A reflection on the Gospel of Judas

A reflection on the Gospel of Judas

A few years ago I wrote this article in the aftermath of some newspaper stories about “The Judas Gospel”.

 

In the run up to Easter the newspapers were full of hype about a recently discovered historical document, the Gospel of Judas, which shows the “resurrection did not happen” [1], and “contradicts [the] basis of Christianity”.[2] Claims like this deserve to be examined in greater detail, so I thought I would share a few reflections about the Judas Gospel[3].

Let’s begin by reading a little bit from the beginning of the Judas gospel for ourselves. To set the scene: the disciples are trying to do something like a communion service, and they aren’t doing it very well. Jesus’ response is to mock their efforts, and the disciples get angry with him.

“[Jesus said to the disciples], “Your god who is within you …[has] provoked you to anger [within] your souls. [Let] any one of you who is [strong enough] among human beings bring out the perfect human and stand before my face.”

 They all said, “We have the strength.”

But their spirits did not dare to stand before [him], except for Judas Iscariot. He was able to stand before him, but he could not look him in the eyes, and he turned his face away.

Judas [said] to him, “I know who you are and where you have come from. You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo. And I am not worthy to utter the name of the one who has sent you.”[4]

 Two things stand out from that quote which show us how different the theology of the Judas gospel is from orthodox Christianity.

The first is Jesus’ use of the phrase “your God who is within you”. The reason the word “your” is used, is to make the point that the disciples and Jesus are not worshipping the same god. As far as the author of the Judas Gospel is concerned, the disciples, and everyone who has followed after them (including all Christians today), have completely missed the point. Only Jesus and Judas have truly worked out who god is.

The second thing is Judas’ suggestion that Jesus comes from the “immortal realm of Barbelo. This strange phrase isn’t found anywhere else in the Bible, and it tells us much about who wrote the gospel of Judas and what they are trying to tell us.

Barbelo is a combined male and female creator figure in Gnostic creation myths. Gnosticism was a small cult that sprang up in the Middle-East about 200 years before Jesus. They believed a complex mix of Judaism, Greek mythology and the writings of the Greek philosopher Plato.

In the middle of the 2nd century AD, the Gnostics began to adapt their system to include Jesus. One of the Gnostic groups trying to do this was known as the Sethians[5], and it was either them, or very similar group known as the Cainites, who are the authors of the Judas gospel.

The Sethians believed Jesus to be Adam’s third son Seth, reborn, come to reveal the secret wisdom that is in all of us, presumably so that we can become the “perfect human” that Judas claimed to be in the reading.

Already, we can see that the Judas Gospel is radically different from the gospels that those who knew Jesus first hand, regarded as being accurate accounts of his life. So what are we to do with it? Is it a lost Christian document which destroys Christianity? Is it a fake? Or is it just a historical curiosity?

Well I want to make three observations.

1)The Gnostics were not Christian.

The Judas Gospel gives us an entirely different, and utterly negative, understanding of humanity, and why we exist. To understand why, we need to understand how Gnostics viewed the world.[6]

In the Gnostic creation account, the ultimate God isn’t involved in creation. To ensure this isolation, lower orders of divine being are created to do the work. Barbelo, whom the Judas gospel mentions, is one of them. Barbelo in turn spawns lower orders of divine being, including a female goddess called Sophia (who embodies all wisdom). Greedy for power, she creates a sub-god herself, called Yaldabaoth.

Unfortunately Yaldabaoth steals some of Sophia’s power and creates a race called the Archons; and it is Yaldabaoth and the Archons who create the universe in which we live. Then Yaldabaoth declares to the universe he created that he is the only god, and that none exist superior to him.

Next, Yaldabaoth creates Adam, and accidentally transfers a portion of the power he stole from Sophia into him. In an attempt to isolate and regain the power he has lost, he removes a rib from Adam, but instead accidentally creates Eve.

Yaldabaoth next seduces Eve, who gives birth to Cain and Abel. Meanwhile Sophia has the serpent persuade Adam and Eve to eat of the tree of Knowledge, which enables them to see the truth about the universe, and to become perfect humans, who then conceive Seth, the true-born perfect human idolised by the Sethian group.

Confused? Well let me summarise it a little:

  • In the Gnostic creation account, if it hadn’t been for the evil Yaldabaoth figure, the world and people would not have been created. (So humanity is not meant to exist!)
  • Women especially are not meant to exist.[7]
  • The serpent in the Garden of Eden isn’t evil, but the hero (he didn’t deceive Adam and Eve, he helped them).
  • Seth is the ultimate human, and Jesus is Seth reborn.

This is very different from the Christian creation story as told in Genesis chapters 1-3. In Genesis 1-3, God is in charge, involved, and knows what’s going on. People are created deliberately, as is the world in which they live. Women were always part of the plan, and the serpent tricks Adam and Eve into disobedience.

The Gnostic creation account inverts just about everything the bible teaches about the origins of people and the world. Fundamentally it tells us that evil is good, and good is evil. From which I conclude that, whatever the Gnostics were, they were not Christian.

2)The Judas Gospel is not a Christian document.

If you spend any time analysing the Judas Gospel it is clearly very different from the other gospels.

Consider how Jesus is portrayed. Judas’ Jesus is a miserable figure, speaking only in mysteries, mocking the ignorance of his disciples, whilst praising Judas for his insight.

Or consider what the Judas gospel tells us about how we are to live: in short it tells us nothing. And this shouldn’t surprise us: for Gnostics, what we do with our bodies doesn’t really matter, because our bodies are decaying temporary residences for our eternal souls.

Contrast this with the Jesus we find in the bible, who speaks plainly, at length, using language entirely appropriate to his day. And is constantly challenging us about the need to change the way we live now, because our bodies matter here and now.

Once again, as with the creation accounts, we find that the theology of the Judas Gospel and the other gospels are complete opposites; from which I conclude that not only are the Gnostics not Christian, but the Judas gospel is not a Christian document.

3)Judas didn’t write it.

The copy of the Judas Gospel that the National Geographic TV channel has just translated and published at a cost of around £1m (hence the marketing hype in the papers) has been carbon dated to the 3rd or 4th century.

However a Christian leader called Irenaeus mentions, “the Gospel of Judas” in his book “Against Heresy” around 180AD, so it must predate 180AD. But by how much? Clearly if Judas was the author, it must have been written in about 33AD, in the short period between his betrayal of Jesus, and his suicide.

However if Judas was the author, he gives us absolutely no evidence that he lived in 1st century Palestine. And this is the major sticking point with the whole question of whether the document is authentic, for when historians try to date a piece of writing, they compare it to the ideas in other documents written at a similar time. And if you do that with the Judas gospel, the only conclusion you can come to, is that it’s not a 33AD document.

The New Testament scholar and historian NT Wright summed the Judas gospel up rather well; by saying that assuming the Judas gospel was written by Judas in 33AD is rather like, coming across a letter from Napoleon to his senior advisors in which they talk about, “nuclear submarines and B52 bombers.”[8]  You see no one in Israel in 33AD was talking about Barbelo and Seth.

However if you move the date forward 120 years, to around 150AD, then it fits much better, because that was the time when the Gnostics started to write new gospels, supposedly by significant figures in the Jesus story, which radically altered the church’s accepted view of Jesus as given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

So the gospel of Judas almost certainly wasn’t written by Judas. And it was written a long time after Judas died, and a long time after any eye-witnesses of his life had died.

By comparison, Matthew, Mark, Luke and even John, were almost certainly written within the lifetimes of the many eye-witnesses of Jesus life, death and resurrection. And these eye-witnesses affirmed their accuracy, which is why the early church preserved them.

So in conclusion, does the Judas gospel undermine Christianity? No! Was it written by Judas? No! Does it tell us anything about Judas? No!

All it tells us is that within 120 years of Jesus’ resurrection, there were people around who were creating fake historical documents in an attempt to lead Christians away from Jesus message of repentance, servanthood, and love, into the utterly self-absorbed spirituality of Gnosticism.

By all means read it for historical insight into Gnosticism, but don’t let the media hype blind you as to what it is: a 2nd century fake!

[1] Churcher, Sharon and Gallagher, Ian, Mail on Sunday, 2nd April 2006, p13

[2] Churcher, Sharon and Gallagher, Ian, Mail on Sunday, 2nd April 2006, p13

[3] If you would like to read it for yourself, its available online here. It will probably help to have a good modern translation of one of the other gospels to hand so you can compare the two. And if you do that you’ll immediately notice a huge difference not only in content, but also in style.

[4] The Gospel of Judas, http://www.tertullian.org/rpearse/manuscripts/gospel_of_judas/#English%20Translation

[5] http://ashejournal.com/index.php?id=30

[6] Adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sethians

[7] Its interesting to note that the novel The Da Vinci Code makes much of how Gnosticism affirms the sacred feminine. As with many other things, the author of the Da Vinci Code got this wrong. Gnosticism is philosophically against, women, men and sex. The ideal is the male-female (androgynous) Babelo figure instead.

[8] NT Wright, Maundy Thursday Sermon, Durham Cathedral, 13th April 2006.  http://www.ntwrightpage.com/sermons/Sermon_As_One_Who_Serves.htm

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