Discovered in the late 1970s, Egypt, the text known as the Gospel of Judas has marveled scholars and laypersons alike for its presentation of Judas Iscariot, depicted in the canonical gospels as Jesus Christ’s betrayer, as Christ’s enlightened and favoured disciple (1).
Authorship and Dating
Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Christ at the end of his ministry, did not write this text. Most scholars have dated the Gospel of Judas to the mid-to-late second century CE (2), making it too late for the original Judas to author it (unless of course he was close to 150 or so years of age when he wrote this account). This dating is reasoned to on the basis of a church father by the name of Irenaeus of Lyons (b. 130 CE) who, in his five-volume text Against Heresies (c. 180 CE), mentions a Gospel of Judas that was read by his theological opponents. It would seem that by the length of Against Heresies, Irenaeus took his opponents very seriously. This is certainly visible in his charge that they,
“falsify the oracles of God, and prove themselves evil interpreters of the good word of revelation. They also overthrow the faith of many, by drawing them away, under a pretence of [superior] knowledge, from Him who founded and adorned the universe; as if… they had something more excellent and sublime to reveal” (3).
As a historical source, Irenaeus is dubious in ways because his descriptions are highly polemic thus making it difficult to distinguish polemic from reality. In contrast to the Gospel of Judas, the canonical gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John are traditionally dated by scholars to the late-first century (Mark being the earliest at 70 CE and John the latest at 90 CE), thus putting them in much closer proximity to the time of Christ’s ministry. Regarding the historical reliability of the Gospel of Judas text as an attestation to the historical Jesus, historian David Frankfurter is of the view that “It is unlikely that the Gospel of Judas contains a separate or more authentic picture of Judas than the canonical story” (4). We shall note the reasons for such a view shortly.
The Jesus of the Gospel of Judas and Important Content
The Gospel of Judas certainly presents us with a fascinating Christ. It is clear that Christ is viewed from a Gnostic (from the Greek word ‘gnosis’, meaning knowledge) perspective, which is a very different perspective from the one described in the canonical gospels. It presents several themes common to Gnosticism, such as the promise of secret teachings, the denigration of the physical body, and the elevation of a single disciple or apostle.
Who were the Gnostics? We know that during the second century CE a number of Christian groups were competing with one another. Each group wished to legitimate its own particular interpretation of Christianity and of Christ. In this context of competition, we find the Gnostics, a group that flourished from the second century to the year 381 CE when Gnosticism was outlawed in the Roman Empire under Theodosius I who declared the Catholic Church the state religion. Although most scholars now acknowledge the difficulties of using the term “Gnosticism” broadly, it continues to be the standard designation for this group. The Gospel of Judas is just one of a number of texts produced by this group. We learn from some of these writings (see the Apocryphon of James 1.1.8-14; Apocryphon of John 2.1.1-5; Gospel of Thomas) a particular belief concerning salvation, which is that it comes not from Christ’s atonement and resurrection but from a secret knowledge that Christ imparted to a select group of his followers. Little surprise is it then that the heading to the Gospel of Judas reads: “The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot.”
As suggested by the name of this text, Judas is its prominent figure. The gospel portrays him as a hero because he betrays Christ and it also describes the rest of the original disciples in inferior ways. For example, we read that Christ laughs at his disciples when they gather for the Last Supper because they are partaking in the ritual without actually knowing him. Christ’s laughter causes them to become angry (Codex Tchacos 34). Evidently, none of the disciples are strong enough to stand before Christ with the exception of Judas. Judas not only stands before Christ but declares, “I know who you are and where you have come from. You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo” (Codex Tchacos 35). Judas’ mentioning of Christ coming from the realm of Barbelo requires a basic understanding of the Sethian Gnostic creation story scholars believe underpins this text. The Gospel of Judas is a Sethian text and it bases itself Sethian mythology that functions as a prologue to the book of Genesis from the Bible. Although Genesis teaches that one powerful, supreme God created the universe, the Gnostics believed that this creator was an evil being called Ialdabaoth or Saklas. The supreme God of the Gnostics is, however, an unknowable God who created celestial beings called Aeons and Archons, one of which is this being Saklas/Ialdabaoth. Thus, by Judas saying Christ came from the realm of Barbelo is to say that he came from the supreme God, whereas the rest of the disciples worshiped the evil god Saklas/Ialdabaoth. Judas is clearly presented as having a superior knowledge and understanding to the other deceived disciples. Christ then instructs Judas to “step away from the others” so that he can tell him “the mysteries of the kingdom” (Codex Tchacos 35). Not only has Judas learned the mysteries of the kingdom but the other eleven disciples are full of the intentions of the evil god of this world.
The Gospel of Judas also presents two objections to the Eucharist. First, it contends that the offering of the Eucharist is made to the evil god and, second, this offering is made by corrupt ministers. Christ laughs at the disciples engaging in the Eucharist (34:4-6).
How Reliable is the Gospel of Judas on the Historical Jesus?
The consensus is as we noted that this text is not a reliable source for the historical Jesus. It is certainly not an independent source for it shows a familiarity with the earlier canonical gospels. For instance, it mentions the “blood money” that Judas received for his betrayal that we read in Matthew’s gospel (27:3-10). According to Thomas A. Wayment, a New Testament scholar and the Professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University, it is a combination of this knowledge of the earlier gospels combined with Judas’ late date of composition that makes it “highly unlikely that the text could contain historically authentic material about Jesus or his disciples” (5). It is also not an early source as it is removed by roughly 150 years from Christ’s point of death. It is therefore far inferior as an early witness to sources from the New Testament, as well as other Roman and Jewish sources all dating well within a hundred years of Christ’s life.
Important to note is that there are disparities between the depiction of Christ in Judas to the canonical gospels. It is certainly out of Christ’s character, as portrayed in the canonicals, to laugh at his disciples. A close reading also suggests that the Christ of Judas also does not sound particularly like the Christ of the synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke.
There are also deliberate differences to the canonical gospels that strike one as suspicious. For example, whereas the canonicals identify the bread and wine with Christ’s body and blood, the Gospel of Judas seems to deliberately avoid doing this. Because the canonical teaching identifies the blood and wine with Christ’s physical body, it is safe to assume that this was left out of the Judas version because the physical body is abhorrent to Gnostics.
Further, because of this text’s focus on the conversation that Christ has with his disciples and Judas, it seems to have little historical value, minus a small summary, for the wider ministry of Christ’s. It does not care to preserve, focus, or mention historical reminiscences from his ministry, which could be explained by the fact that as a Gnostic treatise, the historical Jesus was of little or no importance (6). Wayment writes that “Its characters are contrived literary creations of the author, and the only implied historical information – the personal relationships of Jesus and his disciples – derives from the canonical New Testament texts” (7).
However, despite these criticisms concerning historicity, the Gospel of Judas does provide important information about Gnostic Christianity in the second and third centuries CE. It therefore has importance for any understanding of church history and the evolution of beliefs on the historical Jesus. Much of its value lies in it urging scholars to ask important questions such as: What is the motivation for a Christian group to compose another portrait of the historical Jesus? Why did they wish to develop the characters of disciples that the earlier canonical gospels left largely untouched? We also learn from the Gospel of Judas how the Gnostics viewed Christ in the context of their wider cosmology, thus giving us important information on how some groups of Christians in the centuries following Christ’s death saw their founder.
1. Frankfurter, David. 2007. “An Historian’s View of the Gospel of Judas.” Near Eastern Archaeology 70(3):174-177.
2. Wayment, Thomas. 2006. “The “Unhistorical” Gospel of Judas.” Brigham Young University Studies 45(2): 21-25
3. Irenaeus. 180. Against Heresies, l. preface. 1, 2.
4. Frankfurter, David. 2007. Ibid. p. 174; also see Wayment, Thomas. 2006. Ibid. p. 26.
5. Wayment, Thomas. 2006. Ibid. p. 23.
6. Wayment, Thomas. 2006. Ibid. p. 24.
7. For an overview of Gnostic thought see Rudolph, Kurt. 1987. Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism. San Francisco: Harper and Row; Jonas, Hans. 1963. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. Boston: Beacon.