The Gospel of Judas Revealed
May 16, 2013 By davidjones
By ROBERT BLACK—
The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week three days before he celebrated Passover. …Jesus said to him, “Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal.”
– The Gospel of Judas1
From an historical point of view this find is as important as the Nag Hammadi writings discovered half a century ago. Everything tells us that we are dealing with the Gospel of Judas referred to by Irenaeus in the second century AD. It is fantastic that something like that re-appears after 1800 years.
– Dr. Stephen Emmel2
The story of how the Gospel of Judas arrived in the Western world is a fascinating tale. Like many of the so-called Gnostic Gospels, it somehow travelled out of Egypt and arrived in the US with a large price tag. Unlike many manuscripts which vanish sight unseen, luck or providence if you like brought this manuscript not only to light but finally to restoration and publication. In the words of Professor Elaine Pagels, “the discovery of the Gospel of Judas is astonishing.”
Originally unearthed by a farmer in 1978 near El Minya, Egypt, from where it had been hidden in a “tomb-like box” for some 1,600 years, the leather-bound papyrus codex was in superb condition. The farmer secretly sold the codex to an antiquities dealer in Cairo, without advising Egyptian Antiquities. In a clandestine meeting in 1983, the antiquities dealer offered the codex for sale to various scholars in Geneva, however with an asking price of over $3,000,000 and a dubious provenance, the price was considered extraordinary.
Ironically, while the Gospel survived well in Egypt, it seriously deteriorated when stored for some 16 years in a safety deposit box in Hicksville, New York. Finally purchased by antiquities dealer Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos in 2000, the following year the codex was acquired by the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Switzerland. With the help of National Geographic and an agreement reached with the Egyptian government, restoration work soon began.
Known as the Codex Tchacos (named after Dimaratos Tchacos, father of Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos), it is a 26-page document written on 13 sheets of papyrus leaf in ancient Egyptian, or Coptic. The codex contains not only the Gospel of Judas, but the First Apocalypse of James, the Letter of Peter to Philip, and a small fragment of text that scholars have called the Book of Allogene.
If we focus on the Gospel of Judas, the document is a 3rd century Coptic translation of a now lost Greek text, thought to have been written by a group of early Gnostic Christians before 180 CE. While its significance is much debated, there is no question about its authenticity. There is universal agreement it is the genuine article. “All you had to do was look at this thing once,” said Bart Ehrman, a scholar of early Christianity. “I’ve seen a lot of ancient manuscripts, and there was no question.”3 According to James M. Robinson, America’s leading expert on ancient religious texts from Egypt, “I don’t know of any scholar who thinks this is fake.”4
Back in the 2nd century of the Christian era, the Christian Bishop Irenaeus mentioned a Gospel of Judas was in use among the Kainites, an early Gnostic Christian sect. In part I of his Against Heresy, paragraph 31.1, he wrote:
(Some) stated that Cain owes his existence to the highest power, while Esau, Korak, the Sodomites and all other men are dependants of each other. (…) They believe that Judas the Betrayer was fully informed of these things and that only he understanding the truth like no one else fulfilled the secret of betrayal that confused all things, both in heaven and on earth. They invented their own history called the Gospel of Judas.
The Gospel had been known to exist for some time when discussed by Irenaeus around 180 CE, with his primary source being Justin Martyr. This moves the date back to around 140 CE, and most scholars therefore date the Gospel itself to around 120 CE or even earlier. This is significant because it places the Gospel of Judas within the same timeframe as the Biblical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The publication of the Gospel of Judas undertaken by National Geographic is unlikely to disturb the mainstream Christian church. In a recent interview, Monsignor Walter Brandmuller, president of the Vatican’s Committee for Historical Science, called it “a product of religious fantasy,” and went on to say, “There is no campaign, no movement for the rehabilitation of (Judas) the traitor of Jesus.”5
From past experience with the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947 and the Nag Hammadi Library unearthed two years earlier, whatever the merits of a document it does not bring about a religious revolution. There is an entrenched power structure within Christendom and regardless of the strength of evidence presented, the Church will use spin, distortion and, if necessary, violence (remember the first crusades were against the Cathars) to preserve its dominion.
The significance of the Gospel of Judas needs to be seen in the context of the larger picture provided by Gnosticism and current scholarship regarding Christian origins. Too often modern Christians live in a sort of self imposed ghetto. They read Christian books, subscribe to Christian magazines, and generally are not exposed to scholarship except through the lens of their chosen leaders or churches. In many cases even when a Christian leader tries to inject scholarship and critical thinking, it is still filtered through a very antiquated religious lens. There does seem to be a surprisingly large gap between modern research into Christian origins, even that generally available, and the information the average Christian receives within his or her community.
Over the last 100 years the academic model that has arisen in regards to Christian origins is radically different from the traditional Christian worldview. It would be fair to say Christianity is sometimes even seen as a Gnostic heresy and not vice versa. While this is an inflammatory way of describing Christian origins, it does seem quite clear that within the early Christian “spectrum” there was an exceptionally wide range of traditions and practices. This diversity was not only tolerated but encouraged and embraced.
Christianity was not a single, monolithic tradition handed down from one leader to another in succession; it was diverse and multi-faceted with many dispersed centres of power.
Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton who specialises in studies of the Gnostics, recently said in a statement, “These discoveries are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion, and demonstrating how diverse – and fascinating – the early Christian movement really was.”6
Although later denounced by certain leaders as ‘heretics’, many of these Christians saw themselves as not so much believers as seekers, people who ‘seek for God.’7
– Elaine Pagels
Early Christianity seems to have included many differing viewpoints from the rather staid Judaic Christian mix of James the Brother of Jesus to the esoteric Gnosticism of the followers of Mary Magdalene and Simon Magus. Variations in approach were such that within one movement there were libertine sects that used sex and mind altering substances, and others which were strictly ascetic and celibate. There were groups which were strictly Judaic in focus even to the point of keeping the old laws and festivals of Israel, while others were clearly influenced by the Greek Mysteries and even Buddhist traditions.
Each of these communities had their own sacred texts and interpretations of the teachings of Jesus; the majority would now be considered Gnostic, i.e. they emphasised personal and direct experience of the divine. Accordingly, each of these groups acted like a “Mystery Cult” and had their own specialised practices, mythologies and rites. Many had distinct Gospels which included unique revelations from Jesus to their founders. For example, in the Pistis Sophia, we read of the secret teachings of Jesus to Mary Magdalene and the Gospel of Thomas begins… “These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and Didymus Judas Thomas wrote them down.”8
These secret writings and communities flourished for hundreds of years. It was only in the early 4th century that Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria wrote a letter to some Christians in Egypt ordering them to reject what he called “secret, illegitimate books.”9 In 363 CE the first synod (of Laodicea) was held to decide the official contents of the Bible.
Certainly by the middle of the 4th century, Christianity had become a political force and dissenting views were not tolerated. Under threat and violent persecution, Gnostic communities withdrew from public view, to survive as an ‘underground’ movement. This continued right through to such groups as the Templars and Rosicrucians, and even to the present day.
Clearly, early Christianity offered a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices catering to the unique needs of people with differing levels of spiritual development. This helps us understand the Gospel of Judas. While Christendom has attempted to downplay the significance of this Gospel, its message, like that of Gnosticism in general, is actually quite confronting and challenging.
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