As every savvy marketer knows, sensationalism sells books and attracts a television audience. The National Geographic Channel can therefore expect a host of viewers for its special program “The Gospel of Judas” set to show tonight (Sunday, April 9, 2006). “One of the most significant biblical finds of the last century,” hypes the producer’s website, “– a lost gospel that could challenge what is believed about the story of Judas and his betrayal of Jesus.” The TV special follows the translated publication three days earlier of the so-called Gospel of Judas, a codex (bound like a book rather than rolled like a scroll) written on papyrus sheets in the Coptic language and discovered by looters near El Minya, Egypt in the 1970’s.
This manuscript, carbon-dated at about A.D. 300, is indeed “significant” — but primarily for its contribution to our understanding of early Gnostic teaching, an influential heresy opposed by numerous early Christian writers and, in an even-earlier form, by both the apostles John and Paul in the canonical New Testament itself (Gospel of John, First John, Second John; Colossians). The Gnostics (from gnosis, a Greek word for “knowledge”) claimed special insight into mysteries of the cosmos, secret wisdom passed down through the centuries but hidden from ordinary mortals. (The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown certainly did not invent sensationalism!)
Gnostic teaching usually claimed that the material universe was evil, having been created by a lesser deity; denied that Jesus was both truly human and uniquely divine; and (like philosophies ranging from ancient Hinduism and Buddhism to today’s New Age cults) enticed adherents with promises of exclusive spiritual fulfillment if not actual deification. The “Gospel of Judas” claims to report conversations between Judas Iscariot and Jesus during the Final Week, in which Jesus tells Judas “secrets no other person has ever seen.” In the document’s most sensational “revelation,” Jesus asks Judas to help the spirit of Jesus escape its mortal flesh by betraying him to death (“You will sacrifice the man that clothes me”), although this will result in Judas being “cursed by the other generations.”
As of now, scholars believe the newly-translated “Gospel of Judas” might be a Coptic translation of the earlier Greek-language “Gospel of Judas” mentioned about A.D. 180 by Irenaeus of Lyons, a pupil of Polycarp, who in turn was taught by the Apostle John. In his work titled “Against Heresies,” Irenaeus described the “Gospel of Judas” as a fictional work manufactured by a group known as Cainites who claimed spiritual lineage from Cain, Esau, Korah and the Sodomites. According to Irenaeus, the “Gospel of Judas” said of Judas that “he alone, knowing the truth as no others [of the Apostles] did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal” (31:1). Irenaeus dismissed the “Gospel of Judas” as a fraud and its teaching as anti-Christian heresy. Those who know and believe the true gospel taught by John and the other Apostles should feel free to react the same way today.