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The Gospel of Judas — Is this Really Good News?
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer and Gregor Wurst
The Gospel of Judas (Washington, DC:  National Geographic, 2006.  185p.)

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This is the translation of the reconstructed text of the Gnostic gospel in the damaged manuscript in the Coptic language.  The document is a Gospel written to present the beliefs of group of the movement called the Gnostics.  The word "gospel" means "good news," but in reality the Gnostic teaching was good news for only an elite insider group.

Spiritual Discrimination
Salvation was not for everybody, only for a few insiders in a secret society.  The masses were thought to be without eternal souls, doomed in their service of a false god who had created a changeable, decaying world.  When they died that was it.  Faith was not helpful.  Only knowledge could save them.  Yet no matter how much they knew, even secret knowledge could not save the unchosen, who had no souls to save, in this life or later.

Only those who had been given an eternal soul could go to the Realm of Light at death.  Does this sound like Good News ("gos-pel")?

Judas the Spiritual Hero
This document presents Judas as the single hero of the Spirit among the apostles of Jesus, since the others never got it.  Only Judas had the status of "chosen".  Only Judas had a soul, and thus the insight and ability to hear the hidden message of esoteric knowledge that can save those who can hear.  There was no hope for the others.

It never was clear to me why the others were even chosen to be in Jesus' entourage if they were predestined to be unable to "hear" the message of salvation or help others hear it.  Jesus in this story calls Judas the Thirteenth — referring to the other twelve original ones and Matthias who was chosen (Acts Ch 1) to replace Judas.

They thought Jesus was serving the Jewish God Yahweh, when in reality — according to the Gnostic Sethites — the only one who saw the truth was Judas.  Judas enjoyed his private moments of enlightened camaraderie, in which he and Jesus slyly laughed at the befuddled and ignorant others.

Unsaveable Apostles
They thought Jesus was their saviour, but they were not among the Elect.  They did not even have eternal souls.  Jesus could not help them, for Jesus did not follow Yahweh, he was the reincarnation of Seth, the Christ of the Good God of the Realm of Light.  This is the message of The Gospel of Judas.  Is this a Gospel?  Is this Good News?

According to the Sethites — whose writings were only about a century too late to be original and authentic — Jesus had come from the Realm of Light, not from the corrupt God of this world.  Creation was evil, not the gift of the One True God.

And Judas would perform the beautiful, worshipful service of assisting Jesus in his suicide by Roman authorities, in order to be released from the trap of his Jewish body, to return to the holy realm of light, free at last from the prison of the body.

Good News?
This is a fascinating, dramatic, and skillfully written Mystical Novel, entertaining reading on its own terms.  But in the broader realities, does this sound like Good News?!

This is not claiming to be written by Judas, but Judas is the main character.  He is the close companion of Jesus, and the only one who truly understands what Jesus is about.  This is why he performs a special service for Jesus at the end of his ministry, when it is time for him to return to the Spirit world.

Dating of Judas
This booklet is thought to have been written in about 140-160 AD, since it is referred to by the Bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus, in 180.  Irenaeus refers to this document by name, but the actual document itself had not previously been available for our reading, till it was found buried in Middle Egypt a few years ago.  The actual copies now availabel are in Sahidic Coptic, one regional dialect of the ancient language of Egypt, no longer a living language.

The Coptic manuscript is clearly a translation of a Greek work, because of the Greek concepts, but moreso because of the extensive use of Greek terms.   The technical terms of Gnosticism are not even translated, just taken over into Coptic.   In linguistic terms, it was a poor translation from Greek to Coptic.   Numerous copies of the Coptic manuscript have been found, and the translators provide extensive notes on variations and translation problems, called "apparatus," which give the reader insights into the oiginal.

The Gnostics made up a broad movement, with many different sects, with a variety of beliefs.  The broad shared concept is that secret knowledge is revealed by certain teachers to the chosen disciples, and it is this secret knowledge that will bring enlightenment and awareness of their true state, bringing them back to the true path of their spirit, which inhabits this body on only a temporary basis.

Christian Gnostics
The Christian Gnostics focused on Jesus Christ as the Revealer of the secret knowledge that brings salvation.  The Gospel of Judas is a clear statement of another variation among the Gnostics, concerning the nature of God and the spirit world.  One branch of Gnostics departed from the core foundation and proclamation of Judaism that birthed Christian faith and was also accepted by many Gnostic Christians.

One stream of Gnosticism, epitomized by Marcion, came to believe that the Creator God, revered in the Old Testament, called El, Elohim, Yahweh, Jah and similar names, was an inferior, secondary, and evil or mischievous god, not the Ultimate True or Only God.

This gospel about Judas reflects this doctrine, as Jesus explains the true view of the upper levels of the spirit world, where the beings of light and the Spiritual Gods actually live in their higher existence.  This view also contends that the followers of the Old Testament god will not have a life after the body dies.  The followers of the God of Light, on the other hand, have been given an immortal soul which will live on and gain salvation through the secret teaching, which brings to them an awareness of their true nature and destiny.

Enlightening Essays
The actual text of the manuscript "The Gospel of Judas" makes up only about 1/4 of this book.  The rest is a set of excellent background articles by the translators, explaining the history of the document, and its final availability after destructive commercial forces damaged through rough handling by commercial interests.

The articles also include a good background on the Gnostic movement, and theories behind the story in this book.  Translator's notes also bring to light the word meanings and possible interpretations of the vocabulary in the Coptic language, which uses much borrowed vocabulary from Greek.  This book is certainly an interesting read, with good, informative explanations about some details of the Gnostic movement.

What is New Here?
While one view touts this as a revolutionary document that turns the traditional view of Christianity on its head, I don't see how that can be concluded from the reading of this document.  We already knew about this Gnostic movement, and the beliefs of specific Gnostic sects that held this dualistic concept of two gods, the good and the bad.

This is notable in history from the later controversy over Marcion's teachings.  So what is new here? We do have here the actual text of an original document from that movement, and that is of value.  But it seems to confirm only what we already knew from secondary sources.

Alternative Authenticity?
It is hard to see how this later writing can be considered an authentic representation of the original teachings of Jesus, since even 140 is a long time, in terms of propagation of the story, seeing that the earlier Gospels, which became the "orthodox" gospels, were written only a few years after Jesus' death, from mid 1st century. (See Addendum on Dates of the Gospels)

Further, these Gnostic ideas are clearly of Greek and Persian origin.  This kind of idea would not have easily arisen, less likely ever have gained any following, in the Jewish heartland.

Two Gods?
The final essay was helpful in presenting Jewish Gnostic expressions, related to, or perhaps the source of the Sethian sects represented in the Gospel of Judas.  This essay refers to Jewish Gnostic sects which also had this strange doctrine of two Gods, with the god of the Old Testament being the evil secondary god, and the High God the pure, original God, who was aloof from matter.

The creation of the world then was seen as a rebellion and sin against the High God.  This is indeed a strange doctrine for any Jew to follow.  I would like more information on that, and how such a disjunctive movement could have developed among the Jews.

Gnostic Jewish Messiah?
When taken as a literal historical portrayal, the portrait of Jesus in this writing is almost ludicrous.  If it is hard to believe how sects of dualistic Gnostics could arise among Hellenised Jews, it is even harder to believe a Jewish prophet messiah like Jesus could be expected historically to have taught such a foreign concept in the heartland of Yahwism.

These ideas certainly did not arise in any Jewish setting, even if the Hellenistic Jewish community did flow into the Greco-Persian mystical concepts, and adapt them to their Jewish historical figures.  The document can be considered one of the many writings of religious fiction or theology written by various sects in the Roman Empire in the first few centuries of the Christian era.

Seth as Christ
It is evident that the Old Testament characters are key figures in these versions of the Gnostic myth.  The primary figure for some sects was Seth, who was portrayed as the good and proper son, a Christ figure, which would restore the True Spirits among the humans of corrupt flesh to their original Spirit State.  The Gospel of Judas develops this Sethian version of Gnosticism, and indicates that Jesus is the Saviour Revealer, as the new incarnation of Seth, the Original and Universal Christ.

These dynamics and the new details I learned in the background essays were intriguing.  This sheds light on the relationships of the Gnostic sects to the broader spiritual environment of the Roman Empire in which Christian faith arose.  It has been known that the varieties of Gnosticism were mostly non-Christian, but some of the sects, like that reflected in this writing about Judas, held Jesus as a primary figure.

Hundreds of Gnosticisms
There were varieties of Gnosticisms, a myriad of variations.  This sect revealed in this writing about Judas (not claiming to have been written BY Judas) was not an alternative, version of Christian faith which was finally beaten down by the rising "orthodoxy."  This is a variation of the broad Greek Gnostic movement which was expressed in hundreds of various small secret sects.  By nature it was an exclusivist club for insiders to whom the secrets would be revealed.

There were only a few Spirits trapped temporarily in human form that would be saved, since most human forms were only body, and their souls were not eternal.  But this is a separate religion, a variety of Gnosticism that simply borrowed the figure of Jesus to serve as a new historical expression of the Universal Revealer of secret knowledge.

Judas the Hero
Judas is the hero in this story, because he is the only one of the inner core of Jesus' disciples who understands, according to this Gnostic view, that the god the Jews at large serve is a false god, a lower, materialistic deity, who created the world only in rebellion against the High Spirit God.

Judas performs the necessary duty of releasing Jesus spirit from the prison of this body, by handing him over to the authorities, who then perform the needed service of killing the body, so that Seth-Jesus can return to the Spirit world.

We have here a high tragedy of novelistic drama, in the high fashion of the mid Roman Empire.  But some sadly detract from the role and character of this literature in the culture of its times, by stretching it back in history and far in geography, and try to make this out to be a valid variation of a faith that arose over 100 years before.  This sounds, frankly, simple-minded to me.

No Connection
The original faith of the Way, the followers of Jesus the Nazarene, had no connection to the Greco-Persian concepts expressed here, though this skillfully uses the names of biblical figures and then co-opts the figure of Christ into a whole other realm and role.

These are meant to be, as the Gnostic writings commonly were, allegorical expressions of the spirit-body myth.  The use of these biblical figures, and Jesus as well, were just one way of expressing the spiritual plane of existence they thought was the higher and better.  This is just a variation of Plato's philosophical concepts.

The disingenuous ploy of trying to pull this allegorical later writing back in to the origins of Christian faith dishonors both this Gnostic document, the mode of literature it represents, the cultural milieu of classical paganism it represents and the historical faith of the Jews, of which original Nazarene Christianity was one expression.

Written 23 April 2007
See also my separate article on the topic:  The Early Gospels

There are differences of opinion on the time of writing of the gospels suggested by different scholars.  No one knows who wrote any of the "orthodox" or "apocryphal" gospels of other extensive Christian and Jewish literature on the 1st and 2nd century CE.

None of the four gospels which became widely circulated appearing in early lists of writings commonly used, and then included in the later formal collection of the Church at large, were likely written by the authors traditionally attributed to them by early source, in the early 2nd century (100s CE).  Recent analysis of the texts in their historical context, alongside related studies including phenomenology or religion, has tended to revise estimated times of writing of the "Four Gospels" to earlier decades of the first century.

The extant "orthodox" Four Gospels of the canon reflect awareness of the writings of Paul, which are the earliest known written record of teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  This puts the dates of our connection to early testimony to Jesus and his era within perhaps 10 to 20 years of the death of Jesus, in the presence of Paul in Jerusalem at the stoning of Stephen and in other associations with Christians in the Empire.  The date of the conversion of Saul (Paul) of Tarsus is uncertain.  Likewise the beginning date of his missionary activity.

The Church of Cyprus claims the missionary visit by Paul and Barnabas to Barnabas' home land of Cyprus was about 45.  Western scholars put it later, perhaps 60-65.  It is possible Paul's early work in Asia Minor resulted in early churches before he went to Cyprus.  His actual early letters may have been written by around 50-60 CE, according to some estimates.  There are disputes of such early dates of writing.  

The letters to the Thessalonian church are widely thought to have been the first he wrote.  A professor writes concerning the dates of these:

"Remember that Paul's first visit to Corinth can be dated to c. 50-53. ... Silas and Timothy's coming to Corinth from Macedonia in Acts 18:5 seems to be the return of Timothy described in 1 Thess 3:6. If so, Paul was writing from Corinth. He was in Corinth for eighteen months between the years of 50-53, but 1 Thessalonians was probably written shortly after Paul's arrival in Corinth, since it seems from what Paul writes in 1 Thess 2:17-3:6.... Thus the date would be c. 50-52"

A growing number of recent writings seem to be moving toward earlier dates for the Gospels than suggested a few years ago.

Opinion still varies, in trying to reconstruct the dates from the few historical or cultural clues we have.  Some stick close to tradition for comfort's sake, claiming likely writing by the actual apostles.  Some still think Matthew was written soon after the first construction of the story by Mark.  I have seen suggestions that Matthew was the last (canonical) Gospel written.

There is a difference of opinion over whether Matthew or John was the last gospel written.  Some still prefer to place John after 100 CE, for good reasons.  Others feel it was earlier because it is now shown to reflect more affinity with Paul's early themes than earlier analyses had perceived.

Traditionally Luke's gospel was thought to be last, due to the prologue making reference to other writings that seem to be what we call Gospels.  It is not known what materials the writer of the gospel attributed to Luke actually had access to.  I see no reason to asume that the writer of Luke had only the three other gospels we now know.  Likewise can we be sure he had access to all those three?

It is clear, however, that both Matthew and Luke incorporated major sections of Mark.  But the different geographical and cultural context of the writings leaves uncertain how familiar any one of them was with the other.

Matthew may represent a Greek version of an early Aramaic collection of Jesus' teachings and life, referred to by early Christian writes as "The Hebrew Gospel."  It is likely this was a prior collection in process, perhaps one of the common sources Luke and Matthew seem to have used.  There are extensive publications dealing in detail with these questions.*

We don't know how early the first written records of Jesus' life and teachings go back.  Scholarship in recent years seems to present growing evidences that favor an earlier date for the writing of the documents we have.
*Extensive studies have now definitively confirmed that the "Q" or "Quelle" document (the material in common between Luke and Matthew) was a Greek document.  Notably Q quotes from the Tanakh (Jewish scriptures, or Old Testament) were from the Septuagint.  Other Aramaic sources may have been involved in the broader sourcing in what we now know as the canonical Gospels.  An amazing historical summary and critical presentation of the Q document has been prepared by Dr John S Kloppenborg Verbin:  Excavating Q:  The History and Setting of the Sayings Gospel (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2000).  Kloppenborg Verbin presents extensive information on the society, culture and linguistic strains and factors of orality and literacy pertinent to the development of the Jesus movement and the related literature, including Qumran documents.

See related reviews and articles on this site:
[Review] Divine Concepts Compete
[TXT] The Early Gospels
[TXT] The Exclusively Inclusive Gospel
[Review] Fantasies and Fictions:  Mary Magdalene as the Gaulic Christian Goddess
[Review] A Gnostic View of Jesus
[review] Judas:  Historical Streams and Textual Themes
[TXT] More Fantasies and Fictions:  Mary Magdalene and an Epic of Scholarly Sleight-of-Hand
[review] More Oral than We Knew:  The Oral Nature of the Gospels
[TXT] Semi-Gnostic, Semi-Christian, Semi-Islamic Gospel

For More on The Gospel of Judas and the Gnostic Gospels:
[Review] The Gospel of Judas — National Geographic
[PDF] Gospel of Judas Overview
[PPt] The Missing Gospels Lecture (powerpoint presentation)

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Written on Amazon.com 10 December 2006
Revised and Expanded 17 December 2006
Posted on Thoughts and Resources 18 December 2006
Revised 29 August 2007
Last edited 13 January 2010

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2006, 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
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