Thursday, June 20, 2013

Thoughts on the Gospel of Judas

The Last Supper (c. late 19th century)
by Carl Heinrich Bloch (Wikipedia)
Of all the Gnostic texts, the Gospel of Judas has caused probably the most controversy in recent years. The only available copy is found as part of the Codex Tchacos, dated to the late third century. Scholars are in agreement that the work divulges no new reliable information about the life of Christ. However, it has immense value as an ancient source on Gnostic beliefs. After reading the text, I’d like to propose another possible use: a source of dissenter critiques of the institutional church, accusing its members of gross immorality.

The Tchacos Gospel of Judas* is a short work, loosely covering events leading up to the crucifixion. Its Jesus criticizes his disciples’ religious acts of devotion, teaches them gnostic ideas, and interprets their dreams and visions. At the end, Judas, who has received some particular attention from Jesus, hands his teacher over to the high priests.

There’s good reason to believe that the Tchacos Gospel of Judas isn’t the same one written about by Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyon, in his Against Heresies.* The Tchacos text features a number of elements characteristic of “Sethian” Gnosticism, and hence is categorized as such in Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer’s The Gnostic Bible. It venerates the biblical patriarch Seth (as some sort of Christ figure) and includes the names/concepts of Æon (aeon), Barbelo, Sakla, and Yaldabaoth, all common in Sethian literature.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Tchacos text bears little resemblance to Irenaeus’s discussion about the Cainites, the Gnostic group known to have a Gospel of Judas. It never mentions – let alone venerates – the likes of Cain, the Sodomites, Esau, or the sons of Korah, the “bad guys” of the Bible esteemed by that group’s adherents. In addition, it never refers to Hysteria, doesn’t promote – but actually denounces – sinful behavior, and doesn’t render itself to the most flattering portrayal of Judas. Its Jesus denounces sacrifice in a number of places, and in one place appears to denounce Judas has participating in the worst sort:
                    Judas said to Jesus, “Those
                    who have been bathed in your name,
                    what will they do?”
                              Jesus said, “Amen I say
                    to you, this bathing     in my name

                    to me. Amen I say to you, Judas,
                    those who offer sacrifices to Sakla

                              everything evil.

                    But you will surpass all of them, for you
                    will sacrifice the man who bears me.

While many scholars interpret this passage as Jesus requesting Judas’ aid in releasing his soul from his physical body, others are convinced that it’s saying – quite clearly, I believe – that Judas’ sacrifice surpasses all of the others in evil. For this and the other reasons stated above, I think that Irenaeus’ target is still missing. Considering that multiple works have been attributed to other disciples of Jesus (e.g., Matthew, Thomas), there’s little reason to assume that two couldn’t bear the name of Judas Iscariot. And this would in no way minimize the scholarship potential of the text we do have.

The main purpose of the Tchacos Gospel of Judas appears to be to delegitimize the authority of the apostles. Sacrifice and thanksgiving prayers to the creator god, along with baptism in Jesus’ name, as branded as wrong doing. In a dream that Jesus interprets for his apostles, they are priests who lead masses astray. Far from promoting the sinfulness of the Cainites, the Tchacos Gospel of Judas denounces sins in two similar lists:
  1. Fasting, or abstaining
  2. Sacrificing their children
  3. Sacrificing their wives
  4. Exhibiting false praise and humility
  5. Committing homosexual acts (lit. “sleeping with men”)
  6. Committing murder
  7. Committing a lot of other sins and lawless acts

  1. Fornicating
  2. Killing children
  3. Committing homosexual acts
  4. Fasting, or abstaining
  5. Committing other acts of lawlessness and error



These acts are noteworthy because they are all condemned in various Old Testament and New Testament passages and/or in early Church literature. Yet it appears that the Gnostic group responsible for this work is accusing the orthodox Church of participating in them. That is why I suggest reading the text as a dissenting voice on the subject of morality within the wider “Christian” community of the second or third century.

There are a number of “restoration” and “reformation” movements that have stood against one or another “established” institutional church. Most people are familiar with the English Dissenters, such as the Puritans and the Quakers, who opposed the episcopal Church of England. There’s also the famous German monk Martin Luther who challenged the authority and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Further along the spectrum is the Church of Latter-Day Saints (i.e., the Mormons) who denounced mainstream Christian denominational doctrine as untrue. Throughout history, often the arguments against the established churches included charges of immorality and corruption on the part of its leaders. It would be no surprise that Gnostic critics of the early Church might make the same charges, real or imagined.

Now some of my readers, preferring a pristine view of the early Church might take issue with my suggestion that some Gnostics might have had sound reasons to criticize orthodox Christians. Yes, it’s possible that these charges are reminiscent of the false accusations of atheism, incest, and cannibalism that plagued Christians during ancient times. It’s also possible that they are, to some extent, accurate in their charges even when inaccurate in their alternative theology.

From the Pauline, Jacobean, and Apocalyptic epistles, there’s a strong sense that the early Christians were often far from perfect. Many later non-canonical writings give the same impression. There were wild practices and strange beliefs being passed around. The Gnostic texts are strong evidence of this in and of themselves. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to believe that a Gnostic group, wrong as it could be on many points, might have been correct in its characterization of the apostles’ legacy.

We already know from the New Testament and other writings that there were disputes over observing Jewish feasts and holidays, some which might have included traditional fasting periods, and over abstaining from particular foods. Hypocrisy, fornication, and lawlessness in general are condemned in a number of passages. “Sacrificing their…wives” might be reference to the legalized wife-swapping allowed by repeated divorce and remarriage, criticized by Jesus (Matthew 5:31-32); and since the Didache forbids induced abortion and infanticide, “sacrificing their children” might be a dream depiction of those acts. As for murder and male homosexuality, considering how those acts were justified numerous times by those claiming to represent Christ throughout the medieval and modern eras, it’s entirely possible that there were excused instances in the ancient times as well.

My purpose here is not to excuse the blasphemous beliefs and writings of whatever Gnostic group produced the Tchacos Gospel of Judas. However, I am suggesting that there might be some truth behind the accusations it seems to make against those acting in Jesus’ Name and claiming religious authority from Jesus’ apostles. While the theological disputes within the early Church make for popular study, the moral sins of early Christians don’t get as much attention. I would have to look deeper into the Christian literature to know for certain, but I do have a hunch that these Gnostics might have been on to something.

*For the Gospel of Judas, I have relied on the “poetic” translation found in Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer’s The Gnostic Bible: Gnostic Texts of Mystical Wisdom from the Ancient and Medieval Worlds, which utilizes an ellipsis-free format that preserves the text’s fragmented form. The controversial National Geographic translation (pdf) by Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, in collaboration with François Gaudard, is accessible free online. Information about the Sethian and Cainite Gnostics can be found in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, Book I, available online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) in Chapters 30 on the Sethians and 31 on the Cainites and at The Gnostic Society Library.

2 comments:

  1. I enjoyed your short essay on Judas. I recall getting the book when NG Society published it and have read a number of works related to it since. I confess that I am less a fan of the Gospel of Judas and Gnosticism but it does make for fascinating reading once you get past much of its opaque nature. Have you had a chance to read Craig Evans very insightful essay "Understanding the Gospel of Judas" in the 2010 "Bulletin for Biblical Research 20 [2010] 561-574." Evans is a major scholar on the historical Jesus. If you have not it is worth the time to dig up. Blessings.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes, Evans' article was one of the resources I consulted before writing this post. Since the National Geographic translation came out, the Coptic manuscript is now available online, more translations have appeared, and it's becoming more and more obvious that the Gospel of Judas doesn't turn the villain Judas into a "hero," as Evans points out. I suspect that that's why the text is no longer in the media spotlight.

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