Two Sides of Judas and the Gnostic Gospels

By Robert M. Schoch © 2006

      Judas Iscariot, for some the archetypal villain, the man who betrayed Jesus for a pecuniary reward, has been all over the news since the National Geographic Society recently (April 2006) aired a documentary on the newly released “Gospel of Judas.”  This third to fourth century manuscript, written on papyrus and found in a cave in Upper Egypt in the 1970s, is a Coptic translation of a text that was known to Christians of the second century A.D.  Until now, however, modern scholars did not have an actual copy.  Various persons, perhaps out to make a buck (not unlike the traditional Judas?) have hailed the contents as revolutionary, with the potential to turn Christian beliefs up side down, et cetera, et cetera. 

 The Gospel of Judas portrays this disciple not as a traitor,

but as possibly the most beloved and trusted disciple, a man who was only carrying out his master’s orders, even to the point of arranging the arrest of Jesus

(as he was ordered to do by Jesus himself) so that the

apocalyptic kingdom of God could be ushered in.

   Well, how does this really differ from the traditional Judas?  If, as Christians seem to believe (not being a member of the sect, I cannot speak firsthand on this issue), Jesus had to be sacrificed in accordance with the scriptures to save humanity, then there had to be a Judas, active or passive, either following orders consciously or simply caught in the drama and impelled by God’s will rather than his own, to accomplish the feat.  Likewise, there had to be soldiers to take Jesus away, a Pilate to condemn him, and so on - - a cast of thousands to accomplish the divine will.  None of these persons, including Judas, really had any choice in their roles perhaps.  Is it not better to believe that at least Judas was conscious of his acts and thus undertook them knowingly, and unselfishly (unselfish, in that he did not want to see his rabbi, Jesus, suffer; but Judas knew it was a necessary part of the drama)?

   This line of thinking can lead inexorably to the ultimate Christian heresy, that Judas was the real Christ and Jesus of Nazareth was just a pretender and a pawn of the Infinite Wisdom.  In modern times, the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges has touched upon this idea in a short fictional piece (translated into English as “Three Versions of Judas,” and published in the collection entitled Labyrinths [New York:  New Directions, 1964]).  Think about it:  The man (or god manifested as a man) that really suffered in terms of ignominy and, some believe, descent and everlasting hereafter in hell for his betrayal, is Judas, and it is this suffering that was the ultimate sacrifice to redeem sinful humankind.  Jesus of Nazareth, in contrast, preached and gained a following, gathered power and fame, has been revered and worshipped for two thousand years by a loyal following, and all because he suffered for half a dozen hours on a cross and then appeared in a form that might have been a telepathic hallucination to a handful of followers (see The Easter Enigma by Michael C. Perry [London:  Faber, 1959]).  Some people would say that sounds like a pretty good tradeoff.  Whose sacrifice was greater, that of Judas or that of Jesus?  So who is the true redeemer, the true Christ?

   Such thoughts invert tradition, and in the first centuries of the common era there was a sect of Christianity that held many ideas such as these that were suppressed by the future mainstream Christians (mainstream simply because they won the battle of ideas that would dominate later centuries).  This grouping of so-called heretical ideas is now often referred to by the collective name of Gnosticism.  Gnosis refers to “knowledge,” and in this context knowledge of the secret mysteries and understanding of the divine.  The Gospel of Judas can therefore be viewed by some people as just one more Gnostic writing that may be interesting in terms of the light it sheds on beliefs held by certain sects during the second through fourth centuries A.D., but is not really too important, and certainly nothing to overturn standard Christian doctrine.

   Indeed, besides the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, there are literally dozens of other gospels known from the first two or three centuries following the death of Jesus.  Besides the Gospel of Judas, there is the Gospel of Thomas (sometimes referred to as the “fifth gospel,” see for instance Marcello Craveri, The Life of Jesus [New York:  Grove Press, 1967]), the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Gospel of the Egyptians, the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of James, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Mary (Mary Magdalene), and many others, including such related texts as the Apocryphon [Secret Book] of John and the Sophia of Jesus Christ.  Of course, as is the case with the four synoptic gospels, these various texts (including that of Judas) were almost certainly not written by the persons whose names they carry.  In fact, all were almost surely written generations after the events and sayings they reputedly report.

   To truly understand Christianity, one must look at the canonical writings

 of the New Testament in the context of other early Christian writings.

  Such texts have been known to varying degrees since ancient times,

but were greatly augmented by the 1945 discovery in Upper Egypt

of the Nag Hammadi library of Gnostic codices dating to the early centuries A.D.,

 including copies of the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip. 

   The recently uncovered Gospel of Judas comes from the same general area and is clearly related to the texts of Nag Hammadi.  When it comes right down to it, there is nothing necessarily special about the texts that made it into the New Testament, except that they were the ones picked by those early church fathers who gave rise to what is now considered the orthodox Christian view of Jesus and his followers.  If a Gnostic sect had survived and reached the status of orthodoxy, the world might now be discussing with amazement the discovery of some ancient text portraying St. Judas Iscariot, head of the pantheon of Christianity, as a villain and traitor extraordinaire.


Note:  This is a modified version of an article originally written for The New Archaeology Review






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