The Gospel of Judas:
The Manuscript and its Gnostic Heresies
By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal
Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve; he went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers of the temple police about how he might betray [Jesus] to them. They were greatly pleased and agreed to give him money. So he consented and began to look for an opportunity to betray him to them when no crowd was present. (Luke 22:3-6)
This sobering account of Judas, falling under the possession of Satan, is both frightening and thought provoking. While Judas is usually depicted as acting on his own accord, out of his own self-understanding of what a Messiah was supposed to do and be – and Jesus simply hadn’t measured up to that standard – Luke’s account, amplified by the Beloved Disciple’s version (see John 13), indicates that Judas was acting under the influence of Satan. While this does not in any way mitigate Judas' own personal responsibility for his actions, it does make him something of a tragic figure in the entire story of the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus. Indeed, Judas has been such an interesting character to so many Christians over the centuries that it is not surprising that an apocryphal gospel was even written in his name.
The gospel of Judas is a late-3rd to mid-4th century Gnostic manuscript discovered in Egypt in the 1970s. It is written in Coptic – much like the large cache of Gnostic writings found at Nag Hammadi in the 1940s – and reflects the basic beliefs of Gnostic Christianity as it was known and flourished in northern Egypt in the 2nd - 5th centuries. Prior to its discovery the only historical reference to the gospel of Judas was to be found in the writings of a 2nd century Christian Bishop named Irenaeus. Irenaeus, who was Bishop of Lyons around 170 AD, wrote that this Gnostic gospel claimed that that Jesus had to convince Judas to betray him because it was necessary to fulfill Jesus’ plan. Far from being under the influence of Satan, or having political ideas of his own, the gospel of Judas was reported to have revealed a closer, more esoteric relationship between Jesus and Judas Iscariot than is usually assumed from the canonical account. This report is borne out by what has been discovered in the fragmented remains of the gospel itself.
Gnostic Christianity promoted many ideas that are contrary to both orthodoxy and Arian Christianity. Arianism was a heresy that was strong in Asia Minor in the 3rd and 4th centuries. The Arians claimed that Jesus was fully human and was only adopted by God as divine at his death and resurrection. Orthodoxy (i.e. Nicene-Chalcedonian Christianity, of which most modern-day Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern-Orthodox Christians are a part) teaches that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, being incarnate completely God and completely human. Gnostic Christianity, however, taught something completely different: that Jesus was fully divine but not at all human. Jesus might have looked human, sounded human, acted human, and in every other way appeared to be human, but he was not human. He appeared to have flesh and blood, appeared to eat and drink, appeared to suffer and die, but in reality Jesus was simply a divine spirit who projected the impression of his being solid into the minds of those around him. I tend to illustrate this idea with the modern concept of a hologram: the Gnostics believed that Jesus was as substantial as a holographic image in suspended light ... that is to say, not at all.
Since Jesus wasn’t thought of as being human or even at all material, the Gnostics believed that betrayal and death could not have been of any real consequence for Jesus. Nevertheless, they did affirm that the mere appearance of betrayal and death was required in order to complete Jesus’ purpose in the world, hence it was necessary for Jesus to convince one of his most faithful disciples to do the dirty deed for him. Jesus picked Judas and, according to this so-called gospel, had to convince him to play along with the "act" even though it meant that he would be vilified for all time. This makes Judas into a tragic, dangerously sympathetic figure. Rather than finding, in Judas, an example of how we, in our own Satanic sinfulness, have betrayed our Master, we instead find a person who had no choice but to betray his Lord because his Lord demanded it. The implications of this should be obvious to everyone.
In scripture Peter is a type for how we can all fail our Master, deny him in the face of adversity, and yet still respond to God's grace, repent, and exercise faith. Most of us, if we’re honest, can see a little bit of Peter in ourselves. While a convicting identification, at least it is one which we can easily accept. But seeing Judas within ourselves is another matter altogether; identifying elements of Judas within our motivations and actions, our failing and our self-justifications, should give us serious moments of pause and painful reflection. And, yet, it is a reflection which we dare not slight. In Judas we have a type – a warning and an example – for how our sinful betrayal of our Master can have eternal consequences if followed to its ultimate conclusion. Being one of Jesus’ "inner circle" is no guarantee that we can’t or won’t fail our master. We can sin ... indeed, we’re really good at sinning ... and, every time we do, we betray our master yet again. The Gnostic approach, as exemplified by the so-called gospel of Judas, provides us with a comfortable and convenient excuse for our betrayal: "Jesus made us do it!" According to the gospel of Judas, Jesus chose him and secretly taught him in order to prepare him for his role as the betrayer. In the Gnostic version of the story, Judas betrays Jesus somewhat reluctantly, and at Jesus’ command. Rather than being responsible for Jesus’ death, we along with Judas have become hapless bystanders ... or, more accurately, unwilling accomplices in a fake "show." This reinterpretation of the betrayal and death of Jesus does direct and horrific damage to the kerygma – to the preached message – of the Church as it has been proclaimed from the apostolic age unto today. The Gnostic approach to Jesus and to his betrayal by Judas requires a denial of the reality of Jesus’ death (if Jesus never really lived as a human being, it was impossible for him to really die), a denial of the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement (if Jesus didn’t really die, then there was no atonement made for the sins of the world), and a denial of the efficacy of the bodily resurrection (if Jesus could never actually die, there was no need for him to be raised). Clearly, the implications of each denial would serve to undercut the very foundations of canonical Christian orthodoxy. Far more than just a denial of some fine point of doctrine, this is a repudiation of the entire Gospel as articulated in scripture by the four Evangelists and as interpreted and applied by Paul, Peter, and John in their canonical Epistles.
Entirely aside from the radical theological difficulties that I have with gnosticism in general, and the claims of the so-called gospel of Judas in particular, I also have significant historical issues with both the claims of the manuscript and with the provenance of its source. Oh, I have no doubt that it is a valid ancient Gnostic gospel dating to about 300-340 AD. Having looked at images of the coptic text, and being somewhat familiar with the paleographical dating scheme for Coptic literature, I am convinced that this manuscript can be localized to the same time-period and, indeed, the same community as that which drafted most of the manuscripts found at Nag Hammaidi in 1945. Radio carbon dating of the manuscript also confirms this relative date. In additional to textual and paleographic issues, it contains many theological characteristics that place it squarely in the midst of the Nag Hammadi-type of Coptic manuscripts, and as such it reflects similar historical roots. And, finally, based upon its actual literary contents, there is no reason to doubt that it is a later copy of the same Gnostic gospel of Judas with which Bishop Irenaeus was familiar. In other words, the gospel of Judas probably dates to the period in history immediately following the initial collection of the canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and their first circulation. This would place it at least a full generation following the close of the apostolic age: about 125 - 150 AD. It was written by the Gnostics of Northern Africa in order to combat the negative, vilified image of Judas as related in the canonical gospels, as well as to further undercut the doctrinal claims of Scripture and the Church regarding the death of Jesus as a substitutionary atonement for the sins of the world. As a matter of historical veracity and literary analysis, it is a work of religious fiction told to advance a theological agenda.
Some might say that the same is true of the canonical gospels, but unlike the Gnostic gospels, the canonicals date much earlier – between 65/70 AD (for Mark, the earliest) and 85/95 AD (for John, the latest) – and were written by either the disciples or by those who knew the disciples, based upon information garnered from the disciples, and from even earlier works written by the disciples (i.e., the sayings source, or "Q"). While the canonical gospels were, indeed, written to advance the theological agenda of the apostolic-era church – to present Jesus in a certain interpretive light – each gospel does so from within the context of historical sources. The gospel of Judas shares none of this historicity while, on the other hand, being heavily influenced by a theological movement far removed from the perspective of the disciples, Paul, and the rest of first century Christianity.
The gospel of Judas merits attention as a source for understanding the teachings of gnosticism and as an illustration for how such heretical Christian groups were able to compose interesting pictures of Jesus to serve their own doctrinal ends. But as a source for reconstructing the historical Jesus, it is worthless. The picture of Jesus it conveys, the dialogs that it places on Jesus’ lips, and the message all of this communicates is void of any degree of veracity as far as history or true Christian theology goes. Nevertheless, I suspect that the gospel of Judas is about to become the new darling-child of the "Jesus Seminar" scholars and, hence, of those who (for whatever reason) only see orthodoxy in a negative light. This "darling-child" position has been held by the gospel of Thomas for about 50 years, even though it is quite misogynistic in character (far more so than the canonicals); since the gospel of Judas contains an idea, and paints a picture of Jesus, both of which are particularly destructive to the fundamental Christological tenets of traditional catholic/protestant Christianity, I suspect that it will take over the lead as being the most popular textual resource for non-traditional, academic hit-pieces on Christian orthodoxy.
© 2006, Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved
As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.