From Traitor to Hero? Responding to the Gospel of Judas
May 9, 2006
Headlines around the world are announcing the publication of a "long lost" and "suppressed" ancient document, known as The Gospel of Judas.
The National Geographic Society announced the publication at a major
media event on Thursday, just in time to boost publicity for its Sunday
night special on the National Geographic Channel.
The announcement led to a frenzy of media coverage, ranging from
responsible reports to outrageous sensationalism. According to some
commentators, the publication of this new document will force a
complete reformulation of Christianity and our understanding of both
Judas and Jesus. In reality, nothing of the sort is in view. The
document is highly interesting, however, offering an ancient and
authoritative source into the thinking of heretical groups who offered
alternative understandings of Christianity.
The document purports to be written by Judas, even though it
certainly was written long after Judas's death. Nevertheless, the very
existence of this document, rooted in the third century after Christ,
indicates something of the struggle Christian leaders confronted in
defining and defending the authentic Gospel against heretical groups
such as the Gnostics.
A quick look at The Gospel of Judas reveals the contrast
between this document and the four canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark,
Luke, and John. The English version, edited by Rudolphe Kasser, Marvin
Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, presents an accessible and readable version of
the portions of the Codex Tchacos now available. The most
remarkable feature of this text is its thoroughly Gnostic character.
The substance of this gospel bears virtually no resemblance to orthodox
Christianity--a fact which explains why the early church recognized
this writing for what it is, and rejected it as neither authoritative
In The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot, Herbert Krosney explains how the codex was discovered and traces the events that led to its publication in English this week:
"In the mid- to late 1970s, hidden for more than fifteen hundred
years, an ancient text emerged from the sands of Egypt. Near the banks
of the Nile River, some Egyptian peasants, fellahin, stumbled
upon a cavern. In biblical times, such chambers had been used to bury
the dead. The peasants entered the cave, seeking ancient gold or
jewelry, anything of value that they could sell. Instead, among a pile
of human bones, they discovered a crumbling limestone box. Inside it,
they came upon an unexpected find--a mysterious leather-bound book, a
The portion of the text that is now translated is taken from
thirteen pages of papyrus, with the text written in Coptic, a language
of ancient Egypt. Most scholars agree that The Gospel of Judas
was originally written in Greek, and later translated into Coptic. This
was the common history of many Gnostic texts, especially those
associated with groups common to the area in which the manuscript was
The Lost Gospel reads like a suspense thriller at times,
tracing the odd and admittedly remarkable story of how the codex was
preserved and eventually published. Those familiar with the story of
the Dead Sea scrolls and the documents of the Nag Hammadi library will
recognize significant parallels in the saga of how the texts and
manuscripts were found and eventually made available for scholarly
review and publication.
The Gnostic character of the text is immediately evident. In his
supposed conversations with Judas, Jesus speaks in Gnostic categories
such as "aeons" and an "eternal realm." Judas is identified as the
"thirteenth spirit" who was appointed by God to be the agent of
releasing Jesus from the physical body in which He was trapped in the
When Judas speaks of a vision and asks for its interpretation, Jesus
answers: "Judas, your star has led you astray." Jesus continues: "No
person of mortal birth is worthy to enter the house you have seen, for
that place is reserved for the holy. Neither the sun nor the moon will
rule there, nor the day, but the holy will abide there always, in the
eternal realm with the holy angels. Look, I have explained to you the
mysteries of the kingdom and I have taught you about the error of the
stars; and . . . sent it . . . on the twelve aeons."
The concept of secret and mysterious knowledge was central to Gnostic sects. The Gospel of Judas
purports to reveal conversations between Jesus and Judas that had been
kept secret from the rest of humanity. The Gnostics prized their secret
knowledge, and taught a profound dualism between the material and
spiritual worlds. They understood the material world, including the
entire cosmos, to be a trap for the spiritual world. In essence, the
Gnostics sought to escape the material world and to enter the world of
Accordingly, the most revealing statement in the entire text of The Gospel of Judas records Jesus saying to Judas, "But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me."
In other words, Judas would perform a service to Jesus by betraying
Him to those who would then crucify Him, liberating Jesus from the
physical body and freeing Him as spirit. As the editors of The Gospel of Judas
indicate in a footnote, "The death of Jesus, with the assistance of
Judas, is taken to be the liberation of the spiritual person within."
Needless to say, this is in direct conflict with the Christian
gospel and the New Testament. The consistent witness of the New
Testament is that Jesus came in order to die for sinners--willingly
accepting the cross and dying as the substitutionary sacrifice for sin.
This redemptive action is completely missing from The Gospel of Judas.
For that reason, the text was rejected by early Christian leaders.
Writing about the year 180, Irenaeus, a major figure among the early
church fathers, identified the text now known as The Gospel of Judas as heretical. In his foreword to The Lost Gospel,
Bart Ehrman, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel
Hill, explains, "This gospel was about the relationship between Jesus
and Judas, and indicated that Judas didn't actually betray Jesus, but
did what Jesus wanted him to do, because Judas was the one who really
knew the truth, as Jesus wanted it communicated."
Ehrman, no friend to orthodox Christianity, has correctly explained
the problem. Irenaeus rejected the text precisely because it was in
direct conflict with the canonical gospels and with the teaching of the
Apostles. Accordingly, it was his responsibility to warn the church
about the heretical nature of this document. Still, the very fact that
Irenaeus mentions the document with such a specific reference gives
considerable credence to the claim that The Gospel of Judas is as old in its origin as its patrons now claim.
We now know a great deal about the Gnostic sects common to the first
centuries of Christianity. The particular sect thought to be associated
with the origin of The Gospel of Judas was known as the
Cainites. The peculiar teachings of this sect included the
rehabilitation of many characters presented negatively in the
Bible--starting with Cain. In essence, the Cainites attempted to take
the negative figures of the Bible and present them in a heroic light.
In order to do this, of course, they had to create alternative texts
and an alternative rendering of the story of Jesus.
What are Christians to make of all this? The publication of The Gospel of Judas
is a matter of genuine interest. After all, it is important for
Christians to understand the context of early Christianity--a context
in which the church was required to exercise tremendous discernment in
confronting heretical teachings and rejecting spurious texts.
The scholarly research behind the publication of The Gospel of Judas
appears to be sound and responsible. The codex manuscript was submitted
to the most rigorous historical process in terms of dating, chemical
composition, and similar questions. In the end, it appears that the
document is most likely authentic, in terms of its origin from within a
heretical sect in the third century.
Nevertheless, extravagant claims about the theological significance of The Gospel of Judas are unwarranted, ridiculous, and driven by those who themselves call for a reformulation of Christianity.
The resurgence of interest in Gnostic texts such as The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of Judas
is driven by an effort, at least on the part of some figures, to argue
that early Christianity had no essential theological core. Instead,
scholars such as Elaine Pagels of Princeton University want to argue
that, "These discoveries are exploding the myth of a monolithic
religion, and demonstrating how diverse--and fascinating--the early
Christian movement really was." What Pagels and many other figures
argue is that early Christianity was a cauldron of competing
theologies, and that ideological and political factors explain why an
"orthodox" tradition eventually won, suppressing all competing
theologies. Accordingly, these same figures argue that today's
Christians should be open to these variant teachings that had long been
suppressed and hidden from view.
Metropolitan Bishoy, leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, dismissed The Gospel of Judas
as "non-Christian babbling resulting from a group of people trying to
create a false 'amalgam' between the Greek mythology and Far East
religions with Christianity . . . They were written by a group of
people who were aliens to the main Christian stream of the early
Christianity. These texts are neither reliable nor accurate Christian
texts, as they are historically and logically alien to the main
Christian thinking and philosophy of the early and present Christians."
The Metropolitan is right, but we are better armed to face the heresies
of our own day if we face with honesty the heresies of times past.
Simon Gathercole, a New Testament professor at Aberdeen University,
defended the text as authentic, but relatively unimportant. "It is
certainly an ancient text, but not ancient enough to tell us anything
new," Gathercole explains. "It contains themes which are alien to the
first-century world of Jesus and Judas, but which became popular later."
Indeed, those Gnostic ideas did become popular later, and
they are becoming increasingly popular now. The truth of the Gospel
stands, and Christians will retain firm confidence in the authenticity
of the New Testament and, in particular, of the Gospels of Matthew,
Mark, Luke, and John. Nevertheless, old Gnosticisms are continually
repackaged and "rediscovered" even as new forms of Gnostic thought
emerge in our postmodern culture.
Informed Christians will be watchful and aware when confronting
churches or institutions that present spurious writings, rejected as
heretical by the early church, on the same plane as the New Testament.
The verdict of Athanasius, one of the greatest leaders of the early
church, still stands: "Let no man add to these, neither let him take
ought from these, for concerning these the Lord put to shame the
Sadducees, and said, 'Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures.' And He
reproved the Jews, saying, 'Search the Scriptures, for these are they
that testify of Me.'"
R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is president of The
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. For more
articles and resources by Dr. Mohler, and for information on The Albert
Mohler Program, a daily national radio program broadcast on the Salem
Radio Network, go to www.albertmohler.com. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to www.sbts.edu. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
See also the most recent entries on Dr. Mohler's Blog.
ANOTHER EXCELLENT EXPOSITION REFUTING THE GOSPEL OF JUDAS CAN BE FOUND AT DR. MARK D. ROBERTS WEBLOG HERE
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