he release of the so-called Gospel of Judas by the National Geographic Society on April 6, 2006 attracted widespread, often sensational, media coverage. It’s time to set the record straight.
Writing about 180 AD, the Christian bishop of Lyon, Iraneaus, referred to a heretical writing known as the Gospel of Judas. That work, written in Greek around the middle of the second century, has never been found; however, a translation into Coptic (Egyptian) from the third or fourth century has come to light. This is the manuscript that the National Geographic Society published in English, with considerable hoopla.
I think most of those who rush to buy this book will feel a letdown. After handing over $22, you find that the actual Gospel of Judas is only 26 pages long and, due to gaps in the papyrus fragments, reads very poorly. Its ideas are largely incomprehensible, even with the footnotes provided.
The Gospel of Judas purports to provide sayings of Jesus given to Judas during the week leading up to His crucifixion. It turns on its head the role of Judas that we find in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Instead of Judas being the betrayer, he acts in obedience to the instructions of Jesus. Judas in fact is Jesus’ favored disciple, the only one of the twelve who truly understands Him. In this scenario, Jesus asks Judas to help him return to the kingdom by helping Him abandon His mortal flesh. “You will sacrifice the man that clothes me”, he tells Judas.
The Gospel of Judas depicts the world as the product of a lower, bloodthirsty deity, not the work of the higher, true God. Thus, it rejects the biblical picture of Creation and of Yahweh, the Creator, in favor of a radically different view of the cosmos and its origins.
These ideas come straight out of the biggest doctrinal challenge with which the early church had to contend--Gnosticisn, a diffused blending of ideas from Christian, Jewish, Greek, and Roman thought. The New Age movement in our times provides a rough comparison.
Gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, which means “knowledge”. The Gnostics claimed to have superior knowledge, and cast scorn on the teachings of the Bible as belonging to a foolish level of truth. They asserted that the disciples of Jesus were too stupid to comprehend His deep instruction, which He passed on in secret to those who were able to receive it. And in the Gospel of Judas, the tables are turned as the “villain” is revealed as the channel of Jesus’ true teachings.
Drawing on ideas from Greek philosophy, the Gnostics held that the body was evil. Thus, they denied that Jesus was truly God in the flesh. This is why the Apostle John, writing late in the first century, warned against anyone who does not accept the truth of the Incarnation (1 John 4:2, 3), and continually stressed that genuine spiritual knowledge is not something new but “that which you heard from the beginning” (1 John 2:7, 24).
What light, then, does the Gospel of Judas shed on the story of Jesus? Not one chink. The Gospel of Judas simply tells us what Gnostic mythology believed a century or later after Jesus’ death. The only new wrinkle is the role this “gospel” assigns to Judas Iscariot.
No Christian should feel in the least threatened by the “revelation” brought to light in the Gospel of Judas. The four biblical Gospels stand tall and unchallenged: they give us the story from those who actually saw and heard the Master.
The one aspect of the Gospel of Judas that bothers me is the part played by those involved in its publication. The Gospel, which was supposedly found by an illiterate garlic farmer in a remote burial cave in Egypt, has an odor about it. Its history is murky, replete with smuggling and thievery. The eventual owners could not sell it for a profit because it was an illegally acquired antiquity, so they needed another plan.
“They lit upon the idea of selling the (publication rights). The National Geographic Society bit book, line and sinker to publish (on) the Easter season”, notes James Robinson, an expert in ancient Coptic texts. “They sold the public a bill of goods.”*
This is the real story behind this ancient document.
*Quoted in “Decoding Judas’ Gospel,” The Sun [San Bernardino, CA], April 14, 2006.