Usually in the spring of every year, various sorts of documentaries or reports will appear that claim the discovery of some “new Gospel”. These particular documents are presented as those candidates that did not “make-the cut” into the canon of the New Testament. In recent years the world of scholarship and popular media alike have introduced the public to such documents as “The Gospel of Thomas” and “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene” and more recently “The Gospel of Judas”.
In 2006, National Geographic did an extensive documentary on this text, with a panel of scholars offering a translation of the document. CNN had recently produced a documentary that explored six ancient objects or documents that promised to either expose the search for Jesus as a matter of faith, fact or a fraud. The so-called “Gospel of Judas” was included as one of the alleged ancient sources. The aim of this post is to offer an evaluation of the Gospel of Judas, as well as to introduce the reader to the document, its history and discovery.
Our overview of the Gospel of Judas will include identifying what exactly the Gospel of Judas is all about. As will be seen, the so-called “Gospel of Judas” is not a “Gospel” in the strictest sense of the definition nor does it contain any “good news” pertaining to salvation, Jesus’ work on the cross nor resurrection. As a final note, surveying such ancient literature as “The Gospel of Judas” can provide an apologetic for showing how one can distinguish between the historically reliable canonical 1st century Gospels of the New Testament in contrast to the 2nd and 3rd century forgeries like the Gospel of Judas.
An overview of the Gospel of Judas
Key terms to know
Before we get to the Gospel of Judas itself, two key terms need to be defined that enable the reader to better understand the particular worldview being espoused in the Gospel of Judas. First, the Gospel of Judas is part of a larger collection of documents called “The Nag Hammadi Documents” or “Codices”. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary gives an apt description of these documents: “An entire library of papyrus documents was accidently discovered by peasants North of Luxor, Egypt, in 1946. These manuscripts were written in the Sahidic dialect of the Coptic language (Coptic is an Egyptian language utilizing Greek letters). The leather covers in which they were wrapped probably account for their excellent preservation. The find included 13 codices (a codex was the precursor to our modern day book) with nearly 1,000 pages. They have been dated to the third and fourth centuries A.D.”
The second term that the reader needs to be familiar with is the ancient worldview called “Gnosticism”. To avoid a lengthy discussion, Gnosticism is a combination of paganism, sometimes Jewish mysticism, mixed with vestiges of Greek Philosophy and smatterings of Christian thought. Gnostics are so-called due to their insistence on possessing a secret form of knowledge (“gnosis”) that enlightens and sets the devotee free from reliance upon the physical realm.
Gnosticism denies the reality of the One true living God of the Bible and instead posits a series of non-personal manifestations or “emanations” coming from up above. Moreover, Gnosticism viewed the material realm as evil and the immaterial, ethereal realm and knowledge of it as the supreme goal of life. When combined with particular modified doctrines of Christianity, denial of the Bible, the full Deity and humanity of Jesus, the need for blood atonement and ultimately sin results.
Brief description of the Gospel of Judas and its study over the past several decades
With the Nag Hammadi collection and Gnosticism briefly defined, we can now consider what exactly we are dealing with when we speak of “The Gospel of Judas”. Dr. Norman Geisler on page 307 of his book: “A General Introduction to the Bible”, notes the following about the Gospel of Judas, which he dates to the late second century (150 years after Jesus and Judas): “This gospel was known to Irenaeus and Epihanius (c 315-403), Bishop of Salamia. The product of an antinomian Gnostic sect, it may have contained “a Passion story setting forth the ‘mystery of betrayal’ and explaining how Judas by his treachery made possible the salvation of all mankind.”
Gnostic literature expert Marvin Meyer oversaw the production of an English translation of the 13 documents collectively known as the Nag Hammadi Codicies in his book entitled: “The Nag Hammadi Scriptures”. Among the collection is the so-called Gospel of Judas (called by the technical designation “Codex Tchacos 3”). He notes in his introduction to the document: “Thus Judas is not designated, pseudonymously, as the author of the gospel. Rather this is the “Gospel About Judas” or even the “Gospel for Judas,” and his relationship to Jesus and his role in the story of the last days of Jesus are the focal points of the gospel.”
All of the scholars contributing to this English translation do not hide their critical evaluation of the inspired, canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). Marvin Meyer and another contributing scholar of the field, Elaine Pagels, express their opinion about the Nag Hammadi documents in the introduction: “For more than fifteen hundred years, most Christians had assumed that the only sources of tradition about Jesus and His disciples are those contained in the New Testament, especially in the familiar gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Suddenly, however, the discovery of over fifty ancient texts, most of them Christian, demonstrated what the church fathers had long indicated: that these gospels are only a small selection of the many more gospel traditions and gospels….”.
Among the thirteen documents in the collection, the “Gospel of Judas” (known by its technical name “Codex Tchacos”) had been nearly destroyed not so much by age as by its poor storage arrangements following its discovery. Through the 1970’s the document was stored in a freezer, with some of its pages being mutilated. In the 1980’s and 90’s not too much work was done on the document. It has only been in the last decade that so-much information has come forth about this document to the general public.
As this blogger read-through of the “Gospel of Judas” in Marvin Meyer’s “The Nag Hammadi Scriptures”, the following main points were found.
1. First, The Gospel of Judas was not authored by Judas nor written in the 1st century. Rather, the work is a 2nd to 3rd century piece of literature attributed to a heretical Christian group called the Gnostics.
2. Secondly, whoever composed the document aimed to portray a series of fictitious conversations between Judas and Jesus (we may do future posts that bear out the details and contents of the Gospel of Judas’ portrayal of these alleged dialogues).
3. Thirdly, concerning the overall point of the document, a tale is told of Judas Iscariot being exonerated from his historic infamy as the one who betrayed Jesus to be judged and crucified. The Gospel of Judas paints Judas in a contrasting light from the Historical Four Gospels. Per this second/third century Gnostic Gospel, Judas is not a villain, but a hero.
Closing thoughts for today
Therefore, the identification of the so-called “Gospel of Judas” demonstrates already that the document cannot possibly be placed in the same class as the four Gospels. In future posts we may look again at this document by noting two further areas:
1. The Gospel of Judas is not a never-before seen document.
2. Concluding remarks on the place of the Gospel of Judas for understanding Jesus Christ today.
So why study a document that is non-authoritative and not inspired scripture? Once we see an example of a document posing as a record of Jesus’ life and words, we can better discern a fraudulent example from the genuine articles that are the four gospels. Such a study shows what typically entails a legendary account (namely embellishment of the details, importing of second and third century Gnostic thinking into a so-called first century setting and a switching of the focus from Jesus to a secondary figure). Such observations can equip us in answering critics who accuse the four Gospels of New Testament as being fictional literature.