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A Spectator’s Guide to the Gospel of Judas

In 2006 it was announced to the world that a Gospel had been discovered which purported to be the account of Jesus written by Judas Iscariot, the supposed betrayer of Jesus. Below are twelve quick facts about the text in question.
 

  1. We’ve known of the existence of a ‘Gospel of Judas’ ever since Bishop Irenaeus (AD 180) made reference to a newly devised Gospel designed to cast Judas as the hero of the faith (and all the other apostles as ill-informed).
  2. The sole manuscript copy of the Gospel of Judas was discovered in Egypt in the mid-1970s.
  3. The manuscript itself dates to about AD 300.
  4. The document is a Coptic translation of an earlier Greek text composed in the mid-to-late second century, 100 years after Jesus (at the earliest).  
  5. The text, which is fragmentary, would fill about 10 pages of a modern Bible (though it is unlikely ever to appear there!).
  6. The document is clearly Gnostic, that is, part of a lively second century movement, which claimed that true ‘knowledge’ (gnosis) about the spiritual realm was passed on by Jesus secretly to close confidants, in this case to Judas.
  7. The core claim of the Gospel of Judas is that the eleven other apostles were deluded and worshipped a lesser deity they presumed to be the true God. Jesus, however, took Judas aside a few days before his death and revealed to him the truth about the myriad of spiritual worlds and deities over which he (Judas), as the leader of true Christianity, would one day rule. Jesus is quite explicit: no one from the generation of the eleven apostles had true gnosis. Judas is the great priest who sacrifices the body of Jesus and so is elevated to celestial, if not historical, glory.
  8. No scholar is claiming that the historical Judas produced the text.
  9. No scholar is claiming that the text records the teaching of the historical Jesus. It is too late and too apologetic (a defence of gnosticism against the mainstream) to be regarded as historical in any sense.
  10. When scholars call this text ‘authentic’ – as they do repeatedly in the National Geographic documentary on the document – they do not mean that it derives from Judas; they mean it is not a modern forgery. This really is the second century text referred to by Irenaeus (AD 180).
  11. All scholars approach this text—as they do the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, etc.—as important evidence of the variety of ‘Christian’ beliefs in the second and third centuries. After initial excitement in the last 20 years that the Gnostic Gospels (Thomas especially) might provide access to an earlier tradition than the New Testament Gospels, the great majority of mainstream scholars – whether Christian, Jewish or unaffiliated – regard the Gnostic material, including Thomas, as of secondary importance for understanding the historical Jesus.
  12. The full text (in English translation) can be downloaded at the National Geographic website.

Dr. John Dickson is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and a Honorary Associate of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University (Australia)