The Gospel of Judas             Dutch
Bas Rijken van Olst

 

In the 1970s a manuscript was found in a cave in Central Egypt, which contains a text entitled ‘The Gospel of Judas’. In 2006 this text was translated into English for the first time and published as The Gospel of Judas from Codex Tchacos [1].

What is the significance of the Gospel of Judas? Many people will be shocked just by hearing the title. Isn’t Judas portrayed in the New Testament Gospels and in a large part of the Christian tradition as the betrayer of Jesus who hands over his master to the Roman authorities? Isn’t the term ‘gospel’ applied only to the writings of people who try to give an accurate portrayal of the life and work of master Jesus, and is a traitor really the right person to do so?

Who is Judas and what role does he play in the New Testament and in the Gospel that bears his name? These questions are closely related to the way we see figures such as Jesus and Judas. Are they historical figures? A great deal of research has been carried out into the historical nature of Jesus, both within the Christian tradition and outside it, and most scholars conclude that the Gospels should not be taken literally. The number of contradictions and inconsistencies is too great to accept the story of Jesus as historical fact. There is no proof that a historical figure existed who carried out all the deeds attributed to Jesus in the New Testament. The stories – including the crucifixion – tend to have a symbolic, allegorical function. This does not alter the fact that there may have been a sage who served as a model for the main character in the Gospels, around whom the stories were woven.

In his Liberating the Gospels, Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes [2], Bishop John Selby Spong shows that the stories in the New Testament are largely based on Old Testament texts. The Jewish tradition is one of storytellers. These stories, including those in the Old Testament, often have a symbolic meaning. Spong’s book contains an interesting chapter entitled ‘Judas Iscariot: a Christian invention?’, which we will examine more closely below. In a review of Spong’s book in Sunrise (February/March 1998, pp. 82-6) we read the following:

The author starts out by explaining that the Gospels are essentially Jewish books, written by Jewish people for early (Jewish) Christians who were still worshipping in the synagogue. His premise, which he bases on the work of Bible scholar Michael Goulder, is that most of what is written in the Gospels involves references to the various festivals following the Jewish liturgical calendar. Spong points out that the ‘Gospels are Jewish attempts to interpret in a Jewish way the life of a Jewish man in whom the transcendence of God was believed to have been experienced in a fresh and powerful encounter’ (p. 20). These interpretations were not exact descriptions of what happened historically or what Jesus said or did. ‘Stories about heroes of the Jewish past were heightened and retold again and again about heroes of the present moment, not because those same events actually occurred, but because the reality of God revealed in those moments was like the reality of God known in the past. As this journey through the Gospels progresses, we will watch this midrashic principle operating time after time’ (pp. 36-37).

In his chapter on Judas Iscariot, Spong traces the development of the figure of Judas through the Gospels. He bases this on biblical research that has yielded a chronology in which the Gospel of Mark is the oldest gospel, followed by Matthew, Luke and finally John. In the course of time, more and more details were added concerning the character of Judas. In Mark, the story of Judas is rather embryonic. Matthew adds that Judas asked for money for his betrayal, and says that his motive was ‘greed’. Luke adds that his betrayal was the work of Satan, who possessed Judas. John adds the disciples’ question as to the identity of the traitor, to which Jesus replies: ‘It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish’ (13:26). As more details are added, the portrayal of Judas becomes increasingly negative. Spong summarizes his findings as follows:

When we put all the pieces together, a pattern certainly emerges. From Zechariah [11:13] we get the account of the betrayal of the shepherd king of the Jews for thirty pieces of silver. From the story of Ahithophel [2 Sam. 17:1-23] we get the picture of the one who, when he betrayed the Lord’s anointed, went out and hanged himself. Suicide was also freshly in the mind of Matthew, for Jewish resistance to the Roman army had ended in mass suicides of the final Jewish soldiers at Masada. From the story of Joab [2 Sam. 1-10], we get the kiss of betrayal and the disembowelment of Amasa. From Psalm 41 we get the account of the friend who becomes the enemy after eating bread at the table together. From the Joseph story [Gen. 37-50], we get the detail of the brother named Judah (Judas) who decided to seek money in exchange for ‘handing over’ his brother to the gentiles and almost certain death. That accounts for almost every detail in the gospel tradition regarding one known as Judas and called Iscariot. This analysis, at the very least, makes the midrashic creation of the Judas story sound more and more probable. At the very least, it suggests that most of the details about the life of Judas may not be literal at all.     – Spong, ibid., p. 270

The character of Judas that gradually took shape in the New Testament may be explained by the fact that the new religion that later became Christianity wanted to be associated less and less with the religion of the inhabitants of Palestine, the Jews, who sometimes openly resisted the rulers of the Roman Empire. In the story of Jesus, the Christians therefore looked for ways of shifting the weight of guilt for Jesus’ death away from the Roman rulers who had demanded his conviction and carried out the sentence – the crucifixion. The guilt was increasingly shifted to Judas, the disciple who had betrayed Jesus. The name Judas is very close to the term ‘Jew’ – the original inhabitants of Judea, or the practitioners of the Jewish religion. In this way, the new religion distanced itself from its source – Judaism. This is a key factor in the origin of anti-Semitism. Matthew’s gospel contains the germ, when Pontius Pilate allows the crowd to decide whether he should release Barabbas or Jesus:

‘Barabbas,’ they answered. ‘What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?’ Pilate asked. They all answered, ‘Crucify him!’ ‘Why? What crime has he committed?’ asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, ‘Crucify him!’ When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility!’ All the people answered, ‘Let his blood be on us and on our children!’    – 27:21-25

This development, and the associated negative portrayal of Judas, would have been entirely unnecessary if there had been a better understanding that the entire Jesus story was meant symbolically. The Gospel of Judas is a Gnostic writing and, like similar texts, such as those found at Nag Hammadi, throws a very different light on early, non-orthodox Christianity. The first Christians did not have a rigid, dogmatic system of thought; in the early centuries AD they were able to draw from a wide range of ideas that were then available. This early form of spirituality emphasizes gnosis, or literally ‘knowledge’ – mystical knowledge, knowledge of God, and of the essential unity of our higher self with the divine. The term ‘gnosis’ and our word ‘know’ are etymologically related. In his essay ‘Christianity turned on its head: the alternative vision of the Gospel of Judas’, Bart D. Ehrman explains:

Gnostics are those who are ‘in the know’. And what is it that they know? They know secrets that can bring salvation. For gnostics, a person is saved not by having faith in Christ or by doing good works. Rather, a person is saved by knowing the truth – the truth about the world we live in, about who the true God is, and especially about who we ourselves are. In other words, this is largely self-knowledge: Knowledge of where we came from, how we got here, and how we can return to our heavenly home. According to most gnostics, this material world is not our home. We are trapped here, in these bodies of flesh, and we need to learn how to escape. For those gnostics who were also Christian (many gnostics were not), it is Christ himself who brings this secret knowledge from above. He reveals the truth to his intimate followers, and it is this truth that can set them free.    – The Gospel of Judas, p. 84

In the Gnostic tradition, the crucifixion symbolizes the fact that our higher self (our spiritual-divine nature) is chained to the world of matter. Death on the cross therefore represents the ending of this crucifixion through a second or spiritual birth in which the lower nature is transformed and united with our higher nature; the body then no longer enchains us but becomes an instrument serving the higher self. The death on the cross, far from being a negative event, therefore represents a liberation. It does not signify the literal death of the physical body, but the abandonment of attachments to physical matter and union with our innermost spiritual nature. This stage in man’s spiritual development is sometimes described as a new or second birth; in India, for example, initiates into this broader spiritual knowledge are known as dvijas – ‘twice-born’.

According to The Gospel of Judas Jesus ‘often did not appear to his disciples as himself, but he was found among them as a child’ (p. 20, my italics). The reference to a child may also refer to someone who is ‘new-born’ or has been ‘initiated’ into this spiritual knowledge.

Unlike the New Testament, The Gospel of Judas depicts Judas as a positive figure. He is an example for everyone who wants to be a follower of Jesus. He does exactly what Jesus asks him to do. The special position of Judas in this Gospel is apparent when Jesus says to Judas: ‘But you will exceed all of them [the other disciples]. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me [lit. “that bears me”]’ (ibid., p. 43).

Not Jesus (the higher nature) is sacrificed, but the lower man that clothes him. This is another reference to initiation, when our lower nature is conquered or subdued by our higher nature. Judas, whose insight surpasses that of the other disciples, is about to be initiated. The sentence quoted can also be interpreted to mean: You (the candidate for initiation) will sacrifice the man (the lower passions) who clothes me (the higher nature).

According to Ehrman, one of the gnostics’ ideas was that ‘this world is not the creation of the one true God. The god who made this world – the God of the Old Testament – is a secondary, inferior deity. He is not the God above all who is to be worshipped. Rather, he is to be avoided, by learning the truth about the ultimate divine realm, this evil material world, our entrapment here, and how we can escape’ (ibid., p. 86). The latter ideas are very similar to Buddhist thought. That is not so surprising because around the beginning of the first millennium, Buddhist ‘missionaries’ were active in the region to the east of the Mediterranean.

The following fragment from The Gospel of Judas shows that only Judas had reached an advanced stage of development and had gained knowledge of the higher realm of the true God, in contrast to the realm of the lower creator-God of the Old Testament; the creator-God is worshipped by the other disciples:

Jesus said to them [the disciples], ‘How do you know me? Truly [I] say to you, no generation [this term seems to denote a certain stage in the development of mankind] of the people that are among you will know me.’

When his disciples heard this, they started getting angry and infuriated and began blaspheming against him in their hearts.

When Jesus observed their lack of [understanding, he said] to them, ‘Why has this agitation led you to anger? Your god who is within you and […] have 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. [This is the realm of the true divine beings, not the lower realm of the Jewish creator-God.] And I am not worthy to utter the name of the one who has sent you.’

… Jesus said to him [Judas], ‘Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal. For someone else will replace you, in order that the twelve [disciples] may again come to completion with their god.’    – Ibid., pp. 21-3

The Gospel of Judas ends with the ‘betrayal’ of Jesus by Judas and not with the crucifixion of Jesus. The crucifixion is not mentioned at all. This Gospel says nothing about Jesus being killed. It says only that he was handed over to the scribes. The Gospel of Judas ends as follows:

Their high priests murmured because [Jesus] had gone into the guest room for his prayer. But some scribes were there watching carefully in order to arrest him during the prayer, for they were afraid of the people, since he was regarded by all as a prophet.

They approached Judas and said to him, ‘What are you doing here? You are Jesus’ disciple.’
Judas answered them as they wished. And he received some money and handed him over to them.
      – Ibid., pp. 44-5

Finally, we may wonder how old the Gospel of Judas is, and whether it is an authentic scripture. People have always known of the existence of this Gospel, since Church father Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, mentions it in his book Against Heresies, written in Latin around 180 AD. Theologians and scholars were not able to study this scripture until recently because no copies were available. Could this newly discovered text entitled The Gospel of Judas be the original document that no one has been able to read for over 1600 years? Research into the age of the manuscript shows that it is indeed an authentic ancient document and dates back to around 280 AD. This tells us nothing about when it was originally written, but since Irenaeus refers to it, it must have been before 180 AD.

The publication of this Gospel provides a fresh incentive to closely scrutinize the roots of Christianity. It strengthens the suspicion that the ideas that we now call Christianity may be far removed from the original message of the wise master Jesus.

 

References

1. The Gospel of Judas from Codex Tchacos, edited by Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer and Gregor Wurst, with additional commentary by Bart D. Ehrman, published by the National Geographic Society, Washington DC, 2006, 192pp., cloth, ISBN 1-4262-0042-0.
2. Harper SanFrancisco, 1996.

 


Translated from Impuls (Newsletter of the Dutch Section of the Theosophical Society), september 2007, No. 40.