The Judas ‘Gospel’ by Dr. Anthony McRoy



Dr Anthony McRoy

There is presently a great deal of media attention given to the so-called ‘Gospel of Judas’. The Archbishop of Canterbury used his Easter sermon to condemn the kind of idle speculation that accompanies such works. The excitement centres on the fact that this codex reverses the traditional picture of Judas as the evil traitor who sold-out Jesus to the Jewish High Priesthood which led to Christ being crucified. For Christians, the monstrosity of this sin cannot be overestimated. The name ‘Judas’, common enough among Jews up to this point, became a nomenclature of treachery, save in its variant ‘Jude’ (the name of Jesus’ half-brother). The so-called ‘Gospel of Judas’ presents a Judas who far from being a sinful, demon-possessed wretch, is a faithful disciple of Jesus.

According to the April 2006 National Geographic, which publicised the codex, ‘The “secret account” gives us a very different Judas. In this version, he is a hero. Unlike the other disciples, he truly understands Christ’s message. In handing Jesus over to the authorities, he is doing his leader’s bidding, knowing full well the fate he will bring on himself. Jesus warns him: “You will be cursed.”’ Jesus then goes on to say: ‘Truly [I] say to you, Judas… But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.’ Thereafter Judas in obedience to Jesus approaches the Jewish priests: ‘They approached Judas and said to him, “What are you doing here? You are Jesus’ disciple.” Judas answered them as they wished. And he received some money and handed him over to them.’

Earlier, we are presented with a picture of Judas being more righteous than the other disciples, who blaspheme Jesus in their hearts, leading Christ to state: ‘[Let] any one of you who is [strong enough] among human beings bring out the perfect human and stand before my face.” They all said, “We have the strength.” But their spirits did not dare to stand before [him], except for Judas Iscariot. He was able to stand before him, but he could not look him in the eyes, and he turned his face away. Judas [said] to him, “I know who you are and where you have come from. You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo. And I am not worthy to utter the name of the one who has sent you.”’

There are a number of lines missing in the codex, making reading at some points difficult. The codex itself, according to the National Geographic, has been tested to ‘to sometime between A.D. 220 and 340.’ It is in Coptic, the ancient Egyptian language, and is clearly translated from the Greek. The theology of the codex is definitely Gnostic. The features of Gnosticism included polytheism – that the Supreme Being ‘emanated’ i.e. projected from himself, autonomous entities – aeons – spirit beings who ruled the cosmos, existing in a downward spiral of rank, the lowest (usually) being the Demiurge, the Old Testament God who created the material universe. Thus, He was not a god to be reverenced, rather one to flee, from whom to seek deliverance.

Another feature was dualism – an absolute division of material and immaterial. The soul is imprisoned in the body, longing for release. This view seriously affected Gnostic views of Creation, Redemption and God. If matter is certainly valueless and possibly evil, then the Creator of the evil and worthless matter must be inferior to the true God, because the true God would be wise and perfect, and therefore not create matter. Hence the Old Testament God is described by the name ‘Saklas’ – ‘Foolish’ – in the ‘Gospel of Judas’ (as He is in the Nag Hammadi book, ‘The Apocryphon of John’).

According to the Early Church Father Irenæus, writing about 180 AD in his work ‘Against Heresies’, there was a ‘Gospel of Judas’ produced by a Gnostic group called the Cainites. This group reversed the traditional picture of Cain found in Judaism, Christianity and later Islam that Cain was an evil-doer, and not just him; for they declared ‘that Cain derived his being from the Power above, and acknowledge that Esau, Korah, the Sodomites, and all such persons, are related to themselves. On this account, they add, they have been assailed by the Creator, yet no one of them has suffered injury… 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 the 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.’ This picture is quite logical if one accepts the Gnostic view that the Old Testament God was evil; thus anyone who rebelled against Him was effectively good – and this was true of Cain, the people of Sodom and Judas!

It need hardly be said that the Gnostic position, especially that presented in this pseudo-gospel, was based on philosophical presuppositions, not on historical grounds. No one dates this work earlier than the second century. The author was clearly not an eyewitness to the life of Jesus. Among the tests Christians used to determine the canonicity/authenticity of any work purporting to be ‘scripture’ were those of apostolicity – authorship by an apostle or close associate – and antiquity – it must go back to the apostolic age. The ‘Gospel of Judas’ meets neither benchmark. It thus adds nothing to what we know of Jesus, nor for that matter anything about Judas.

This pseudo-gospel is already attracting the attention of Muslims in their debates with Christians, largely because of a traditional belief among them that Judas was substituted for Jesus on the cross, his features being changed to resemble Jesus. This is a feature of the Mediæval forgery often used by some Muslims, the so-called Gospel of Barnabas 216: ‘…Judas was …changed in speech and in face to be like Jesus ….’ In chapter 217 we read that everyone was fooled by this divine deception: ‘…all the disciples, with him who writes, believed it; and more, the poor Virgin mother of Jesus, with his kinsfolk and friends, believed it…’ The same chapter tells us that: ‘they led him to Mount Calvary …and there they crucified him … Judas truly did nothing else but cry out: “God, why have you forsaken me, seeing the malefactor has escaped and I die unjustly?”’

This is based on one interpretation of the Qur’an Surah An-Nisa 4:157 (they said ‘We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah’ – but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them’). It should be noted that neither the Qur’an nor the Hadith (sayings of Muhammad), whether Sunni or Shia claim that Judas was crucified. This view does not appear to have arisen until the Mediæval period. The Shia Hadith does present a substitution picture, but not involving Judas: ‘Abu Ja‘far said, “…Jesus … said, ‘Verily, Allah revealed to me that He will raise me to Him now… Which of you will bear my semblance, then be killed and crucified and be with me at my level?’ A youth among them said, ‘I, O Spirit of Allah!’ He said, ‘So, you are he.’ …Then Abu Ja‘far continued, “Verily, the Jews came seeking Jesus that night, and took … the youth upon whom the semblance of Jesus had been cast. Then he was killed and crucified” (Bihàr al-anwar, 14, 336, 6)’

The interpretation of Surah 4:157 by the Sunni commentator Ibn Kathir presents a similar narrative, but again this does not involve Judas: ‘Isa (Jesus) … said to his companions, “Who volunteers to be made to look like me, for which he will be my companion in Paradise ”. A young man volunteered… prompting Isa to say, “Well then, you will be that man.” Allah made the young man look exactly like Isa.’ It should be noted that the ‘Gospel of Judas’ does not subscribe to the substitution theory – Judas does not get crucified.

Of course, this particular interpretation of the fourth chapter in the Qur’an (there are others) raises as many problems as it solves. If Jesus was raptured up to Paradise like Enoch and Elijah, why would there be any need to change someone’s features to resemble Him at all? After all, He was clearly no longer in danger. Moreover, when some Muslims today claim it was Judas who was crucified, in fitting justice as the one who betrayed Jesus, we need to ask where they got this idea? Neither the Qur’an nor the Hadith (Sunni or Shia) refer to Judas or his betrayal, so they must rely on Christian tradition for the concept, but in that case, where do they get the idea of substitution in regard to Judas? The second century Gnostic leader Basilides did hold to a substitution theory, but identified Simon of Cyrene as the unfortunate victim, not Judas.

The Bible definitely presents Judas’ betrayal as inspired by financial gain: Matthew 26:14-16, and in John 12:4-6 we read that Judas ‘was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it.’ Hence, Judas was far from the tortured soul of some Hollywood films. Essentially, he was low-life, motivated by greed. Anyone familiar with Middle Eastern culture will understand the shock of onlookers and readers when Judas identifies Jesus to the High Priest’s soldiers by means of the traditional greeting of the kiss, still prevalent in the region as a sign of respect and even masculine affection.

We should remember the end of Judas – death and damnation as well as perpetual scorn – to the point that with the exception of some perverse works such as this Gnostic codex, ‘Judas’ became a name of contempt. The present attempt to rehabilitate Judas is not the first, and doubtless it will not be the last. However, the canonical gospels have the advantage of both divine inspiration and being contemporary – they were written by those who knew Judas’s character and actions first-hand, or by immediate followers. John and Matthew saw what Judas was like and how he acted. They also saw how his treachery led to the torturous execution of Jesus, even as they were aware of the despairing suicide of the one who betrayed him. Whether it be the sensationalist media or some Muslim polemicists, all attempts to re-write this history fail at this benchmark.