Category Archives: Gospel of Judas

April D. DeConick’s The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says

The Gospel of Judas has been quite controversial, primarily in connection with the question of how Judas Iscariot is portrayed in the document. (Scholars did not see this as reflecting the actual historical Judas back in the first century, I should clarify, simply second or third century understandings of the figure). The original work of transcription and translation of this “gnostic” work by a National Geographic team resulted in an inverted picture of Judas. According to the translators and according to interpreters such as Bart Ehrman, Judas was the hero of this writing and was seen as the ultimate student of Christ in his role in having Jesus killed, thus freeing Christ’s spirit from the prison of Jesus’ body (see my earlier post on Judas Iscariot as the “good guy”?, now apparently very wrong on the overall portrait of Judas, which was based solely on my reading and trust in that translation, the only one available at that time).

Quite clearly, this picture of a heroic Judas was quite different from traditional understandings of Judas as betrayer doing the work of Satan. I had since expressed my doubts about the National Geographic picture and my own first post upon hearing about Louis Painchaud’s (a Nag Hammadi expert) major doubts. Painchaud saw major problems in the National Geographic transcription of the Coptic and in their translation: Judas Iscariot may be evil after all.

I just finished reading April DeConick’s new book on the Gospel of Judas which I picked up at the SBL meeting:

April D. DeConick, The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says (London: Continuum, 2007). Buy at Amazon

The book’s main contribution is in pointing to the problems in the National Geographic (NG) work on the manuscript in terms of errors in transcription of the Coptic and errors in the translation by Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst. She presents her own translation. Here DeConick is clear and convincing. She points to a number of major problems which change entirely interpretations of this document.

Some of the main, major changes that DeConick presents (pp. 45-61) are as follows:

  • The Coptic term daimon (borrowed from the Greek) should not be translated “spirit” as in NG but rather “demon”. Judas is called a “demon”.
  • The NG translation “For you (Jesus) have set me (Judas) apart for that generation (the generation that will see salvation)” should read quite the opposite: “you have separated me from that generation”. Judas is condemned by Jesus, not saved in this document.
  • Jesus does not, as in NG, say that others “will curse your (Judas) ascent to the holy [generation]”. Rather it says the opposite: “you will not ascend to the holy [generation]”.
  • Jesus does not simply say that Judas “will exceed” all of the other disciples, but rather that Judas “will do worse than all of them” (exceed them in doing evil).

These are major errors, indeed, on the part of the National Geographic Society’s work. DeConick’s careful presentation of how these errors were introduced and how the Coptic should actually be read are convincing.

April DeConick’s book then argues that the Gospel of Judas presents a demonic Judas, perhaps even harsher than portraits in the canonical gospels, who is seen as the ultimate, terrible representative of the disciples. For the author of the Gospel of Judas, the disciples, with Judas at their head, are the equivalent of the types of Christians that the “gnostic” author has most problems with and he even charges them with the equivalent of murdering children (see my post on The Gospel of Judas and ethnographic stereotypes: The priests “sacrifice their own children”). The overall effect, as DeConick argues, is that the Gospel of Judas is a parody aimed at critiquing what DeConick calls “apostolic Christianity” (the equivalent of what some others label “the proto-orthodox”).

DeConick’s introductory chapters and her chapters assessing the content of this gospel are well-written and useful as an introduction not only to the Gospel of Judas but also to “gnostic” thought and its place within a variety of forms of Christianity in the early centuries. So the book would serve well within a course on the variety of early Christianity.

However, there are two terminological choices that I find problematic, one minor but notable and the other quite significant. Since these chapters are clearly aimed at beginners and carefully presenting ideas in an non-anachronistic way on the whole, it is strange that DeConick speaks of “Lucifer” (e.g. pp. 31ff) when explaining notions of personified evil and “gnostic” notions of the world-creator as the evil one. The term “Lucifer” came to be applied to a fallen angel or to “Satan” only after the fifth century Latin translation of the passage in Isaiah 14:12 and after a conflation of this passage about a Babylonian king with developing notions of personified evil figures. The way that DeConick speaks of this seems as though she is unaware of this, though it is perhaps simply an anachronistic slip.

The second, more significant terminological problem is DeConick’s use of the phrase “apostolic Christians” throughout her book as a convenient catch-all category. Like the problems with Ehrman’s “proto-orthodox” category, such categories might serve to confuse rather than clarify the variegated nature of early Christianity when teaching students. There is some anachronistic thinking involved in the use of such categories. First we might (should) be telling students that orthodoxy and apostolic Christianity did not exist as some clearly defined monoliths in earliest Christianity, and that the formation of “orthodoxy” was a long and complicated process involving the exclusion of certain forms of Christianity (I think that both Ehrman and DeConick would agree with this). But then some scholars nonetheless continue to use terms that presume the future arrival of orthodoxy, as though it had precursors in a specific group that can be identified and that various Christians can be categorized together. Who is to decide which specific Christians are to be fit into either the category of “apostolic Christianity” or “proto-orthodoxy” and would such figures agree to being grouped together in this way?

These are some more general theoretical problems that I have with a work that is in other respects a fine new translation and a very useful introduction for students.

The Gospel of Judas and ethnographic stereotypes: The priests “sacrifice their own children”

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], [39] 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.

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.

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.