Dear Fr. Joe: What’s with the Gospel of Judas?
I‘ve been asked this one a lot – tons of stuff is floating around about it. Let’s start with what we know.
At some point in the 1970s, a document was discovered in a cave in Egypt that was called the Gospel of Judas. Now, because the people who found it were demanding incredible amounts of money for it, and their explanations about how they found it were considered a bit ... ambiguous, nobody bought it. It floated around for a while, until it was purchased by a group in Europe. Before this, the only evidence we had of its existence was from a second century saint named Irenaeus. Irenaeus wrote a condemnation of this “invented history” found in the Gospel of Judas and stated that people who hated God and Christianity wrote it.
Where did it come from? Obviously, its age precludes the possibility of it having been written by Judas himself. Irenaeus said it was written by a group of Gnostics who were of the Cainite sect. The Cainites worshiped Cain (from the Cain/Abel story) and believed that the “God of the Old Testament” was evil. They taught that a lesser god sent Jesus to earth.
What does the Gospel of Judas say? Its main contention is that Judas was Jesus’ chief disciple and that Jesus arranged for Judas to betray him. This gospel is not a narrative like the other Gospels, but simply a series of conversations between Jesus and Judas.
What do the other Gospels say? The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which are much older than that of Judas, are uniform in their portrayal of the role of Judas. In Matthew, Jesus states that it would have been better if Judas had never been born. (Mt 26:24) In John, Jesus refers to Judas as “the son of destruction.” (John 17:12) In Matthew, Judas is said to have hanged himself. In Acts, it indicates that Judas bought land with his silver, tripped in the field and was gutted by a rock (yikes).
Either way, the appeal of this “gospel” is in its age (probably written in the second or third century) and the fact that it offers an unfamiliar idea. There is no theological value to this document and its credentials aren’t too strong. There are not many legitimate scholars who believe it should be placed in the Bible, nor that it is an authentic document in its revelations of any truth about Jesus. In April 2006, the Vatican released this statement about the Gospel of Judas:
“The Vatican, by word of Pope Benedict XVI, grants the recently surfaced Judas’ Gospel no credit with regards to its apocryphal claims that Judas betrayed Jesus in compliance with the latter’s own requests…”
Why, then, all the hype? I think Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, summed it up best in his 2006 Easter address:
“We are instantly fascinated by the suggestion of conspiracies and cover-ups; this has become so much the stuff of our imagination these days that it is only natural, it seems, to expect it when we turn to ancient texts, especially biblical texts. We treat them as if they were unconvincing press releases from some official source, whose intention is to conceal the real story; and that real story waits for the intrepid investigator to uncover it and share it with the waiting world. Anything that looks like the official version is automatically suspect.”
So, there it is – a brief review of what the Gospel of Judas is, where it came from and what it means. Now, if you really want to know the truth about Jesus’ life on earth, crack open Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They are the oldest texts we have about Jesus.
Enjoy another day in God’s presence!