After the Hype: The Significance of The Gospel of Judas

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Excerpt The Judas Gospel comes from a well-known genre of ancient literature called Gnostic Gospels. We know of about 50 of these ancient texts from discussions by early church fathers who rejected them as heretical... Continue reading

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This article was first published in the May 2006 ABR Electronic Newsletter.

Now that the pre-Easter media hype for the publication of the Gospel of Judas is over and the Da Vinci Code movie hype is in full swing, this appears to be an appropriate time to consider the real significance of this “new” gospel. Popularly known as the Gospel of Judas, it is officially called Codex Tchacos, named after Dimaratos Tchacos, father of Zürich-based antiquities dealer Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos who bought the document in September 2000.

Unfortunately for scholars, the Gospel of Judas did not come from excavation, but has been in the Egyptian antiquities market for three decades. Apparently found by a farmer near El Minya, Egypt in 1978, Nussberger-Tchacos made it available to the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Switzerland in 2001. The document was then restored and translated through a joint effort of the Foundation, the Waitt Institute for Historical Discovery and the National Geographic Society. Separate teams of international scholars were assembled for each task and their work was unveiled to the world from Washington DC, on April 5, 2006. Appropriate in today’s international political climate, the restored document will be sent back to Egypt to be kept at the Coptic Museum in Cairo.

The facts about this document are interesting. It was written in ink on papyrus, native to ancient Egypt where it was found. Not a scroll, the text was formed into a codex (Latin “writing tablet”) where folded sheets of papyrus were bound on one side to create pages. The earliest form of a book, this revolutionary idea began to take hold in the 3rd century AD and was widely used for sacred texts. Codices could hold more information and specific passages were easier to locate. The Gospel of Judas was only one text in this particular codex of four Gnostic Christian works. Apparently with pages numbered at the top, the Gospel of Judas was 13 sheets (26 pages) written on both sides in one color ink (black). The text takes its title from its last line on page 26, “The Gospel of Judas.”

The document was carbon-dated from both its leather binding and its papyrus pages; the ink was analyzed; the script and the language were studied – all by authorities in their fields. It passes every test as a 3rd-4th century AD text. The bound manuscript was in a thousand of pieces when scholars began to work with it, but they have been able to restore 80% of the text.

The Judas Gospel comes from a well-known genre of ancient literature called Gnostic Gospels. We know of about 50 of these ancient texts from discussions by early church fathers who rejected them as heretical. Then 13 leather-bound papyrus codices containing some of these actual documents were discovered in 1945, within a jar from a tomb near Nag Hammadi, Egypt (Van Elderen 1997). As the Gospel of Judas, the 3rd -4th century AD Nag Hammadi texts, were written on papyrus in Coptic (the ancient Egyptian language in Greek script and perpetuated through time as the liturgical language of the Egyptian Coptic Church).

Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyon, France and one of the most important 2nd century AD church fathers, wrote extensively refuting Gnostic Christian thought. In his Against Heresies Book I Chapter 31.1 (AD 180), he refers to a particular branch of Gnostic thought known as Cainites. Deriving their name from the son of Adam and Eve, this group specialized in rehabilitating the reputation of famous Old Testament bad boys. Irenaeus notes that they have done the same with Judas and that “They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.” He is speaking of a 2nd century AD Greek text which was no doubt translated into our 3rd-4th century AD Coptic version. Just for the record, we do not have a copy of the Greek text of Against Heresies that Irenaeus wrote in the 2nd century AD either. Our earliest extant copy of his book is from a later Latin version.

The Gospel of Judas has all the standard Gnostic Gospel characteristics. The opening line pretty much says it all: “The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot.” The book speaks of Judas having special insights that the other disciples did not have. According to the text, Jesus recognized this in Judas and gave him additional knowledge that the other disciples were neither capable of grasping nor given the opportunity. Judas delivering Jesus to the authorities was just one of the special secrets the two shared together.

Gnosticism (Greek gnosis “knowledge:” from which we get our English “agnostic” – “not-knowing”) is the modern academic term used to describe this diverse and widespread intellectual movement in the Greco-Roman world during the formative years of the church. Gnostic ideas had developed in some circles of Christian thought by the beginning of the 2nd century AD. To combat Gnosticism, Irenaeus called for identifying an authoritative canon of Scripture, established a creed to follow (the “Rule of Truth”) and catalogued a list of bishops in major cities from the days of the apostles to demonstrate that none were ever a Gnostic.

All of Irenaeus’ known writings are directed against Gnosticism. Until the 1945 Nag Hammadi discovery of actual Gnostic texts, much of our understanding of their beliefs came from his works. When the Nag Hammadi texts were published, Irenaeus proved to be quite precise in his discussions on their beliefs. Interestingly, Irenaeus was uniquely connected to Jesus through the Apostle John who was (according to tradition) pastor of the church at Ephesus (Turkey) where Polycarp grew up. As a child, Irenaeus saw and heard Polycarp who became known as the last living connection to the apostles. Thus bishop Irenaeus was recognized as connected directly to Jesus through the Apostle John and Polycarp.

While Irenaeus (2nd century AD) did help set in motion the means through which the early church would ultimately overcome Gnosticism, as the 3rd-4thcentury AD Gospel of Judas indicates, the movement persisted within Christian thought. In AD 325, Roman Emperor Constantine called bishops from around the empire together for a council at Nicea (Turkey). With the Arian controversy over the deity of Christ the more pressing heretical issue at the time, the bishops affirmed their own belief in the historic and standard Christian views on both Jesus and the Bible. Gnostic thought was also publicly and officially deemed heretical. While there is no historical evidence indicating Gnostic texts were systematically sought out and destroyed, they did not continue in popular use (all the above being contrary to Dan Brown’s suggestions in The Da Vinci Code). The Gnostic texts discovered in the 20th century had probably been “laid to rest” as grave goods in tombs (Van Elderen 1997). Officially rejected in normative Christianity, Gnosticism as a philosophical movement died out within a few centuries.

The media frenzy over the Gospel of Judas is intricately connected to their enthusiastic response to The Da Vinci Code book, and here it comes again for the movie. In light of all this, I want to conclude with a few comments about the Judas Gospel as a find, the processes of its authentication and the media coverage and marketing.

1. It is unfortunate that the document did not come to light by way of excavation. Archaeological excavation would have helped clarify the period in which the text was last in use. This could have shed light on the identity of those who had the document and possibly connected it to additional texts from the same period. I agree that such unprovenienced artifacts are not true archaeological finds and now belong more to the field of history. Still, I support those scholars who are willing to work with such material, but their results will never be complete without the artifact’s archaeological context.

2. In recent days the academic community has been very unforgiving of texts and artifacts coming from the antiquities market, but which seem to support a more traditional understanding of the Bible. I accept that the Judas Gospel has apparently met all the appropriate criteria for authenticity as an ancient (3rd-4thcentury AD) text. There is no question that major scholars and organizations have stepped up to do good work here. Still, I can’t help but wonder these days, if this had been a canonical text supporting historic Biblical views, would it have been as readily accepted and appreciated by academics?

3. Scholarly response to the document is one thing, media reaction is another. It appears that anything casting doubt on the traditional view of Scripture is widely hailed as interesting and worthy of consideration. There appears to be almost a sense of compassion for the poor Gnostics in the media (and among some scholars). I can’t help but see our own “21st century Gnosticism” here. We glory in any new information (our own “secret Gnostic insight”) that has not been part of orthodox Christianity (or Judaism). Historic truth these days, however tried and true, is just not sufficient. Following the incredible reaction to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (see Byers 2004), it seems more popular now than ever to trumpet any evidence that challenges traditional Biblical truth.

4. The National Geographic Society has done a service for the academic community in preserving and translating this ancient document. It will help us better understand the diversity of views during those early centuries of Christian thought. Yet, it appears to me that they are much more willing to fund projects that challenge a traditional Biblical perspective than to fund those that support a Biblical view.

5. Whenever these new “archaeological discoveries” come to the public’s attention today, we would do well to follow the money. True of business in general, it is now very much part of all academic projects. Beyond the old concerns of just getting enough funding to do the work, there are now marketing strategies to the publication side of research. National Geographic unveiled the text at Easter season, a tried and true marketing technique. While some Christians may take offense at the timing, I don’t think it was a deliberate affront to our faith. Not personal, just business – the National Geographic Society intends to roll out sufficient books, television programs and videos to recoup their investment and even make a profit. Even today, I am not certain Dan Brown really believes all the things he wrote in his novel (The Da Vinci Code), things that he is on record as saying he does believe are true. If he really does believe this stuff, I would be amazed. Yet, if he doesn’t and actually says so, his sales will drop and before long he would disappear from our collective computer screens.

7. Publication of the Gospel of Judas does remind us of the issues with which the early church leaders struggled. I have read the Judas Gospel’s English translation and it is pretty clear why church fathers condemned it as heretical. There is nothing here that relates to the canonical text of either the Old or New Testaments. Read it for yourself and draw your own conclusions:

But it was because of the Gnostics and other theological deviations within the early church that leaders wrestled with determining an official orthodox canon of Scripture and doctrine of Christ. God used this period of conflicting voices to lead the new church to clarity on the most critical matters of their faith.

8. As in the days when the Judas Gospel was composed, read and debated, we are also living at a time of confusion about what to believe. Almost daily, most of academia and the mainstream media suggest that our orthodox view of the Biblical text and Jesus is out-of-date and essentially meaningless. We can huddle together and bemoan the marketing and media hype surrounding the Gospel of Judas. Or we can take it as another God-given opportunity to get a hearing for the real message about Jesus – a message that has already had a permanent impact on our lives. I recommend the latter, because the Da Vinci Code movie is just about upon us.

Recommended Resources for Further Study

Archaeology and
the New Testament

50 Proofs for the NT

Why Trust the Bible?


Brown, Dan
2003  The Da Vinci Code. New York: Doubleday.

Byers, Gary A.

Cockburn, Andrew
2005  The Judas Gospel. National Geographic 209.5.

Krosney, Herbert
2006  The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot.. Washington DC: National Geographic.

National Geographic Society
2006  The Lost Gospel of Judas.

Van Elderen, Bastiaan
1997  Nag Hammadi. Pp 87-89 in Eric Myers ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East 4. New York: Oxford Press.

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Comments Comment RSS

4/17/2010 1:27 PM #

You are right about not knowing what to believe, I saw a book about the lost books of the Bilbe and the lost books of Eden, and then it went from there, and then I saw some things on the Lost Gospels and that Jesus was a part of a Gnostic Christian Society, what is the truth, that is all I want, the truth, is the current Bible accurate?  Are the Lost Gospels for real or is it someone wanting to do their own thing, in a matter of speaking.  I Believe in God, and I have a relationship with Him. what is right, and what is wrong or is there a right or wrong, is there truth in both?  Please help me understand.

Lisa - 4/17/2010 1:27:51 PM

4/19/2010 8:06 PM #

Dear Lisa,

Thanks for posting your comments pertaining to this article.

There are many so-called documentaries out there, proclaiming that Jesus was this or that, that certain books were "banned from the Bible", and the like. Most of the time, a good analysis of these subjects shows their premises and arguments to be erroneous. Here are a few things to think about:

1. If you say you believe in God, you must define your term "God". In modern society, this word means alot of things to alot of people, and most of those meanings are subjective and ultimately, erroneous.

2. When we talk about God, we talk about the Triune God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) as He has revealed Himself in the 66 books of the Bible. For us to know the true God, we must accept Him on the terms with which He presents Himself.

3. Finite human beings could never know such a being on their own. Such a God must reveal Himself in order to be known. We cannot define God properly unless it is consistent with who He says He is. He has revealed Himself in 2 distinct ways.

a. Through the created order, known as General Revelation. Every fact in the known universe is a God-fact, because He created every fact that there is. Everything in the universe is, in fact, a revelation of God, because He is the Creator of all things.

b. God reveals Himself through Special Revelation. In the past, this included His mighty acts of redemption, then the Incarnation of the Son of God and His miracles, and also in the written text of Scripture.

Romans 1 tells us about General Revelation, and that every human being who has ever lived already knows God. There are no true atheists in the world. There cannot be. And, without Christ, every person seeks to suppress that knowledge of God because of sin.

We know what is wrong and what is right because God has revealed right and wrong in our conscience and in His written, holy Law. That which is right is that which lines up with God's own perfect and holy character.

Many people think that the church chose the books of the Bible, preferring which ones would be chosen and which ones were to be barred. This whole theory presupposes that it is MAN who determines what God has said and revealed. The truth is this: God ordained that the church go through a process called canonization to discover what He had already declared as true. That is, which books were TRULY His revelation and which were merely the works of men. The church merely affirmed that which God had already revealed. The Word of God needs no validation by men. God is the only adequate witness to Himself.

Here are two good pamphlets that talk about why we can trust the Bible and how it has been transmitted over the centuries:

I think the Westminster Confession I:4-5 is helpful here:

IV. The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.

V. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture.  And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man's salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.

The confession touches upon the nature of God. That is: TRUTH. The Son of God was asked this question by Pontius Pilate: "What is Truth?" The question was posed to Truth Himself!

Here, we can tell you with the utmost certainty that Truth IS Jesus Christ, the Son of God. To know God in a personal, saving sense, you MUST know Him. And to know Him, you must repent of your sin, confess your need to be saved, and accept that Jesus died on your behalf and was raised from the dead to rescue you from God's wrath and judgment. If you believe this is true, and confess it with your own mouth, you will be saved and you will be reconciled to the God who created you.

In closing, I would like to echo the words of the Holy Spirit, given through the Apostle John:

"But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." John 20:31.

I pray that, if you do not know Him already, you will come to know Him, and that you will embrace the knowledge of God revealed in the 66 books of the Bible with all your heart...


Henry Smith

ABR - 4/19/2010 8:06:28 PM

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