The Judas Gospel

May 31 2006 | by

THIS PAST HOLY Week, there were headlines around the world concerning a long lost gospel that had been found: the Gospel of Judas. It is always fascinating when ancient documents about the faith are found, but this one proved to be highly controversial. First of all, it presents a picture of Judas which is the exact opposite of what the orthodox gospels present. In this gospel, Judas is the hero. His actions actually serve to further Jesus' mission.
What is also controversial is the suspicion that maybe this gospel had been hidden by the Church. This has arisen because of Dan Brown's best seller, the Da Vinci Code. That book proposed that the Church was really hiding the truth about Jesus and His mission. This has caused some people to wonder if there is a larger conspiracy to hide the truth.

A true gospel?

The gospel of Judas was written in Greek between 130 and 170 AD. The actual manuscript that scholars have discovered in recent years is a copy of a translation into Coptic, a mix of the original language of Egypt with Greek. It was produced in the early part of the 4th century AD, and was part of a larger codex containing four documents. It was in very poor condition and it has taken quite some time for scholars to piece together the very fragile fragments of this work.
The document is not all that long, only around 150 verses (compared to over 600 verses for the Gospel of Mark). Neither does it have much narrative. It does not tell many stories about what Jesus did. It is all about his teachings.
Jesus is presented as a master of wisdom who offers the disciples a hidden truth. Only Judas, the hero of the gospel, really understands Him.
This gospel is one of what are called the Gnostic gospels. The term 'Gnostic' comes from the Greek word 'gnosis' which means 'knowledge'. They all present a mystical, spiritual knowledge that the apostles, being creatures of the flesh, did not know. This knowledge is supposed to have been given through a spiritual, heavenly revelation.
Gnostic literature is very dualistic. It contrasts this material world which is evil with the spiritual world which is good. One spends one's entire life trying to escape from this world through death.  This viewpoint can be contrasted with revelation which informs us that the created world is 'good'.
This particular gospel also speaks about there being a good god and a bad god. The good god created the spiritual world while the bad god created physical reality. Gnostic literature also tends to present a complicated list of generations and layers of purity.

The Church's condemnation

These proposals were condemned by the Church from its earliest days. Already in 1 Corinthians (c. 53 AD), one hears Paul condemn the Gnostic tradition found in the community in Corinth. (It was not yet a fully developed heresy, but it certainly was the beginning of a movement that eventually became heretical.) Paul speaks against those who claim to have a superior form of knowledge. He attacks their rejection of the resurrection of the dead (which they rejected because they did not want to have a new physical body in the resurrection). Paul also condemns their lack of morality (for they considered themselves to be superior creatures who could do whatever they wanted).
1 Timothy also speaks of those who 'give heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons... everything created by God is good and nothing is to be rejected.' (1 Tim 4:1-4) In 2 Timothy we hear, 'For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching... [they] will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.' (2 Tim 4:3-4) Both of these admonitions are aimed at those who would distort the truth, especially the Gnostics.
Even the Gospel of John seems to have suffered some difficulties in the early Church because of the suspicion that it was tainted by Gnostic tendencies. Jesus is presented as being very divine in John. He knows the answers to questions before they are asked. He is in charge even to the moment of His death. He reveals a hidden truth which leads to salvation. One of the things that saved the Gospel was the First Letter of John which presents an orthodox way to interpret it. It begins with, 'That which was from the beginning (which is like the 'In the beginning' of the Gospel of John). It then speaks about what they heard, saw and even touched, thereby emphasizing the physical nature of Jesus, thus rejecting the overly spiritualized Gnostic heresy.

Gnostic syncretism

Gnosticism was also condemned by the early Christian writers known as the Fathers of the Church. They pointed out that the Gnostic writings had nothing to do with the Jesus and His teachings presented in our faith. Most Gnostic teachings used a combination of Christian theology with the teachings of the Mystery cults of their era.
Around 180 AD Irenaeus wrote a treatise entitled Against Heresies. In that work he condemns a whole series of Gnostics writings including the Gospel of Judas. Irenaeus categorizes it as being the writing of a Cainite. These are writings that Irenaeus claims were inspired by Cain who killed his brother Abel. According to Irenaeus, they turned the world upside down, saying that what is good is evil and what is evil is good.
These condemnations explain why it took so long for us to find the Gospel of Judas. It was considered to be heretical from its earliest days. It survived in Egypt, which was a hot bed of Gnostic heresy in the early centuries of the Church. Many of the other Gnostic gospels, in fact, were found at a site in Egypt called Nag Hammadi in 1945. They survived largely because of the dry climate in Egypt. Yet, very few copies survived because there were never that many copies made. There wasn't a sense of wanting to preserve these documents for historical reasons in the early Church. They were considered to be evil and dangerous, so, if anything, the Church officials tried to destroy as many of them as possible.

The Church's canon

But who made the final decision of which books would end up in the New Testament? There wasn't a fully developed hierarchy in the early centuries of the Church to make these decisions. Rather, a consensus developed among Christian communities as to which books constituted the New Testament.
There were three main requirements for a book to be considered part of the New Testament. First of all, it had to be used universally. This was no small feat when early Christian communities were scattered across most of the known world, and often subject to persecution.
The second requirement for acceptance was that the book had to have apostolic authority. In theory, this meant that it should have been written by an apostle or someone who lived during the apostolic era. Recent scholarship has shown, however, that at times it simply meant that they were attributed to an apostle even if he did not actually write it.
Finally, it had to be used in the liturgy. There were a number of books written in this era that were accepted as spiritual reading, but not as part of the New Testament, e.g. the 1st and 2nd Letters of Clement, the Pastor of Hermas, the Didache.
In spite of the fact that there was little centralized authority in the Church, there was a list of New Testament books as early as 180 AD which contained 24 of the eventual 27 books. The multiplication of heretical books actually pushed the Churches to decide which books were acceptable and which were not. As we have already seen, the Gospel of Judas never made this list, even at its earliest date, for it was never considered to be a true gospel.
Thus, this whole episode is not a case of the Church hiding the truth. It is that the early Church made decisions on what it meant to be a Christian. The Gospel of Judas was unacceptable because it did not tell the truth about Jesus, about His disciples, nor even about the created world which it presented as evil and corrupt.

Updated on October 06 2016