'An ancient manuscript … not only 'proves' that Judas was a hero of the Crucifixion, but even casts doubt on the resurrection itself' screamed a headline in last Friday's Daily Mail. According to its columnist, Glenys Roberts, this manuscript – the Gospel of Judas, a copy of which was found in Egypt last century and was published last week – contains 'secrets that many consider so shocking they believe the Church has purposefully kept them hidden for centuries'. No less than a 'missing chapter' of the bible, 'it offers a whole new perspective on the Christian faith, and in particular on the last days of Christ himself'. Or so she says, struggling valiantly to sensationalize a text that cannot bear even a fraction of the weight that she tries to put upon it.
Much more sober were accounts in some of the broad sheets, though even there some journalists could not resist the urge to exaggerate and to embellish the likely significance of this text. 'Judas: this is what really happened' headlined an article in Friday's Guardian, but authors Julian Borger and Stephen Bates didn't take long to get to the real point. Although the text portrays Judas as the disciple closest to Jesus, and 'represents a radical makeover for one of the worst reputations in history', there is no reason to believe that it sheds any light on what happened in the first century.
Thus they note that Christian scholars are wary of claims made about the text, but the killer quotation comes from Geza Vermes, a Jewish scholar who was himself responsible for much of the early work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish texts that were unearthed in the Judean desert near Qumran. 'The document is of interest for the ideas of the gnostics', states Vermes, 'but it almost certainly adds nothing to our understanding of what happened 150 years before it was written'.
As Vermes implies, the Gospel of Judas was almost certainly written at some point in the second century. It appears to refer to traditions about Judas included in the New Testament gospels and in Acts, which puts it later than those writings, and it was almost certainly referred to by a Christian bishop, Irenaeus of Lyon, who wrote about 180AD against various opponents whom he condemned as heretics. These references give us the range of the earliest and latest dates when the gospel could have been written, and much of its content is typical of a range of other writings (often referred to as 'gnostic') that are also dated to the second century.
This date in the second century is significant. It is likely that many gospels were written in this time, some broadly consistent with the four gospels later included in the New Testament, but some offering very different perspectives on the meaning and significance of Jesus' life and teaching. These include the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Thomas. Many of these second century gospels contain traditions that appear to depend on one or more of the four gospels later included in the New Testament, so it is unlikely that their authors had any significant access to traditions about Jesus that were not already filtered through some of these canonical accounts. This makes it unlikely that they can contribute much – if anything – of consequence to our pool of earliest evidence about Jesus.
In other words, the likelihood that the Gospel of Judas drew on earlier writings and that it was written in the second century make it extremely unlikely that it can tell us anything about what happened between Judas and Jesus in the first half of the first century. What it can do is to tell us about the particular beliefs of one particular group of second-century Christians, a group who were part of a movement usually referred to as the 'Gnostics'. Thus the text provides a valuable window on this movement – and this is its important scholarly value – not on the reasons that led Judas to hand over Jesus to the Jewish authorities in first-century Jerusalem.
Therefore Glenys Roberts' claim that the question of how we use the Gospel of Judas as a guide to our understanding of Jesus' last days on earth 'will almost certainly remain a question of faith' is as mistaken as it is clichéd. Faith does not enter into questions of assessing the relative dating of historical sources and the question of whether later sources have good claims to go back to earlier events. Questions of faith may well be decisive in whether or not readers believe the claims of our earliest sources about Jesus – writings now included in the New Testament – but any historical basis that those claims might be thought to have is entirely unaffected by this later gospel.
To understand the proper significance of the Gospel of Judas it is important to be aware of its likely origin among Gnostics. The word 'gnostic' comes from 'gnosis', the Greek word for knowledge. 'Gnosticism' is an umbrella term used to refer to a bewildering variety of systems that had in common an interest in knowledge. These Gnostics believed that the essence of the human predicament was not sin but ignorance, so they understood Jesus not as a saviour who died for the sins of the world but as a teacher who came to reveal secret knowledge about the world, humanity and God. Central to this knowledge was the belief that the material world was evil, the creation of an inferior god who was not the god of Jesus. This creator god, claimed the Gnostics, was the god of the Old Testament, which is why they often understood as heroes characters in the Old Testament who were opposed to its god. One such character was Cain, the Bible's first murderer.
According to Irenaeus, the second-century bishop who wrote a long book exposing the teaching of many of these groups, it was a group of Gnostics whom he calls Cainites that used the Gospel of Judas. They claimed, suggests Irenaeus, that just as Cain opposed the evil creator God responsible for the physical world, so Judas did the same. Earthly forces did not want Christ to die, lest through his death salvation be offered to humanity, but Judas opposed them and made sure that Christ would die, thus guaranteeing the possibility of salvation that his death would bring.
Two quotations from the Gospel of Judas, published last week, take us to the heart of these beliefs, and help to establish that the gospel only now available is almost certainly the same Gospel of Judas to which Irenaeus referred.
In the first quotation, Judas differentiates himself from the other disciples, acknowledging that the god whom they worship is not the god from whom Jesus came. He has the knowledge that they do not. 'I know who you are and where you have come from,' Judas tells Jesus. 'You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo. And I am not worthy to utter the name of the one who has sent you'. It is in response to this statement that Jesus takes Judas aside, teaching further mysteries to the one who already has this secret knowledge that was so prized by Gnostics.
The second quotation also differentiates Judas from the other disciples, and explains the significance of what he shall do. 'But you will exceed all of them', Jesus tells Judas. 'For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me'. Thus Jesus refers to his true inner life that is trapped in the fleshly body that he appears to wear and commends Judas for allowing that inner life to escape from the physical body in which it is clothed. Judas has the knowledge that Jesus brings, so Judas will act to bring about his release from the material world, and so lead the way for others to follow.
Although clearly very different interpretations of Jesus' crucifixion from those found in the letters of Paul, our earliest written sources about Jesus, and also in the four canonical gospels, our earliest biographical accounts of Jesus' significance, these extracts from the Gospel of Judas fit well with what scholars already know of the diverse and dynamic Gnosticism of the second and third centuries. But they do not undermine the claims of earlier Christian writings such as those of Paul and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, even though they oppose them.
What then of claims in the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and elsewhere that the Gospel of Judas calls into question the resurrection? The first point to make is that nowhere does the gospel even address the resurrection. It ends with Judas handing Jesus over, so includes neither the crucifixion nor the resurrection. But while the teaching that it contains presupposes that the crucifixion took place – Jesus had to die for his divine inner being to be freed – such beliefs also make the resurrection redundant. Since the gospel teaches that the body is evil, a prison from which to seek release, its theological framework has no place for belief in the resurrection. However this argument is based not on any claims to know that Jesus' body was still buried, but on a theological belief that dismisses the body as evil and therefore something best left behind when spiritual release comes at the moment of death. Thus this gospel does deny the resurrection, but the grounds on which it does so do not in any way diminish claims to the contrary in the much earlier writings of Paul and the canonical evangelists.
As for Glenys Roberts' suggestion that the church has for centuries purposefully kept hidden the secrets that this gospel contains, nothing could be further from the truth. One respectable estimate suggests that of Christian writings from the second century that are known to us by name (because someone like Irenaeus refers to them), more than 85% have been lost. Those lost include many works considered 'orthodox' as well as many considered 'heretical'. Should this survival rate seem shockingly low, it is probably the case that an even lower proportion of non-Christian Greek and Latin texts survive from antiquity than do their Christian counterparts. This is not because they were suppressed; it was because books, though precious, were fragile and difficult to preserve. Would that the same could be said of the writings of some columnists today.
Accusations that the Church has long suppressed hidden texts are the stuff of the Da Vinci Code and betray a failure to grasp just how many books failed to survive before the invention of the printing press and of modern libraries. They have no place in informed and responsible journalism.
Dr Andrew Gregory is Chaplain of University College, Oxford, and a member of an Oxford-based team who are preparing critical editions of early Christian gospels that were not contained in the New Testament.