The Gospel of Judas: A Villain Rehabilitated?

Posted by on Apr 10, 2006 in Blog | 4 comments

The release of the text of the so-called “Gospel of Judas” has been reported with considerable enthusiasm by the media. At the center of this gospel is Judas Iscariot, known from the biblical Gospels as the betrayer of Judas. Yet from the Gospel of Judas, a different figure emerges. In private conversation, Jesus tells Judas he will share with him alone “the mysteries of the kingdom” and asks him to hand him over to the authorities so that his body can be sacrificed. Why would Jesus want to be betrayed and crucified?

The answer is found in another enigmatic statement in the Gospel of Judas: “But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” In this particular quote, “the man that clothes me” refers to Jesus’ body. According to the Gospel of Judas, Jesus longed to be set free from this physical shell, which he considered to be, in good Gnostic fashion, the “prison of the soul.” Judas the liberator? Betrayal a virtue? Jesus a Gnostic? The Gospel of Judas stands conventional ethical notions such as betrayal as being morally evil on its head. Is Judas, then, a villain rehabilitated? And what are we to make of the discovery of the Gospel of Judas in the first place? Several observations can be made.

(1) The name “Gospel” of Judas is misleading. From a genre perspective, it is unclear what merits such a label. If the biblical Gospels are taken as a standard (see especially Mark 1:1), and we remember that “Gospel” means “good news,” neither the literary form nor the content of the Gospel of Judas qualifies as “Gospel.” The Gospel of Judas does not convey good news, nor is it truly a Gospel.

(2) The Gospel of Judas was neither written by Judas nor does it preserve authentic historical information about Judas or his relationship with Jesus. It is the Gospel “of Judas” only in the sense that Judas is the main figure featured in this work. In typical apocryphal fashion, gaps in the biblical record (in the present case, no recorded extended conversations between Jesus and Judas) are filled in, and in typical Gnostic fashion, biblical events and their significance are reinterpreted in a dualistic fashion (where matter is set against spirit).

(3) The Gospel of Judas is likely an authentic third-century A.D. Gnostic Gospel whose major contribution is that it helps us better to understand the movement called Gnosticism, the first major Christian heresy. Specifically, the document sheds light on how Gnostics viewed Jesus’ crucifixion and Judas’ act of betrayal. At the same time, like the other Gnostic gospels, the Gospel of Judas postdates the biblical Gospels by well over a century and thus is clearly inferior to them in terms of historical reliability. It is also inferior to them with regard to orthodox content. This was recognized already by Church Fathers such as Irenaeus, who in his work Against Heresies denounced Gnosticism as heretical and refuted it in the strongest terms.

I conclude, therefore, that the Gospel of Judas is not truly a Gospel; it does not go back to the “historical Judas” and does not preserve reliable tradition about Jesus or the Betrayer; and, while probably authentic, it contributes to a better understanding of Gnosticism but not of the biblical gospel or the true meaning of the sacrifice of Christ.

But there is one more important side product of the discovery of the Gospel of Judas that emerges. It is the fact that an alternative religion to Christianity, namely Gnosticism, owing to its philosophical commitment to a dualism between matter and spirit and between body and soul, ends up not only radically reinterpreting the meaning of the crucifixion, but in fact recasting betrayal as liberation. What in virtually all human civilizations is viewed as morally treacherous, Gnosticism, to be consistent with its overall worldview, presents as an ethically virtuous act. For if the body is the prison of the soul, betraying a person liberates that person from what imprisons him or her. But what are we to say of a religion that casts betrayal as morally virtuous?

The answer is obvious. Such a religion is hardly ethically superior to the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount or to the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament Law. In fact, one shudders when one contemplates the likely implications of the elevation of Gnostic spirituality above biblical morality in our day. Those who look to Gnosticism for the liberation of humanity had better face this (for them) uncomfortable fact. The biblical Jesus and the biblical Gospels stand heads and shoulders above all counterfeits and cheap copies and distortions of the original. The media feeding frenzy notwithstanding, Bible-believing Christians can be grateful that the publication of the Gospel of Judas has made this even clearer than it was before.

4 Comments

  1. Hello,
    Seems to me that these texts being found would be purer reading , properly interperted, than the books we read today. Reason being our bible through time has had man re working the meaning of the orginial script. For me the Gnostic readings thus far has filled in the gaps that the bible we have today leaves out. I believe that the Holly Spirit ignites in us the meaning of all writings thus is why our journey is a personal one. How can learning something new not give growth? Reading these text of Gnostic has made me fill closer to our Creator, Christ and the meaning of our lives. Why would it be so hard to think that Judas was asked to hand Jesus over? Remember this was planned by the Father foreknowledge. Put it this way if you where dying and on life support of some kind, would it not be someone whom you loved that you would ask to pull the plug? Knowning your demise is it not more comforting to have someone you love taking the bold steps to end your physical life or would you rather be someone that is an enemy or stranger that holds no respect or knowledge of the person you are?

  2. We have to think all over again this Judas-story through the doctrine of Predestination…

  3. Great ministry! Keep on doing it! I have found lots of straight answers about which I was also confused! I’m sure the Spirit will teach us not only what to say but also what to beleive. And you have to decide: there was a spiritual inspiration of the Biblical Canon and these are the false teachings of the last times, or: the Biblical Canon is not yet closed, the Spirit is still revealing writings through archeological founds (what if the ending verses of Revelations, Rev 22,18-19 or the whole book couldn’t have made into the Canon?), or: the forming of the Biblical Canon was partly the work of the Spirit and partly the spoiling of the Church of those times (work against the Spirit?), as even the apostolic church could have mistakes. Is that right, Refomrmers?
    A young Reformed pastor from Romania, Europe.

  4. Hello,

    I wonder if it is okay to make judgements about the Gospels like this. We don’t know what happened 2000 yrs ago – do we? It is time to sideline for a while the stand taken by the religious authorities so far, and ponder that how could Judas have betrayed the Son of God? If it was all the plan – then Judas merely played a role that no one else was capable of performing. If this was the case – where is the scope for betrayal? If Jesus knew that Judas was to deliver him – how could anyone term that as betrayal?

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