The 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 Geographicmagazine, 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.
Homophobic 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 page 56).
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 of Thomas.
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 Two Gnosticisms
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 intermediary.
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 Judas.
The Kingdom: 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 of God.
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 it.
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.