Is the Gospel of Judas Gospel?

by Jacquelyn E. Winston

I watched the National Geographic commercials with interest as they discussed the discovery of an ancient document called the Gospel of Judas. As a scholar in early Christianity, my first thought was slightly bemused and mildly diffident: “So what’s new?” I assumed it was merely another special which repackaged gnostic ideas from the Nag Hammadi Library1 into a popularized form designed to create interest and controversy like The Da Vinci Code. But as various news programs began to question the significance of this controversial new document and its implications for modern Christian faith, I began to envision the figurative announcer for a theological “smackdown.”

In this corner, we have the postmodern relativist with academic credentials, the rejection of any overarching metanarrative that would preference one religious view over any others, and the complete rejection of ideological absolutism in any form. In the opposite corner, sits the staunchly conservative biblical literalist who challenges academic exploration, social contextualization, or any hypothesis which might threaten evangelical hegemony.

Are such extremes really the only two ways to respond to writings like the Gospel of Judas? What is the Gospel of Judas, how was it viewed by the early church when it was written, and what value does it hold for modern evangelical Christians?

The Authenticity and History of the Gospel of Judas

The Gospel of Judas is the rediscovery and recent translation of an ancient document which was well-known to several of the early church fathers. Its modern history is different from the writings contained in the Nag Hammadi Library, although the writing in the document itself shares many ideological similarities. It appears that the manuscript was discovered by a speculator in ancient documents in the 1970s, but since none of his potential buyers was willing to pay his steep asking price, it was locked in a bank vault for several decades. This method of storing the manuscript resulted in its disintegration into small pieces which were then painstakingly reassembled and the document restored, translated, and carbon dated by a group of international scholars under the auspices of the Maecenas Foundation between 2000-05.

The Gospel of Judas was originally written in Greek and the early church father, Irenaeus, was aware of its existence when he wrote against it c. 180 CE. This particular manuscript, written in Coptic, has been carbon dated to the early fourth century. Therefore, one question has been immediately answered – the document itself is authentic. It is not a fake, forgery, or modern fiction designed to undermine traditional Christian faith. But to say that the document is an authentic ancient writing neither comments on its theological acceptance by the proto-orthodox church, nor explains the goals of the people who wrote it.

The Ancient Writers of the Gospel of Judas

A common literary device during the hellenistic period involved naming a writing after its principal figure or after the teacher of a particular school of thought. Such is the case with the Gospel of Judas. It was not written by Judas Iscariot, but it does portray him as the hero in the betrayal of Jesus. The document has been attributed to two groups: one by Irenaeus, the other by modern scholars on the basis of its ideological similarities with other gnostic Sethian writings.

Irenaeus called the writers of the Gospel of Judas Cainites because they held positive views of many notorious religious figures in biblical history, including Cain, Esau, Korah, the people of Sodom, and Judas (Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 1.31, cf. Epiphanius, Panarion 38). According to Irenaeus, this group valued the knowledge gained from experience, and since even bad events resulted in the acquisition of greater knowledge, the events themselves were to be seen as the pathway to enlightenment.

The Cainites probably would have rejected this name. Most likely, they called themselves Christians, but it is clear that they espoused gnostic views which emphasized the acquisition of secret knowledge as the way to salvation.

Gnosticism posed a particular threat to early traditional Christianity because it made knowledge the means to achieve salvation instead of the substitutionary atonement of Christ’s death on the cross. Furthermore, since gnostics viewed matter as evil, they believed that Jesus only appeared to be present in corporeal form, and they believed that the world was created by a lesser evil god, different from the Ineffable Spirit who was good. This ideological dualism allowed gnostics to compartmentalize life – evil events and the seemingly random nature of calamity visited on innocent people could be blamed on matter as a result of the lesser god, and on ignorance, while escape from this world could be achieved by self-actualization and igniting the spark of the divine spirit within through knowledge. No need for a savior. No need to confess sin. And the thing humans seem to crave most – the ability to control one’s personal destiny without being dependent on a God who will accept nothing less than complete self-surrender and faith.

Marvin Meyer, a respected Coptic scholar and Chapman University professor, describes the writer of the Gospel of Judas as a Sethian gnostic because it mentions the incorruptible generation of Seth (Gospel of Judas 49) and it shares common ideas with other Sethian gnostic writings found in the Nag Hammadi. The generation of Seth in gnostic writings signified those born of the new generation of humanity after the tragic death of Abel and the banishment of Cain. For Sethian gnostics, Jesus was a teacher, “not a savior who dies for the sins of the world. For gnostics, the fundamental problem in human life is not sin, but ignorance, and the best way to address this problem is not through faith, but through knowledge” (Meyer, Introduction to the Gospel of Judas [Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2006], 7).

The Significance of the Gospel of Judas for Contemprorary Christianity

The discovery of the Gospel of Judas is valuable because it demonstrates how theological challenges forced the early church to define its own faith. Contrary to the historiographic agenda of Eusebius of Caesarea, the fourth century church historian, orthodoxy did not precede heresy. Instead, the early church had to struggle with its doctrines to determine which writings it would accept as authentic representations of Christ’s intention and which ones contradicted the emerging identity of the church. And in spite of suggestions otherwise, their decisions were not always simply the result of a show of force by the institutionalized church against an oppressed religious minority. Even though the church was guilty at times of abusing its power to silence its detractors, there is a clear consistency in the soteriological implications of those doctrines which prevailed to form orthodox Christianity.

The rediscovery of the Gospel of Judas underscores the contemporary fascination with similar ideas found in The Da Vinci Code. We will do almost anything to control our own destinies. We do not want to admit that we cannot find the answers by ourselves, and we certainly do not want to be in a position where we have to seek God each and every day to find out what it means to live an authentic Christian life, confessing sin, surrendering to God, and allowing the life of Christ to be formed in us, not by secret knowledge, but by daily obedience. People are comfortable with a historical Jesus who possessed human foibles and desires because it allows them to recreate God in their own image, and lessens the sense of personal guilt caused by human failure. They remain equally satisfied with a view of God as a non-corporeal transcendent, yet impersonal Spirit because it allows them to create their own system of knowledge which they can control as a means of achieving an arbitrary goal of perfection in contradistinction to the specific and personal demands of a personal God.

Early church fathers rejected gnostic teachings like those espoused in the Gospel of Judas, at their core, because they substituted a Living Savior who was both God and human for a nondescript image, an illusory frontispiece dependent on human systems of self-determination. The discovery of the Gospel of Judas should not be viewed as a threat, but rather as a reminder that Christians need to be able to explain what they believe and why. Such writings allow us to re-examine our faith to discover whether we seek God on His terms, or on the basis of personal agendas designed to assuage our consciences and give us ultimate control of our spiritual destinies.

Jacquelyn E. Winston ([email protected]) is an adjunct professor in the undergraduate division of the School of Theology. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Azusa Pacific University, and and is completing her Ph.D. degree from Claremont Graduate University in the History of Christianity with a specialization in Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christianity.

1 The Nag Hammadi Library is a group of gnostic writings which were discovered in 1945 in Egypt. Like the Gospel of Judas, they were written in Coptic around the fourth century, but probably were originally written in Greek much earlier.