The National Catholic Review
Pheme Perkins
Timing is everything. Jesus’ fatal confrontations with religious and political authorities in Jerusalem coincided with the crowds of pilgrims arriving for Passover. Almost 2,000 years later, attentive to timing, the National Geographic Society rolled out its newly restored Gospel of Judas just before Holy Week. A book, a television special and a cover story in the society’s magazine came on the heels of the press conference announcing publication of the text. That text, unearthed by looters near El Minya, Egypt, in the 1970’s, had passed through several hands before coming to the attention of scholars in 1983, when an Egyptian dealer of antiquities tried to sell it to North American researchers. Like most other media outlets, National Geographic understood that Holy Week is when the public is most interested in the story of Jesusand of Judas.

The Gospel of Judas begins as if it were going to tell that story. Jesus is speaking about his keeping Passover or about his impending paschal sacrifice or passion. Early Christians routinely used the Greek term for Passover, pascha, to refer to the death of Jesus. Consequently, Jesus might have been conversing with Judas about the appropriate way to celebrate the Passover festival. Or he might have been explaining the true meaning of his death. The much-publicized remark made to Judas near the end of the text, you will sacrifice the man who wears me (56, 19-21) led some in the media to speak as though the Gospel of Judas would provide Judas’ version of the crucifixion. But there’s no passion story here! said an irate reader at a Barnes & Noble store on Holy Thursday. So what did he really get in his $15 best-seller?

Part of a Collection

By selecting the Gospel of Judas for a big-bang launch, its promoters ignored speculation about the passion of Jesus found in the two Gnostic treatises that precede this work in the codex, or papyrus book, that contains it. Though the editorial team did not publish those texts, copies had already been found in codices found near Nag Hammadi in 1946. The first tractate, Letter of Peter to Philip (Pp. 1-9; Nag Hammadi Codex viii, 2), opens with Peter summoning Philip to meet with the other disciples. Visions of the risen Lord are required, explained this tractate, because the disciples still do not comprehend the gnostic truths Jesus had taught them. Peter also explains that Jesus did not suffer during the passion. This particular scenario includes details about the passion familiar to readers of the canonical texts: a crown of thorns, the purple garment, the crucifixion on a tree, the burial in a tomb and the rising from the dead.

The second tractate, the First Apocalypse of James (Pp. 10-32; NHC V, 3) has Jesus speaking with his brother, James, about the fulfillment of my redemption (24, 12). Because Jesus has come from the highest realm of the divine, the ineffable, always existing deity, Jesus cannot suffer from the assaults of the demonic rulers of this world. James will have to suffer but is promised victory in the end (24, 31-25, 19). James comes closer to the Gospel of Judas than the Letter of Peter to Philip in several respects. It comprises a revelation dialogue between Jesus and an individual who possesses a special relationship to Jesus. The Twelve Apostles are not rehabilitated by the teaching of the risen Jesus as they are in the Letter of Peter to Phillip. Instead they reflect the opposition of the 12 demonic powers, which guard against unworthy souls trying to ascend to the realm of the true God (NHC V 27, 23-28, 4; 36, 1-4). The Gospel of Judas has the same view of the Twelve. James will not be able to entrust what Jesus has taught him to his own generation. Rather, he must guard it for the gnostic race that will emerge at some future time (36, 15-38, 8). Jerusalem itself is described as a demon-infested place of lawlessness that will be destroyed (40, 20). In the Gospel of Judas, Judas is the archetype of a 13th race, superior to the Twelve since that race is not misled by the cosmic powers.

The three treatises in the new codex form an interesting series. It begins with universally accepted apostles, Peter (and the Twelve) and turns its attention to outsiders: James, the brother of Jesus, and the outcast Judas. Perhaps its reader was expected to shift allegiances in a similar fashion.

Is It a Gospel?

The Gospel of Judas opens by describing itself as the hidden discourse (logos) of the decision (or answer, apophasis) which Jesus spoke with Judas Iscariot. The title Gospel of Judas has been added by the scribe at the end, probably as a shorthand title for the book. But the author had no intention of writing a gospel, that is, a narrative telling the story of Jesus, from Judas’s point of view. He intended rather to present teachings of Jesus that distinguish a true Gnosticrepresented by Judas in this bookfrom the followers of the Jewish god, as represented by the Twelve.

The Gospel of Judas comprises a series of encounters, questions and answers between Jesus and either the disciples or Judas. Most of the text has much less connection with the passion narrative than is to be found in the two tractates that precede it. The timeline begins some three days before the Passover/Passion. It ends with Judas handing Jesus over to some scribes for an unspecified amount of money. Just prior to this, Jesus had gone into a lodging (kataluma) to pray. So Judas’s actions would appear to be nothing more than pointing Jesus to the right doorno Garden of Gethsemane, no gang of armed police, no fleeing disciples and no kiss of betrayal here!

So what happens next? Nothing. Just the closing credits or, in this case, the scribe’s title.

Keys to Reading the Gospel of Judas

So if the media trailer has got the movie wrong, what does the Gospel of Judas really have to say?

Before introducing events of the final week, the Gospel of Judas summarizes the public ministry of Jesus under two headings: his appearance as a miracle-worker and his selection of 12 disciples. The miracles resulted in division between the righteous and the transgressors. The calling of the Twelve appears as a response to that situation. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus’ disciples are distinguished from the crowd by private instruction concerning the mystery of the kingdom conveyed through Jesus’ parables (see Mark 4:10-12, 33-34). The Gospel of Judas defines the topics of this instruction in the mysteries as the divine world beyond this creation and the end-time. The narrator, never equated with Judas, notes that Jesus rarely showed his full identity to the disciples but instead appeared as a child. Thus the opening of the Gospel of Judas presents a collection of topics for the revelation dialogue that follows: Jesus’ Passover, Jesus’ paschal sacrifice, the distinction between the saved and the transgressors, the distinction between this world and the divine, the end of this world and the true reality of Jesus.

With these distinctions in mind, one can make sense of many of the episodes which follow. The first sequence of events occurs on successive days: one day in Judea, one early the next morning and one on another day (33, 22; 36, 11; 37, 20-21). This section appears to end on page 41 of the codex. The next section is very fragmented. It may include parables concerning a baker, water or trees in paradise, sowing and harvestingall being used to illustrate the distinction between immortal souls, which belong to the heavenly race, and those of mortal humans (41, 26-44, 14). At the end, Jesus departs from the disciples.

Separating Judas From the Twelve

The Gospel of Judas concludes with Judas handing Jesus over to the scribes. That ending is quite atypical. Most Gnostic compositions favor either a revelation spoken by a voice directly from the divine realm or the words of a risen Jesus, for example. Other items in the Gospel of Judas are more typical of Gnostic treatises. It incorporates familiar Gnostic motifs in a long cosmological excursus toward the end of the dialogue (47, 14-53, 7). This cosmogony fulfills the earlier promise that Jesus will teach Judas about a hidden realm unknown to the angels that govern this cosmos. Judas picks up on a reference to Adam’s life span in the cosmogony to reintroduce a frequent topic in his questioning: the distinction between those human spirits that die and those that are immortal. Jesus associates the former with the angel Michael and the latter with Gabriel. The epithet for the immortal souls, generation with no king over it, appears in a number of Gnostic texts.

Until Jesus departs (44, 14), the dialogue mixes scenes in which Jesus engages all the disciples, along with asides in which he instructs Judas alone. On the first day, the disciples are castigated for offering thanksgiving over bread, designed to please your god, that is, the Creator. That scene suggests that Jesus did not celebrate Passover. The disciples identify Jesus as son of their Creator God, but Judas recognizes that Jesus has come from the divine realm of the highest, ineffable God. At this point, Jesus takes Judas aside for special revelation. The pattern of an inadequate confession by some disciples followed by a favored disciple recognizing the truth and receiving a special status is best known from Peter’s confession in Matt 16:16-20. In the Gospel of Thomas 13, Jude-Thomas is the favored one, in contrast with Matthew and Peter. Here Judas Iscariot steps into that familiar role.

Jesus designates Judas as one who belongs to the great and holy race. He no longer belongs to the Twelve, a number symbolic of this world and its god. By replacing Judas (Acts 1:12-14), the disciples complete their service to the Creator God. The Gospel of Judas underlines this difference between the Twelve and Judas in two symbolic dream visions. In the first vision, his disciples see 12 men in a house sacrificing before an altar, with a crowd outside. Jesus offers two interpretations. The first provides a chain of successive deeds of lawlessness provoked by astral forces. The second interprets the 12 priests as the 12 disciples, who are warned to stop sacrificing or share the final destruction that awaits this world (37, 2041, 8). Later, Jesus reassures Judas that he does not belong among those destined to destruction because his star is from the aeon above the cosmos (54, 1355, 20).

Judas then has a symbolic vision of the Twelve disciples stoning him. The Twelve reflect the 12 astral demons responsible for the sufferings Judas will undergo. Judas is symbolic of the Gnostic race. Though cursed by others, Gnostics are destined for the divine realm. Before the betrayal scene, Judas is granted an ascent into the luminous cloud to see the star that is to be his guide. Those standing on the ground hear an echo of a divine voice from the cloud. Because lines of text are missing, it is impossible to tell how the author made the transition from the sign of divine glory back to the story of Jesus’ arrest. The conclusion suggests that Judas had separated from the other disciples, since the scribes are surprised to find him apart from Jesus. At the same time, the abruptness of the ending leaves the reader puzzled. Why conclude with the words, he handed him over (58, 25-26)? Perhaps the explanation has been lost in the missing parts of the text. Or perhaps the scribe who copied this codex did not have any more of the Gospel of Judas at hand.

What Is New Here?

The widespread publicity surrounding publication of the Gospel of Judas hinted that the Good Friday remembrance of Jesus’ passion would be rewritten. We would find a more human face for Judas in a story to be told from his point of view.

Not so. The Gospel of Judas casts Judas Iscariot as an enlightened Gnostic whose destiny is the divine realm from which Jesus came. The Gospel of Judas has less interest in the passion story than do other Gnostic texts. Its portrait of Judas as a true Gnostic is not different from other Gnostic dialogues that apply that designation to such figures as Peter, James, the brother of the Lord, John, Jude-Thomas and Mary Magdalene.

People have asked if this gospel belongs in the Bible. Hardly. This work is a hidden teaching, not a text for public proclamation. As far as one can tell, neither the Gospel of Judas nor any other Gnostic revelation dialogue was intended to replace the canonical texts in the public worship and life of the church.

One danger that St. Irenaeus, the second-century author of Against Heresies, saw in the impact of Gnostic teachers within the larger Christian community, represented in the Gospel of Judas, was their denial of the Jewish heritage of the Christian movement. As we have seen, Jesus distances the divine realm from the work of a malicious creator. Identification with the divine as inner spiritual reality brings with it disdain and alienation from the material realm and its governing forces.

Despite the intense media attention and wide public interest in the Gospel of Judas, most Christians I know would reject the passion-less Christ and the alienation from the world implicit in this so-called Gospel. Its ultimate importance, therefore, for Christian practice and faith remains marginal.

Pheme Perkins is professor of New Testament at Boston College and author of The Gnostic Dialogue (Paulist, 1980) and Gnosticism and the New Testament (Fortress, 1993). She is completing a book on the synoptic Gospels and early Christi