IN April 2006, newspapers worldwide carried the startling story that a team of scholars was releasing to the public the contents of a newly discovered ancient text entitled “Gospel of Judas.” These articles referred to scholarly claims that this text revolutionizes understanding of the figure of Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus. According to such claims, Judas was actually a hero, the apostle who best understood Jesus, delivering him for execution at Jesus’ request.
Is this text authentic? And if so, does it reveal some previously hidden knowledge regarding the historical figures Judas Iscariot, Jesus Christ, or early Christians? Should it affect our understanding of Christianity?
THE DISCOVERY OF THE “GOSPEL OF JUDAS”
How the “Gospel of Judas” was discovered remains somewhat uncertain. Rather than being discovered and documented by archaeologists, the document abruptly appeared on the antiquities market in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s. It was likely discovered in Egypt in 1978 in an abandoned tomb, possibly within a cave. It was one of four separate texts contained in a codex (a type of ancient book) written in Coptic (a language derived from ancient Egyptian).
Preserved for centuries in the dry Egyptian climate, the leather-bound codex was in a fragile and rapidly deteriorating state. A few scholars were briefly shown the codex in 1983; but the asking price was exorbitant, and no sale was made. Further years of neglect and improper storage led to accelerated deterioration of the codex. In 2000, it was purchased by a Swiss antiquities dealer. She eventually turned it over to an international team of experts who, working under the auspices of the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art and the National Geographic Society, were charged with the complex task of restoring and reconstructing the codex, some of which had now deteriorated into small fragments. This team would also determine the age of the codex and translate and interpret its contents.
Carbon-14 dating authenticated the codex as likely coming from the third or the fourth century C.E. However, the scholars surmised that the Coptic text of the “Gospel of Judas” had been translated from its original Greek at a much earlier period. What was that original period and setting in which the “Gospel of Judas” was composed?
THE “GOSPEL OF JUDAS”—A GNOSTIC GOSPEL
The first mention of the existence of a work called the “Gospel of Judas” is found in the writings of Irenaeus, a professed Christian author of the late second century C.E. In a work called Against Heresies, Irenaeus writes concerning one of the many groups whose teachings he opposed: “They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as none of the 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 entitle the Gospel of Judas.”
“It is not a Gospel written in Judas’s own time by someone who actually knew him”
Irenaeus was especially intent on refuting various teachings of Gnostic Christians, who claimed that they held revealed inner knowledge. Gnosticism is an umbrella term encompassing many groups, all with their own understanding and interpretation of Christian “truth.” Gnostics advanced interpretations based on their own writings, which proliferated during the second century C.E.
Such Gnostic gospels often claimed that the prominent apostles of Jesus misunderstood his message and that there is a secret teaching that Jesus passed on that was understood by only a select few.a Some of those Gnostics believed that the physical world was a prison. Therefore, the “creator god” of the Hebrew Scriptures was actually a lesser god who was opposed to the various perfect gods. One with true “knowledge” understood this “secret” and sought release from physical existence.
That is the approach reflected in the “Gospel of Judas.” It opens with the words: “The secret word of declaration by which Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot, during eight days, three days before he celebrated Passover.”
Was this codex the very text that Irenaeus had written about, which for centuries was presumed lost? Marvin Meyer, a member of the initial team that analyzed and translated this codex, says that Irenaeus’ “brief description fits quite well the present Coptic text entitled the Gospel of Judas.”
THE FIGURE OF JUDAS IN THIS GOSPEL—A DEBATE AMONG SCHOLARS
In the “Gospel of Judas,” Jesus laughs scornfully when his disciples display their lack of proper knowledge. But Judas is the only one of the 12 apostles who shows an understanding of Jesus’ true nature. Therefore, Jesus privately shares with him “the mysteries of the kingdom.”
The initial textual reconstruction by the team of scholars was heavily influenced by Irenaeus’ description of the gospel. In their translation, Judas is favored by Jesus as the one disciple who would understand the mysteries and “reach” the “kingdom.” The misled apostles would name a replacement for Judas, but he would then become the “thirteenth spirit,” which would “exceed all [the other disciples]” because, says Jesus, “you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”
Best-selling authors, such as Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels, who are also prominent scholars of early Christianity and Gnosticism, quickly published their own analyses and commentaries of the “Gospel of Judas” that substantially followed the textual reconstruction by the original team. However, shortly thereafter, other scholars, such as April DeConick and Birger Pearson, expressed concern. They claimed that in its bid for a media exclusive, the National Geographic Society rushed the publication of the ancient text. Additionally, the normal academic process of thorough analysis and prepublication peer review was bypassed, as the team was required to sign nondisclosure agreements.
None of the scholars who analyzed this text claim that it contains accurate historical information
Working independently, DeConick and Pearson both concluded that some of the key sections of the fragmentary codex had been mistranslated by the previous scholars. According to DeConick’s reconstruction of the text, Jesus calls Judas the “Thirteenth Demon,” not the “thirteenth spirit.”b Jesus also tells Judas unequivocally that he will not ascend to the “kingdom.” Rather than ‘exceeding’ the other disciples, Jesus says to Judas: “You will do worse than all of them. For the man that clothes me, you will sacrifice him.” In DeConick’s view, the “Gospel of Judas” is an ancient Gnostic parody that mocks all the apostles. The definitive conclusion held by DeConick and Pearson is that in this “Gospel of Judas,” Judas is no hero.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THE “GOSPEL OF JUDAS”?
Whether they viewed the Judas of this gospel as a hero or a demon, none of the scholars who analyzed this text claim that it contains accurate historical information. Bart Ehrman explains: “It is not a Gospel written by Judas, or one that even claims to be. . . . It is not a Gospel written in Judas’s own time by someone who actually knew him . . . It is not a book, therefore, that will provide us with additional information about what actually happened in Jesus’ lifetime.”
The “Gospel of Judas” is a Gnostic text from the second century C.E., originally written in Greek. Whether this newly discovered “Gospel of Judas” is identical to the text that Irenaeus referred to remains a matter of scholarly debate. But the “Gospel of Judas” clearly offers important evidence only regarding a period in which “Christianity” had become fractured and divided by many competing sects and doctrines. Rather than undermining Scripture, the “Gospel of Judas” actually confirms apostolic warnings, such as that of Paul recorded at Acts 20:29, 30: “I know that after my going away . . . from among you yourselves men will rise and speak twisted things to draw away the disciples after themselves.”
a These gospels are often named after the ones who are alleged to have better understood Jesus’ true teachings, as is the case with the “Gospel of Thomas” and the “Gospel of Mary Magdalene.” In all, about 30 such ancient writings have been identified.