What should we think about the Gospel of Judas?
By Craig A.
Acadia Divinity College
Thursday April 6, 2006, the National
Geographic Society held a press conference at its Washington DC headquarters
and announced to some 120 news media the recovery, restoration, and translation
of the Gospel of Judas. The story appeared as headline news in dozens
of major newspapers around the world and was the topic of discussion in a
variety of news programs on television that evening and subsequent evenings. A
two-hour document aired on the National Geographic Channel Sunday evening April
9 and has aired several times since.
What is the Gospel of Judas? Why all the fuss, and what should
Christians and others think about it?
The Discovery of the Gospel of
As best as investigators can determine, a leather-bound codex (or ancient
book), whose pages consist of papyrus, was discovered in the late 1970s,
perhaps in 1978, in Egypt, perhaps in a cave. For the next five years the
codex, written in the Coptic language,1 was passed around the
Egyptian antiquities market. In 1983 Stephen Emmel, a Coptic scholar, acting on
behalf of James Robinson, formerly of Claremont Graduate University and well
known for his work on the similar Nag Hammadi codices, examined the recently
discovered codex. Emmel was able to identify four tractates, including one that
frequently mentioned Judas in conversation with Jesus. He concluded that the
codex was genuine (i.e., not a forgery) and that it probably dated to the
fourth century. Subsequent scientific tests confirmed Emmel's educated
The seller was unable to obtain his asking price. After that the codex
journeyed to the United States, where it ended up in a safe deposit box in Long
Island, New York, and where it suffered serious deterioration. Another dealer
placed it in a deep freezer, mistakenly thinking that the extreme cold would
protect the codex from damaging humidity. Unfortunately, the codex suffered
badly, with the papyrus turning dark brown and becoming brittle.
Happily, the codex was eventually acquired by the Maecenas Foundation in
Switzerland and, with the assistance of the National Geographic Society, was
recovered and partially restored. I say "partially restored" because an unknown
number of pages are missing (perhaps more than forty) and only about 85% of the
much talked about Gospel of Judas has been reconstructed.
The National Geographic Society wisely commissioned a series of tests to be
undertaken, including carbon 14, analysis of the ink, and various forms of
imaging, to ascertain the age and authenticity of the codex. Carbon 14 dates
the codex to 220 - 340 AD. At the present time most of the members of the team
incline to a date between 300 and 320.
In 2005 the Society assembled a team of biblical scholars, in addition to
Coptologists Rodolphe Kasser, Gregor Wurst, and others, to assist with the
interpretation of the Gospel of Judas. These added members included
Bart Ehrman, Stephen Emmel, Craig Evans, Marvin Meyer (who also assisted in the
reconstruction of the codex), Elaine Pagels, and Donald
Senior.2 With the exception of Rodolphe Kasser, who is ill,
all of the Coptologists and consultants were present at the aforementioned
press release and made statements.
The Publication of the Gospel of Judas
An English translation of the Gospel of Judas has been published by
the National Geographic Society in an attractive volume by Rodolphe Kasser,
Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst.3 This volume includes very
helpful introductory essays by the editors and translators, including one by
Bart Ehrman, explaining the condition of the codex, the relationship of the
Gospel of Judas to early Christian literature,4 including
other Gnostic texts.
The Gospel of Judas is found on pp. 33-58 of Codex Tchacos, but
there are three other tractates (or writings): Pages 1-9 preserve a version of
the Letter of Peter to Philip, which is approximately the same text as
the second tractate of Nag Hammadi's codex VIII. Pages 10-32 preserve a book of
James, which approximates the third tractate of Nag Hammadis codex V,
which there it is entitled the First Apocalypse ofJames.
Pages 59-66 preserve an untitled work, in which the figure Allogenes
("Stranger") appears. This tractate, which is quite fragmentary, does not
appear to be related to the third tractate of Nag Hammadi's codex XI, which is
entitled Allogenes. And finally, a fragment not related to these four
tractates has surfaced very recently, on which may appear the page number
"108." If so, then we may infer that at least 42 pages of Codex Tchacos are
The Contents of the Gospel of Judas
The Gospel of Judas begins with these words: "The secret
account5 of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation
with Judas Iscariot" (page 33, lines 1-3). The tractate concludes with the
words: "The Gospel6 of Judas" (page 58, lines 28-29). These
lines are stunning enough, but what happens in between is what has given rise
to most of the controversy.
It is Judas Iscariot who is singled out as Jesus' greatest disciple. He
alone is able to receive Jesus' most profound teaching and revelation. Jesus
laughs at the other disciples' prayers and sacrifices. They do not fully grasp
who Jesus really is and from whom and from where he has come. But Judas is able
to stand before Jesus (page 35, lines 8-9). "I know who you are and from where
you have come. You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo. And I am not worthy
to utter the name of the one who has sent you" (page 35, lines 15-21). After
this confession Jesus teaches Judas in private.
At the conclusion of this private teaching, in which Judas is invited to
enter the cloud (and be transformed?), Jesus utters his most startling
instruction: "You will exceed them all. For you will sacrifice the man who
clothes me" (page 56, lines 18-20). That is, while the other disciples are
wasting time in inferior worship and activity (sacrificing animals in the
Jewish fashion, presumably), Judas will carry out the sacrifice that truly
counts, the sacrifice that will result in salvation: He will sacrifice the
physical body of Jesus, thus allowing Jesus to complete his mission. In this
way, Judas does indeed become the greatest of the disciples.
Accordingly, the narrative concludes with the handing over of Jesus to the
ruling priests: "The ruling priests murmured because he (Jesus) had gone into
the guest room to pray. But some scribes were there watching carefully, in
order to arrest him during the prayer, for they were afraid of the people, for
Jesus was regarded by all as a prophet. They approached Judas and said to him,
'What are you doing here? You are the disciple of Jesus.' Judas answered them
as they wished; and Judas received some money and handed him (Jesus) over to
them" (page 58, lines 9-26).7 There is no mention of a trial,
execution, or resurrection. The Gospel of Judas has related what it
wanted to relate: The obedience of Judas and how that obedience assisted Jesus
in fulfilling his salvific mission. Judas has been transformed from villain to
hero, from traitor to saint.
The Meaning of the Gospel of Judas
Writing in 180 AD Irenaeus inveighs against a group he and others call the
Cainites, evidently because this group makes heroes out of biblical villains,
from Cain, who murdered his brother Abel, to Judas, who handed Jesus to his
enemies. Irenaeus has this to say:
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.
[Against Heresies 1.31.1]
In other words, the so-called Cainites
identify with the villains of the Old Testament. They do this because they
believe that the god of this world, in stark contrast to the God of Light
above, is evil. Accordingly, anyone that the god of this world hates and tries
to destroy—such as Cain, Esau, or the people of Sodom—must be good people,
people on the side of the God of Light. The Gospel of Judas evidently
shares this perspective.
The Gospel of Judas makes a meaningful contribution to our
understanding of second-century Christianity, especially with regard to the
question of diversity. We have here what may be a very early exemplar of
Sethian Gnosticism, a form of Gnosticism that may have roots in Jewish
pessimism that emerged in the aftermath of the disastrous wars in 66-70 and
It is highly unlikely that the Gospel of Judas preserves for us
authentic, independent material, material that supplements our knowledge of
Judas and his relationship to Jesus. No doubt some popular writers will produce
some fanciful stories about the "true story," but that is all that they will
produce—fanciful stories. Even James Robinson, who is no traditional Christian
by any stretch, dismisses the Gospel of Judas as having no value for
understanding the historical Judas. He is probably correct.
Father Donald Senior, a Roman Catholic priest, stated that in his opinion
the Gospel of Judas will have no impact on Christian theology or on
Christian understanding of the Gospel story. Again, I have no doubt that he is
The only thing that the Gospel of Judas has made me wonder about is
the interesting statement we find in the Gospel of John, where Jesus says to
Judas, "What you are going to do, do quickly" (John 13:27). The other disciples
do not understand what Jesus has said.
What is interesting here is that we have at least two other instances where
Jesus evidently has made a private arrangement with a few disciples about which
other disciples do not know. We see this in the securing of the animal for
entry into Jerusalem (Mark 11) and in the finding of the upper room (Mark 14).
Exegetes and historians may rightly wonder if the episode in John 13 is a third
episode, in which Jesus had a private arrangement with a disciple that was not
known to the others. It could be that, as the disciples speculated, Jesus was
sending Judas to accomplish some task, perhaps relating to Jesus' security
later that evening. If so, then Judas' appearance in the company of armed men,
who seize Jesus and deliver him to the ruling priests, was a betrayal
It may be that what we have in the Gospel of Judas is a greatly
developed, tendential, unhistorical, and imaginative expansion of this theme.
Yes, Jesus had a private understanding with Judas, and yes, Judas handed Jesus
over to his enemies. But no, that was not a betrayal; it was what Jesus wanted
him to do. So the Gospel of Judas.
Of course, whatever arrangement Jesus may have had with Judas (and John does
seem to be a witness that he may have had some sort of arrangement), being
handed over to the ruling priests was certainly not what Jesus planned.
Accordingly, the Gospel of Judas may provide us with a clue that will
lead us to ask new questions about why Judas betrayed Jesus and exactly how he
Writings outside the New Testament and even later than the New Testament
sometimes offer important assistance in going about the task of New Testament
interpretation. The Gospel of Judas does not provide us with an
account of what the historical Judas really did or what the historical Jesus
really taught this disciple, but it may preserve an element of
tradition—however greatly distorted and misrepresented—that could serve
exegetes and historians, as we struggle to understand better this enigmatic
1Coptic is the Egyptian language, which in the time after
Alexander's fourth century BC conquest of the Middle East, came to adopt the
Greek alphabet (along with a few additional letters). The Nag Hammadi books are
also written in Coptic.
2The convoluted and fascinating history of the codex, now called
Codex Tchacos, is narrated by Herb Krosney, in his richly documented and
insightful book, The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas
Iscariot (Washington, DC: The National Geographic Society, 2006). The
story is also featured in Andrew Cockburn, "The Judas Gospel," National
Geographic 209/9 (May 2006) 78-95.
3Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, The Gospel of
Judas, with additional commentary by Bart D. Ehrman (Washington, DC: The
National Geographic Society, 2006). The English translation and photographs of
the Coptic text are available on National Geographic's web site.
4One may well wonder if the Gospel of Judas is, in any
5The word translated "account" is actually the Greek loan word
6The word translated "Gospel" is actually the Greek loan word
euaggelion. One should also note that the explicit reads "Gospel
of Judas," not "Gospel according to Judas," as we have in the
New Testament Gospels and in many of the Gospels outside the New Testament. The
composer of the Gospel of Judas may be implying that Judas should not
be understood as the author of the Gospel; rather, the Gospel of
Judas is about Judas.
7The translations are based on Kasser, Meyer, and Wurst, The
Gospel of Judas, ad loc.
8On this interesting hypothesis, see C. B. Smith II, No Longer
Jews: The Search for Gnostic Origins (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson,
9The motives of Judas for handing Jesus over to the authorities or
not clear. Was it greed (as in Matthew and John), or was it Satan (as in Luke
and John)? But were these the primary factors or only contributing factors?
Indeed, the New Testament provides two accounts of Judas' fate (cf. Matt
27:3-10, where Judas commits suicide and the priests buy the field of blood; or
Acts 1:15-20, where Judas buys the field and then suffers a fatal fall). Judas
is indeed a man of mystery.
10I need to offer a correction to what otherwise I think is a fine
piece of journalism. In "The Judas Gospel," Andrew Cockburn summarizes my
assessment of the Gospel of Judas in these words: "this tale is
meaningless fiction" (p. 91). No, it is not meaningless fiction; far from it.
The Gospel of Judas is loaded with meaning, especially for
second-century mystics and Gnostics, who understood the world and mission of
Jesus in very different terms. My point, given in my words, which Cockburn
faithfully records, is summed up here: "There is nothing in the Gospel of
Judas that tells us anything we could consider historically reliable"
(also p. 91). I stand by that statement, but not by Cockburn's interpretation
of my comment. What I have suggested in this brief study is that the
imaginative tale in Judas may in fact reflect an authentic tradition,
in which it was remembered that Judas was an important disciple and that Jesus
had given him a private assignment of some sort. This is what may be hinted at
in John 13. The Gospel of Judas alerts us to this possibility, even if
we judge its narrative to be wholly fictional.