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The Message of Judas

Gnostic Angles in the Gospel of Judas

The discovery of a unknown text from the 4th century, the Gospel of Judas, has been generating quite a lot of discussion lately. I have just read two books about it, The Secrets of Judas by James M. Robinson (editor of the Nag Hammadi Library, NHL), and The Gospel of Judas edited by Marvin Meyer and others. The latter contains the translated text in full.

Physically speaking, there is not much to the Gospel of Judas. The papyrus-leaf codex is in terrible shape, having once been stuffed in a freezer by an ignorant collector. The Codex Tchacos, as it is called, actually contains four different works. The Gospel of Judas comprises 25 pages that reduce to half that length in translation, with gaps. In content it is a Gnostic text, or, more precisely, a “gnosticizing” document, as scholars call material with an uncertain mix of Gnostic and Biblical elements. It contains passages typical of Gnostic two-world cosmology (see below). The language of the text is quite predictable, consisting of idiomatic expressions found in other Gnostic tractates. But it also contains some interesting variations from the norm.

One of the non-Gnostic features of the Gospel of Judas is its anecdotal character. Generally, Gnostic texts such as those in the NHL do not present anecdotes or mundane incidents. This text opens with a striking scene: Jesus’ followers are “gathered together and seated in pious observance… offering a prayer of thanksgiving over the bread,” when the master appears and mocks them for their piety. The communal meal is a real-life scene such as we do not normally find in NHL writings, but Jesus’ scorn for his followers’ faithful observance of communion is typically Gnostic. The twelve men at the table are angered and confused. To explain his offence, Jesus gives a discourse on cosmology. He describes Adamas (primal humanity), the Pleroma (“fullness, plenitude,” the realm of the true Gods or Aeons), and the cosmic imposter who replicates the divine patterns of the Pleroma to create a virtual heaven for himself.

The point of this discourse is to expose the false creator god Saklas, whom the followers mistake for a true Pleromic God, and foolishly worship. Gnostics identified Saklas, also called the Demiurge, with Jehovah, the father god of the Old Testament. The Demiurge heads a legion of weird outer-space entities called Archons, so he is sometimes called the chief Archon. Gnostics taught that there are two cosmic influences on humanity: the Archons, led by a demented deity who falsely claims to be the creator of the universe, and the Aeons, the true gods in the cosmic matrix of the Pleroma. (In the conception of the Pleroma, Gnosticism was both monotheistic and polytheistic. It posited one supreme Aeon who does not create anything, and a company of lesser Aeons who emanate the pure, formless potential offered to them by the supreme Aeon, thus giving rise of a myriad worlds.)

The Gnostic expose of the Demiurge was a flashpoint of heresy, deeply offensive to both Jews and Christians. To be told that the supreme deity in whom you place ultimate faith, and to whom you look for guidance, moral sense, justice, and the assurance of an afterlife, is a demented imposter ? This is a message people of faith today do not want to hear, any more than they did 1800 years ago.

The issue of the Demiurge figures strongly in the Gospel of Judas, but the way it does so raises an unsolved problem of Gnostic scholarship: if Saklas is a false creator god, who arrogantly claims to be what he is not, how can he be attributed with the creation of the earth? The pivotal moment in the text comes when Jesus says to Judas: “But you will exceed all of them [the other disciples]. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” Scholars assume that this line fits the Gnostic view that the material world is a prison created by the Demiurge.

The problem here is, no Gnostic text clearly says that Saklas created the material world we inhabit. In fact, there is much that contradicts that assumption. The demiurge pretends to be the creator of the material world, and even the sole deity in the entire cosmos, but Gnostics attempted to expose this claim as a lie. They taught that the planet earth is a metamorphosis of the body of the Aeon Sophia who fell from the Pleroma. Sophia means “wisdom,” but Saklas means “blind ignoramus.” How can this world of ours be a transformation of the very body of the goddess, and also be the handiwork of a demented deity who wants entrap the “divine spark” (the human spiritual essence) in darkness? Gnostic scholars have yet to resolve this problem. Or even to address it.

But if the divine spark is not trapped in a demiurgic prison of matter, what is the point of Judas betraying Jesus, so that Jesus can be murdered in a gruesome manner and “sacrifice the man that clothes him,” i.e., be liberated from the confines of the flesh? “The death of Jesus, with the assistance of Jesus, is taken to be the liberation of the spiritual person within” (p. 43, n. 137, The Gospel of Judas, ed. Meyer et al.). Is it really ? Is this the message of Judas for the world today: fulfillment of human spiritual potential only comes by escaping from life ?

Radical Gnostic theology (as seen, for instance, in the Second Treatise of the Great Seth from Nag Hammadi) rejects resurrection as a delusion, if not a fraud. The Gospel of Judas does not indicate that Jesus must die so that he can be resurrected, thus proving the superhuman power of the father god. This exclusion will prove to be extremely problematic for Christians who may want to see Judas as complicit in the father god’s plan to sacrifice his own son for the good of the world. This text does not provide any grounds for seeing betrayal as part of a divine plan, but it will certainly be construed in that manner.

Considered as a Gnostic document, the Gospel of Judas raises some points of scholarly confusion that might now be clarified, because it makes them so obvious. Considered as a Christian document, Judas raises ever more troubling issues. The debate over this obscure and fragmentary text has only just begun.

A longer article on the Gospel of Judas.

jll: May 14, 2006




Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.