Judas Iscariot as the “good guy”?: The Gospel of Judas

UPDATE: Now see my more recent posting based on subsequent translations. The National Geographic translation, upon which the post below was based, is problematic precisely in areas relating to the depiction of Judas: April D. DeConick’s The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says

I just had a chance to read through the newly published translation of the fascinating Gospel of Judas (though I have yet to read the accompanying commentaries and articles by Meyer, Ehrman and others): Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, eds., The Gospel of Judas (Washington: National Georaphic, 2006). The Gospel of Judas appears within a 66 page long book, Codex Tchacos, which was only recently brought to scholars attention after it was acquired by the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in 2000. The document has been a topic of discussion on several other blogs, including Mark Goodacre’s recent running commentary on the National Geographic TV special. As usual, Jim Davila has been keeping us all up to date on the latest news over at Paleojudaica.

If you are not accustomed to reading the second or third century writings that are often labelled “gnostic” by scholars (how many are?), such as the Nag Hammadi writings discovered in the 1940s, then this one too will be very bewildering. Like other such writings, this is a document that claims to be Jesus’ own secret discussion (a dialogue gospel) with a disciple, and the content of Jesus’ teaching is very philosophically dualistic and quite different than what one encounters in most parts of the gospels in the New Testament.

Yet for those with some familiarity with the various writings called “gnostic” (on which see my many earlier posts here), there is a sense in which this is “run of the mill” in many respects. The thoroughgoing dualism of the Gospel of Judas, in which there is a bad material realm and a perfect spiritual realm with sparks of the perfect realm trapped in inferior human bodies, is characteristic of most of the Nag Hammadi writings. Likewise common in these Christian intellectual circles is the notion that the God who sent the Christ to bring knowledge of these circumstances is not the same god (or angel) who created the material realm (our visible world). So many of Jesus’ teachings to Judas here reflect this worldview that was common to at least a minority of early Christian intellectuals in the second and third centuries.

Still, even with some familiarity with other gnostic writings, there is something very odd about this writing. We have many examples of “gnostic” authors presenting the secret teachings of Jesus in the form of a dialogue between the Christ and one of the disciples, with different authors choosing different apostles as their favourite (see, for instance, my earlier discussion of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene). Still what is absolutely astounding, in some ways, is the choice of Judas Iscariot as the favourite of Jesus! There seems to be no precedent for choosing Judas Iscariot, who “betrayed” Jesus, as the favourite disciple who received the secret revelation of the Saviour.

In fact, this gospel presents Jesus as commending Judas for an action that was usually interpreted by other Christian authors as out-right betrayal (even though it could also be seen as “within God’s plan” that it took place in the view of many early Christians — Jesus death was necessary, in other words). The passage in question, which needs some training in gnosticism to interpret, goes as follows:

“Judas said to Jesus, ‘Look, what will those who have been baptized in your name do?’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I say [to you], this baptism [. . . ] my name [– about nine lines missing –] to me. Truly [I] say to you, Judas, [those who] offer sacrifices to Saklas [. . .] God [– three lines missing –] everything that is evil. But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me'” (trans by Kasser, Meyer and Wurst, pp.42-43).

It doesn’t help that large portions of this section are missing, but what is clear is that Jesus speaks positively of Judas’ future act of betraying Jesus, of “sacrific[ing] the man that clothes [Jesus]”. How sacrificing Jesus human body (“the man”) through betrayal can be a positive thing is only understandable once one realizes that this author’s worldview is the thoroughly dualistic one of spirit vs. matter mentioned above, in which the material realm, especially our bodies, are a prison from which one wants to escape. In fact, the material world around us is created by an inferior being or angel or demiurge, here called “Saklas”, not by the God who sent the Christ, in the view of this and other “gnostic” authors. (In some “gnostic” writings, this creator god plays a role similar to the role that the rebel angel Satan plays in the worldview of other early Christians). In other words, Judas helps Jesus by assisting in the elimination of this material body or prison and, therefore, the spirit’s return to the perfect spiritual realm of the God who sent Christ. This act of returning to one’s proper place as part of the perfect spiritual realm is, in itself, the salvation that Jesus achieves and that other spiritual sparks trapped within human bodies, other perfect Adams, will likewise achieve by receiving the secret “knowledge” (gnosis, hence gnosticism) that Jesus brings concerning the nature of reality (in the view of this author).

This is just one of many features of the Gospel of Judas and gnosticism. I would recommend reading further for yourself. Do see the many other posts here on this site regarding the Nag Hammadi writings, New Testament Apocrypha, and “gnosticism”, which may provide a bit of a primer.

(I’m back and still alive, by the way. Hopefully I haven’t lost everyone due to my long silence).

UPDATE: There’s a new blog called Ekthesis that has a number of posts on the Gospel of Judas. The official National Geographic website in connection with their documentary is here.

Before writing this post I had not done the rounds of the various blogs and now notice a statement by Stephen Carlson that hits the nail on the head:

“Accordingly, the Gospel of Judas’s explanation for Judas’s act of betrayal is more like asking a travel agent to book a flight back home . . .”

11 thoughts on “Judas Iscariot as the “good guy”?: The Gospel of Judas

  1. C. Poley

    out of ignorant curiousity, wasn’t there a group of Pharisees, who, after the death of Christ, published several fake “gospels” in order to refute the truth the disciples were spreading? Just as they lied about the stone being rolled away? Also, it seems to me that dead men don’t talk; Judas hung himself the day Christ was crucified. Also, even if he did have time to write this acount down, if he had helped humankind and did what Christ had told him to, why did he kill himself? Or is the theory that he did not kill himself? Also, since many scholars say that Jesus never existed, why suddenly believe that He did? If we have refuted Christ’s existence up to this point, and the existence of God, shouldn’t we be concerned that this parchment shows truth? Even if the parchment lies, there is still some proof of the existence of a man named Jesus and a man named Judas, which should shock the world more than the fact that this text seems to prove the Bible wrong. Being an ignorant person myself and not a scholar on any account, why should we suddenly choose to believe this old scrap of parchment, which may be made up the same as some scholars believe the Bible was made up. What makes us think that this parchment is telling the truth, even if we do know the time period it is from? Does simply dating the document tel us that it is also true?

  2. Phil Harland

    Hello C. Poley,

    You have many questions that cannot be fully answered here. Curiosity is a very good thing and I would recommend reading further on the subject. What I will say (to address some of what may be misunderstandings of my post) is that nowhere here do I claim that the Gospel of Judas provides us with information about the actual, historical Judas or the actual peasant Jesus. Nor am I concerned with questions of what is “true” theologically here. Instead, I discuss this document (like I would any other historical document) as a window into what one, specific author (and some other kin authors in the second or third centuries) thought about Judas and Jesus a couple of centuries after those figures lived. I am concerned with what the worldview of a certain type of early Christian was, and there were many other early Christians who thought differently.

    The Gospel of Judas does not claim to be written after Judas’ death. Rather it _claims_ (also notice this word in my post) to provide a discussion between the living Jesus and Judas BEFORE the “betrayal”.

    Hope this helps to clarify. Perhaps a re-read of the post itself would clarify some of your questions.


  3. Anthony Suares/GOA/INDIA

    IF WE can prove that this was written before the supposed CRUXIFITION then it supersedes the gospels of MATHEW/MARK/LUKE. The controversy of the FOURTH GOSPEL alluded to JOHN but suggested as written by MARY MAGDALENE should be compared along with the GOSPEL of THOMAS the APOSTLE and in consultation with VATICAN SECRET ARCHIVES so that the TRUTH may be PUBICALLY NOTIFIED. CONTACT ME ON: 00918322443231 or mob 09326030590 as my e mail is malfunctioning. THANKS FOR YOUR INFO!

  4. Phil Harland Post author

    The material in the Gospel of Judas clearly reflects a form of “gnostic” Christianity that post-dates the first century. Although such a conspiracy theory might be more exciting, it is not historical but is more suited to a novel, perhaps.


  5. Ralph Renick

    I have just recently found your blogsite and am enjoying reading the inciteful comments that you and the other bloggers have been posting about The Gospel of Judas. My thoughts on the subject are that, after reading both of the current books out on the subject thoroughly and also reading the blogs, and comparing them to the Gospel writings of the New Testament, the Gnostic concept of God and Judas’ involvement in Jesus’ betrayal and subsequent crucification make more sense to me than the New Testament Gospels.
    I have a question for either you or your other posters. I live in the Pacific NW and would be very interested in finding a church that follows this line of teaching. If there are none then I might consider starting one of my own. If anyone can help I would appreciate it.

  6. C. D. Light

    C. Poley said:
    “If we have refuted Christ’s existence up to this point, and the existence of God”

    why do Christians always invariably lump the denial of the existance of Christ in with the denial of existance of God? It seems as if they automatically assume that one MUST be linked to the other..

    C. Poley also says , “Even if the parchment lies, there is still some proof of the existence of a man named Jesus and a man named Judas, which should shock the world more than the fact that this text seems to prove the Bible wrong. Being an ignorant person myself and not a scholar on any account, why should we suddenly choose to believe this old scrap of parchment”

    What ‘proof’ is that, C. Poley? On what do you base your faith that this is true? Because you wish it to be true? Would that life were that simple.. you ask why we should suddenly choose to believe an old scrap of parchment, but by the same token, aren’t the Dead Sea scrolls ‘old scraps of parchment’ as you say? I could pose the exact same question to you with as just as much (or as little) validity, as the case may be- you can choose to believe whatever you wish, but believing it does not necessarily make it the truth- the reality is that what REALLY happened 2,000 years ago will probably never be truly accurately known in this life because of the poor technology for keeping records in those days- and we only actually have the words of those writers who incidentally belonged to this ‘cult’ to lean on- there are no corroborating writings in the histories of any other cultures or civilizations of that era including the Roman empire that even speak of this relatively little known phenomenon- it is entirely couched within its own self-contained environment, a hoax perpretated by the early Christian church in order to foster a following and build up the church, therefore, the power of the church- and as we can see, very successfully so- the indoctrination of the human spirit to this repeated moral brainwashing over the centuries has taken deep root, regardless of how the content of the text is often contradictory and even flies in the face of credulity at times..

    because people like to believe in fairy tales and myths- you say Jesus is real- and I can’t prove he’s not.. because so many people believe in him that he must be real.. I could just as easily say Santa Clause is real- because so many people believe in him.. and you can’t prove he doesn’t exist… which of us is right?

    Perhaps you are asking the wrong questions, C. Poley…

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