The Gospel of Judas has been billed as the most important find in Christian literature since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, and the Nag Hammadi texts some 2 years earlier. Contrary to popular belief, the Gospel of Judas is not part of the Nag Hammadi library, for it was found during the late 1970s. It was however, like the Nag Hammadi library, discovered in Egypt, to be more precise, Middle Egypt, about 60 kilometres from the town of El Minya, which lies close to the ruins of Tel El Amarna, Akhenaten’s former capital city. The Gospel of Judas is the third text in a papyrus codex or book, now designated Codex Tchacos. The Codex, written in Coptic, is thought to have been composed around the mid second-century CE. This dating is made on the basis that Church father Irenaeus of Lyon referred to the Gospel of Judas in his work, Against Heresies, written around 180 CE. The other books that the Codex contains were already known, but the Gospel of Judas, although mentioned by Irenaeus, was thought to have vanished without trace.
I first heard of the Gospel when I saw an article in The Times. I do not normally buy The Times, and neither was I intending to on the day that the story broke. I had walked into town in order to visit the Job Centre, and on my way home, dropped into the newsagents next door in order to buy a packet of mints. As I walked over to the counter and the display of newspapers, I noticed a copy of The Times that been dropped on the floor. It was open at the first page, which carried the story of the discovery of this text.
The story stated that this new gospel had been discovered in Egypt, and was in the process of being translated. The Gospel was said to turn everything that we have been told about Judas, the man who betrayed Jesus on its head, as for the first time, it told the story of what happened from Judas’ own perspective. The Gospel portrayed Judas not as Jesus’ betrayer, but as his saviour, as Jesus himself asked to be turned over to the authorities, in order that he may ascend and be liberated from his physical form. As I read the article, I began to feel a growing sense of excitement, for you see, to me this was not a new idea. I had already read several channelled books which said more or less the same thing, that Jesus, and Judas himself were aware from the outset of what their roles would be, and how Judas’ actions would be interpreted, but that this was all part of the plan. For the first time then, we had an authentic gospel which seemed to back up these channelled sources.
The Gospel of Judas is what is termed a Gnostic text, a term which means ‘knowledge’ or ‘those who have knowledge’. What though is this knowledge? They know secrets that are said to bring salvation. Salvation though to a Gnostic did not come through going to church or worshipping God, or even by doing good deeds, but rather, by knowing the truth – the truth about the world that we live in, and the nature of God, in particular by understanding that God is not some far off ethereal father who sits on a white cloud, but rather, exists in each and every one of us. The knowledge that the Gnostics taught was therefore self-knowledge, knowledge of our own inherent divine nature. Part of this knowledge was knowing that the body, like the physical material world, is illusion and that death is therefore an act of liberation, where the spirit, our true essence becomes free to fly home. Thus it was that in condemning Jesus to die, by turning him over to the authorities, Judas was actually carrying out a great act of kindness, for it was this that enabled Jesus to leave his body and ascend.
What happened to Judas after the betrayal is recounted in two canonical Gospels – Mathew and the Book of Acts. Matthew states that afterwards, Judas was filled with remorse and returned the 30 pieces of silver to the High Priests before hanging himself. The Priests realised that they could not return this money to the Temple coffers since it had been used to betray innocent blood, and so they used it to purchase a field for the burial of strangers, which later became known as the field of blood.
The Book of Acts says that it was Judas himself who owned this field, and it was here that he died. He did not, as Matthew says, hang himself, but suffered a far more gruesome death, where his intestines burst open in a bloody act of God. Both these accounts are in stark contrast to the Gospel of Judas, which states instead that Judas also ascended in what is termed ‘a luminous cloud’. Indeed, I have often thought that in order to carry out such an act as this, risking everything for another and knowing the wrath that this would incur, one would need to be at the point of ascension oneself.
The opening words of the Gospel ‘the secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week three days before he celebrated Passover’ make it clear that the account that follows will be unlike anything in the canonical gospels. These words indicate that the revelations were given to Judas alone, and he was therefore party to knowledge that was not known to the remaining Disciples. Why though would Jesus reserve this knowledge only for him?
The next time that Judas is mentioned, is when Jesus challenges the twelve Disciples to show whether they are perfect, i.e. capable of salvation and to stand before him. All twelve of them claim that they have the strength to do so, but in actual fact, Judas is the only one who does, and even then he has to turn his face away. This, according to the translators means that Judas is the only one who recognizes that he too carries the divine spark, and is therefore Jesus’ equal. It is clear that Judas is the only one to recognise Jesus’ true identity, as he proclaims that Jesus is not of this world ‘you are from the immortal realm of Barbelo’. To the Gnostics, Barbelo was one of the primary divine beings from the realm of God, meaning that Jesus was himself from the realm of God.
Because Judas has correctly identified Jesus as from his realm, Jesus takes him aside to teach him ‘the mysteries of the kingdom’. Jesus informs him that he will attain salvation – but also grief, as he will be rejected by the remaining Disciples who will elect someone in his place, as indeed he does. Judas then recounts to Jesus the details of a vision that he had, where the remaining Disciples are stoning him to death. He then sees a magnificent house, filled with magnificent people – God’s house. Jesus informs him that this house is ‘reserved only for the holy’, in other words, those who are aware of their own inherent divine nature. Judas’ death, although painful and grievous, will not be a tragedy, for it will enable him to also ascend and leave behind the mortal world.
The next part of the text is essentially a treatise on the nature of the physical and divine realms, and the different beings that inhabit both. My own interpretation of this is that Jesus was laying the ground for the so-called betrayal by attempting to explain to Judas the concepts of polarity, of light and dark, and how one must be balanced in order to ascend. This is borne out in the final part of the text, where Jesus states that Judas will exceed all those who offer sacrifices to Saklas (the Demiurge), as he will sacrifice his own Master. In other words, Judas will defeat the Demiurge and his own internal darkness, and in so doing, ascend.
The betrayal scene marks the end of the text, and this is where the Gospel ends, with no mention of the crucifixion or what followed. The only thing that does follow is Judas’ own ascension, in a luminous cloud. The Gospel then portrays Jesus as an active participant in his own betrayal, who knew exactly what would transpire. In betraying Jesus, Judas helped Jesus to also ascend; it was therefore more an act of compassion than betrayal.