Did Judas Have God on His Side?
I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.”
-- Bob Dylan, “With
God on Our Side” (1963)
The National Geographic Society has dramatically raised the curtain on the long lost “Gospel of Judas,” which depicts Judas and his action of betrayal in a positive light. It was known to have been composed by the 2nd century but a copy was only found in Egypt three decades ago. Having admirably underwritten the long process of reconstructing and translating the text, the Society has embarked on a massive public relations campaign to sell its magazine coverage, television special and two new books about the gospel. I just wish it would do so with a little more scholarly dispassion and a little less hype.
The text is described on the Geographic’s website as “a lost gospel that could challenge what is believed about the story of Judas and his betrayal of Jesus.” The video preview, to an ominous musical background, declares: “For centuries his name has meant treachery and deceit. Now hidden for nearly 2,000 years an ancient gospel emerges from the sands of Egypt. It tells a different story, one that could challenge our deepest beliefs.”
It obviously does conflict with the canonical gospel accounts. But will it really challenge beliefs (of Christians and others) about events supposed to have occurred circa the year 30? I think that unlikely. More probably the gospel will further awareness of the fact that Christianity (or what some call “the Jesus movement”) was during its formative centuries a web of diverse sects, including many that were suppressed when the Roman Empire embraced a particular one in the fourth century. (The Christianized Empire demanded ideological unity. So long Socratic doubt! Hello Dark Ages.) Knowledge of that complex origin alone can challenge faith.
Most Christian churches view themselves as rooted in a community that adhered to a unified doctrine from the very beginning. That doctrine is rooted in the books of the New Testament (which leaves many issues unclear) and succinctly spelled out in the Nicene Creed, composed in 325 and modified in 381. This creed is accepted by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox adherents, and most Protestants who assume that its content reflects the understanding of Jesus’ disciples, handed down faithfully from their day to the time of its composition under the prodding of Emperor Constantine. Roman Catholicism preaches that Jesus appointed Peter as the first Pope, and that Peter has been followed ever since by pontiffs who, infallible on matters of doctrine, have preserved the faith as taught by the disciples and inscribed in the divinely-inspired writings included in the New Testament. Protestantism, rejecting the authority of the Pope, provides a more complex narrative in which the true faith of the apostles was corrupted at some early point by the Roman Church and only recovered during the 16th century Reformation. But it too accepts the divine inspiration of the canonical gospels alone, and the core doctrines of the Creed, assuming these were upheld by the earliest Christians.
This is indeed a faith-based assumption, for we really know rather little about the beliefs of those Christians. (Of course one could say that someone not upholding certain tenets isn’t Christian by definition, but one still has to ask what those who self-identified as Christians or were considered such by others believed.) We know very little about the Popes supposedly succeeding Peter in the first century of the Catholic Church. We do know that the Church faced many “heresies” pertaining to the interpretation of Jesus’ nature, the composition of the Trinity and many other issues, and that even some of those later regarded as Fathers of the Church were accused of sympathizing with condemned doctrines such as Arianism and Gnosticism. Some of the most influential early Christian preachers were later declared heretics and their writings torched. (Basilides, who flourished in the 120s and 130s in Alexandria, is considered by some the most important Christian theologian after St. Paul. But he believed in reincarnation and asserted that the deaths of Christians by persecution resulted from misdeeds in past lives. His writings, including a gospel, have been lost.)
We know that there were lots of alternative gospels (in Greek, evangelion), some of which have survived although most were put to the flames. The Gospel of Thomas, probably written before 100, is perhaps the best known. Others include the Gospels of Peter, Philip, Nicodemus, and Mary. We know that some Church Fathers treated some of these non-canonical texts on a par with the four in the Bible. The first to refer to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (alone) as divinely inspired was Irenaeus (130-202), a bishop in Lyons in Roman Gaul. But he had some rather unorthodox ideas himself. (He wrote that Jesus had preached to the age of 50 and remained on earth until the year 98.) The canon as we know it was only fixed in the 4th century, satisfying the Roman state’s demand for an authoritative ideological frame of reference. Even thereafter the status of some books (Revelation in particular) remained dubious.
This history presents a greater challenge to faith than the mere appearance of another gospel. It at least makes the workings of the Holy Spirit appear less cut and dried and more contingent on apparently random events. It raises the possibility that had state requirements, or a vote at a council been different, a religion worshipping, say, Father, Son and Mother might today command the reverence of one-third of humanity. (That was indeed one of the competing trinity models in the early Christian movement. In the background you also have Plotinus’ three hypostases, the Brahmins’ trimutri, the Buddhist trikaya, etc.)
This same Irenaeus provides us with our earliest surviving reference to the existence of the Gospel of Judas. Writing in 180, he mentions a Greek text by that name, a “fictitious history” produced by a heretical sect that identified with those targeted by the God of the Old Testament (such as Cain and the Sodomites) but protected by “Sophia.” (This “Wisdom” conceptualized as a female force plays a big role in both Christian and non-Christian Gnostic schools.) Anyway the discovered text has been carbon-dated to between 220 and 340, demonstrating that the gospel was both widely circulated (Egypt being far from Gaul) and available in at least two languages for decades after the bishop’s death. In all likelihood it fell victim to the general immolations of “heretical” books after the Council of Nicea in 325. The great Library in Alexandria, torched in 391 after the Christian Emperor Theodosius ordered the destruction of pagan temples, is supposed to have held copies of all known literary works, including some from Persia and India. No doubt the Gospel of Judas was at one point in the collection. The codex obtained by National Geographic was found in the desert near El Minya, Egypt, probably buried there to escape destruction.
This destruction of evidence undertaken by church and state is a huge problem for the historian of early Christianity. There are many texts known only through quotations or paraphrases contained in the writings of their critics. Fortunately, every so often a “new” text turns up to challenge, if not orthodoxy, at least simplistic views of how Christianity became what it did. In the early 1990s Paul A. Mirecki and Charles W. Hedrick discovered another Coptic codex that had been lying around in the Berlin Museum for years. It was another gospel, which they translated and published under the title “The Gospel of the Savior” since that is how Jesus is referred to in the text. The language indicates it was composed in the 2nd or early 3rd century, although the manuscript itself is later.
What most interested me in the Savior gospel was Jesus’ statement therein that “it is also fitting for me to go down to Hades because of the souls that are bound in that place.” I’d wondered as a youth reciting the Apostles’ Creed wherever the claim “He descended into hell” had come from. (I was, after all, reciting this as an article of faith.) Likely traceable back to Mesopotamian myths of deities who descend into the netherworld and rise again on the third day, it appears nowhere in the New Testament, although some commentators try to wrestle it out of 1 Peter 3:18. But it does play a major role in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, probably composed later than the Gospel of the Savior. The dating of the Apostles’ Creed is uncertain; by late tradition it dates back to the 1st century but it may in fact date to as late as the 5th century. Earlier, similar creeds cited by Church Father Tertullian around 200 make no reference to this descent into hell. How did it come about that an event only mentioned in banned or apocryphal works made its way into a major statement of orthodox Christian belief? The history of religion moves in mysterious ways, but these can be explained in wholly human terms.
The Gospel of the Savior received considerable press attention, but nothing like the Gospel of Judas. The latter made the front page of the April 8 Boston Globe with the headline “Gospel of Judas Inspires Awe, Wrath.” It could, writes Charles Radin, “revolutionize people’s understanding of Christianity.” He cites an unnamed scholar as saying this “could turn everything on its head.” Maybe. But clerics will explain to their flocks that confused, imaginative or demon-possessed writers composed this work that was appropriately denounced by the “real” Church. They’ll say the conversation between Jesus and Judas in which the former recognizes Judas as the wisest of his disciples is a pernicious rewriting of the inspired Word. They’ll say, correctly in my view, that this text post-dating the canonical gospels is worthless as a description of “what happened” historically. But hopefully they’ll concede that it provides evidence of the diversity of Christian belief only a century or so after the death of Jesus.
So far the most-quoted passage in the Gospel of Judas is this statement of Jesus to Judas: “For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” This reflects the Gnostics’ notion that Jesus’ body, like all bodies, is merely a temporary container of the spirit. It is at odds with and weighs down the spirit. (Orthodox Christianity in contrast affirms “the resurrection of the body.”) One finds this belief associated with the high valuation of virginity and sexual abstinence in such texts as the 3rd Century Acts of Thomas (written in Syriac, then translated into Greek). The tradition of monastic celibacy (for which there is no Biblical basis, however much some try to find it in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians) is surely related to this “heresy” -- and also, I think, to the well-developed model of Buddhist monasticism found along the Silk Road stretching from India to Antioch. In the 190s Clement of Alexandria wrote of Buddhist monks being like “our present day so-called Encratites” referring to a heterodox Christian group in Edessa (Syria) who condemned marriage and meat-eating. Bardesanes (154-222),a Christian Gnostic close to this group, described Buddhistic monastic practice in a book based on an interview with an Indian mission en route to Rome. hat was before Christian monasticism caught on in Egypt.
The real threat to orthodox faith comes not from the possibility that believers will embrace a new, sympathetic vision of Judas (as opposed to the one found in Matthew or Acts) as having God on his side. Those provocatively asking, “Will this change our view of Judas?” are really asking a dumb question. Did the 1970s rock musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” (in which Judas declares to Jesus “You want me to do it!” and asks, “Why don’t I just stay here and ruin your ambition?”) change anybody’s mind? The real prospect of belief change comes from the possibility that believers will go online, Google-search “other gospels,” start skimming them and realize that these other scriptures possess the same power and capacity to move as do the canonical ones. Change stems from the acquisition of knowledge (etymologically related to the Greek gnosis). In it lie the seeds of doubt about what constitutes truth and authority.
In the Gospel of Thomas (verse 2) Jesus says, “Let one who seeks not stop seeking until one finds. When one finds, one will be troubled. When one is troubled, one will marvel and will rule over all.” (Marvin Meyer translation) (I find this much more thought provoking than the familiar Matthew 7:7-8: “Seek and you shall find. Knock and the door shall be open unto you.”) It’s good to be troubled, disabused of delusion. It’s good to (as a Zen priest will put it) “see things as they really are” or in this case as they really were, historically. The bare-bones narrative about a miracle-working Galilean rabbi who spoke in parables and was crucified under Pontius Pilate lent itself to various literary treatments informed by various contradictory ideas about God, the body-soul dichotomy, the afterlife, etc. Circulated lists of the sayings of Jesus allowed for additions, omissions, alterations. Christianity as we know it emerged from Christianities we don’t know but which archeology and other sciences are gradually illuminating, if to the consternation of some. Religions evolve with other religions and belief systems on all sides, influencing them inevitably whether the believers know this or not. Heaven above is just that, on nobody’s side.
Gary Leupp is a Professor of History, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion, at Tufts University and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Articles by Gary Leupp
* “Ideologies of
Hatred”? What Does Condi Mean?