can't be sure where St. Irenaeus got his information about a "Gospel of Judas." He obviously made an extensive study of Gnosticism and read many of their texts, but it's not known if he had read this particular Gnostic gospel or rather was relating information at second hand. Pearson and DeConick suggest that St. Irenaeus had such a strong bias against Gnosticism that he was careless or unwilling to investigate this matter fairly or honestly. DeConick goes so far as to allege that the early Church Fathers had no qualms about deliberately lying about heretical sects, but that allegation is itself an indication of bias and unfairness on her own part. ("I tend to be extremely skeptical of the testimony of the Church Fathers on these sorts of issues for the sheer fact that the Fathers saw the Gnostics as their opponents and they did everything they could to undermine them, including lying," she has said.) There are no grounds for accusing St. Irenaeus of lying, especially when the general accuracy of his depiction of the myriad strains of Gnosticism is strongly supported by the Naj Hammadi library and other Gnostic texts. It is quite possible that he made an honest mistake based on secondhand reports.


However, a few important considerations must also be kept in mind. First, the Codex Tcachos is a Coptic papyrus from about A.D. 300 or later, no less than a century after the writing of Against Heresies. The Tcachos Gospel of Judas Iscariot is a translation of an earlier, lost Greek version, and we simply cannot be sure that the Coptic translation is entirely faithful or accurate. Even more, we can't be sure that the original Greek Gospel of Judas Iscariot with which St. Irenaeus was familiar wasn't reworked at some point by a later editor-our Coptic text could represent such a hypothetical later recension, perhaps produced by a different kind of Gnostic who adapted the earlier recension to his own sect's version of Gnosticism. It is interesting that the "Cainite" Gnostic mythology mentioned by St. Irenaeus apparently is not found in the Coptic Gospel of Judas-though there are lost pages that could have mentioned Cain, Esau, Korah, and the Sodomites. In any case, the mythology of this text is distinctly "Sethian" (i.e., Adam's son Seth plays a prominent role in the cosmology) rather than Cainite, which may indicate that this is not the Gospel of Judas mentioned by St. Irenaeus.


Finally, it must also be said that, contrary to Pearson's assertion that it is "clear that Irenaeus is telling us that certain Gnostics transform Judas and other Biblical villains into heroes," we cannot be sure that St. Irenaeus actually said that the Gospel of Judas presented Judas Iscariot as a hero. That is certainly the prima facie meaning of his words, the meaning that everyone had believed was correct. But with the discovery of the Coptic Gospel of Judas and the revelation that it presents Judas as a villain, it is now possible to take a different look at what St. Irenaeus said. If the Coptic Gospel is substantially or identically that to which St. Irenaeus referred, it is quite possible to read his words as describing actions that even a Gnostic might think of as evil. Look again at the words: "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." Could it be that the words "Judas the traitor" reflect not St. Irenaeus' opinion of Judas, but are a reference to the way Judas is portrayed in the spurious gospel that St. Irenaeus mentions? Admittedly this is not an obvious interpretation, especially in the context of the reference a few lines earlier to Cain, Esau, Korah, and the Sodomites, but St. Irenaeus' comments are summary in nature and there could be any number of reasons why he may have decided not to elaborate on what he knew about the Gospel of Judas Iscariot.


Although these subsequent developments in "Gospel of Judas" scholarship have required Grace & Knowledge to re-examine and alter several of the observations and conclusions reached in our previous article on this subject, nevertheless the overall picture of Gnostic heresy and its relationship to apostolic Christianity that is presented in "Irenaeus Was Right" remains valid. Gnosticism was an aberrant development that led many early Christians astray, and the truth claims and forged "Gospels" of the uncountable, contradictory rival Gnostic sects could never withstand the critical scrutiny of the early Church.


Nevertheless, in the end we cannot offer a definitive answer to the question in the title of this article. Was Irenaeus right? We just don't know, but it is quite possible. However, we can be much more confident about the lessons we should draw from the saga of the translation of this long-lost text. The unveiling of the Gospel of Judas in April 2006 (not coincidentally timed for the Paschal season) was a media sensation, orchestrated to draw attention and interest. Small wonder that serious lapses of sound scholarship were committed. The layman must always keep in mind that no matter how talented and gifted a scholar may be, he is still fallible and can be prone to let bias and sensationalism and a yearning for book sales get in the way of the pursuit of truth. The layman also must remember that the first word said by scholars of the Bible or Christianity is never, ever the last word, and often enough is not the true word.

EDITOR'S NOTE: To learn more about the critical reaction to the 2006 National Geographic translation of the Coptic Gospel of Judas, see



and Thomas Bartlett's article, "The Betrayal of Judas" (Chronicle of Higher Education, 30 May 2008).


Issue 24



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