Of the many works promising new insight into Christian origins, much was made two years ago of the Gospel of Judas, an early Christian text highlighting the figure of Judas, the betrayer of Jesus. The National Geographic Society’s publication of the gospel—the first since it was discovered in Egypt in the 1970s—received thoughtful reviews in this and other literary journals,1 and stimulated further discussion.2 Two works devoted to it have appeared in the last year. Elaine Pagels, of Princeton, and Karen King, of Harvard, both serious contributors to the study of ancient Christianity, combine forces in their new book, aimed at a popular audience. Bart Ehrman, a prolific writer who has done much to popularize scholarship on the history of the early Church, and who also had a hand in the original publication, has written another accessible book.

The Gospel of Judas is part of the body of Christian literature from the second and third centuries that reflects the intense debate among followers of Jesus. Christians argued over what they should think about themselves, the God whom they worshiped, the fate that lay in store for them, the significance of Christ, and the means by which they were to reach their heavenly goal. The faction that won these debates promoted its own version of the history of the times and suppressed dissenting voices. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, who lived in the second century, was one leader who vociferously favored centralizing the Church hierarchy and banning unacceptable texts. “Irenaeus and his fellow bishops,” write Pagels and King,

…decided that the marks of the “true Church” were to be creed, clergy, and canon. Irenaeus was among the first to insist that all true Christians must confess the same things, joining together to say a common creed that states what all believe. He also divided the churches between bishops and priests, and “the laity”…arguing that the latter must “obey the priests that are in the church,” and receive baptism and eucharist only at the hands of bishops and priests he called “orthodox.”

Pagels and King explain that the texts approved of by Irenaeus and other Church leaders tended to be

those that helped him and other bishops consolidate scattered groups of Jesus’s followers into what he and certain other bishops envisioned as a single, united organization…. The diverse range of Christian teachings that they denounced as “heresy” could be antithetical to the consolidation of the church under the bishops’ authority.3

The victors in the debates over the canon continued to mention their former opponents, but only as marginalized heretics whose story could be appended to the narrative of Christianity’s triumphal march. The official account of the Church’s development viewed alternative voices as expressing the views of a misguided minority, craven followers of contemporary culture, profligate sinners, or worse.

Although the suppressed voices have long aroused fascination, interest in them grew in the last century when a number of manuscripts written by the losers in the ancient ecclesial battles was discovered. Among them were the early scriptures of the Mandeans, a sect that venerated John the Baptist rather than Jesus, practiced baptismal rituals, and elaborated a complex theology of salvation. (Its members survived until recently in the marshes of southern Iraq.) The find stimulated scholars to speculate about the antiquity of the sect and its possible influence on early Christianity. Just after World War II, new manuscript discoveries further enriched the discussion. The most important was a cache of codices (books as opposed to scrolls) uncovered in 1945 near the village of Nag Hammadi, in Egypt. The thirteen ancient tomes found there contained some fifty-two tractates, a few previously known, and many unknown. Most of them gave voice to the losing sides in those early Christian debates. The entire discovery was soon labeled “Gnostic,” echoing a term of opprobrium used by ancient polemicists against their ecclesial adversaries.

Although at least one sect may have styled itself “the Gnostics” (“the Knowers”), referring to a secret knowledge, the notion that this broad label accurately applies to all the marginalized early Christian sects has been heavily criticized among contemporary scholars. Early Christians whose perspectives fell from favor represented a wide spectrum of views and social groups. Karen King is a leading critic of an imprecise use of the label “gnostic.” The much more pragmatic Ehrman continues to argue that it is useful, on grounds that esoteric knowledge was indeed important to the religious thinking revealed in the texts.

Since their initial publication, the Nag Hammadi texts have continued to attract scholarly and popular attention, teaching us much about second- and third-century Christian circles, Gnostic and otherwise; the Gospel of Judas is an illuminating addition to them. It is part of the fourth-century codex called Tchacos (named after the Swiss dealer who bought it in 2000), which contains three other marginalized Christian texts. It is written on papyrus leaves, in Coptic (also the language of the Nag Hammadi texts). The late form of the Egyptian language written in a script inspired by Greek, Coptic was used from late antiquity through the Islamic period and is the basis for the liturgical language of today’s Egyptian Church. Similar in appearance to the Nag Hammadi texts, the codex consists largely of a translation of works written originally in Greek during the second and third centuries CE.


The Gospel of Judas can be dated even more narrowly, since a version of it figures in the writing of Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons, who composed the first major surviving “heresiology,” or account of heretical theologies and groups, around 180 CE. This five-volume work concentrated on the “Gnostics” active in ancient Gaul, catalogued their beliefs, and criticized their theology and practice. Since it was known to Irenaeus, the Gospel of Judas must have been written earlier, perhaps in the second quarter of the second century.

Scholars became aware of the codex containing the Gospel of Judas some two decades ago.4 After much intrigue and many misadventures, well documented by Herbert Krosney and again in detail by Ehrman, the text finally came to light in 2006 and was made available in the preliminary edition noted above. The text is now available to all scholars in the form of high-resolution facsimiles on the National Geographic Society Web site.5

Pagels and King, on the one hand, and Ehrman on the other take different approaches. Pagels and King have written a reflection on the Gospel of Judas with a carefully proposed thesis about the major direction of the text, a new translation (by King), and notes illuminating the more obscure passages. Ehrman has made a broader study, with more detailed exploration of background issues, such as the differing portraits of Jesus and Judas in canonical and noncanonical Christian literature, and extended reflections on the relationship of the Gospel of Judas to various works of Christian and Jewish literature. Pagels and King concentrate on what they take to be the text’s most distinctive claims; Ehrman offers a much broader but very informative account.

Pagels and King have both made significant scholarly and popular contributions to the study of early Christian dissidents, Pagels writing on the Gnostic Gospels in general and the Gospel of Thomas in particular,6 and King exploring the Gospel of Mary and the Apocryphon of John,7 both finding serious voices articulating visions of Christian truth alternative to what became orthodoxy. Like their earlier efforts, the current analysis offers genuine insights, from the point of view of the defeated factions, into the struggles of the early Church.

King and Pagels quickly dismiss any hopes that the Gospel of Judas might offer information about the historical Judas. A central theme of the Gospel of Judas is that Jesus knew what Judas intended and encouraged him to go ahead; and, like Ehrman, Pagels and King point out that Judas’ intention and Jesus’ encouragement of him had already been suggested in the Gospel of John. Both John and the Gospel of Judas accept a picture of Jesus as someone with preternatural or supernatural powers of insight. John’s Jesus goes to his destiny, to do the mysterious will of the Father, in full knowledge of what awaits him. But for John, Judas is seen as possessed by Satan, and as doing his bidding, not as performing a good deed.

The Gospel of Judas offers what initially appears to be a more positive view of Judas’ action. By handing over the body of Jesus to the high priests, Judas enabled the heavenly, spiritual Christ to return to the transcendent realm whence he came. Nonetheless, there remain ambiguities in the portrait of the apostle.8 For Pagels and King, the Gospel of Judas shows little interest in the actual historical events surrounding Jesus’ death that so intrigue some modern writers. Instead, it focuses on the meaning of the death of Jesus and the institutional ways in which it is commemorated.

Within the brief story that describes Judas handing over Jesus, the Gospel of Judas offers a series of quite disparate episodes. In the most dramatic of these, the twelve apostles recount to Jesus a dream in which they observe priests, in what seems to be the Temple of Jerusalem, performing sacrifices while engaging in criminal acts, including the sacrifice of their own wives and children and having homosexual sex. Jesus identifies those priests with the apostles themselves. The interpreted dream is a rather transparent allegory criticizing the Church hierarchy and subtly deriding the comparisons some bishops and presbyters made between themselves and the priests in the Jerusalem Temple in order to vindicate their own positions of authority.

An early example of such a comparison is in the First Epistle of Clement, a tract attributed to a first-century leader of the Christian community in Rome. In this letter, in which the senior members of the Roman Church intervene in a dispute in the Church at Corinth, the writer, who favors the established hierarchy, argues for proper order in worship: “We should do everything the Master has commanded us to perform in an orderly way and at appointed times.” To support his point, the writer refers to the hierarchy prevailing in the Temple: “For special liturgical rites have been assigned to the high priest, and a special place has been designated for the regular priests, and special ministries are established for the Levites. The lay person is assigned to matters enjoined on the laity.”9 The argument implicitly connects the bishops and elders of the Church to the priests and Levites of the Jerusalem Temple (notwithstanding the Church’s repudiation of the Jewish practice of sacrifice). The connection was destined for a long life in Catholic Christianity, but many in the early Church, including the author of the Gospel of Judas, objected to it.


The development of a Christian “priesthood” and “high priesthood” accompanied the elaboration of a formal liturgy, and it may be no accident that the earliest evidence of the use of priestly imagery to describe Christian leaders occurs in Rome. The use of liturgy and the definition, by Irenaeus and others, of those who performed it as priests have no precedents in the texts of the New Testament, but marked a development of the Church in its second and third generations. The account of the apostles’ dream in the Gospel of Judas mocks these new developments, criticizing Church leaders who interpreted the Eucharistic ritual as a sacrifice to be administered by a priestly class. In another pointed episode in the Gospel of Judas, Jesus comes upon his disciples while they are “offering…thanks” and breaking bread, i.e., performing a Eucharistic liturgy. He laughs at them, as he does at other instances of the disciples’ foolishness, telling them that what they were doing served an inferior deity, “their ‘God.'”

The Gospel of Judas clearly protests against the formalizing Christianity of the second century. But why? King and Pagels offer a convincing suggestion, anticipated by a previous review in these pages by a group of graduate students from Princeton, where Elaine Pagels teaches.10 The author of the Gospel of Judas is not simply a proto-Protestant who dislikes both the idea that Jesus’ body is literally present during the Eucharist and the priestly pretensions surrounding the ritual. There is a deeper, more vital issue at stake: the idea of martyrdom. The Eucharist-celebrating apostles and, implicitly, the bishops who follow in their footsteps are seen as criminal in encouraging believers to sacrifice themselves to the power of imperial Rome. In the Gospel of Judas, Jesus’ interpretation of the apostles’ dream seems to link the priests’ sacrificial offerings with Christian martyrs: “And the domestic animals you saw being brought for sacrifice are the multitude you are leading astray upon the al[t]ar.”

At the time the Gospel of Judas was written, Christians were viewed by the Roman authorities as an obscure, deviant sect, and they were violently attacked for their refusal to participate in large public rituals of sacrifice and prayer to the Roman gods. “To refuse to support the Roman gods…was potentially an act of rebellion against Rome itself,” Pagels and King write; “thus, if Christians came to the attention of the authorities, they were liable to be tortured or savagely killed as atheists or traitors to Rome.” Various arguments were made about how to respond to and interpret the threat of death at the hands of the Romans. Irenaeus and other Church leaders glorified the deaths of martyrs. “To encourage their fellow believers to face death with courage, those who saw martyrs die wrote accounts of their astonishing courage,” Pagels and King write.

On occasion, martyrs were praised to bolster the authority of Church leaders. For instance, Ignatius of Antioch, a bishop who was killed by the Romans in the second decade of the second century, wrote to Christian communities in Asia Minor and Rome on the way to his execution, urging them to be faithful to their bishops and not to try to intervene in his battle with the beasts in Rome. Shortly after the middle of the second century, Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (modern Izmir) in Asia Minor, was executed by the Roman authorities after long leadership of the local church. One of the earliest accounts of the death of a Christian martyr praises Polycarp’s suffering as an expression of sacrifice, while reinforcing his status as a bishop of his flock.11

Although martyrs are enshrined in the imagination of many Christians both ancient and modern, ancient martyrs were not without their critics. Some bishops and teachers (e.g., Clement of Alexandria, who in the late second century defended a philosophical interpretation of Christian traditions) thought the brethren who volunteered to be thrown to the beasts or stretched on the rack were overzealous. In times of vehement persecution, Christians debated how forthcoming one had to be in confessing faith or how diligent in concealing scriptures from harm. The criticism of the immorality of the “apostles” in the Gospel of Judas is, for Pagels and King, an angry protest against Church leaders in Rome who promoted the idea that to be a martyr was to imitate Jesus’ act of sacrifice. The Gospel of Judas stands for a vision of Christianity that does not rejoice in the blood of martyrs, does not foster a love of martyrdom among its adherents, and vilifies those who do.

Among the apologists for the hierarchy, there was indeed a close connection between bishops, the books they approved for liturgical reading, and the need to support an often marginalized and persecuted Church by exhorting followers not to fear death and even to embrace it. “Leaders like Irenaeus and Tertullian, who had seen persecution firsthand,” write Pagels and King,

believed that the survival of the movement was at stake…. Tertullian boasted to one Roman magistrate in North Africa that killing Christians only increases fervor while inspiring more people to join them: “The more you mow us down, the more we multiply; the blood of the martyrs is seed” for the church. When certain Christians questioned the value of martyrdom, Irenaeus denounced them as “heretics,” while Tertullian mocked them as cowards…. So successful was this campaign to make heroes of the martyrs that any dissent was drowned out completely.

It could well be argued that the canonical New Testament adopted by the Church was shaped to emphasize the need to bear witness openly, even at the cost of one’s life.12

The reading of the Gospel of Judas by Pagels and King is a fruitful starting point for discussion of ancient Christianity and its legacy. Their identification of the ideology of martyrdom as the central issue underlying the text is an insightful hypothesis. Whether that ideology is the major element in the criticism of hierarchy that performed the sacraments may be disputed, but it is probably an important part of the picture. King and Pagels do a fine service by reminding us of the ancient setting in which the fates of early Christian martyrs, as well as the direction of the Church itself, were subjects of contention.

Not far below the surface of their analysis, it should be said, lies a fairly clear theological position that is open to debate. Their book, in other words, offers not simply a historical analysis but also a contemporary argument, though the two are almost always interconnected. They clearly want to protest the kind of religiosity that glorifies martyrdom, a glorification they see as contrary to efforts to improve the human condition. In an age of suicide bombers and jihadists, many might sympathize with that critique of a bloodthirsty religion. But perhaps there is also something to be learned from the Church that celebrated martyrs, told tales of their gory ends, built shrines to their memories, and linked their deaths with that of Jesus.

A yearning for death and fascination with pain and suffering are certainly pathological and inimical to human well-being. Yet suicidal martyrs are only a part of the story of early Christianity and the contemporary Church. Alongside the fanatics, and probably outnumbering them, were those who insisted that divine reality demands both justice and compassion, that violence is not the way to solve human problems, and that by the example of their deaths they were upholding, and helping to spread, these beliefs. It is a willingness to stand firmly for peaceful Christian values, even at the cost of death, that the Christian martyrological tradition celebrates, and can be seen from many examples, starting with Saint Stephen in the first century and Perpetua and Felicity in third-century Carthage, and continuing on to Archbishop Oscar Romero and Sister Jean Donovan and her companions in twentieth-century El Salvador.

The Gospel of Judas makes a strong critical attack on emerging orthodox Christianity, but on what grounds does it oppose an obsession with martyrdom? King and Pagels pay less attention to this aspect of the text, characterizing its theology in rather broad strokes. Ehrman does a bit more, taking time to place the Gospel of Judas in a larger religio-historical frame. The Gnosticism that he finds in the text has its roots in the apocalyptic traditions of Judaism, which defined an alternative reality, both present in the heavenly world and destined to appear on earth. Ehrman is more attentive to the diverse world of second-century Christianity and attempts to place the Gospel of Judas within it. He traces what are now fairly conventional distinctions among the varieties of “Gnosticism” in that period, for example the beliefs inspired by the Gospel of Thomas, and he shows how difficult it is to pigeonhole the Gospel of Judas within that spectrum, noting points of convergence with each type. He also notes some points of convergence with other strands of second-century Christianity, including the Marcionites, who rejected the Old Testament as well as the god proclaimed in it.

The part of the Gospel of Judas that gives rise to these religio-historical analyses is a tale about the origins of the universe told by Jesus to Judas. The story, often paralleled in second-century sources, claims that the universe owes its being to a perfect spiritual entity who inhabits a pure, spiritual realm. At the next level of reality is a “luminous” realm ruled by angels, including Autogenes, the Self-generated One; Adamas, the primordial spiritual human; and Barbelo, an androgynous deity who brings into being the rest of the divine hierarchy, including a number of lesser denizens of the divine world. Among these are Nebro and Saklas, who rule over the physical world of passion, decay, and death.

Jesus and Judas and unspecified others are said in the Gospel of Judas to belong to a special “race” or “lineage”—a favorite word of this gospel. That race, born from the lineage of Seth, the youngest son of Adam and Eve, unlike the other families of humankind, comes from the heavenly world of spirit. In the earthly world, which is subject to hostile principalities and powers, the divine race of “Sethians” are aliens and sojourners, constantly misunderstood by their less enlightened contemporaries. Their destiny is to return to their true, heavenly, spiritual home. The bodily death of Jesus is part of the process of return; physical death is the necessary condition of release of the true spiritual self.

Many details in this mythic account are familiar from other sources. Some are unique to the Gospel of Judas and will engage scholars for years to come. Among them is the notion that Judas has a special “star” as his guide. The basic cosmology suggests a sharp dichotomy between the spiritual world, from which the pure race comes, and the created, earthly order, which is subject to the stars. Such a dichotomy would be expected in religious texts of the second century, and it seems to lie behind the notion that the “star” of Judas has led him astray. Yet that star also seems to be a reliable guide for Judas on his way into the realm of light. Perhaps old messianic texts such as Numbers 24:1713 still have some weight, along with legends of the star of Bethlehem. Or, as King and Pagels suggest in their notes, a philosophical interest in astral influences may lurk behind the nuances of this text and the tensions among them.

The philosophy underlying the Gospel of Judas’ account of human origins and destiny, like other systems of a generally “Gnostic” cast, owes much to the popular Platonism of the Hellenistic and Roman eras. That philosophical position, insistent on the priority of the ideal or spiritual world as opposed to flawed earthly experience, came to dominate late antique thinking and fostered the kind of spirituality represented in the Gospel of Judas by the Jesus who laughs at both material rituals and at the death of the body. Christian writers on heresy from Hippolytus in the early third century on pointed out the deleterious influence of Platonism on Christian belief—even while adopting many of its fundamental tenets. While Plato’s influence is certainly felt in this gospel, it may be a mistake to fall into the pattern set by early Christian writers and simply read the text as a Platonic tract.

Here again King and Pagels offer an interesting insight, one that balances their reading of the Gospel of Judas as a critique of the hierarchy’s encouragement of martyrdom. While they do not devote much of their analysis to unpacking the text’s Platonizing cosmology, they worry about the apparent paradox that a text that denigrates martyrdom also portrays its protagonist, Judas, as a martyr. Because he knows the truth about the relationship of Jesus to the realm of spirit, he will be despised and rejected by his fellow disciples. As Jesus tells him, “You will suffer much grief. For another [will] take your place.” Nonetheless, like other, more conventional, martyrs, Judas will have his reward. Despite being cursed, he will “rule over them.”

Pagels and King explore the significance of the martyrdom of Judas in part by situating the Gospel of Judas in its immediate literary context, the fourth-century Tchacos Codex. The codex contains two other works that focus on martyrdom, the First Apocalypse of James and the Letter of Peter to Philip, both works referred to in the Nag Hammadi collection. Each seems in its own way to applaud, and even encourage, martyrdom, understood as the acceptance of suffering and persecution at the hands of those who reject the spiritual truth of Christian faith. These texts articulate hopes not for a physical resurrection, but for reintegration into the realm of spirit: “rather than being simply physical bodies… we are fundamentally spiritual beings who need to discover what, in us, belongs to the spirit,” as Pagels and King write.

The Gospel of Judas then is of a piece with other Christian literature of the second century that offers a sophisticated message of spiritual transformation in this life rather than the messianic hope for a future world restored to justice and peace that we find in other Christian texts. The fundamental differences between the religious visions within Christianity in the second century could not be more starkly illustrated. At the same time, the gospel’s treatment of martyrdom, however paradoxical, to defend its vision of salvation illustrates well the flexibility of the conceptual schemes of the time and their functions in polemical situations. Pagels and King write:

Finally, although the Gospel of Judas does not encourage martyrdom, ironically—or better, paradoxically—it portrays Judas himself as the first martyr. This gospel reveals that when Judas hands Jesus over, he seals his own fate. But he knows, too, that when the other disciples stone him, they kill only his mortal self. His spirit-filled soul has already found its home in the light world above. Although Christians may suffer and die when they oppose the powers of evil, the hope Christ brings will sustain them. These revelations offer courage and comfort to anyone who anticipates suffering and death—and so to everyone.

For those seeking a sound introduction to the entire range of issues surrounding the Gospel of Judas, its literary and theological environment, Ehrman provides a useful map. For a deeper exploration of the major issues at stake Pagels and King are lucid and insightful guides.

This Issue

May 1, 2008