The Gospel of Judas: A Villain Rehabilitated?
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.