Does The Gospel of Judas Undermine Christianity?
by Brian Saint-Paul
It just keeps coming... one after another.
First, there was The Da Vinci Code, which sent historians and art
experts into fits over its countless errors and distortions.
Then there was a lawsuit in Italy and a feature-length
documentary... both of which argue that Jesus never actually existed.
And now, we have the Gospel of Judas... which is being promoted by
National Geographic as a bombshell that could destroy the very
foundations of Christianity.
The press -- going for sensationalism over fact -- has jumped on the
story, intoning solemnly that new light has been shed on the life of
Jesus, and that the traditional biblical accounts have been thrown
In reality, this latest episode says less about Christianity than it
does about the media's profound ignorance of ancient history.
But just in case you missed all the press hoopla, let me give you
In 1978, an Egyptian farmer unearthed a box that contained an
ancient manuscript. He sold the document to a dealer in Cairo, who
then tried to sell it himself.
Finding no buyers, he put the piece in a safe deposit box in a New
York bank... where it sat for 16 years. Finally, a buyer purchased
the manuscript in 2000, and in 2001, National Geographic teamed up
with a Swiss antiquities foundation to restore and translate the
In it, they discovered several apocryphal documents... the
Apocalypse of James, the Epistle of Peter to Philip, fragments of
another ancient book (temporarily titled the Book of Allogenes), and
the Gospel of Judas.
The text was carbon dated to between the third and fourth century,
though the gospel itself was penned in the mid-second century.
But here's where it really gets interesting...
You see, the Gospel of Judas tells a different story of Christ's
relationship to the man who would betray Him. In fact, according to
the newly found gospel, Judas wasn't His betrayer at all.
Apparently, Jesus (who came from "the immortal realm of Barbelo")
took Judas aside at one point and asked the apostle to turn Him in...
so that through the crucifixion, He could be freed from His body.
So Judas wasn't such a bad guy after all. And traditional
Christianity may have gotten the whole religion thing wrong from the
At least that's what most of the media coverage has been saying.
Here's where a drop of historical knowledge would do wonders for
secular journalists. In point of fact, the Gospel of Judas is hardly
a theological earthquake. After all, the Gospel of Judas is one of
the Gnostic gospels. There are many others... the Gospel of Thomas,
the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of the
Egyptians, etc. And with the possible (and partial) exception of
Thomas, they offer no reliable historical insight into the actual
events of the first century.
You see, Gnosticism was a parasite theology. It latched onto
whatever religion was available and rewrote the host's scriptures and
doctrines to fit its own unique beliefs. Often, the villains of the
original religion were turned into the heroes of the Gnostic
variation (and so we often see Cain lionized in Gnostic texts).
Furthermore, Christianity was not its only victim... there were also
Gnostic forms of Judaism and paganism as well.
One of the primary tenets of Gnosticism is salvation through hidden
or secret knowledge -- the name itself comes from "gnosis," the Greek
term for knowledge. And so, not surprisingly, the Gospel of Judas
begins with a nod in this direction:
"The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in
conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week three days before he
What follows is a relatively short summary of Gnostic belief,
dressed up in Christian garb: There's a spark of the divine trapped
within the prisons of our bodies... Through knowledge, we'll learn to
free ourselves... etc.
Of course, like any good Gnostic, the Jesus of the rediscovered
gospel shares his knowledge with Judas, even going so far as to
arrange His own arrest.
He tells Judas:
"'But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man
that clothes me.... Look, you have been told everything. Lift up your
eyes and look at the cloud and the light within it and the stars
surrounding it. The star that leads the way is your star.' Judas
lifted up his eyes and saw the luminous cloud, and he entered it."
While the Gospel of Judas sheds no light on historical Christianity,
it is nevertheless a significant find. After all, it's a pretty big
deal when an ancient work long considered lost is rediscovered. And
the document does flesh out the heavenly pantheon of second-century
But that's as far as it goes. In the end, this is just another
Gnostic gospel... interesting if you're a scholar of Gnosticism, but
of little value to anyone else. As for it's historical reliability,
St. Irenaeus said it best in A.D. 180:
"[The Gnostics] declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly
acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as
no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all
things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion.
They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the
Gospel of Judas" (Adversus haereses 1:31:1).
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Brian Saint-Paul is the editor of Crisis Magazine. Copyright © Brian Saint-Paul and Crisis Magazine
. All rights reserved.