Contrarian Thoughts on The Gospel of Judas
by Eric Mader
In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith, when Basilides disseminated the idea that the cosmos was the reckless or even improvisation of deficient angels, Nils Runeberg would have directed, with singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic conventicles. . . . [Some] fragments of his preachings, embellished with invective, would survive in the apocryphal Liber adversus omnes haereses or would have perished when the burning of a monastery library devoured the last copy of the Syntagmata. Instead, God afforded Runeberg the twentieth century and the university town of Lund. --Jorge Luis Borges, "Three Versions of Judas"
After suffering 1700 years buried in a cave in Egypt, followed by thirty years of depredations at the hands of bungling antique dealers, the ancient Gospel of Judas, or at least what remains of it, has finally been published. Though most scholars strongly suspect the text can tell us nothing original about the historical Jesus and his ill-fated disciple, many still feel the discovery has a particular importance. In considering religious works from antiquity, questions of historical reliability in the narrow sense are not the only ones that matter.
The newly uncovered Gospel of Judas resounds because it forces us to face again the perils of interpretation, that activity of mind and spirit typically set going by an initial challenge: What does it (all) mean? Confronted by the outrageousness of this gospel's premise, namely that Judas was Jesus' preferred disciple, we are compelled to remember that all texts written about Jesus, including those in the New Testament, are interpretations of events that remain mysterious. In its uncanny way, this new gospel reminds us of an important distance we are always in danger of forgetting: namely, the distance that separated the events of sacred history from the words in which those events came to be written down and handed on to posterity. In the case of the oldest of our four biblical gospels, i.e., Mark and Matthew, that distance was already one of decades.
Probably very few Christians will ever read The Gospel of Judas or ponder its strangeness beyond the slight frisson they felt when first reading of it in the press. The documentary aired on National Geographic, though strong in respects, didn't finally give an adequate idea of just how bizarre the text is if viewed from a mainstream Christian perspective. The Gospel of Judas is radically different in theology and cosmology from the New Testament gospels. To tell the truth, that it makes Judas the preferred disciple and has Jesus telling Judas to betray him, telling him that he alone truly understands--these already striking elements are, from an orthodox viewpoint, probably the least objectionable things about the text.
The Gospel of Judas is a Sethian Gnostic work, similar in this to many of the works in the Nag Hammadi collection found in Egypt in 1945. To read it with any profit requires some knowledge of Sethian beliefs and cosmology: the basic Sethian myth about how the world and human beings were created. But even the reader armed with such knowledge will find that the text poses myriad problems. The cosmological sections in particular are difficult to interpret in any straightforward sense.
For the Sethians, Adam and Eve's third son Seth was a divine incarnation. Seth was a human being but also a divine being that pre-existed his birth on earth. The Gospel of Judas, in one of its many damaged sections, mentions Seth as follows:
He made the incorruptible [generation] of Seth appear [. . .] the twelve [. . .] the twenty-four [. . .].
One encounters the doctrine of "generations" elsewhere in the text: the idea that there is an "incorruptible generation" and a merely "human generation." According to Sethians, the incorruptible generation can return to the divine realm (called the Pleroma) while the merely human generation will ultimately succumb:
Judas said to [him, "Rabb]i, what kind of fruit does this generation produce?"
Jesus said, "The souls of every human generation will die. When these people, however, have completed the time of the kingdom and the spirit leaves them, their bodies will die but their souls will be alive, and they will be taken up."
Jesus' last sentence here apparently refers to the "incorruptible generation." This notion of two spiritual races, of course, is not accepted by orthodox Christians. One also sees clearly in this passage a rejection of any resurrection of the body, which is characteristic of all the Gnostic sects and which puts them at doctrinal odds with any Christians who accept physical resurrection (i.e., all those who would later be recognized as orthodox).
Jesus indicates several times in the text that the misguided disciples' worship of "[their] god" is something they are destined to: they could never overcome it in any case. Of course the "wrong god" the disciples worship is none other than the God of Moses, understood by Gnostics to be the Demiurge, the tyrant god that created our deeply flawed earth. In the passage where Jesus first indicates his recognition of Judas' special role, there is also an interesting statement regarding the disciples' wrongheaded worship and how Judas, or a double of Judas, will come to figure in the "completion" of that wrongheaded worship:
Jesus said to him: "Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal. For someone else will replace you, in order that the twelve [disciples] may again come to completion with their god."
What does this last suggestive sentence refer to? How will Judas' replacement by another help the twelve "come to completion"? Are we to understand this replacement simply as a matter of the election of Matthias to take Judas' place (Acts 1:12-26)? Or are we rather to understand this "someone else" as a kind of virtual Judas responsible for the disciple's bad reputation--"Judas" as a mistaken figment of merely human perception? If the latter, the canonical gospels' negative presentation of Judas is somehow understood to be part of the machinery of self-destruction in which the misguided "human generation" takes part. As it would offer a parallel to the illusory Jesus on the cross of docetism.
The most difficult challenge this text will offer to readers is in its presentation of the origin and structure of the universe. Certainly the many lacunae are partly responsible for this, but there's also a confusing inconsistency in the use of terms: angel seems replaceable by aeon, and the function or place of the luminaries will be far from clear if one is not adept at Gnostic usage. One might get a better grip on this terminology through studying The Apocryphon of John or consulting the introductory essays in Bentley Layton's The Gnostic Scriptures (cf. especially pp. 12-19). Or one might not: the details of Sethian cosmological myth differ from text to text.
A challenge for any careful reader of ancient texts would be to stand at a blackboard and sketch out in terms of narrative order exactly which of the divine principles mentioned precedes which other and exactly where the borders between the different realms are to be placed. For one, the border between the lower realm that we inhabit and the perfect realm called the Pleroma is not as clearly delineated as in other Gnostic texts. But this confusion, again, may be a result of crumbled or missing pages. Thanks to the irresponsibility of the antique dealers through whose hands the manuscript passed after discovery, much of the Gospel of Judas has crumbled to dust.
The sections from the text that were acted out in the documentary are indeed its most dramatically powerful. The scene where Jesus laughs at the disciples during their thanksgiving prayer is particularly effective. Here the narrative artistry of the Gnostic writers is on a par with that of the writers of the canonical gospels. Doubtless this is a result of the direct influence of the canonical gospels--the gospel genre, to the best of our knowledge, having been invented by the writer of Mark. Mark's was a major invention indeed, one whose importance would be hard to overestimate. The early gospels had an enormous influence on later narrative. For one, the gospel writers, as pointed out by the great German critic Erich Auerbach in Mimesis, were the first writers in our literature to directly and realistically narrate the experiences of the common people. (See Mimesis, ch. 2, "Fortunata." Auerbach was one of modern Europe's most insightful readers: one would be hard pressed to find a more perceptive or seminal discussion of the power of biblical narrative than one finds in the opening chapters of Mimesis.)
Just as texts like the Apocryphon of John rewrite sections of Genesis, so the Gnostic writer behind this recently discovered gospel is obvioulsy taking up and recastings scenes from the canonical gospels. Here it is Judas rather than Peter who knows Jesus for what he really is. Just as in the Gospel of Thomas it is Thomas who correctly confesses Jesus' identity (after Peter and the others have gotten it wrong). In the Gospel of Judas:
Jesus said to them, "How do you know me? Truly [I] say to you, no generation of the people that are among you will know me."
When his disciples heard this, they started getting angry and infuriated and began blaspheming against him in their hearts.
When Jesus observed their lack of [understanding, he said] to them, "Why has this agitation led you to anger? Your god who is within you and [...] have provoked you to anger [within] your souls. [Let] any one of you who is [strong enough] among human beings bring out the perfect human and stand before my face."
They all said, "We have the strength."
But their spirits did not dare to stand before [him], except for Judas Iscariot. He was able to stand before him, but he could not look him in the eyes, and he turned his face away.
Judas [said] to him, "I know who you are and where you have come from. You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo. And I am not worthy to utter the name of the one who has sent you."
By an irony of literary history, we in the early 21st century have been well prepared for the discovery of this lost gospel. When I first heard rumors of The Gospel of Judas, I was reminded of a short story I'd last read some time in the 1990s, "Three Versions of Judas," which was published in 1944 by the Argentine master storyteller Jorge Luis Borges. In the tale's first paragraph, fleeting mention is made of Bishop Irenaeus' c. 180 C.E. work Against Heresies, in which the bishop condemns a text called The Gospel of Judas (it's the bishop's reference more than anything that allows us to date the gospel before the third century). Probably Borges' allusion to Irenaeus is not merely apt--as any allusion by Borges must be--but we might also take it as a nod at the source of his idea for the tale. Borges, who read everything, of course read Irenaeus.
"Three Versions of Judas" presents a series of three interpretations of Judas developed by the fictional Swedish theologian Nils Runeberg over the course of his career. The narrator pointedly informs the reader that Runeberg, "a member of the National Evangelical Union, was deeply religious." This is meant to underline the irony of Runeberg's heretical ideas about Judas. How, after all, could such a devout man in such a learned environment go so gravely wrong? But Borges, theologically speaking, is among the wisest of modern writers. Like Kierkegaard before him, he knows that it is precisely the devout and learned who are most likely to drift into heresy: only those who care deeply about theological issues to begin with are likely to be prodded into developing heretical systems. Against these, the throngs of Sunday morning Christians can't be bothered to sit down and actually think through what they believe. The heretic, on the other hand, thinks through what he or she believes, thinks hard, and then comes to conclusions different from those of the Church.
The evolution of Runeberg's ideas on Judas is a tribute to Borges' subtlety. Runeberg doesn't move steadily from heresy to ever deeper heresy; rather he begins, in his first book, with a more or less heretical thesis, and then, in response to criticism from his peers, retreats somewhat in a later edition of the book. Finally, however, in his last major work, the theologian returns full force with a new and yet more heretical thesis, one that even the most contrarian of ancient heresiarchs would be hard pressed to invent. Runeberg's first thesis can be gleaned from the following:
To suppose an error in the Scriptures is intolerable; no less intolerable is to admit an accidental happening in the most precious event in world history. Ergo, Judas' betrayal was not accidental; it was a preordained fact which has its mysterious place in the economy of redemption. Runeberg continues: The Word, when it was made flesh, passed from ubiquity to space, from eternity to history, from limitless satisfaction to change and death; in order to correspond to such a sacrifice, it was necessary that one man, in representation of all men, make a sacrifice of condign nature. Judas Iscariot was that man. Judas, alone among the apostles, sensed the secret divinity and terrible intent of Jesus. The Word had been lowered to mortal condition; Judas, a disciple of the Word, could lower himself to become an informer (the worst crime in all infamy) and reside among the perpetual fires of Hell. The lower order is a mirror of the higher; . . . Judas in some way reflects Jesus. Hence the thirty pieces of silver and the kiss; hence the suicide, in order to merit Reprobation even more. Thus Nils Runeberg elucidated the enigma of Judas.
Runeberg's final thesis on Judas is pure Borges, an example of the literary metaphysician at his best. But I won't reveal it here: the development is lengthy and Borges' tale is so fine that I don't want to spoil it for any who may decide to read it. (The translation quoted from above is in the collection Labyrinths, New Directions, 1962; there's a different English translation online at:
Borges' analysis of the potential righteousness of Judas has echoes in the ancient Gospel of Judas. They both concern themselves with how an act that is outwardly evil may actually be good. Given the presentation of Judas in the New Testament, to speculate on this is already heretical: it contradicts the letter of the text.
Then Satan entered into Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve. And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus. They were delighted and agreed to give him money.
Thus Luke (22:3-5). And here is John:
The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. (13:2)
Mark and Matthew are slightly more ambiguous in that neither mentions Satan, though both have Jesus saying of Judas' act:
The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born. (14:21)
In the National Geographic documentary, one of the scholars interviewed implies that the portrait of Judas gets darker with each successive gospel and that the earliest gospel, Mark, doesn't even directly condemn Judas for the betrayal but merely narrates it as a fact. This simply isn't true. It is clear by the text that Mark considers Judas a traitor with nothing to recommend him: "It would be better for him if he had not been born."
Obviously all the attempts to justify Judas come on the heels of the first sentence in the Mark quote above: "The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him." This is Jesus speaking, and he is talking of what must happen. In John, Jesus even tells him: "What you are about to do, do quickly." Isn't Judas then fulfilling the Scripture? Wouldn't it be possible to interpret Jesus' words about going "quickly" as something close to a directive? But the text also says that Satan entered into Judas, so how can Jesus' words be a directive? From my own point of view, they are not a directive, and yet it isn't hard to understand how early Christians (perhaps depending on oral accounts of the Last Supper or even different gospel versions now lost) might begin to interpret the scene that way.
As Jesus neared Jerusalem he had told his disciples repeatedly that he would be betrayed and condemned to death. Here is Jesus' first prediction as it is found in Matthew:
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. "Never, Lord!" he said. "This shall never happen to you."
Jesus turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." (16:21-3)
Jesus knows that he must suffer and be killed. Peter denies he will be killed, Judas hands him over to be killed. According to the canonical texts, both disciples are inspired by Satan, Peter when he denies, Judas when he betrays. Of course Peter has the excuse that his sin is one of misunderstanding: it is his concern for Jesus that leads him to speak this way. Presumably later, after the resurrection, Peter will see how he had misunderstood: he will realize the divine necessity of Jesus' death in Jerusalem. Judas' sin, however, has no excuse. Still the gospels don't explain it very well except to say that money was involved and that the act was inspired by Satan. And yet although Judas' sin has no excuse, it does have a kind of metaphysical loophole. Because Judas' act leads to the fulfillment of what Jesus insisted must happen all along. Indeed, if trying to shun the necessity of Jesus' arrest and death is itself a kind of sin, as we saw from the text of Matthew above, some may be led to see Judas' act as the opposite. Though the four gospels explicitly state otherwise, the loophole remains. Both Borges in his tale and the anonymous author(s) of The Gospel of Judas exploit this loophole to different ends. (But how different are these ends really? Of course many would say that Borges exploits the loophole to achieve a literary and philosophical affect, while the Gnostics do so as a means of putting forth their theology, and that this is a very different matter. In other words, Borges' work is merely literature, while the Gnostic work is meant to be scripture. But isn't it possible that this distinction between literature and scripture is ultimately misleading? Isn't it possible that modern readers of Borges and ancient readers of the Gnostic gospels may be reading, finally, for similar reasons? Not a few critics have noticed that these ancient texts read oddly like modern science fiction. Perhaps both sets of readers, ancient and modern, come to their respective texts with similar expectations, seeking through their reading similar kinds of intellectual challenge, a similar expanded grasp of the universe. Perhaps we are wrong to put strict distinctions between the reading of scriptural narratives and the reading of certain kinds of literature. One remembers Blake's famous definition of priesthood: "Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales." I'm among those who would insist that reading literature is the other, more positive side of this coin: "Choosing poetic tales as a form of worship.")
Nearly all the press coverage around the publication of The Gospel of Judas focused on the "challenge" the gospel posed to the orthodox Christian view. This challenge was supposedly in the fact that the new gospel represented Judas as the preferred disciple. As Jesus says to Judas:
But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.
I've tried to show above that this is only a secondary aspect of the gospel's challenge: that the truly objectionable thing for the orthodox should be the cosmology and the Sethian doctrine of generations (I didn't mention the gospel's Christology, but that too of course is heretical). The idea that Judas was maybe performing a holy act by betraying Jesus--this I believe could be narrated rather easily without, in any fundamental sense, breaking the tenets of orthodoxy.
Imagine now that another tattered codex is discovered, also entitled The Gospel of Judas. Yes, a mere two months after the publication of the Coptic Gospel of Judas another similarly titled text appears. But this new text is in Greek. And it tells the story differently. In it there's no talk of aeons or incorruptible generations, and Jesus does not refer to his body as clothing to be thrown off. Among the intact sections of the manuscript is the Last Supper scene. Imagine the following paragraphs are part of it:
When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve. And while they were eating, he asked them, "Who among you would betray me to the chief priests, to those who seek my life, so that I should be arrested and condemned to death?"
They all began to protest loudly, "Not I, Lord. Surely I would not betray you!"
But Jesus said to them: "And yet how many times have I told you that the Son of Man must be betrayed, and must be arrested and killed? Did you not hear my words?"
Then Peter said, "Lord, we would protect you to the death from those who would seek to kill you."
Jesus said: "And so you do not understand. And your lack of understanding brings weakness. And I tell you, Peter, that you yourself will disown me three times tonight before the rooster crows."
But Peter declared he would never deny him, and all the other disciples said the same.
Then Jesus repeated: "Who among you will betray me, for it is written that the Son of Man must be betrayed?"
Then Judas said, "I will do it, Lord, if it is your will."
Jesus said, "What you must do, do quickly." And Judas got up from the table and left.
If such a fragment were discovered, and if its antiquity were established, it would certainly challenge the orthodox understanding of Judas. Imagine that the manuscript were datable to the late first century. Then the case of Judas would truly become a thorn in the side of the Church, and the debates would be fierce. Because such a fragment would put in doubt the accepted biblical versions of the betrayal: the only thing those versions would have to hang on would be their canonization by the Church. Because this text too would be dated, like the canonical gospels, to the first century. And yet such a fragment would in the fundamentals be entirely orthodox. Though offering the scandal of an alternate version of the Last Supper--and so putting the biblical versions in doubt--it would not change the fundamental meaning.
For some Christians, the reliability of the four gospels cannot be put in question without them feeling their faith is being undermined. For others, and I am one of them, the gospels are reliable enough if they sketch the general arc of Jesus' life story and capture many of his authentic teachings. I believe they do. The Jesus we see in the gospels, though shrouded in many errors of detail and alloyed by later additions, is in a rough way reliable. Probably Jesus never said many of the things he is quoted as saying, and certainly many important words of his were not remembered. But the figure we find in the canonized texts is far from being a literary or mythical character: he is not an Odysseus or Dionysus.
But even if accurately quoted, Jesus' teachings would require interpretation. Being that many of his true words are mixed with others attributed to him, the work of interpretation becomes harder. What was his precise teaching? On what grounds can we be confident that such or such a phrase is part of the real canon, that core collection of authentic sayings wrapped up in additions invented by his followers. Scholars have devised some excellent methods for making such decisions; though certainly not entirely reliable, these methods offer us is something better than an educated guess. Christians who refuse to consider such work deny themselves the possibility of a richer, more nuanced understanding of Jesus.
Like other Christians, I accept that Jesus is the Messiah. Unlike many Christians, however, I cannot assert that I understand exactly what that means. This is my difference, what makes me one of a minority of Christians who see the study of texts like The Gospel of Judas important. Certainly I have ideas on what words like Messiah or salvation or redemption mean, but these ideas shift, I remain a seeker, and my theology is always in process. I know that many in the modern world, certainly those who love the life of the mind, live their faith in this way. Such faith is an ongoing struggle to interpret what we are called upon to believe and what we actually do believe. Those of a fundamentalist mindset would say this makes our faith weaker. I think the opposite is true.
The Gospel of Judas, as I've said above, probably contains no new information about the historical Jesus and his disciples. Nonetheless it is of great importance in the ongoing Christian debate because, in a roundabout way, it reminds us that the gospel stories in the New Testament are themselves not monolithic. But also this gospel will likely prod many otherwise incurious Christians to go and read something about Gnosticism. And when they read about the strange new Gnostic doctrine, only new in that they haven't encountered it before, maybe some small minority of them will realize that much in their accepted orthodox doctrine is strange also, and maybe this will prod them to begin the work of questioning where the truth may lie in all this. They will ask the great question at the base of all serious interpretation: What does it (all) mean?
Added February, 2008: The translation and interpretation of the Gospel of Judas offered by the National Geographic team has recently been criticized by April DeConick in her fascinating book The Thirteenth Apostle. I've a brief review here:
An English translation of The Gospel of Judas and a variety of other material can be found here:
Other works mentioned in this essay:
This page is at http://www.necessaryprose.com/