Is the "Gospel of Judas"
In April 2006, the National Geographic Society of Washington DC held a press conference in which they announced the coming publication of a document they called the Gospel of Judas. This document, they stated, would be published in English translation (Kasser et al. eds. 2006), as well as being the subject of the Easter edition of National Geographic magazine, and a DVD and television documentary to be produced by the National Geographic Society.
In both the press conference itself and in resulting press coverage, the Gospel of Judas is presented as a dramatic and important discovery which, like the (equally fictitious) Da Vinci Code threatened the "official" doctrine of the church by presenting an alternative account of the Gospel story. In this one, we are told, Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus in the canonical Gospels, is seen as the hero and one who was given more revelation and played a more significant part than any of the other apostles. In this account, Judas hands Jesus over to the Jewish authorities only because Jesus Himself had actually instructed him to, rather than because of his greed as is portrayed in the canonical Gospel accounts (Luke 22: 1-6; John 12: 4-6; Acts 1: 16-18). In the press reports this new document is described as "giving new insights into the relationship between Jesus and the disciple who betrayed him" and being "deeply troubling for some believers" (Wilford & Goodstein 2006). It has also been described as a "more positive portrayal of Judas" (Gugliotta & Cooperman 2006, A10).
Is this in fact the case? Does the Gospel of Judas really undermine and invalidate the traditional Gospel account of the betrayal and crucifixion of Christ? Should this document cause Christians to re-evaluate their faith, and does this document indeed give any valuable insight into the relationship between Christ and Judas Iscariot? In this preliminary article it is intended to provide some answers to these immediate questions, and determine whether the Gospel of Judas does indeed provide Christians with any cause for concern.
History of the Gospel of Judas
When this statement is compared to the text which has recently been published (see below) there is little doubt that the two "Gospels" of Judas are indeed one and the same document.
The manuscript now under discussion was uncovered in cave near El-Minya in Egypt in the late 1970s, in an area in which Gnostic groups such as the Cainites are known to have been particularly strong in the second and third centuries AD. Numerous collections of Gnostic texts dating from this period, including the famous Nag Hammadi library, have been uncovered in Egypt. These contain numerous false Gospels and other pseudepigraphal literature produced by these various Gnostic groups, many of which are known to Irenaeus and other writers of the period.
After many vicissitudes and languishing for many years in a safety deposit box in the USA, the codex was finally purchased for preservation and publication in 2004. The codex consists of 62 papyrus pages, and contains numerous other Gnostic texts and other writings from the period on its pages in addition to the Gospel of Judas. The text itself is in the Coptic language, almost certainly translated from Greek originals. The codex has been dated by Carbon 14 dating and by palaeographic techniques, and found to date from approximately AD 300. The Gospel of Judas itself of course must have been written well before this to have been mentioned by Irenaeus in AD 180: New Testament scholars H.-C. Puech and B. Blatz, writing without knowledge of the new codex, believed that the Gospel of Judas would have been written at some time between AD 130-170 (Puech & Blatz 1992: 387). The National Geographic Society has announced that at the completion of their studies the codex will be donated to and housed at the Coptic Museum in Cairo, Egypt.
Nature and Significance of the Gospel of Judas
These Gnostic documents come from at least the second century AD, at the time the Gnostic sects were rapidly expanding. There is no evidence that any of these texts were in existence before about AD 130, and therefore they were all written well after the writing of the canonical Gospels. While they are certainly useful for determining the doctrines and practices of these sects, they reveal to us nothing about the origins of Christianity and the doctrines of the first century AD church (McKechnie 2001, Ch. 1). There is therefore no reason to assert that the Gospel of Judas can tell us anything about the belief or practice of the mainstream church of the first century AD, or indeed of the historical reality of Judas and his relationship with the Lord.
Irenaeus is indeed frequently derided for allegedly suppressing "alternative" accounts of the beginnings of Christianity while promoting the Gospel accounts that were later accepted as canonical. This idea is related to the concept that the church determined the canon of Scripture, accepting some books while rejecting other equally important books. While the theory might sound good, the fact is that Irenaeus and others defended and promoted the canonical Gospels and rejected other books (including the Gospel of Judas) not because of doctrinal preference but because of the evident superiority of the canonical books. While the canonical Gospels are attested from a very early stage and are cited and attested in early Christian writings in the late first and early second centuries AD, the Gnostic writings are unattested in this period. While the canonical Gospels enjoyed widespread acceptance among all the early churches, the Gnostic documents generally did not receive acceptance from any but the Gnostic sect that originated them. Certainly there is no evidence whatever that the Gospel of Judas ever received any acceptance beyond the narrow and rather strange Cainite sect.
Besides its contradiction of the canonical Gospels' accounts of the betrayal of Christ and its lack of attestation and acceptance among the early Christian community, there are several other pertinent points to ask about the Gospel of Judas. As it purports to be a secret account of a conversation between Jesus and Judas (but is written in the third person, indicating it was written by neither), we might pertinently ask who was it that did write it? If indeed it were an historical account, how would the details of this secret conversation be known to anyone but Jesus and Judas, neither of whom could have written the book? This brief account is certainly difficult to regard as a remotely historical work - it is quite evident that it can teach us nothing about the actual betrayal and crucifixion of Christ.
Essentially, Irenaeus rejected the Gospel of Judas for very good reason - it is a late and unhistorical production of a fringe Gnostic sect which was characterised by some very unbiblical beliefs. We can certainly learn a good deal about the beliefs of some Egyptian Gnostics in the second century AD, but we cannot regard it as a legitimate viewpoint of what was believed about Judas in the churches of Christ in the early Christian period, let alone an account of the truth about Judas Iscariot and his role in the betrayal and crucifixion of the Lord.
Sadly, the desire for an attention grabbing headline sometimes tends to overshadow the cold hard facts in matters of religion and history. Such ideas as presented in fantasy like the Da Vinci Code encourage people to imagine a secret and concealed truth which was suppressed by the early church. There is much of this sort of thing in the media hype surrounding the publication of the Gospel of Judas. While it may appeal to conspiracy theorists to imagine that the church has suppressed an equally valid alternative history, the fact is that the Gospel of Judas was rejected by the early church because it was just what Irenaeus said it was: an unhistorical, late and entirely imagined document which was produced by and served the interests of a small and highly unusual heretical sect of the second century AD. In no way should it cause any Christian to reject the Biblical account, because it is evidently inferior in every way to the historical accounts of the canonical Gospels.
Kasser, R., M. Meyer & G. Wurst Eds., with B.D. Ehrman. 2006. The Gospel of Judas. Washington DC.
McKechnie, P. 2001. The First Christian Centuries. Grand Rapids. Puech, H.-C. & B. Blatz 1992. In W. Schneemelcher Ed. New Testament Apocrypha: Gospels and Related Writings. Trans. R.M. Wilson. Louisville, 386-7.
Wilford, J.N. & L. Goodstein. 2006. "'Gospel of Judas' Surfaces after 1,700 Years" The New York Times April 6.