For this research project, we plan to discuss the text that has become known as the Gospel of Judas, and look at it from several different viewpoints. For the first, we will analyze the origin of this gospel, how and where it was discovered, and the facts surrounding its legitimacy. Next, we will look at what this Gospel actually says and how that relates to the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And finally, our goal is to analyze the impact this Gospel has had on modern society’s relationship to the Bible as a whole and, more specifically, on the Jesus story as it has been understood for hundreds of years.
In early April of 2006, an announcement came from the National Geographic Society that a discovery had been made which “is considered by scholars and scientists to be the most significant ancient, non biblical text to be found in the past 60 years.” The Codex Tchacos became more commonly known as the Gospel of Judas and has a story behind it that sounds more like the plot of an Indiana Jones movie.
Sometime in the 1970s, in a cave near El Minya, Egypt, the document was removed from where it had lain for hundreds of years and fell into the hands of antiquities dealers in and around Egypt. After bouncing around that area for a time, it made its way to Europe and eventually found its way to the United States. More specifically, it wound up in a safety deposit box at a bank in Hicksville, New York where it stayed for another sixteen years without being translated or understood for its significance. It was then purchased in 2000 by an antiquities dealer from Zurich, Ms. Nussberger-Tchacos, who, when all attempts failed to sell the ancient Codex, and instead of risking further degradation of the document, decided to hand it over to the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Basel, Switzerland for conservation and translation.
Once the Codex was in the hands of researchers, they were tasked with proving its authenticity. This led to an interesting series of events that could also be part of the Indiana Jones storyline. One of the first things to analyze was the ink used to write the Codex, so some of the best researchers in the field were called upon. “Microscopist Joseph Barabe of McCrone Associates in Illinois and a team of researchers analyzed the ink on the tattered gospel to find out if it was real or forged. Some of the chemicals in the ink raised red flags.”
Upon analyzing the ink, the researchers noticed that it was not the type of ink that you would normally expect to find on a document of this type. Actually, part of the problem was that it was not just one ink, but two separate inks. In writing this document, the author used one ink that was black and another that was brown – two inks posed twice the problem. “The black was an ink called ‘lamp black,’ which was consistent with the inks used in Egyptian writings from ancient times and into the third century, Barabe said. But the brown ink was more mysterious. It was an iron-rich ink called iron gall, but it lacked the sulfur usually found in inks of this sort.” This discovery initially led them to believe that the document was a fake, based on two factors: one being that documents in this time period were usually written in only one ink and the second being that the brown ink was not consistent with the other inks known to be used in the assumed time of the document’s origin.
At this point in the process people started to assume that this discovery was most likely not worthy of all the excitement surrounding it. For some researchers, this was the end of the debate but for others, this was just the beginning. Determined to find definitive answers, some of the team did not accept that it was forgery and committed to digging deeper into the history surrounding the document’s formation.
The next step was to push the envelope on what researches knew about ink from that time period and to compare other, previously discovered and verified documents from El Minya, Egypt. To do this, the researchers would find themselves traveling to the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. Their plan was to study other Egyptian documents with the same types of inks used in that area, around that same time period. Their research paid off when they found a series of official documents, including marriage documents, which shed new light on what was previously known about Egyptian ink. Barabe said that “what the French study told us is that ink technology was undergoing a transition” in the third century A.D. “Contracts in Egypt in the mid-third century were written in lamp black ink, in the traditional Egyptian style. But they were officially registered in the traditional Greek style, using brown iron gall ink.” They also discovered that the metal-based inks from this time period had very little sulfur in them just like the ink in the Codex. They estimated that the document’s ink was consistent with a date of approximately A.D. 280 and the process of proving the whole Codex real was one step closer to completion.
The next step towards deciding its authenticity came with the analysis of the papyrus itself. National Geographic commissioned other teams to analyze the document with radiocarbon dating, script analysis and linguistic style analysis. “Tests on five separate samples from the papyrus and the leather binding date the codex to sometime between A.D. 220 and 340.” These tests all showed positive results. “The most promising of these characteristics, Barabe said, was that the ink wasn’t piled up in the warped papyrus, suggesting the document was written before the warping happened.” This indicated that the ink had aged with the papyrus and was not added at a later date. “Had someone tried to write on a pre-warped papyrus, the ink would have gathered in crevices and dips — a sure sign someone had intentionally tried to make new papyrus look old. Instead, the Gospel seems to have been written on flat papyrus and aged naturally.” With all of these positive results pointing to the document’s authenticity, Barabe and his colleagues still caution that “this finding doesn’t prove beyond doubt that the document is authentic, but rather that there are no red flags proving it’s a forgery.” His statement suggests that he is leaving it open to interpretation of the individual to decide if his discoveries are enough to prove the document’s legitimacy.
Even if we accept that all of this information is enough to prove the document is real and from the appropriate time period, how do we know who might have wrote it? “Coptic scholars say telltale turns of phrase in the gospel indicate that it was translated from Greek, the language in which most Christian texts were originally written in the first and second centuries.” So the text shows signs of being translated from Greek and written by someone who was of the Christian faith, but which Christian faith is the question that begins to stir up the conflict surrounding this document. “The teaching found in the Gospel of Judas is thoroughly consistent with the kind of Gnostic teaching that is reflected in the Nag Hammadi documents and other Gnostic sources. There is nothing here that is consistent with biblical Christianity.” The term “biblical Christianity” is a very loose term that is used here on the assumption that we all share the same definition of the word “biblical” and “Christianity.” Of all the different bibles in print and all the different forms of Christianity, it might be hard to clearly state that something is not consistent with “biblical Christianity.” Gnosticism did in fact have roots in Christianity and based most of its teachings on Bible stories and the life of Jesus, but with slightly different interpretations than more fundamental Christianity does. In the middle of the second century A.D., the term “Christian Gnostic” was born and writings about Gnostic beliefs began to surface. Due to the differing points of view on Jesus’ life, not all people accept Gnostics as Christian, as evidenced on GotQuestions.org, a website devoted to answering questions about the Bible and Christianity. “The principles of Gnosticism contradict what it means to be a Christian. Therefore, while some forms of Gnosticism may claim to be Christian, they are in fact decidedly non-Christian.”
The Gospel of Judas appears to be written in the time other known Gnostic writings were written and in the language and style of someone who saw themselves as a Gnostic Christian. Judas is fabled to have killed himself sometime during or after Jesus’ resurrection, and therefore could not have written this Codex himself. Perhaps it is a translation of something Judas originally wrote, or the first time his story was written down after years of oral tradition. We cannot know any of this conclusively, except that the Codex appears to have been penned by a Gnostic Christian in the beginning of the fourth century A.D.
The origin of such mysterious documents almost always seems to lead researchers in a direction without the clarity of definitive conclusions. Putting all of that aside, we often have to take the document at face value and see what we can learn from the source. Using the original translation of The Gospel of Judas by The National Geographic Society as our source, we must remember that there are missing sections and annotations to indicate such. So it begins with Jesus coming upon his disciples having a meal of thanksgiving and laughing at the manner in which they are blessing their food. They take offense to his laughing and question his intent. Jesus responds by saying “I am not laughing at you. are not doing this because of your own will but because it is through this that your god [will be] praised,” as if to infer that they do not truly understand why they bless their food, but simply do it out of tradition. This angers the disciples Jesus responds to their anger by saying, “Why has this agitation led you to anger? Your god who is within you and […]  have provoked you to anger [within] your souls. [Let] any one of you who is [strong enough] among human beings bring out the perfect human and stand before my face.” Presumably this is a challenge to his followers to see who is ready to rise above their human nature and stand with him as their perfect spiritual nature. No one in this scene is willing to rise and stand with Jesus except for Judas, who himself is even unwilling to look Jesus in the eye.
At this point, Judas is singled out by Jesus and taken aside and told that he will be taught “the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal.” Perhaps he says Judas will “grieve a great deal” because he is referring to the famous betrayal later to come. He does not tell Judas anything further and the story continues. A few more similar encounters with the other disciples takes place before Jesus is once again in a situation to give more teaching to Judas who asks a very pointed question. “‘Rabbi, what kind of fruit does this generation produce?’ Jesus said, ‘The souls of every human generation will die. When these people, however, have completed the time of the kingdom and the spirit leaves them, their bodies will die but their souls will be alive, and they will be taken up.’” This supports the Gnostic idea that the body is just the flesh and the soul is a spark of God within the body that is waiting to return Home. Though this statement is not the first in the Gospel of Judas to show Gnostic ideology, this is where the text starts to move into a direction of Gnostic preaching that is hard to follow and foreign to the modern-day Christian. Judas is told how each person is guided by a star and that his star has led him astray to see a house in a vision that no mortal is supposed to see or have access to. Not even the sun or moon can rule there because it is the realm of the holy angels. He goes on to teach Judas about “[secrets] no person [has] ever seen.” This includes a realm that no angel’s eye has ever seen and a myriad of characters at play including the “enlightened divine Self-Generated,” “angelic Self-Generated,” “an enlightened aeon,” “angels without number,” “Adamas and Seth” from Luminous Clouds, angels named “Nebro” and Saklas” and much more.
Much of this could lend itself to metaphysical interpretation but at face value it has little coherence or meaning, and is therefore beyond the scope of this paper. A few statements in the Gospel of Judas that we should discuss are ones that have drawn much attention to this document. These are the ones inferring that Jesus might have specifically chosen Judas to betray him. One of these quotes we already covered above, and the next one comes toward the end of the document when Jesus says, “Judas, [those who] offer sacrifices to Saklas […] God [—three lines missing—] everything that is evil. But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me. Already your horn has been raised, your wrath has been kindled, your star has shown brightly, and your heart has […].” Several things are mentioned here. Jesus further supports the Gnostic belief that the body is just a shell clothing the spark of God within, when he says “sacrifice the man that clothes me.” Then he indicates that the sacrifices of others for their God will pale in comparison to the sacrificial offering that Judas will make of Jesus. And Jesus also speaks not only as if he has chosen Judas for this task, but that it is a part of Judas’ unavoidable destiny. This is further supported by one of the final statements in the Gospel when Jesus tells Judas to, “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.”
Throughout history Judas has been known as the betrayer of Jesus and the ultimate villain of the New Testament. He stars in most passion plays as the antagonist and gives the audience someone to rally against. Judas’ role in history goes far beyond that. “He is the ultimate symbol of treachery. Stockyards call the goat that leads other animals to slaughter the Judas goat. In Germany, officials can forbid new parents from choosing the name Judas. Guides at the historic Coptic Hanging Church in Old Cairo point out one black column in the church’s white colonnades—Judas, of course. Christianity would not be the same without its traitor.” Realizing this, we could naturally understand how adverse some people and religious figures might be against the idea that Judas was a part of the Divine Plan and personally told by Jesus to carry out the act of betrayal. Not only that, but Judas would have carried out the act knowing full well that he will “grieve a great deal,” that his “wrath has been kindled” and that he would forever be seen as the man who betrayed the Son of God. Taking this into consideration, one could see that Judas was not in fact the villain, but rather a hero just like Jesus.
Often times in life we ask our closest friends to help us with our most difficult tasks. The Gospel of Judas asks us to consider that the same thing happened with Jesus’ crucifixion. Judas rose to the surface as Jesus’ most promising disciple, and he was the one Jesus asked to help complete the most difficult part of his ministry and mission. In modern times this idea does not sit well with many people who take issue with the Gospel and question its place in history. According to Clinton E. Arnold, Chairman of the department of New Testament at Talbot School of Theology, “Should we be concerned that our Bible is incomplete? Not at all. Our New Testament has been complete for nearly two thousand years. Christians throughout history in every part of the world have recognized this to be the case.” An even more heated response to the details in the Judas Gospel comes from a man named David Stewart who, on his website, directs our attention to John 12:5-6, which is the scene with Mary washing Jesus’ feet with expensive oil. Judas says “‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)” Stewart goes on to say “Did you read that…Judas WAS A THIEF! How dare National Geographic Society, or any other modernist, claim that Jesus was best friends with a thief. Jesus may have befriended sinners; BUT, he wasn’t best of friends with them…Judas was a thief, who stole money from others. There is no record in the Bible of Jesus and Judas ever being personally close.” This argument seems extreme, as we know that Jesus and Judas must have at least been “personally close” when we see the time they shared together. Whether they were “best friends” or not would be up to the individual to decide, but many factors that make up a close friendship are present in the writings.
Others have a more open-minded approach to the discovery of the new Gospel. Dr. L. Michael White asks us to “Step back, take a deep breath and don’t worry. You can’t discard the gospel… It is nonetheless an important piece of information in our larger historical picture, even if we’re not going to say that this is what really happened to Judas.” He then goes on to say that “the Gospel of Judas may tell us less about Judas than about early Christians themselves and what they were thinking about and meditating on. The document can offer a wider education to both scholars and modern Christians.”
The Gospel of Judas clearly has value, as proven by the amount of conversation surrounding its discovery and translation. The question lies in what kind of value it has if it contradicts the Bible story we are already familiar with. James M. Robinson, a retired professor of Coptic studies at Claremont Graduate University, makes an excellent observation about the fuss surrounding Judas’ place in history, and that “the new manuscript does not contain anything dramatic that would change or undermine traditional understanding of the Bible.” He states that “Correctly understood, there’s nothing undermining about the Gospel of Judas.” This is evidenced by the fact that “the New Testament gospels of John and Mark both contain passages that suggest that Jesus not only picked Judas to betray him, but actually encouraged Judas to hand him over to those he knew would crucify him.” This is demonstrated in John 13:26-27. “Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’” By handing the bread to Judas, one could easily argue that Jesus did in fact choose Judas to fill the role of betrayer. As I see it, it could be further argued that he was the victim of Jesus’ decision because it is only after Jesus chose him that “Satan entered him.”
Continuing in the vein of Mr. Robinson’s logic, we may also look to Matthew 26:23-25. “He answered, ‘The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. 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.’ Judas, who betrayed him, said, ‘Surely not I, Rabbi?’ He replied, ‘You have said so.’”
Is Jesus prophesying who will betray him or choosing his betrayer in this scenario? If it is a prophecy, then Judas was destined to betray Jesus, and it was not his choice. If Jesus is choosing him then, again, it is not Judas’ choice. A third option might be to look at the third of Unity’s Five Basic Principles on the organization’s website, which states “We create our life experiences through our way of thinking.” So, with that in mind, we could consider that maybe it was Jesus’ own thinking that created the events that led to his own crucifixion.
This is an important detail to consider because, up until this point, there is no indication in the New Testament that Judas was plotting against Jesus. From the perspectives of all the New Testament writers, the decision was not his own and had not occurred to him until he was called upon by Jesus. So then who initiated the crucifixion of the Son of God? Was it destiny, God, Jesus or something else? That does not have a clear answer for me, but what is clear is that Judas was just fulfilling someone else’s plan. Why, then, is it so shocking that the Gospel of Judas shows Judas as something other than evil and as simply doing what he was asked?
I believe this comes down to a few issues, one of which is the fact that we as humans like things to be ‘cut and dry’. There is a hero, and there is a villain. Taking away the simplicity of that form of thinking challenges someone to dig deeper into their own understanding, often beyond their comfort zone. For us to say Judas was the villain, gives us closure, like finally receiving the verdict of a long trial that has been dragging on for many months. Another issue might be that millions of people would have to come to terms with the idea that Judas was falsely judged for thousands of years. There is a guilt that comes with having to face that realization, and it is much easier to discredit the source than to face our own shortcomings. Finally, we have the issue that this might have been Jesus’ plan all along.
We as a people rally behind a common enemy. By being the betrayer, Judas took on a role, becoming one of the most hated men in history and, by doing so, allowed us to stand together and point a finger. We may have falsely judged him, but that small error in the plan allowed us to be more focused on the message behind Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection instead of being distracted by the moral argument surrounding Judas’ supposed act of betrayal. Or, maybe it was not an error because Jesus knew that there would come a time when human consciousness would be more evolved and ready for the Judas Gospel to come to light and clear Judas’ name. Perhaps in this modern time, we are the final phase in Jesus’ lesson plan. Maybe this plan was for us to ultimately recognize how we are quick to judge others before knowing their full story. In the end, we would have to realize that there is no such thing as a “villain” and people who are labeled as such are only making decisions from the capability of their own current awareness. I do believe that is why the Gospel of Judas has come to us in this time. To ignore it, or to attempt to discredit it, is to miss a call from Jesus from two thousand years ago, asking us to wake up and embrace the Truth. We are Judas just as much as we are Jesus. We are the chosen “Son” and the chosen “betrayer”. Our choices determine the impact we have in this life, and as far as I see it, Jesus chose Judas to help him make the biggest spiritual impact this world has ever seen.
Arnold, Clinton E. “The Gospel of Judas.” Theology Network. 2006. http://www.theologynetwork.org
Cockburn, Andrew. “The Judas Gospel.” National Geographic. May 2006. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com
Graves, Dan. “Gnosticism.” Christianity.com. n.d. http://www.christianity.com
Griffith, Vivè. “The Gospel Truth?” UTexas.edu. May 15, 2006. http://www.utexas.edu
Kasser, Rodolphe, Marvin Meyer and Gregor Wurst, eds. The Gospel of Judas. Washington, D.C.: The National Geographic Society, 2006. Accessed February 4, 2015. http://www.nationalgeographic.com
Pappas, Stephanie. “Truth Behind Gospel of Judas Revealed in Ancient Links.” Fox News. April 8, 2013. http://www.foxnews.com
Stewart, David. “The ‘Gospel of Judas’ Exposed!” Jesus-is-savior.com. April 13, 2006. http://www.jesus-is-savior.com
The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.
“What is Christian Gnosticism?” GotQuestions.org. n.d. Accessed February 4, 2015. http://www.gotquestions.org
Wilford, John Noble and Laurie Goodstein. “‘Gospel of Judas’ Surfaces After 1,700 Years.” The New York Times. April 6, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com