The Gospel of Judas

By Mary Jane Chaignot

The Gospel of Judas is another gospel that scholars only knew about through the writings of its opponents. Irenaeus made an indirect reference to the Gospel of Judas in his seminal work, Against Heresies. In a discussion of the Cainites, he claimed they had a book known as the Gospel of Judas. He identified Judas as the traitor, who alone knew the truth and because of that he was able to accomplish the mystery of the betrayal. Because of him, everything in the heavens and the earth were destroyed. But he sums up by calling the work "fiction."

Imagine, then, the excitement of scholars when it became apparent that such a document had been discovered. Unfortunately, the gospel was the product of numerous misfortunes. It was apparently discovered in 1978 somewhere in middle Egypt in a cave that had been used as a burial site. The illiterate peasants who found it remain unknown. They found a limestone box containing four different manuscripts. One was a mathematical treatise written in Greek. Another Greek codex appeared to be a copy of Exodus. Fragments of several Pauline letters were also there, but written in Coptic. And the last was the entirety of the Gospel of Judas along with three other texts – parts of the Letter of Peter to Philip, the First Apocalypse of James, and Allogenes. These last three bore resemblances to texts found at Nag Hammadi by the same name.

Obviously, the peasants were aware they had found something special, and immediately sold it to a local dealer, who turned out to be a small-time buyer in antiquities. He sold it to another dealer in Cairo, but this was still at the small-time level. Greed entered the picture, and this Cairo dealer placed its value at three million dollars on the basis that the manuscript was "really old." Out of his league at that price, he eventually had to contact some higher-level players, who, of course, wanted to buy the manuscript (at a much lower price) with the intent of reselling it and making a huge profit for themselves. These negotiations did not go well. At one point, the codex was stolen in a robbery, but then returned three years later.

In 1983, the dealer found some interest from the antiquities' department at the University of Michigan. They sent someone to look at the manuscripts with the intent of offering $50,000. The inspector viewed the manuscripts and believed the Judas involved was Judas Thomas, the author of the Gospel of Thomas. When the dealer named his price, negotiations broke off, and the inspector left empty-handed.

The Cairo dealer came to the US with the intent of selling, now for the asking price of one million dollars. Buyers turned him down because of the condition of the manuscript, so he put it in a safe deposit box where it deteriorated for 16 years in the humidity of a New York suburb.

In 2000, another buyer was found. Prices were paid, checks bounced, lawyers were involved, and, at one point, the uninformed buyers put it in the freezer, thinking it would stop the decomposition. That was exactly the wrong thing to do because freezing the papyrus papers only made it more fragile, while thawing darkened the pages, which made some impossible to read.

In 2001, the manuscript was taken to the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Switzerland. There, scholars began the painstaking process of trying to piece it back together, estimating that 10-15 % was now lost due to mishandling.

In 2004, National Geographic got involved and flew a team of specialists to Geneva. They all agreed that this was a major find, but disagreements still abound over what it all means. Was this just another Gnostic gospel, or did it have new information about the relationship between Judas and Jesus?

The answer to both questions is a qualified "yes." At 16 chapters, it is a Sethian Gnostic Gospel in which Judas is the hero because he is the only disciple who actually understands what Jesus has been teaching. These teachings include matters of a spiritual nature as well as information about the creation of the world.

The document opens with the disciples celebrating a Eucharist meal. Jesus laughs at them because they are giving thanks to the wrong God and simply do not understand who Jesus really is. Judas, alone, declares the truth about Jesus, which is that he comes from the higher realm. He was borne by Barbelo, the mother of all creation, one of the triad who resides far above the God/creator of this world. This leads to a private conversation between Judas and Jesus.

Later on in the text, the disciples ask Jesus about a vision they have had in which priests are offering sacrifices in the Temple and committing obscene acts. He tells them that they are the priests, and this is an indictment of how they are misleading their followers. Judas again speaks up and asks questions about who will receive eternal salvation. (Jesus' answer is missing.)

Then Judas had a vision in which the apostles stone him. There is also a large house in the vision, and he asks to enter. When Judas asks about the vision, Jesus tells him that this will be his fate and that only "holy" people can enter into the house. That results in another private conversation between Judas and Jesus. This involves a convoluted explanation about the creation of the world, complete with Pleroma, aeons, the creation of the world and humans. The bottom line is that the earthly creation was not made by the one true God, but is the product of lesser, but still divine, beings. So, anyone worshiping the God who created this world is worshiping the wrong God. The idea is to get out of this world and away from the ones who created it.

Judas then asks if people live beyond this life. Jesus indicates that most won't, but a few have a divine spirit/spark that will transcend this world. For these few, they will live eternally in the divine realm, even after the lesser gods of this world have been destroyed. And, in fact, Judas is one of those because he is the only one who actually understands all of this and does what he is supposed to do. Jesus ends the conversation by saying, "You will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me." In essence, Jesus states that Judas will be the vehicle by which Jesus escapes this world and can return to his rightful place in the Pleroma. The implication is that he is very grateful to Judas for this.

The Gospel ends with another vision for Judas in which he is exalted and glorified. The last line is "The Gospel of Judas."

One might think that this would have been hailed by scholars as a transforming account of Judas, but the documents were barely published before others began to take exception to many of the key translations. The pivotal line, "You will exceed all of them," could possibly be translated as, "you are the worst of them." In one area where Judas is called a "spirit," the word could also be translated as "demon." And the list goes on. It is apparently harder to redeem Judas than one might think.

The problem, of course, is that there are always translation issues with ancient languages. Only a few scholars claim to be experts in Coptic, and even they don't always agree. It also makes a difference when the document was created. Words were used differently in different centuries and locations. Parts of this Gospel are missing; translation decisions have to be made. Clearly, Judas was not the author of this Gospel, but it could provide better information about him.

To those who maintain Judas remains demonic or evil through and through, the obvious question becomes: Why did Jesus choose him, authorize him to heal and teach, and confide in him? This document is entitled the "Gospel" the "good news" about (or of) Judas. At the very least, it opens up a window into the varying sects that existed in the early church that were previously known to us only through the writings of their opponents. But, it is also obvious that the discussion about this Gospel is just beginning.

Old Testament Apocrypha

Christian Apocrypha