Judas and Jesus:
The truth about the Book of Judas
Dr. James C. Denison
Pastor for Teaching
Park Cities Baptist Church
April 10, 2006
The "Book of Judas" has made front-page news since its disclosure last week. National news stories have been dedicated to its announcement. A two-hour National Geographic special aired on April 9. Books on the subject are already filling the shelves of local book shops.
In the midst of all this furor, what is the truth about this so-called "lost book of the Bible"? And why does its announcement matter to our lives and faith today?
The world of the Gospel of Judas
For the beginning of the story, we need to step back in history nearly a thousand years before the writing of this so-called Gospel, to the very beginnings of Western culture as we know it. The origins of our outlook on life are to be found in ancient Greece, where the first religious war known to Western history was fought.
On one side stood the famous gods of Homer and the Greek myths--Zeus, Athena, Apollo and the rest. You'll remember them from your junior high literature classes. Stronger than mortals but just as fallen and flawed, they resided on Mt. Olympus and ruled the elements of the known universe. Thunder was attributed to Zeus, storms to Neptune, and so on.
The other side of the combat is far less famous today. The "mystery cults" were just what their name implies--they were secretive societies, formed around the worship of gods which controlled the elements of daily life. For instance, Dionysus was the barbaric god of the vine and Demeter was the goddess of the countryside. Weird rituals were used to achieve unity between the worshippers and their gods.
Dividing soul and body
Within this strange world, perhaps the strangest sect was the followers of Orpheus, a legendary singer and philosopher. Orpheus taught that our "souls" are immortal gods imprisoned in our bodies. Your soul is released from its material prison through rituals and knowledge of magical formulas. If you know the right words to say and think, you can free your soul to return to its pre-incarnate state. Orpheus held the only key to the spiritual jailhouse. Soon, everyone would want to borrow it.
To make a long story too short, the Orphic cult became enormously popular in southern Italy, where a philosopher named Pythagoras had settled. Around 530 B.C., he established his Brotherhood. He taught that the intellect makes the soul divine, and that mathematics are the best way to liberate the spirit. His view of the world (called a cosmogony) influenced Plato, and Plato the world.
Plato is the most famous thinker of antiquity, and for good reason. His views have influenced nearly everything we think and do. As related to our subject, his perspective was clear and cogent. He believed that a world of eternal realities exists, and called them the "Forms" or "Ideas." They are separate from the world known to our senses. The world you and I can see is only a "shadow" of this perfect world.
How did it come to be? The world of Forms cannot have material substance, or it would be imperfect and flawed. But it spawned a divine craftsman who formed the material universe. These materials are the source of evil in the world, the rusty nails and warped two-by-fours of our lives.
Those who followed Plato's worldview refined his ideas over succeeding generations. "Neo-Platonists" posited intermediary beings between the world of Form or Mind and the world we inhabit. The Spirit of God breathes the divine spark into us, forming our souls. The whole point of life is freeing them from our bodies, usually through ascetic rituals and knowledge of correct formulas and ideas. Salvation comes through education, not spiritual repentance and forgiveness.
Such was the world which the Christian gospel encountered as it spread from its Jewish home. To recap: the soul is good, the body bad. This material world is to be avoided and escaped. Through possession of right knowledge and use of right formulas, our souls can be purified and returned to their rightful home. How would the message of the New Testament make sense in such a culture?
Merging the Greek and biblical worlds
Most missionaries and theologians tried to show the Greek world where it was wrong--that God is one, that he made all that is, and that trusting his Son is the means of salvation (cf. Acts 17, where Paul presents the orthodox message to the Greek culture in a very compelling way). But some sought to merge the two worldviews, to modify the Christian message so as to make it consistent with the Greek mindset. "Gnosticism" was the result.
"Gnostic" comes from the Greek word gnosis, "knowledge." There were many kinds of Gnostics, just as there are many kinds of Christians or Muslims today. But they shared a common belief that the soul is good, the body bad, and that use of right ideas and formulas could purify and liberate the soul.
To persuade others of their mindset, the Gnostics took to writing so-called "gospels" or lives of Jesus. The Gnostics were not well known in their culture, and were understandably unpopular with orthodox Christians. And so they attributed their gospels to biblical figures, hoping to use such connections to increase their readership. By the mid-second century they had produced the Gnostic Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and so on. Irenaeus and other orthodox Christians showed the world the errors and illogic of the Gnostic version of Christianity. Over time the movement died out.
In his monumental Against Heresies (dated AD 180), Irenaeus mentioned among these Gnostic books the Gospel of Judas. This is the only reference we had to the book until events of recent years and the announcements made last week. After describing in detail the Gnostic heresy regarding God and his creation, Irenaeus states,
They 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 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.1
Irenaeus and others gave us a full account of the Gnostic heresy. But since its demise, the movement held little interest for Christians and theologians until December of 1945, when the Nag Hammadi Library was discovered in Egypt. Some workers digging for fertilizer came upon the largest repository of Coptic (ancient Egyptian) manuscripts of the Gnostic movement. This Library contained fifth-century copies of 13 leather-bound books, some 700 pages in total.
The discovery brought the Gnostics back to modern attention, and spurred much conjecture as regards the possibility that "lost books of the Bible" had been discovered. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Gnostics were never part of traditional Christianity; their "gospels" were written as much as a century after the biblical lives of Christ and were never considered to be Scripture by the larger Christian movement.
The Gnostics and The DaVinci Code
Nonetheless, Dan Brown's blockbuster novel The DaVinci Code has confused millions on the subject:
Fortunately for historians…some of the gospels that Constantine attempted to eradicate managed to survive. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the 1950s hidden in a cave near Qumran in the Judean desert. And, of course, the Coptic Scrolls in 1945 at Nag Hammadi. In addition to telling the true Grail story, these documents speak of Christ's ministry in very human terms. . . . The scrolls highlight glaring historical discrepancies and fabrications, clearly confirming that the modern Bible was compiled and edited by men who possessed a political agenda--to promote the divinity of the man Jesus Christ and use His influence to solidify their own power base.2
Mr. Brown later calls the Nag Hammadi and Dead Sea scrolls "the earliest Christian records."3
For starters, let's understand that the Dead Sea Scrolls were in no sense "Christian records." They contained only the Old Testament and other writings. Mr. Brown completely fabricated that reference. And let's note that the Nag Hammadi Library gave us no material related to the biblical text. It contained nothing which would "highlight glaring historical discrepancies and fabrications" in the Bible we have. Rather, it held only Gnostic literature composed a century after the biblical books were written.
Before the recent announcements, we already possessed a thorough knowledge of the Gnostic movement and its theological heresy. We knew that a Gospel of Judas was written by the Gnostics to advance their agenda. While we had no record of the actual book, its existence was irrelevant to our understanding of biblical Christianity and its earliest heretical enemy.
The discovery of the Gospel of Judas4
The Gospel of Judas is part of a larger discovery now designated Codex Tchacos. The Codex ("book") contains four volumes: a version of the Letter of Peter to Philip (also contained in the Nag Hammadi Library), a text titled "James" (corresponding to the First Revelation of James in the Nag Hammadi materials); the Gospel of Judas; and a heretofore unknown work provisionally titled the Book of Allogenes.
The originals were likely written in Greek, sometime in the mid-second century. They were later copied in Coptic in the present book, which probably dates to the early part of the fourth century.
In 1978, some excavators digging in a tomb dug in the bank of the Nile River came upon the book. Antiquities dealers were contacted. An Egyptian named Hanna gained possession of the codex. He set it out to display for a potential customer, but it was stolen from his apartment. In 1982, Hanna recovered the book.
In his efforts to sell the book, Hanna contacted Ludwig Koenen, a member of the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Michigan. Koenen and other scholars tried to buy the book, but Hanna's asking price was too high. On March 23, 1984, Hanna rented a safe-deposit box with Citibank in a Hicksville, New York branch. He kept the book in this box until he finally sold it to Frieda Nussberger on April 3, 2000. This was the worst possible storage for the ancient book, as the humidity of the area was extremely destructive.
Ms. Nussberger then offered the book to Yale University, which did not recognize its value and declined the sale. On September 9, 2000, she sold it to an American antiquarian named Bruce Ferrini. He froze the book, which nearly destroyed it. He could not raise the money to complete the sale, and so returned it eventually to Ms. Nussberger. But he kept some of the fragments, photographs of which are still circulating.
Finally the manuscript was sold to the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Basel, Switzerland on February 19, 2001. For the last five years, scholars have worked with meticulous effort to reassemble the ancient book and translate it. It will eventually be displayed at the Coptic Museum of Cairo. The National Geographic Society has purchased rights to tell the world about the find, and has published several books which contain the Gospel and its story. Thus the news release on the week before Palm Sunday, and the two-hour documentary which aired on April 9.
The teachings of the Gospel of Judas
"Judas" is a form of "Judah," a name which means "Yahweh leads." The New Testament contains some 20 references to the most famous person by this name, Judas Iscariot.
The biblical version
Each time we meet Judas in the New Testament, we are reminded that he was a traitor or a sinner. To summarize:
Jesus knew that Judas would betray him (John 6:70-71).
Judas was a man of greed (John 12:1-8).
He betrayed Jesus under the prompting of Satan (John 13:26-30).
He then led the soldiers to Jesus (Matthew 26:47), where he identified him with a kiss (v. 49).
He was then remorseful, and committed suicide (Matthew 27:3-5); his decaying corpse later fell from its rope and burst (Acts 1:18-19).
Scripture does not define Judas' motives for the most despicable act in biblical history. Some historians believe that Judas was a member of the Zealots, a band of revolutionary insurgents committed to the violent overthrow of the Roman occupation. When Jesus would not be a military conqueror, Judas betrayed him in disgust.
Others see him as a coward who betrayed Jesus to save himself. Still others point to his greed in selling Jesus for money. A minority position is that Judas betrayed Jesus to force his hand as a military hero, or even to turn him over to the Jewish authorities in the hope that they would hide Jesus from the Romans. The infamous disciple did eventually admit, "I have sinned, for I have betrayed innocent blood" (Matthew 27:4). But by then it was too late.
The Gnostic version
Marvin Meyer summarizes well the Gnostic viewpoint set forth in the Gospel of Judas:
Jesus teaches Judas the mysteries of the universe. 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. For gnostics, the fundamental problem in human life is not sin but ignorance, and the best way to address this problem is not through faith but through knowledge. In the Gospel of Judas, Jesus imparts to Judas--and to the readers of the gospel--the knowledge that can eradicate ignorance and lead to an awareness of oneself and God.5
The book describes events said to have occurred in the week before Jesus was arrested and executed.6 It states that "often [Jesus] did not appear to his disciples as himself, but he was found among them as a child" (20). The book describes the priests of the day: "[some] sacrifice their own children, others their wives, in praise [and] humility with each other; some sleep with men; some are involved in [slaughter]; some commit a multitude of sins and deeds of lawlessness" (26). And it quotes Jesus to say, "Each of you has his own star" (29, following the Platonic idea).
Judas was more enlightened than the other disciples, for he said to Jesus, "I know who you are and where you have come from. You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo" (22-23, a reference to the divine realm). In response to his wisdom, Jesus said to him, "Step away from the others, and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom" (23). Later he invited Judas, "[Come], that I may teach you about [secrets] no person [has] ever seen" (33).
In the book, Jesus proceeds to explain the Gnostic worldview to Judas. There are some 360 "aeons" (a kind of offspring) from the true God. One of them is El, the wicked god of the Old Testament which made the physical universe. He worked with Yaldabaoth (which means "bloody rebel") and Saklas (which means "fool"; 37). They created the material world which imprisons our souls.
But eventually Judas would set Jesus free from his physical jail. His betrayal was precisely what Jesus wanted him to do, and would be greatly rewarded in contrast to the other, unenlightened disciples: "But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me" (43). "The man that clothes me" refers to Jesus' physical body, which must be killed so his soul can be liberated. For such obedience, Judas will "come to rule over" the other disciples (33).
And so the Gospel of Judas tells us that Jesus was a great teacher of enlightened wisdom, and that Judas alone understood his true nature and purpose. Judas' betrayal accomplished Jesus' desire to be rid of his physical prison so that his soul could be liberated. For such obedience, Judas would be greatly rewarded in heaven. He is not the despised traitor of God's Son, but his closest friend, confidant, and associate. He is the model of enlightened wisdom we are all to follow.
The significance of the Gospel of Judas
The Gnostic version of Judas' story adds nothing to our previous knowledge of the Gnostic worldview and its heretical teachings. We already knew that this sect attempted to merge the Greek division between soul and body with the New Testament. It had already painted Jesus as a great teacher of enlightened wisdom, not the divine Savior who died to pay for the sins of humanity. Its exaltation of Judas is consistent with other Gnostic treatments of Thomas and Mary Magdalene.
Unfortunately, news accounts are already beginning to confuse the issue. We are hearing that scholars may have discovered a "lost book of the Bible." We are reading that the New Testament picture of Jesus and Judas may need to be revised in light of this "new truth." Undoubtedly, skeptics of biblical authority will seize upon the find as yet another reason to question the orthodox teachings regarding Jesus and his Church.
But the facts remain: Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate and raised from the grave on Easter Sunday. His first followers paid with their lives for proclaiming him Lord. If they had seen him only as a teacher of wisdom, the Roman government would have left them alone. A million Christians would not have been martyred for their commitment to Jesus, none of them followers of a Gnostic teacher.
Pliny the Younger documented in AD 112 their worship of Jesus "as a god." Tacitus, the great historian of ancient Rome, set down the "superstition" which venerated Jesus as Lord (cf. Annals 15.44). Early Christians such as Cyprian of Rome professed their commitment to Christ as Lord before the first century had ended. The fact of Jesus' resurrection has never been refuted. And the changed lives of his disciples have never been explained.
The Gospel of Judas gives us no new information regarding the true biblical Christ or his betrayer. It discloses nothing new about the Gnostic sect which opposed biblical Christianity. But it does give us each opportunity to ask ourselves: what will we do with Jesus? Will we deny him for the sake of popularity or prosperity? Will we turn against him when our faith is threatened or opposed? Or will we say to the world, "Jesus is Lord"?
The biblical Judas appeared safe from the authorities, his Lord soon to be executed. But then Judas took his own life before Jesus offered his. Only the ancient Gnostics excused his rejection of our Lord. Let's not make the same mistake today. To reject Jesus is to reject the only way to God (John 14:6), the only way to salvation available to the world (Acts 4:12).
At the same time, we need to know that our worst days don't have to be our last days. Jesus died for Judas, and for all who have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Wherever we've fallen down, we don't have to stay there. The One who died for us all is ready to forgive our sins and make us God's children. If you don't remember asking him to forgive your mistakes and become your Lord, I invite you to pray this simple prayer today:
Thank you for loving me. Thank you that Jesus died on the cross to pay for my sins. I ask you to forgive me for them. I ask you into my life today. I turn my life over to you as my Lord and Master. Thank you for loving me and making me your child. In Jesus' name, Amen.
If you prayed that prayer for the first time, our church would like to help you grow in your new faith. You can contact Park Cities Baptist Church (www.pcbc.org) for conversation with someone who is ready to help.
If you already know Jesus as Lord, take a moment to thank him for forgiving your sins and failures. Ask his Spirit to show you any areas where you have betrayed his word and will. Confess them to him, and claim his grace and new life. And join me in a new commitment to tell the world the truth about Jesus. The real Gospel may not make headlines today, but it has been changing lives for 20 centuries. With whom will you share it next?
Copyright © 2006. All rights reserved.
, Against Heresies
1.31.1; in The Ante-Nicene Fathers
, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, repr. 1989) 1:358.
2 Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code (New York: Doubleday, 2003) 234.
3 Ibid., 245.
4 For more, consult The Gospel of Judas
, ed. Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregory Wurst (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2006); and Herbert Krosney, The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot
(Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2006). For a somewhat scathing critique of the process which has disclosed the book, see James M. Robinson, The Secrets of Judas: The Story of the Misunderstood Disciple and His Lost Gospel
(New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).
5 The Gospel of Judas 7.
6 Readings are taken from translation reproduced in The Gospel of Judas. The bracketed sections contain words supplied by the translators to fill in missing text.