Lost Gospels of Judas and Thomas:
A Tale of Two Gnostics
recently-uncovered Lost Gospel of Judas was all over the news in April,
and headlines continue to be devoted to it. This ancient text, which has
been carbon-dated to between 220 and 340, is a copy in Coptic (ancient Egyptian)
of a gospel that was originally written in Greek before the year 180. We
know this gospel existed before 180 because that is the year it was denounced
as heretical by Irenaeus (ca. 130-202), who was bishop of what is now Lyon,
France. One reason it was denounced by the early church is because of its
sympathetic portrayal of Judas Iscariot. As the New York Times news
story put it, "In this version, Jesus asked Judas, as a close friend, to
sell him out to the authorities, telling Judas he will 'exceed' the other
disciples by doing so."
It's easy to understand why, in our Da Vinci Code-obsessed culture,
such a portrayal of Judas would be appealing. Portraying Judas Iscariot,
the ultimate villain of history, as a heroic figure is a fantastic act
of deconstruction - very appealing to postmodern readers more comfortable
with anti-heroes than heroes. The Gospel of Judas is also appealing for
the same reason crime noir novels and films are appealing: the
complexity and moral ambiguity involved. The good guys, the disciples,
aren't all good (they're rather thick-headed) and the bad guy, Judas,
isn't all bad. And the way the gospel ends - abruptly, with Judas receiving
the pay-off and handing Jesus over to his executioners - is rather noir,
too. It's more reminiscent of an old Humphrey Bogart movie, nothing at
all like Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ."
But ultimately, the main reason this gospel is so fascinating to people
- enough to make it a best-seller (number 3 on the New York Times
best seller list of April 30) - is because it suggests that the church
has been wrong for almost 2000 years. So many people have been wounded
by the church, in so many different ways, that people are overjoyed at
the possibility that the church might be wrong. This is also one of the
main reasons The Da Vinci Code is so popular. This is a sad state
of affairs that the church as a whole has brought upon itself.
But what of the text itself? When people buy and read the Gospel of
Judas, will they be inspired, or disappointed?
Karen L. King, a professor of church history at Harvard Divinity School,
has said of the Gospel of Judas: "It's dreadfully anti-Jewish and homophobic.
I don't think it makes progress."
The homophobia in the Gospel of Judas has been overlooked by most of
the scholars involved in translating and marketing it. And this gospel
is definitely being marketed, with a cover story in the May 2006 issue
of National Geographic magazine, along with a 2-hour TV special
(soon to be available on DVD) and two books, one presenting the text with
commentary and the other telling the story of how the gospel was uncovered.
The commentary in the book The Gospel of Judas, edited by Rodolphe
Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, dismisses the homophobic elements
in the text as "polemic" against the organized church, represented by
the 12 disciples (minus Judas). The Gospel of Judas as a whole is clearly
such a polemic, but that doesn't mitigate or excuse the anti-homosexual
view represented in the text.
and Elitist Elements in the Gospel of Judas
In the text (manuscript pages 38 to 40), the disciples see a vision
of the priests in the temple. Jesus asks them what the temple priests
are like. The disciples then list several sins they accuse the priests
of committing: "[some] sacrifice their own children, others their own
wives, in praise [and] humility with each other; some sleep with men;
some are involved in [slaughter]; some commit a multitude of sins and
deeds of lawlessness. And the men who stand [before] the altar invoke
your [name]." Jesus tells the disciples that they are just like those
priests, and he then repeats the list of their sins, including "those
who sleep with men" (listed just after "slayers of children").
This equating of men sleeping with men as being on the same level as
child slaughter shouldn't be too surprising in a text that was written
by the Sethian sect of Gnostics. The Sethians were an early Christian
sect who equated Adam's son Seth with Christ (which the Gospel of Judas
explicitly does on manuscript page 52). The Sethians had a very dualistic
view of spirit as good and matter, including the physical body, as evil.
In fact, that's why Judas is seen as good - Jesus tells him "you will
sacrifice the man that clothes me," i.e., his physical body (manuscript
Those of us who believe in the traditional Christian view of the incarnation
do not view Jesus' body as evil, nor do we view our own bodies as evil.
Our bodies are the temple of God, not the prison of the soul as the Sethian
Gnostics believed. Our bodies, like all of God's creation, are holy.
When I made that statement recently in my Blog of the Grateful Bear,
I received a large number of anonymous comments from people disagreeing
with me about the holiness of the body. I had no idea there were so many
people out there who view their bodies as prisons - and who get angry
when people suggest otherwise. The dualism in the Gospel of Judas, with
its negative view of the physical body, may actually prove to be one of
its selling points.
The spirituality presented in the Gospel of Judas is not only dualistic,
it is also elitist. Unlike the Gospel of Thomas, which recognizes the
divine light within us all, the Gospel of Judas says that only a few,
the spiritual children of Seth, have that divine light within them - the
rest of us simply cease to exist when we die.
I think it's worthwhile to compare the two gospels, since most of the
news stories and articles about the Gospel of Judas also mention the Gospel
The Gospel of Thomas was suppressed by the early Church because it was
too inclusive: it doesn't limit the divine light to only those who believe
in Jesus, as the Gospel of John does. The Gospel of Judas, which portrays
Judas as the only one of Jesus' disciples to have that divine light, was
suppressed in part because it wasn't inclusive enough.
A Tale of
The two gospels represent two very different forms of Gnosticism. "Gnostic"
is one of those words that mean so many different things to so many different
people, it has almost become meaningless. Most of the ancient Christian
sects called "Gnostic" (including the Sethians who produced the Gospel
of Judas) held a very complicated cosmology that denigrated the God of
the Hebrew Scriptures. As Marvin Meyer wrote, in his commentary to the
Gospel of Judas: "The creator of the world, according to Sethians, is
actually a megalomaniacal demiurge." The God of the Jews was portrayed
as evil. Sophia, the feminine face of God personified as Wisdom in the
Hebrew Scriptures, was portrayed as a fallen, corruptible creature responsible
for imprisoning the divine light in our evil human bodies.
The cosmology portrayed in the Gospel of Judas and other such Gnostic
texts is not specifically Christian. It's really a corruption of earlier
Platonic ideas that pre-date Christianity. The Gospel of Thomas does not
belong alongside Gnostic texts that promote such a cosmology.
Another, very different way the word "Gnostic" is used is to describe
the belief that people can experience the Divine directly, through an
inner knowledge. The Greek word "gnosis" means "knowledge." But this is
not head-knowledge, as some critics of the Gospel of Thomas have alleged.
This is a deep inner wisdom, an intuitive knowledge of the heart. It's
a direct knowledge of God that does not require a priest or any other
By this second definition, the Gospel of Thomas is Gnostic - it portrays
Jesus as encouraging the disciples to look within themselves. "When you
understand yourselves you will be understood. And you will realize that
you are Children of the living Father. If you do not know yourselves,
then you exist in poverty" (Thomas, verse 3). "When you give rise to that
which is within you, what you have will save you" (Thomas, verse 70).
The Gospel of Thomas portrays Jesus as an almost Zen-like teacher of
Wisdom. The Gospel of Judas, by contrast, portrays a "laughing Jesus"
who is elitist, almost obnoxious in the way he repeatedly laughs at his
disciples because of their ignorance.
The Gospel of Thomas is an incarnational text, affirming the physicality
of Jesus' incarnation (verse 28). While many of the verses in Thomas are
complex and difficult to understand (including the last verse, 114, which
most scholars believe was added at a later date), overall the Gospel of
Thomas does not share the dualism we see so explicitly in the Gospel of
Where and When
Another major difference between the two gospels is the way they portray
the Kingdom of God. In the Gospel of Judas, the Kingdom is the destination
of only the children of Seth; the rest of us will just die and will never
experience God's Kingdom. Judas is portrayed as the only one of the disciples
Jesus teaches "the mysteries of the kingdom" (manuscript page 35).
In the Gospel of Thomas, the Kingdom of God is the main message of Jesus
- as it is in the gospels of the New Testament. In a conversation I had
in 2004 with biblical scholar Marcus Borg (author of Meeting Jesus
Again for the First Time), he told me that his two favorite passages
in the Gospel of Thomas are verse 3, near the beginning of the text, and
verse 113, at the very end.
According to Dr. Borg, Saying 3 of the Gospel of Thomas tells us where
the Kingdom of God is, and Saying 113 tells us when the Kingdom
of God is.
Here is the first part of Saying 3, from Stevan Davies' excellent translation
of The Gospel of Thomas, Annotated & Explained:
Jesus said: If your leaders say to you "Look! The Kingdom is in the
sky!" Then the birds will be there before you are. If they say that the
Kingdom is in the sea, then the fish will be there before you are. Rather,
the Kingdom is within you and it is outside of you.
Dr. Borg said that the canonical Gospels do tell us that the
Kingdom of God is "within" us - but this saying in the Gospel of Thomas
adds that it is also outside of us. This is the where of the Kingdom
Here is the second passage Dr. Borg mentioned, Saying 113:
They asked him: When is the Kingdom coming? He replied: It is not
coming in an easily observable manner. People will not be saying, "Look,
it's over here" or "Look, it's over there." Rather, the Kingdom of the
Father is already spread out on the earth, and people aren't aware of
This is the when of the Kingdom of God: not some time in the
future, but here and now, already spread out on the earth.
The Kingdom of God is not some future, other-worldly state of being,
accessible only to an elite few. The Kingdom of God is here and now, within
us all and around us all, if only we have eyes to see it and hearts to
take it seriously.
The Gospel of Judas is repeatedly lumped together with the Gospel of
Thomas in current news stories and articles, yet the two gospels are vastly
different from each other. The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of Jesus'
sayings, many of them valuable as sources of wisdom and inspiration. It
is an inclusive text which affirms the physicality of Jesus' incarnation
as well as the divine light within us all.
The Gospel of Judas is valuable as a historical document, a record of
what one specific group of Gnostic Christians believed in the second century.
As a spiritual or inspirational text, however, it is seriously lacking.
While the idea of Judas as a hero is fascinating, the worldview portrayed
in this lost gospel is homophobic, dualistic, elitist, and not at all
affirming to those of us who believe in the holiness of the physical body.
is an interfaith bear, an active member of the Episcopal Church who is
also ordained in the Sufi Healing Order. He is an LPC (Licensed Professional
Counselor), a freelance writer, and a member of the Board of Directors
of Whosoever Ministries. He lives in Marietta, Georgia, with his mystical
cat Kato, who is addicted to tuna and jazz. Darrell's home on the web
is Blog of the
Lost Gospel of Judas (National Geographic)
Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot? (NPR)
Gospel of Thomas Homepage (Stevan Davies)
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