What if I were to tell you that there’s an account of Judas Iscariot that portrays him as one who betrayed Jesus out of obedience to him? Is it possible that there’s an account of Judas being the victim of an unfortunate circumstance and that his obedience to betray would lead to his rulership in the afterlife? Well, this is precisely the narrative that the Gospel of Judas (henceforth GJudas) portrays.
The discovery of this account took place in the 1970s in a cave near El Minya, Egypt. The text had disappeared from history for almost 1700 years. After its discovery, the codex was purchased by an antique dealer, Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos, and later named after him (Codex Tchacos). The manuscript was in poor shape and was quickly sent to Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Basel, Switzerland, for preservation.
The manuscript is around 66 pages containing the GJudas, the First Apocalypse of James, the Letter of Peter to Philip, and a fragment of the Temptation of Allogenes. The manuscript was radiocarbon dated and was estimated to be early third-century to the early-fourth century. The original text was likely in Greek, given the amount of borrowed Greek terms in this Coptic manuscript. Irenaeus (130- 202 AD) argued against a book he had access to known as the Gospel of Judas and called it “fictitious history.”1 One could easily assume the account Irenaeus referenced is the same narrative found in Codex Tchacos. That would likely place the original writing somewhere in the mid-second-century.
The Background of the Text
The opening statement in the narrative says,
“The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week, three days before he celebrated Passover.”
We are immediately presented with the typical Gnostic language of “secret account.” As demonstrated in previous articles (The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of Mary), the Gnostic Gospels will insert the writers’ names and “secret teachings” they received from Jesus compared to others.
A problem continues to build within these narratives. Which eye witness of Jesus was given the secret revelation that was better than the other? Is it Thomas? Is it Mary Magdalene? Is it Philip? Or are we now to believe it was Judas Iscariot? These Gnostic Gospels are typically shown as contradicting the canonical Gospels, but the truth is, they also contradict themselves. They lack harmony with one another, and in some ways, they rival one another.
The Sarcastic Jesus
Jesus is seen as partially sarcastic in this account. He often laughs at his disciples and Judas for asking questions about interpretation. In the beginning, the disciples are praying over a meal, and Jesus laughs at their prayer. It reads,
“When he came to his disciples sitting together praying over the bread, he laughed. The disciples said to him, ‘Master, why are you laughing at our prayer? What have we done? This is what’s right.’ Jesus informs them that they don’t know him, even though they acknowledged him as the Son of God.”
The Response of the Disciples
The disciples responded by getting “angry and furious and started to curse him in their hearts.” Jesus calls them out and challenges them to come and face him if they are “strong enough among humans to bring out the perfect Humanity.” The disciples believed they were strong enough, but the text says, “their spirits weren’t brave enough to stand before him – except Judas Iscariot.” Judas proclaims that he knows where Jesus came from but could not look him in the face. He said that Jesus came from “the immortal realm of Barbelo.”
What is the immortal realm of Barbelo? This goes back to the Gnostic belief in Sethian creation. This is what John Turner calls “the supreme triad” (The Father, Mother, and Child).2 The teaching goes as such: The Father is the infinite, invisible spirit that transcends all realms. The Mother (Barbelo) is “the projected self-reflection” of the Father. The Child, also called Autogenes (the pre-existing Christ), meaning “self-generated,” is produced from Barbelo either spontaneously or from a spark of the Father’s light. The Autogenes creates other beings known as luminaries and aeons.
These terms may seem foreign to New Testament believers, but they are essential in understanding the secret sayings that Jesus told Judas. The writer of the GJudas was purposely emphasizing the necessity of salvation that comes by escaping the physical world and entering the spiritual one.
The Theological Implications
There are critical components to interpreting the spiritual figures. God created angels and lower gods at the beginning of time. There were twelve specific angels created to rule the underworld and all the chaos in the physical world.3 Seven of the angels were given the responsibility of creating Adam, not God. The text reads,
“Saklas said to his angels, ‘Let us create a human being after the likeness and the image.’ And they fashioned Adam and his wife Eve.”
Cain murdering Abel became the downfall of humanity. The connection to God and the immortal realm became extinct. Jesus was sent as the son of the true God, rather than sending one of the lesser gods. His purpose was to show that salvation comes by connecting with the inner light of God within humans and that the finality of salvation comes at death when one escapes the physical realm. This is the method by which God restores the disconnect between the spiritual and the physical.
Judas’ Secret Conversation with Jesus
In this narrative, Judas is given the unique privilege of being excluded from the others and given secret interpretations of the vision. It was clear that the other eleven were mistaken in their understanding of salvation. The GJudas shows they were dependent upon physical matter to save them. They were focused on sacrificing animals, which pleased the lower gods but did not help them connect to God Himself.
Judas is given special insight into the eternal state of humans. Jesus says,
“The souls of every human generation will die; however, when these people have completed the time in the kingdom, and the spirit leaves them, their bodies will die, but their souls will live, and they’ll be taken up.”
Keep in mind the Gnostic belief about the soul is different from scriptural teaching. They teach the soul pre-existed time and is given to mortal flesh to potentially one day return to the heavenly realm.
Judas quickly asks the question that most of us would ask, “Does the human spirit die?” Jesus responds by saying,
“This is how it is. God commanded Michael to loan spirits to people so that they might serve. Then the Great One commanded Gabriel to give spirits to the great generation with no king – the spirit along with the soul. Seek the spirit within you which you’ve made to live in this flesh from the angelic generations. Then God caused knowledge to be brought to Adam and those with him so that the kings of Chaos and Hades might not rule over them.”
In the conclusion of this section, Michael is loaning spirits to people. Gabriel comes beside this work and gives the spirit, along with the soul, to the great generation that was not ruled over by the twelve angels who rule Hades and Chaos. After humans corrupted themselves, they were then ruled by Hades and Chaos. The sons of Adam lost the knowledge that was given to him at creation. Instead, darkness and confusion ruled their minds.
The Betrayal of Judas
One of the most important sections of this document is the betrayal. Judas is invited to enter the cloud, which appears to be for the purpose of transformation. Jesus tells him,
“You will exceed them all. For you will sacrifice the man who clothes me.”
This is what Jesus was saying: While the other disciples were wasting their time looking for redemption in the sacrificing of animals, Judas would be sacrificing the physical body of Jesus, allowing Jesus to complete his mission. Notice the Gnostic statement made by Jesus. He said, “the man who clothes me.” The body is a separate being from Jesus Himself. Remember, the body is inherently evil. Therefore, there has to be separation between the two. Ultimately, Judas obeyed Jesus and helped assist him in fulfilling salvation for the non-enlightened.
History has painted Judas Iscariot all of these years as a villain and traitor. This account has changed the entire dynamic by presenting him as a victim and obedient. There is no mention of Satan entering the heart of Judas (Luke 22:3) or betrayal with a kiss (Luke 22:48). Jesus promises Judas that he would rule the generation that hates him and that he would be given a place of honor. The Gospel account ends with these words:
“Their high priests grumbled because he’d gone into the guest room to pray. But some scribes were there watching closely so they could arrest him during his prayer because they were afraid of the people since they all regarded him as a prophet. And they approached Judas and said to him, “What are you doing here? Aren’t you Jesus’ disciple?” Then he answered them as they wished. Then Judas received some money and handed him over to them.”
This text has clearly demonstrated that the GJudas fails to meet all four criteria of a canonical book:
1. The Divine attributes of God- The teachings of God’s character is inconsistent with the rest of scripture. God was clear that without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin (cf. Heb. 9:22). In this account, the physical sacrifice is entirely irrelevant and criticized by Jesus. However, Paul taught that we are brought near to God by the blood of Christ (cf. Eph. 2:13).
The creation narrative in the GJudas is entirely different from that of the canonical texts. God created man in His image. According to the GJudas, Saklas and six other angels created Adam and Eve. The character of God could be viewed as distorted on many occasions in the GJudas.
2. Traced to the Apostles- There are no historical records of this text being associated with any of the Apostles. Irenaeus rejected the account and stated that its origin is from heretics.
3. Corporate reception of the Churches- Outside of Irenaeus making mention of it, there doesn’t appear to be much attention given to this account. It disappeared for almost 1700 years, and the only witness we have is one torn Coptic manuscript. This is good evidence that this account was not circulated or received by the Apostolic churches.
4. Intrinsic Reliability- There are numerous inconsistencies with the teaching of the soul. In places, Jesus teaches the destruction of it and in others the continuation of it. There are also internal issues with the presentation of Judas. Jesus called him the “thirteenth demon” in one place and the “greatest of all” in another. The Gnostic teachings in this book are independent of themselves in comparison to other ancient Gnostic texts.
The Church should emphatically reject the GJudas. It is heretical in nature, and as Irenaeus said, “fictitious history.”4 It does not belong in the canon, and most of its content is unreliable from a historical and theological viewpoint. As I’ve stated in previous articles, though many believers will not appreciate the theology, they should still be aware of its teachings. These studies will help us further understand what types of doctrines the early Church stood against.
-Dr. Stephen Boyce
- Irenaeus, Refutation of Gnosticism, 1
- Turner, John D. (1992), “Gnosticism and Platonism: The Platonizing Sethian texts from Nag Hammadi in their Relation to Later Platonic Literature”, in Wallis, Richard T.; Bregman, Jay (eds.), Neoplatonism and Gnosticism, SUNY Press, ISBN 0-7914-1338-1, archived from the original on 2007-06-22.
- Kasser, Rodolphe; Meyer, Marvin Meyer; Wurst, Gregor, eds. (2006). The Gospel of Judas. Commentary by Bart D. Ehrman. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society. pp. 1, 4–5, 7, 43.
- Against Heresies 1.31.1
All Citations of the text are taken from Mark M. Mattison’s translation https://www.gospels.net/judas