THE GOSPEL OF JUDAS
The first time I heard of the Gospel of Judas was about five years ago, when I got a call from someone who said, I have a book for you to edit—the Gospel of Judas. That astonished me, since I knew that the "church father" Irenaeus had mentioned such a gospel nearly 2000 years ago, denouncing it as terrible blasphemy: but no one had ever seen it, or known whether it actually existed.
But this dealer in Cleveland was telling me he had it there. Was he telling the truth? I called the Met, the Getty, and the Frist to ask about him, and they told me that he is a reputable dealer who has important material—but when I called back he suddenly stopped answering the phone. I realized then what already had seemed likely—that the book had been stolen from Egypt, and could not be legally sold.
I located a man who often bought rare books from this dealer, and who also has given many of them to Princeton, hoping that he might buy the Gospel of Judas, give it to Princeton, and then return it formally to Egypt, which would legalize the arrangement. Then we could photograph and publish it—that was the plan.
So I went to Madison Square Garden to meet the dealer, and confronted him: "I'm Elaine Pagels, why won't you talk to me?" Startled, he explained what we had suspected—that the owner of the text had told him not to talk about it, since it had been bought illegally. He then invited me out to Cleveland to see it, and I went, and looked at it. And there was the title—"The Gospel of Judas" in Coptic—and then he showed me the following five pages—which turned out to be five pages of rather uninteresting Coptic text. So I said, Okay, well, they've hyped it, they were hoping to get fifteen million dollars—it's not what they said.
But when suddenly it resurfaced last year, and I was asked to be on the advisory committee presenting it publicly, I learned what had happened: the dealer didn't realize that when you have a Greek or Coptic text, the title is often placed at the end of the text. It turns out that the previous 26 pageswere the actual Gospel of Judas—a fascinating dialogue between Jesus and Judas about what happened when Judas handed Jesus over for arrest—and why he did it. Startlingly, this gospel presents Judas Iscariot as Jesus' favorite disciple, the only one whom he trusts with his deepest mysteries. And all the other disciples appear as people who completely missed the message of Jesus, and entirely distorted it—and this is what has come down to us as "Christianity."
Many people see the main message of Jesus as "Jesus died for your sins"—and see Jesus' death as a sacrifice God requires to forgive human sins. This gospel asks, What does that make of God? Is he a bloodthirsty pagan god who demands human sacrifice? The God of Abraham prevented Abraham from offering his son as a sacrifice—does the God of Jesus then require it?
Second, we've all heard of Christian martyrs. This text sees Judas dying as a martyr—because here the other disciples hate him so much that they kill him! But the Gospel of Judas challenges the idea that God wants people to die as martyrs—just as it challenges the idea that God wanted Jesus to die. Whoever wrote this gospel—and the author is anonymous—is challenging church leaders who teach that. It's as if an imam were to challenge the radical imams who encourage "martyrdom operations" and accuse them of complicity in murder—the Gospel of Judas shows "the twelve disciples"—stand-ins for church leaders—offering human sacrifice on the altar—and doing this in the name of Jesus! Conservative Christians hate gospels like this—usually call them fakes and the people who publish them (like us) anti Christian. There was a great deal of censorship in the early Christian movement—especially after the emperor became a Christian, and made it the religion of the empire—and voices like those of this author were silenced and denounced as "heretics" and "liars." The story of Jesus was simplified and cleaned up—made "orthodox."
But what really happened in the early movement is far messier, more intriguing, and more human. These recently discovered sources show us what was censored—and what those who didn't become "orthodox" were saying. For this is the only gospel we've ever seen that shows Jesus laughing at his disciples—because they have distorted his message and gotten it so wrong. What we have here is evidence of how some people in the early movement were struggling with the story of how Jesus died, betrayed by one of his own men. We don't have any stories of Jesus written down within 40 years of his death, but after that time many people wrote down accounts of what happened. One of the most puzzling parts of the story is that people knew that Judas Iscariot, one of his closest followers, had handed him over to the people who arrested him, and to the Roman authorities who killed him. The question was, Why? What was the motive? Why would Judas do that?
The earliest account that we have, Mark's account in the New Testament, gives no answer at all: it simply says that this is what happened. Judas handed him over—no motive given. The second account was by Luke who read the first, and apparently found it inadequate. Feeling that he had to suggest a motive, Luke retold the story saying that Satan, the power of evil, entered into Judas Iscariot and made him do it. Satan embodied the evil power that opposed the divine spirit in Jesus—so Luke says—and that is why Jesus was overcome and killed.
A third account, that of the New Testament gospel of Matthew, offers a different motive: he did it for money. The way Matthew tells the story is that Judas went to the chief priest and said, what will you give me if I hand him over to you? And having gotten a certain price he agreed to do it—so, according to Matthew, the motive was obviously greed.
This new account, the Gospel of Judas, says that Jesus not only anticipated that he would die and went into it with his eyes open, so to speak, aware that this somehow had to happen because there was a deep mystery in it, asked Judas to perform this act as a friend, and that Judas was the only one who could and would do it, and the others completely misunderstood it and took it as betrayal. Matthew's gospel says Judas was so remorseful he went out and hung himself. But this gospel says the others stoned him to death, out of rage. So it's a very different kind of account.
When the National Geographic first heard that there was such a Gospel of Judas, several experts interpreted it the way we have basically always have interpreted Gnostic text. When we first heard about Gnostic texts, we were told that they were "weird"—"Gnostic", that meant they were the wrong kind of gospel, not like the "real" gospels.
But when (Harvard Professor) Karen King and I approach these texts, we treat each as another Christian gospel—another way that this powerful and strange and tangled story of betrayal was told by Jesus' followers in the decades after his death. We can't assume it tells us much about what happened between Jesus and Judas—it's probably guesswork, like all the other gospels—but it also offers a lot more than that: it places us right in the heart of the historical situation in the generations after his death.
Anyone who joined this movement was aware that he or she could be killed for it, as many had been—Jesus' closet disciple Peter was crucified by the Romans, Paul was beheaded, while other followers of Jesus, like his brother James and his follower Stephen, were lynched by public mobs and riots. It was very dangerous to be a part of this movement. And one of the most troubling problems with anybody associated with it was, what do you do if you're arrested? What do you do, knowing that this could happen? Do you run? Do you accept persecution as if this were something God wanted? There is a Jewish tradition about persecution and about martyrdom which sees dying for God, as they called it, as a way of witnessing God's power. The followers of Jesus argued intensely about that question. And the Gospel of Judas is one of the writings that comes out of these intense, painful arguments involving the threat of violence—arrest, threat of torture and public execution. This shows us what DIDN'T become Christianity—and casts very new light on what did.
For when Jesus' followers tried to make sense of how their messiah died, some suggested that Jesus died as a sacrifice—"he died for our sins." The idea that Jesus' death is an atonement for the sins of the world becomes the heart of the Christian message, for many. It's certainly the heart of the New Testament gospels. There Jesus, before he dies, tells his disciples, when you eat this bread you're eating my body, which I'm giving for you; you're drinking my blood when you drink this wine. Because I'm giving my body and my blood as a voluntary sacrifice for you. So the worship of Jesus' followers became a sacred meal in which people drank wine and ate bread, ceremonially reenacting the death of Jesus.
We call it the Eucharist, the Mass. We're so used to it we hardly see that it's a cannibalistic feast. But whoever wrote the Gospel of Judas has Jesus laughing at the disciples, to say, what you're doing is ludicrous. Turning the death of Jesus into something like an animal sacrifice. Eating flesh and drinking blood ritually, even, is a kind of obscene gesture. This author, this follower of Jesus, sees the idea of Jesus dying for our sins as a complete misunderstanding of the whole message of Jesus.
So, although the Gospel of Judas is an authentic early Christian document, it was early condemned as "blasphemy". We don't know whether this actually IS what Jesus taught—for although New Testament Gospels say that Jesus did teach secret teaching, they don't tell us what it was. But we do have many new texts that show us secret teaching, like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Phillip. And probably Jesus, like other first-century rabbis, taught one kind of message in public, with thousands of people listening, and other kinds of teaching in private. We don't think the Gospel of Judas belongs in the canon—but we also don't think it belongs in the trash: instead it belongs in the history of Christianity—a history that now, in light of all these recent discoveries, we now have to rewrite completely.