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The Betrayer’s Gospel

By an unfortunate printer’s error, the title of this review along with the names of the authors were dropped in the Review‘s June 8, 2006 printed edition. A facsimile of the printed edition (PDF) is available here.

The Gospel of Judas, released to the public for the first time in April, is one of the most important contributions to our sources for early Christianity since the discovery of thirteen papyrus codices near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945. Those fourth-century manuscripts, probably buried by monks from the nearby monastery of Pachomius, contained Christian writings originally dating from the second and third century CE. Condemned as heretical by bishops such as Athanasius of Alexandria, they were excluded from the New Testament canon and disappeared from Christian history without a trace, save for having been denounced in the polemics of early writers on heresy. Often referred to as the Gnostic gospels, these texts have most recently attracted much attention as one of the sources of inspiration for Dan Brown’s controversial novel The Da Vinci Code. Quite apart from their sensationalist appeal, however, writings including the Gospel of Mary and Gospel of Thomas have provided scholars with an unprecedented opportunity to expand our understanding of early Christian controversies over such issues as gender, heresy, and church leadership.

Like the Nag Hammadi texts, the recently uncovered Gospel of Judas survives in a third- or fourth-century papyrus codex and is written in Coptic, the ancient language of Egyptian Christianity (though scholars believe the original was in Greek). It was first discovered in the 1970s by some Egyptian peasants in a burial cave near the village of Qarara in Middle Egypt. Probably searching for the ancient treasures that the sands of Egypt still occasionally yield, they stumbled across a skeleton wrapped in a shroud, with a limestone box lying beside it. Inside was a cache of papyrus manuscripts whose true importance would not be recognized for another thirty years.

The gospel was badly damaged in its long journey from the darkness of that burial cave near the Nile to its recent publication. One of the manuscript dealers who purchased it and then tried to resell it kept it for some years in a bank vault in Hicksville, Long Island, causing deterioration. Another dealer put the gospel in a freezer, damaging it further. By the time the renowned Swiss papyrologist Rodolphe Kasser got hold of it in 2001, it was in a heartbreaking condition. In an essay published with the recent edition of the gospel, Kasser recalls that he let out a cry when he first saw it:

It was a stark victim of cupidity and ambition. My cry was provoked by the striking vision of the object so precious but so badly mistreated, broken up to the extreme, partially pulverized, infinitely fragile, crumbling at the least contact.

Enlisting the help of Florence Darbre, chief restorer at the Bodmer Foundation in Switzerland, Kasser undertook the painstaking task of putting the codex back together. Each of the fragments had to be fitted together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Not only the shapes of the fragments but also the individual fibers had to be matched. Darbre used a powerful microscope to view fibers so fine they were invisible to the naked eye. Only then could Kasser proceed with the transcription and translation of the Coptic script. Fiber by fiber, then letter by letter, a story unread for over 1,500 years began to unfold, although a considerable number of gaps remain in the text, which was finally issued this year under an exclusive arrangement with the National Geographic Society.

The figure of Judas, notorious for his heinous yet indispensable act of betrayal, personifies the paradoxes of evil: Why does a good and omnipotent God allow evil things to happen, and if they are part of the divine plan, how can human beings justly be held accountable for them? In the New Testament accounts, Jesus’ famous prediction sums up the problem, while leaving it unresolved:

For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.

(Mark 14:21; cf. Matthew 26:24and Luke 22:22)

Luke goes further than the other two gospel writers in exploring the motivations of Judas’ act, attributing it to possession by Satan (Luke 22:3); but in so doing, he actually deepens the paradox, making the devil responsible in some sense for the salvation of humanity. John’s account is the most complex, suggesting that Judas was possessed by Satan at the instigation of Jesus himself:

Jesus answered ‘The one who will betray me is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread….’ Then dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him.

(John 13:26–27)

The Gospel of Judas puts a different emphasis on the insistence of previous gospel writers that Jesus had foreknowledge of his death and consented to it. In the Gospel of Judas, not only Jesus but also Judas was in on the secret mission.

Written decades after the canonical gospels, perhaps around 140 CE, the Gospel of Judas does not provide a basis on which to reevaluate the historical Judas. But it raises the question of why a second-century Christian would be interested in rehabilitating Jesus’ archenemy. What would inspire a writer to produce this particular response to the enigma of the betrayal, recasting the infamous traitor as Jesus’ most loyal disciple and rewriting the Christian story in his name? Many second-century Christian texts claim to record secret revelations given to eminent apostles, such as Peter and John, or to other figures known to have been close to Jesus, like Mary Magdalene. By contrast the author of Judas apparently commits what must have been seen as a subversive act by associating his gospel with a figure already stigmatized among ancient Christians. This must have been a carefully considered choice. One possible explanation for this decision is that the author of Judas was part of a Christian group that had been attacked by the leaders of his church, ostracized, and perhaps cast out altogether. He may have been a victim of escalating attempts to exclude those who dissented from the bishops and to brand them with the newly developing label of “heretics.” For a community of people attacked as apostates and traitors, the rewritten story of Judas could have provided a way to reinterpret their experience, and to present themselves not as outcasts from the Christian faith but as its most loyal and misunderstood defenders. In fact, Irenaeus, the second-century critic of heresy who is our earliest witness to the Gospel of Judas, suggests that the community of Christians who read this text indeed conceived of themselves as misunderstood and identified not only with Judas but also with other vilified figures from the Bible, such as Cain. While such a reconstruction of the situation of the author must remain speculative, it would make sense of what might otherwise seem a bizarre choice of patron saint.


Scholars have commonly approached such noncanonical texts as the Nag Hammadi writings by assuming that they presuppose a particular worldview known as Gnosticism. In the newly published edition of the Gospel of Judas, Marvin Meyer and Bart Ehrman both use this approach to interpret the text. Summing up one of the basic tenets of Gnosticism, as he understands it, Ehrman writes: “This world is a cesspool of pain, misery, and suffering, and our only hope of salvation is to forsake it.” The cosmos, in this view, is the evil creation of a malevolent lower being, who created humans by trapping sparks of divinity in material bodies; but not everyone has this “divine spark,” and only those predestined few who do can be saved. Salvation is not a matter of faith or of ethics, however, but of acquiring spiritual knowledge—gnosis. Finally, according to this interpretation of the Gnostic gospels, Jesus’ death has no part in the salvation of humanity, except as an example of how death releases the true self from the body: “In the Gospel of Judas, as in other gnostic gospels, Jesus is primarily a teacher and revealer of wisdom and knowledge, not a savior who dies for the sins of the world.”

None of these beliefs is explicitly set out in so-called Gnostic texts, as Ehrman has freely admitted elsewhere,1 nor do we have any evidence that the authors of these works considered themselves to be “Gnostics,” rather than just Christians. Instead, the Gnostic credo is the construction of modern scholars, who have compiled it in part by drawing on the polemics of such critics of heresy as Irenaeus, and in part by creating a synthesis of ideas found in the various Nag Hammadi writings as well as other texts. Such scholarly categorizing can, of course, be useful, and there is no doubt that certain elements of the tenets of “Gnosticism” can be found in some of the Nag Hammadi texts, as well as in the Gospel of Judas itself. However, presupposing a “Gnostic worldview” when approaching these non-canonical texts creates several major, and related, problems. The most obvious is that much gets read into the texts that is not actually there. Another is that the differences between the individual texts become muted, while their differences from the canonical writings are highlighted. This has led to a view of the Nag Hammadi texts as a kind of “anti-canon,” a mirror image of the New Testament (“Christianity turned on its head” as Ehrman describes Judas), when it is more productive to view all these early Christian texts as differing positions in the same debate, discordant voices in the same conversation.

The text is identified on the first page as “The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot” shortly before the days leading up to Passover, when Judas collaborated with the Jewish authorities. The gospel begins by telling us:

When Jesus appeared upon the earth he performed signs and great wonders for the salvation of humanity, because some were walking in the path of righteousness and others in the path of their transgression. Now the Twelve were called as disciples, and he began to speak with them about the mysteries above the world and those things which will happen at the end.2

The gospel is then divided into three scenes. In the first scene, Jesus comes upon the twelve disciples as they are sitting together, giving thanks over their bread, and he laughs. They ask why he is laughing at their thanksgiving, saying they have “done what is right,” and he replies that he is not laughing at them, but that they are doing the will of their God. Confused, they reply that he is the son of their God; but he tells them, “Truly I say to you, no race of the people that are among you will know me.” When they heard this, “the disciples became angry and infuriated and began blaspheming against him in their hearts.”

  1. 1

    See, e.g., The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 173.

  2. 2

    All translations of the Gospel of Judas are by the authors and in some cases differ from the recently published translation.

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