The New Testament portrays Judas as the corrupt disciple who betrayed Christ, and this negative portrait of him, with additional hateful characteristics, has prevailed for centuries. Only in recent times has the figure of Judas been seen in the context of very ancient Hellenic cults in which gods have to be killed by a `sacred executioner' to be reborn, after which this sacred executioner is disowned by and driven out of the community.
These ideas were then incorporated into the teachings of the Gnostics, where the god becomes a Saviour figure who would descend from the Realm of Light into the Realm of Darkness to redeem mankind and then to return to the Realm of Light. Such and similar Gnostic ideas had an influence on certain groups of pre-Christian Judaism and then on early Christianity also.
So far these influences have been deduced by comparing parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls and parts of St John's Gospel with Gnostic works; but the rediscovery of the Gospel of Judas gives us a text that is so explicitly Gnostic that it actually wholly subverts the message of the Gospels in the New Testament. As a result it was of course declared heretical by Bishop Irenaeus in 180 and suppressed. Its text was lost until a manuscript of it in Coptic, dating to around 300 AD, was found in Egypt in around 1978; its fragments, making up 85% of the original, were painstakingly reassembled; and the work was finally published in 2006. The book under review gives us a translation of the reconstituted text, followed by four illuminating essays of explanation and commentary. That by Bart D. Ehrman gives a lucid account of the basic teachings shared by the various Gnostic schools; and a more difficult chapter by Martin Meyer links the teaching of the Judas Gospel with other Gnostic texts, notably the Secret Book of John, in which some of the ideas of the Judas Gospel are more fully developed.
The basic and most startling feature of the Judas Gospel is that Judas was the only disciple who really understood Jesus. Jesus chastizes in the most forthright terms the other disciples for worshipping a false God. This false God - the God of the Old Testament - is the Demiurge (this Gospel refers to his helpers Nebro, the `rebel' and Saklas, the `fool') who created this very imperfect world - an idea basic to Gnosticism. The true God is not a Creator God, but a (male) Spirit with a female emanation called Barbelo and a Self-Generated emanation who is Jesus. The Jesus emanation is pure Spirit but appears on earth in a human envelope, so that he only appears to be human (a doctrine known as docetism); but he needs to be free from this envelope, and he tells Judas that it is to be the latter's mission `to sacrifice the man that clothes me'. It is in obedience to this command that Judas hands over Jesus to his enemies.
Jesus has told Judas that humans are divided into those who also have a spark of the divine in them - and they, like Judas, will live on after death - and those, like the disciples and others who worship the false God, who lack the divine spark and will not live on after death.
All this is mixed up with a complex cosmology which owes something to Plato's linking of individual souls with individual stars.
Gnosticism is an interesting attempt to explain that the existence of imperfection in the created world by attributing this creation to an inferior deity. By proscribing Gnosticism (and, later, Manicheism), Christianity, like Judaism and Islam, was left with the problem of explaining how a Creator God could have created such a flawed world.
on 15 August 2009
The scandalous story of intrigue and how this prescious document was kept in an American bank vault for many years and then not made available for general scholarly analysis is now well known. The present translation emerges from that 'exclusive translation contract' and reflects the deep flaws associated with such a partisan and commercially driven project.
Other scholars (outside the 'chosen few') have remarked that the Gospel of Judas does not actually add much to the sum total of knowledge surrounding Gnostic Cosmology. All the themes in it are represented elsewhere, even in the New Testament canon where there is clear collusion betwen Jesus and Judas in permitting his own betrayal. Without Judas's betrayal in terms even of strict orthodox theology, there could have been no sacrifice and thus no salvation.
The links to pre-Christian hellenic mystery cults (holy betrayal), the influence of Platonism (the 'real' realm of light and the insubstantial realm of darkness, the 'emmanations' of minor deities), the hefty influence of Docetic ideas (the mere 'clothing' of Jesus's human body, the despising of the flesh), the influence of Manacheistic , hyper-Dualistic belief systems (The Demiurge, the Evil Creation) are all found elsewhere. What is fascinating (but not surprising) is to find a Judas cult which turns on its head the usual order preserved in the biblical tradition - that of the disciples pre-eminence and Judas's perdition, and the rehabilitation of the Sodomites, Sethites and Caanites!
Neither is it sustainable as is often attempted, to claim that this Gospel, along with other gnostic strands, promotes 'The Kingdom Within' in stark contrast to the orthodox position of the 'Kingdom without'. The tradition that the 'Kigdom is within you (or amongst you)' is clearly articulated by Jesus in the synoptic gospels.
Confusion reigns supreme within the strange and perplexing Gnostic World, which is at much at war with itself as with 'orthodox' Christianity. It is certainly more exclusive! Only the elect(those with the 'divine spark') can be 'saved'! In this Gospel that is Judas, in other gnostic texts its somebody different. Every time. Sadly, in many (but not all) branches of orthodox christianity this 'exclusivity clause' has been perpetuated and is alive and flourishing even as I write.........
on 26 May 2008
I will not repeat information about the book which has been covered by other reviewers. If you are thinking of purchasing this attractive looking and reasonably priced book you need to be aware there is now a scholarly consensus that the original team made some very serious errors of translation and completely misrepresent the figure of Judas in this gospel. This makes this book virtually worthless if you want to understand what the Gospel of Judas is about. For more information I would suggest you look at DeConick's "The Thirteenth Apostle".
This book provides a translation of the recently discovered Gospel of Judas. After a short introduction we are straight into the text, assisted by numerous footnotes. Some of the writing is very powerful - in a key passage Jesus tells Judas, "'you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.'" other sections are more obscure, assuming an understanding of Gnostic concepts. Fortunately the subsequent articles provide these extra details, so that by the end of the book you will want to re-read the original text now with a much better understanding of the concepts being used.
For a broader appreciation of alternative early Christian writings - such as the gospels of Thomas and Judas - I would recommend "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas" by Elaine Pagels which shows that a key difference between so-called Gnostic writings and those of more orthodox Christianity is the discovery of truth. In books like the Gospel of Judas Jesus is represented as teaching that the kingdom of God is within us, and we must search within ourselves to discover the truth. In orthodox Christian books such as the Gospel of John the light of truth is not to be found in ourselves but in Jesus, who alone is the Way to God.
So alternative early Christian writings such as the Gospel of Judas present a more open and pluralistic way to God, as opposed to the more exclusivist dogma of traditional Christianity.
This new book by the National Geographic Society is bound to be of interest. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the outline of the lost gospel being translated and highlighted here, it still presents an intriguing look into the early mind of Christians, who were a very diverse group.
There were originally more than four gospels, and literally hundreds of apostolic letters and manuscripts floating around the ancient world. These were of variable quality literarily and theologically, but it took hundreds of years for the Christian community to come to a consensus about what should be included and what should be excluded. Generally, Gnostic texts were excluded, and this lost gospel of Judas is most likely a Gnostic production, according to the authors. It was referenced by early church leaders such as Irenaeus, who argued strongly for the now-standard vision of four canonical gospels.
What is the issue with this gospel? The central idea that places this text as odds with the canonical gospels is that it paints Judas is a very different light - Judas is no longer the villain who betrays Jesus for his own personal gain, or because of his own spiritual confusion, but rather an obedient servant who, when turning Jesus in to the authorities, is simply following Jesus' own direction as a necessary step for God's plan to come to fulfillment. Judas is portrayed as the closest of the apostles to Jesus, a leader among the apostles, and thus perhaps the object of jealousy.
To be sure, these ideas are not new. Varying images of Judas and confusion about his role have been present throughout much of Christian history, with no single definitive vision of his personality nor his action superseding all others. (See the book on Judas by scholar Kim Paffenroth, published recently). The document highlighted in this text is a 31-page, fragile manuscript dated to approximately the year 300, as a copy of a story that may have originated 150 or more years earlier. The manuscript itself has a colourful history, having been bought, sold, and stolen multiple times. As this book is released, the manuscript is on display at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. This book discusses efforts to preserve the manuscript and halt further deterioration.
This book promises to be of interest to historians, theologians, biblical scholars, and others who find the early days of Christianity fascinating. Even those (like me) who are not willing to lend canonical authority to this rediscovered gospel will find that it brings up ideas and questions that are worth considering.
on 16 October 2007
The National Geographical Society, along with the Waitt Institute for Human Discovery and an unparalleled collection of scholars on early Christianity, are to be commended hugely for their roles in bringing "The Gospel of Judas" to us. Be sure to read the Publisher's Note at the end of this book to appreciate fully their contribution.
I haven't found in one place so clear an introduction to Gnostic Christianity or as much evidence of an early Gnostic Christian response to Jesus. Whereas traditionally the disciples other than Judas have been presented as understanding Jesus well, in this gospel we find "Jesus said to them. 'How do you know me. Truly I say unto you, no generation of the people that are among you will me.' What are we to make of this?
As noted by the publisher, scholars seem certain this gospel is not a fake. That doesn't mean it speaks for all Christians but it does seem to represent an early teaching of Sethian Gnostic Christianity.
The commentaries tell about the recovery of the text and its message. Bart Ehrman writes: "For Gnostics a person is not saved by faith in Christ or by doing good works, but by knowing the truth - the truth about the world we live in, about who the true God is, and especially about we ourselves are." Reading this gospel, however unsettling it may be in light of your current understanding of Christianity, can give you a good appreciation of what that knowledge is.
This is challenging material. In his commentary, Wurst notes: "Characters from the Jewish Scriptures such as Esau, Korah, and the Sodomites - regarded by orthodox tradition as immoral and as rebels against the will of God - are considered here to be the servants of the one true God, the 'superior higher power.' It is difficult not to feel that divisions in the understanding of God have persisted from the earliest times of Christianity and even before as Jewish intellectuals wrestled with the different presentation of Jehovah in their scriptures.
Due to the finding of this text, it seems more likely that Gnostics were active before 180 A.D. and also not unlikely they were active much earlier. Bauer's hypothesis that Gnosticism may have dated back to the earliest formative years of Christianity, seems better supported. Due to the questions raised by Jesus' life and teachings and our knowledge of human nature, it does not seem unreasonable to believe that during the very life of Jesus some people were understanding his life and teachings in a way consistent with "The Gospel of Judas" and the Nag Hammadi texts. Those responses seem most spiritually important and not which texts turn out to have been written first. Otherwise why not have stopped with the Old Testament?
The commentaries by Kasser on the recovery of the text, by Ehrman on the vision presented in this gospel, by Wurst on the reaction of Iraneus to the Gnostics, and by Meyer on Sethian Gnosticism seem excellent. Most of all I appreciate the painstaking and gifted effort of Florence Darbre to recover this text from the damaged document.
The "Gospel of Judas" may be a once in a lifetime opportunity to be so close to important religious discovery. With it and the Nag Hammadi texts it may now be possible for some to find a place in Christianity, as modern day Gnostic Christians, that they had thought previously did not exist. For others, this gospel may let you appreciate the diversity of authentic religious responses.
on 14 April 2006
Since the DaVinci Code was released, the world has been flooded with books and novels offering "alternative" views on Jesus and the Christian church. The recent release of the text of the Gospel of Judas is quite different, since this is an actual historical document dating back before 300 A.D. and is not the imagination of somebody looking to make a quick buck.
From a strictly historical perspective, what we know is that this work is in Coptic script(probably translated into Coptic from Greek) and was laid down on papyrus in Egypt around 300 A.D. It was discovered in a cave in Egypt, similar to the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas, and bounced around private collections until it was acquired by scientists, preserved, and translated. The work relates one unknown author's perspective on the role of Judas in the crucifixion. This document was first mentioned in historical records from around 180 A.D., suggesting that its line of thought existed among certain gnostic sects of the early church, most likely the Cainites.
The Gospel of Judas(to use the common terminology)suggests that Judas was not a betrayer of Jesus but that his role was chosen by Jesus to fulfill his destiny as the redeemer of man. The gospel postulates that Jesus chose his most prized disciple for this task, a task that would paint him in a negative light, because he was the most trusted of the twelve. To many the naming of these gnostic gospels as "gospel" is borderline heretical. In this case the word Gospel is used as the literal definition referring to a genre of work. The scientists who worked on and translated the document make no claim or argument that this gospel is canonical or should be included in the Bible.
The early Christian church was made of many factions, each with their own perspective on the events surrounding the life of Jesus. What the Gospels of Thomas and Judas and other gnostic gospels present to readers and scholars alike is another perspective on the evolution of the early Christian church and its development. It should not be read as canon, certainly those who follow the Bible as the true word would agree with that. Instead it should be read as an alternative theory if only to gain a better understanding of the vastness of thought of the early church and to see how historical distance from any event can offer various viewpoints as to the actual occurance. As a historian, it offers a unique insight into the spread of early christianity and how schools of thought evolved in the first three hundred years after the events of the life of Jesus. For that reason alone this makes for an interesting read.
on 20 September 2009
An essential gospel, even if we must be very cautious because of the great lacunae. Judas can finally be rehabilitated, at least in his intentions. But beyond Judas it is providing a completely new way of looking at Jesus. First of all he laughs, which is not one distinctive trait of his in the standard gospels. But the analysis and notes accompanying the text are far under, beneath, underneath what we should expect.
I will just give some examples. Hundreds of pages could and should be written about the unacceptable presentations of Ehrman and Meyer. They start from the very beginning by considering this text can be classified as "Sethian Gnosticism" and then they only compare what they can read of the text with other Gnostic documents of the period and of the same trend. From time to time they show some parallel elements in the official gospels.
They obviously stand for the standard approach of Jesus and do not even use the word "traitor" and its derived brothers and sisters in quotes. Judas is once and forever a traitor and his act is once and forever treachery, betrayal, etc. That is anti-historical. A historian is supposed to remain neutral and a history book, even on the worst tyrant, Hitler for example, would not call him systematically and without a distance-building stance a butcher or whatever.
But there is a lot worse. They have decided that this gospel was written in 130-150 CE and originally in Greek. They forget that Christ preached to a lot of people who memorized his preaching with their photographic ears and then went around repeating what they had heard. The disciples were the perambulating loudspeakers of what Jesus had said and around them many others had a perfect memory of just that, what Jesus had said. The oral tradition of an oral society in which only a very small minority of people can write and read.
A continent like Africa entirely lived on that tradition till the Europeans pounced upon them with writing, reading and schooling. Jesus preached in Palestine and Jerusalem (the Temple essentially). He was a rabbi. So he preached in the local language, Aramaic, though he probably understood and spoke some Greek and Latin, and he was able to read Hebrew, and probably write it too. His preaching was only later translated into other languages, Greek first of all, when the preaching went out of the Jewish community, essentially due to Paul (who is in no way one of the twelve apostles and had little commerce with Jesus when alive) and then the apostles sent by James at the beginning to Egypt and other non-Jewish places. To pretend the original language was Greek is absurd.
Maybe the original written version was in Greek, and hence had been translated from Aramaic. But not the original preaching of Jesus or Judas or any other apostle, including as for that the Jewish legion officer Saul, later to become Paul, the self appointed apostle of the Gentiles. This of course leads to mistakes. Both clerical and university research scholars are working in France on the parallel verses of the synoptic gospels and they have found that the first verse has a Hebrew or Semitic basis whereas the second verse has a Greek basis, which means the original preaching and probably writing was in Hebrew (or Aramaic as for that) and that a second Greek re-writing was added to the original text when it was translated into Greek.
If we take into account the fact this society was an oral society, then the oral tradition has to go back to Jesus himself, and there is no other way to look at things that could be reasonable. Comparing is not proving, but the teachings of Buddha were also kept three full centuries orally before they were transcribed in an artificial language created for that purpose. In other words our commentators are thinking within a western and modern frame of mind.
They miss the real point, that Jesus was bringing together behind him several trends of people: the zealot radicals (of the Dead Sea among other places) represented by his own brother James, the "Gnostic" radicals inheriting all kinds of traditions from elsewhere and when (pagan, Semitic, Asian, Indian, etc) centering their vision on a ternary mental architecture, also many simple people in Palestine (Jewish or not) who just wanted the world to change, more freedom to come, more equality to be made possible, and we could even add to these the revolutionary radicals of the Barabbas type.
Jesus thus had to bring together various approaches and the best example is the trinity of his God (is it Jesus' invention or a later improvement?), the role of the mother, his mother (that reminds us of Barbelo) and Jesus' virginal birth (that reminds us of the Autogenes the Self Generated) as opposed to the dual Jewish God of Genesis (God and his Spirit, the two Luminaries, the binary dividing moments of the creation) and the total rejection of Eve and most women in the Old Testament's first five books. The last point is "thirteen".
To ignore that "thirteen" is a structural positive number in that region at that time is plain incompetence. There were (and still are for the Jews) thirteen months in the Jewish, Sumerian, Mesopotamian calendars and there were (though that has been westernized) thirteen zodiac signs, the thirteen having to do with the Serpent Holder from old Egyptian as well as Greek traditions, thus Semitic and Indo-European. That changes everything. The thirteen month sets the lunar year back into a solar frame and the thirteenth zodiac sign is the healer of the body and the mind. The reversal of the standard evangelical vision is a lot more pregnant in this context. Note the restoring authorities have just reinstated nearly in its original place the thirteenth zodiac sign that used to be on the outside wall of the abbey church of Saint Austremoine’s Benedictine abbey in Issoire, France, along with the twelve others up to the end of the Middle Ages. It used to be at the joining point between the church itself and the Scriptorium and Library on the south side of the choir, showing thus it was the door, the link to knowledge and intelligence.
Jesus says to Judas: "You thirteenth spirit... You will become the thirteenth... Your star over the thirteenth aeon... The star that leads the way is your star..." This implies that the note 151 that speculates on the titular subscript used as the title of the book which reads “the gospel OF Judas” and not “the gospel ACCORDING TO Judas” might be right but then it implies it was not written by Judas at all but it was told first orally and then eventually written by someone else. The question is then: what were the motivations of this particular person: to report one side of the story that had been neglected or to promote a new vision of this apostle that had been accused of the worst crime, treason? It then reflects a debate in the nascent Christian community that must itself reflect a debate at the time of Jesus: the various and varied motivations of the followers, the motivations of Jesus himself in choosing his apostles, hence his direct representatives, the divisions and even tensions in the Jewish community in Jerusalem and around, not to speak of the tension with the Dead Sea community led by James, Jesus’ brother. And we are not considering those called the Arabs around the Jewish community who were servants and field workers, some of them serfs and probably slaves. The Romans stand apart of course since they are not originally from the Levant.
That leads me to the idea that the Christian community that was supposed to become the Catholic Church was not in the second century AD united and homogeneous and the role of Paul and his supporters after him should be studied in that perspective: an outsider proclaiming himself the Apostle of the gentiles, hence of the non-Jews though he was a Jew, a Roman citizen and an officer in the Roman Legion. His conflict with James is also to be revaluated seriously to show the defeat of what James represented. I also think it would be good to study this Gospel of Judas along with the Gospel according to Mary Magdalene, the other close associate of Jesus who is most of the time neglected or side-tracked since she is a woman with the fake debate about her possible marital relation with Jesus. The invention of the second James that is sent to Spain to die there is also another distortion that should be studied seriously since it side-tracks James himself with a doppelganger that moved away. It sounds like the clearing of Jesus heritage of three people who could represent something else, hence a challenge to the winning camp.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
on 18 September 2014
Good introduction to the Gospel of Judas, although partly outdated already. Be aware of the fact that some of the interpretations given in this book have been highly debated, and there is not agreement about the translation or interpretation among scholars.
on 4 June 2016
It is nice to see this sort of book available as it addresses many inconsistencies, and presents a balanced view of the disciple Judas, by Rodolphe Kasser.