Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'The Gospel of Judas and ethnographic stereotypes: The priests “sacrifice their own children”,' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 11, 2023, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=181.
In ‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby’ I discussed the ways in which ethnographic stereotypes concerning the dangers of foreign ways and peoples also came to be applied by outsiders to Christians as minority cultural groups in the ancient Mediterranean. Some Greek or Roman authors who described the cultural practices of others, including those of both Judeans (Jews) and Jesus-followers, did so in a way that emphasized the “inhuman” or “sub-human” activity of apparent foreigners who were either little known and/or disliked. And there was a common stockpile of accusations that were used in stereotyping “the other” including human sacrifice, cannibalism, and “improper” sexual practices. One reader of that post (Nathan) astutely asked:
“In regards to the allegations of infanticide and cannibalism [in the case of Christians] might the gospel of Judas also allude to such allegations, when it characterizes certain of the proto-Orthodox as ‘slayers of children’ (sec. 40; cf. 38)”
In Judas Iscariot as the “good guy”?, I have discussed other aspects of the Gospel of Judas (for online translations and discussions go here and here). The passage in the Gospel of Judas which Nathan has in mind runs as follows:
The twelve disciples ‘[said, “We have seen] a great [house with a large] altar [in it, and] twelve men—they are the priests, we would say—and a name; and a crowd of people is waiting at that altar, [until] the priests [… and receive] the offerings. [But] we kept waiting.”
[Jesus said], “What are [the priests] like?” They [said, “Some …] two weeks; [some] sacrifice their own children, others their wives, in praise [and] humility with each other; some sleep with men; some are involved in [slaughter]; some commit a multitude of sins and deeds of lawlessness. And the men who stand [before] the altar invoke your [name],  and in all the deeds of their deficiency, the sacrifices are brought to completion […].”
After they said this, they were quiet, for they were troubled.
Jesus said to them, “Why are you troubled? Truly I say to you, all the priests who stand before that altar invoke my name. Again I say to you, my name has been written on this […] of the generations of the stars through the human generations. [And they] have planted trees without fruit, in my name, in a shameful manner.”’
(Gospel of Judas 38-39. Translation by Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, in collaboration with François Gaudard, cited from the online version on the National Geographic website).
Troubling indeed. Here we are witnessing the use of ethnographic stereotypes (slaughter of children, “improper” homosexual activity, etc.) in order to demonize, or to characterize as “other”, those who consider themselves to be part of the same cultural group, namely followers of Jesus. Notice especially that “all the priests who stand before that altar invoke my (namely, Jesus’s) name.”
Here the author of the Gospel of Judas has Jesus taking sides in the internal debates within Christianity. Jesus, claims the author, is on the side of the author and his group of Jesus-followers and not on the side of others who claim to follow Jesus. This is an internal battle within Christianity itself here.
There is irony in the way that the Gospel of Judas does this, however. For Jesus is here presented as speaking to the “twelve disciples” and the vision of “twelve priests” slaughtering children and generally running amuck that these disciples witness is, it seems, a vision of themselves! They, the twelve disciples of Jesus, are the ones that behave in a shameful manner, and it is the twelve that represent other followers of Jesus with whom the author of the Gospel of Judas has major disagreements. In this writing, Judas is taken as the ideal disciple and follower of Jesus who is set apart from the other shameful twelve disciples. Judas, as I have discussed in my previous post on the subject, is the favourite of Jesus in this writing.
It seems that many combatants in these internal battles within Christianity used similar ammunition, namely the stereotypes which were common in some descriptions of foreign peoples, in ethnographic descriptions. Previously we had known quite a bit about Christian authors like Epiphanius who condemned certain Christian “gnostic” groups and accused them of engaging in heinous crimes of human sacrifice and sexual perversion. Now we have a clear case in which one particular “gnostic” author or group turned the tables.