But first allow me to ask this question: Is it authentic? I would answer both in the affirmative and in the negative, “Yes” and “No”. By “Yes” I mean that The Gospel of Judas does appear to be an authentic manuscript dating back to approximately 300 AD written in the Coptic language (Egyptian). This was no doubt a translation of an even earlier manuscript that was referred to by the early church father Irenaeus in his book Against Heresies in 180 AD. It is an authentic historic document, but it’s just not true. It is a distorted account of what we have in the canonical gospels. The Gospel of Judas (along with The Gospel of Thomas and other 2nd and 3rd Century gnostic writings) was written much later than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and was created by the Gnostics who had a specific agenda which they were trying to push. I would state the issue of the authenticity of The Gospel of Thomas in similar terms as a sticker that I’ve seen on several pseudo-leather products stating a particular bill-fold or belt as being made of “Genuine Imitation Leather”! What does that even mean? This is real-fake leather! The Gospel of Judas is genuine, but it’s an imitation. A “Genuine Imitation Gospel”!
Another question which I would like to answer briefly is: What does The Gospel of Thomas teach? Well, you can read from this document by clicking here. But let me share a few pertinent quotes from the document. The text begins with an introduction describing the contents as “The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week three days before he celebrated Passover.” Later in the document, Jesus pulls Judas aside and says to him, “Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom.” Obviously, according to this document, Judas is in a special position to receive the secret mysteries which others do not and cannot know. Still later in the document, in response to a question from Judas regarding his own fate, Jesus is said to have said, “You will become the thirteenth, and you will be cursed by the other generations – and you will come to rule over them. In the last days they will curse your ascent to the holy [generation].” Then Jesus says to Judas, “[Come], that I may teach you about [secrets] no person [has] ever seen. For there exists a great and boundless realm, whose extent no generation of angels has seen, [in which] there is [a] great invisible [Spirit]”. Finally, this quote from Jesus is seen as a justification for Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. Jesus supposedly says to Judas, “But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”
All of these quotes (and there are many more) show that this document shows a fully developed Gnosticism from the 2nd century. Gnosticism was an early Christian heresy that taught that the material universe is bad, and only the spiritual good. Therefore, God (who is spirit) could not have created the material world directly, but instead used a series of angels. One of these angels was far enough away from God (and therefore goodness) to be able to create the material world. In their system, angels were worshipped. God could not have become man. A secret knowledge existed that only an elite few could attain. I’m sure you can now see the Gnosticism which is clearly present in The Gospel of Judas.
Early forms of this Gnostic heresy were rejected as they began to appear in the 1st century by the apostle John in 1 John (see 1 John 1:1; 2:3, 20-21; 4:1-3, 13; 5:13) and by Paul in his letter to the Colossians (see Colossians 2:8-9, 18). Gnosticism was also rejected by the early Christian theologian, Irenaeus, who referred specifically to the Gospel of Judas as “fictitious history” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 1, XXXI, 1). All of these references (1 John, Colossians and Irenaeus) show that the publication of The Gospel of Judas is not a new discovery that will revolutionize Christianity, but an ancient heresy that still needs to be rejected!
The question may be asked: Why was it rejected and why must it continue to be rejected today? If the early church had access to gnostic “gospels” like the and the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Thomas, then why were they not included in the canon of Scripture. This question points us to the larger question of the criteria used in determining the canonicity of the books of the New Testament. The 27 books of the New Testament did not fall from the sky, sown together and leather bound! These books (the Gospels, Epistles of Paul, General Epistles and the book of Revelation) circulated among various Christian communities along with other documents. Eventually, the 27 books that now make up our New Testament, like cream, rose to the top. These books were recognized as authoritative and therefore canonical. Those books which were rejected, were rejected because of a failure in one or more of the following areas:
1. Apostolicity — Written by or based on the preaching/teaching of a first-generation apostle (or close companion). Since The Gospel of Judas was not written until the mid 2nd century, it could not have been written by Judas or any other apostle.
2. Universality — Acknowledged by all major Christian communities in the ancient world and used in public worship by early Christians. The Gospel of Judas failed this test because of its gnostic content which was rejected as heretical by the early church.
3. Consistency — Containing a theological outlook similar or complementary to other accepted Christian writings. The Gospel of Judas paints a very different picture of the teachings and work of Jesus than does the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (all of which met the criteria of apostolicity and universality).
Clearly, The Gospel of Judas fails to meet the standard and was rightly rejected by the early church!
David Kopel provides a helpful analogy to help us appreciate the significance of (or more properly the lack thereof) The Gospel of Judas for historic Christianity’s understanding of the understanding of the relationship between Jesus and Judas, the traitor. He wrote:
Suppose that sometime around the year 3,800 A.D., someone wrote a newspaper that began: “According to a recently-discovered document, which appears to have been written sometime before 1926, Benedict Arnold did not attempt to betray George Washington and the American cause, as is commonly believed. Rather, Benedict Arnold was acting at the request of George Washington, because Washington wanted Arnold to help him create a dictatorship of the proletariat and the abolition of private property.”
A reader who knew her ancient history would recognize that the newly-discovered “Arnold document” was almost certainly not a historically accurate account of the relationship between George Washington and Benedict Arnold. The reader would know that the terms “dictatorship of the proletariat” and “abolition of private property” come from a political philosophy, Marxism, which was created long after Washington and Arnold were dead. The reader would also know that the most reliable records from the 18th century provided no support for the theory that Washington or Arnold favored a dictatorship of the proletariat or the abolition of private property.
The 3rd century document, The Gospel of Judas, is not as historically accurate as the 1st century documents (the Gospels) contained in the New Testament. Especially since much of the terminology used in the Gospel of Judas on the lips of Jesus was non-existent until the 2nd and 3rd centuries when the seeds of Gnosticism had fully blossomed.
So, finally then, What is the real significance of The Gospel of Judas? The significance of The Gospel of Judas does not lie in an alteration of the historic Christian faith! It doesn’t alter it at all! Instead, this document merely shows what the early Christian church strongly rejected as heresy! This is the real significance of The Gospel of Judas. In the end, it does nothing to effect the faith of those who believe the Bible to be the Word of God. It was rejected 1,700 years ago and it will continue to be rejected today by discerning Christians.
Resources on the Gospel of Judas:
- The Gospel of Judas (a pdf file from National Geographic)
- Albert Mohler’s Commentary “From Traitor to Hero? Responding to The Gospel of Judas
- Article by David Kopel on “The Judas Gospel”
- Irenaeus’ Response to The Gospel of Judas in 180 AD!