The Hidden Gospels - Part 5: Gospel of Judas

25/09/09 | Posted by MattPage

Judas is an unusual historical figure. For the last 2000 years he has been considered the most hated man in history, yet we know almost nothing about him. Even the manner of his death is disputed. Matthew’s gospel has him die by his own hand. Acts finds him falling over in a field and bursting his intestines. Some historians even suggest that Judas never actually existed.

 Mosaic showing Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss

But the lack of information we have about him has seemingly encouraged people to speculate about the man and his motives. John’s gospel portrays Judas as a thief given over to Satan. But others have speculated that his betrayal was an attempt to force Jesus into revolution, or that he thought he was organising a meeting with the high priests rather than a trial.

So when, in 2006, National Geographic announced that a “Gospel of Judas” had not only been discovered, but had been pieced together and translated into English, it was no surprise that the story hit the headlines. And the story gained even more column inches when it emerged that the long lost text depicted Judas as the hero rather than the villain.

Scholars have known about the Gospel of Judas for a long time. Irenaeus, an early Christian bishop, criticised it as far back as 180AD. But quite what the text actually said had been lost for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Having heard the hype, actually reading Judas’ gospel proved rather disappointing. For starters the claims about a special relationship between Jesus and Judas seem rather overblown. Jesus does speak to Judas privately, and Judas stands up to his lord when none of the other disciples will, but it’s not obvious that Jesus holds Judas in a particularly high regard even if he is clearly different from the other disciples. Indeed one scholar has even claimed that the book portrays Judas as a demon.

In reality much of the book talks about bizarre ideas such as “Adamas” being the “first luminous cloud”, or “Nebro” creating “six angels”. These are examples of an alternative form of Christianity called Gnosticism. Indeed it’s because we know that these sorts of ideas didn’t develop until well into the second century that we know that the book, in all probability, has very little to say about the historical Jesus and Judas.

It’s also notable how thoroughly anti-Semitic the book is. There’s a sense in some of the four traditional gospels that the authors are trying to distance themselves from Judaism, but nothing compares with this gospel’s claim that the Jewish priests “sacrifice their own children” and “commit a multitude of sins”. This is particularly notable because as the church drifted further away from Judaism, Judas was frequently cited as evidence against the Jews. So it seems that, far from rehabilitating Judas and narrowing the rift between Christians and Jews, The Gospel of Judas was as much part of the problem as part of the solution.

Ultimately, this gospel does feature Jesus telling Judas “you will sacrifice…me”, but even then, it’s unclear whether Jesus sees this as a good thing or a bad thing, and whether he’s commanding it or just predicting it.

So whilst the story about the hidden Gospel of Judas was good at grabbing headlines, the reality is far more and ambiguous and mundane. Judas’ gospel not only fails to get its alleged author out of the dock, it’s not even a particularly inspiring read.

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