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The Gospel of Judas: Is It Historically Reliable?


Did the discovery of the Gospel of Judas rewrite Christianity? It is unsurprising that the rediscovery of this 1700 year old text caused such a sensation. After all, as Bart Ehrman says, "It's not every day that a biblical discovery rocks the world of scholars and lay people alike, making front page news throughout Europe and America." Much less a document that intends to say something controversial about a religion as widespread as Christianity.

But is there even a kernel of truth to the assertion that the Gospel of Judas has rewritten Christianity? I will answer why there isn't by examining the following issues surrounding it: 'When and by whom was it written?' and 'Is it a reliable historical source?'

I. Authorship and Date

The actual codex that was found in the 1970's dates to around the late third century. The text is written in Coptic, which seems to be a translation of a Greek original. The latest date we can give for the gospel is 180 due to a reference to it in Irenaeus. Irenaeus tells us:
Others again declare that Cain derived his being from the Power above, and acknowledge that Esau, Korah, the Sodomites, and all such persons, are related to themselves. On this account, they add, they have been assailed by the Creator, yet no one of them has suffered injury. For Sophia was in the habit of carrying off that which belonged to her from them to herself. They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.
All scholars acknowledge that the Gospel of Judas was written around the middle of the second century AD. Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King write:
We now know that sometime in the 1970s, a copy of the Gospel of Judas, translated into Coptic from its original second-century Greek, had been found in Middle Egypt near Al Minya.
Bart Ehrman does give the wider range of 90-180 AD. However, the advanced angelologies and Gnostic systems in the work make the earlier range extremely unlikely: nothing before the year 125 is plausible.

This makes the authorship of the text by Judas, of course, impossible. Pagels and King again note:
Because the Gospel of Judas was written sometime around 150 C.E., about a century after Judas would have lived, it is impossible that he wrote it; the real author remains anonymous.
Ehrman agrees, saying:
It is not a Gospel written by Judas or by anyone who actually knew him. It is not as ancient as Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
All of this means that this is not a writing that comes from Judas, but one that comes from a hundred years later when all sorts of Gnostic groups were inventing various stories to support their beliefs and theological views.

II. Historical Reliability

We see from the previous section that the Gospel of Judas was not written by Judas himself, but by someone writing in his name 100 years later. This by itself shows one that the writing does not tell us anything new about the historical Jesus or Judas. However, is there any possibility that the Gospel retains historical reminiscences of Jesus, Judas, or the Apostles?

I answer that question, as do all scholars, with a big 'No'. Pagels and King state:
Neither do we learn anything historically reliable about Judas or Jesus beyond what we already know from other early Christian literature. Instead, the Gospel of Judas opens a window onto the disputes among second-century Christians...
In fact, the Gospel of Judas wrote his work to answer the issues as well as justify the beliefs his group had in his day. Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King write,
When we place the gospel [of Judas] in the context of what we know about Christians in the second century, the period when the Gospel of Judas was written, we can see him [the author of the Gospel of Judas] as a Christian who takes a strong - and, ultimately, losing - stance on an issue that intensely engages Christians at this time: the continuing persecution of Jesus's followers at the hands of the Romans.
The Gospel of Judas desperately tries to justify the views of its group by claiming that Judas was misunderstood, hated and ultimately killed and branded as a traitor due to his piety and understanding of Jesus' nature and message.
Irenaeus is trying to win the argument by claiming his version of Christianity comes directly from Jesus's most trusted disciples - but the Gospel of Judas is making the same claim, in an extreme form: that only Judas truly understood Jesus's teaching, because Jesus revealed to him alone the true "mysteries of the kingdom."
But as we show above, Pagels herself notes that the Gospel of Judas tells us nothing about the historical Jesus or Judas, mainly because it was written much later by someone else, as well as being dependent on other Christian literature. It doesn't seem to use other sources besides the mainstream Christian tradition, nor does it even make educated inferences from there about Judas or Jesus. And seeing how Paul's genuine letter to the Galatians talks about meeting with the actual apostles who agreed with his gospel (Galatians 2:1-10), we can be certain that Irenaeus had a very real and legitimate right to his claims. In this way, the second century Gnostic group that the author belonged to is depicted as a restoration, not an innovation, of the original Christianity. This theme is nothing that we aren't familiar with today: from Mormons to the numerous sects today claiming that they were the original true Christianity Jesus founded. The Hadith in Islam makes the exact same claim as the Gospel of Judas: four of the twelve followers of Jesus actually were Muslims, but were killed by the other eight.

So when Herbert Krosney maintains that the Gospel of Judas "was as close to a contemporary account of what had happened as many other accounts of Jesus", he is simply unaware of just how plain wrong he is. Similarly, he quotes Rodolphe Kasser out of context:
As Professor Rodolphe Kasser explained, "It [the Gospel of Judas] is certainly one of the greatest discoveries of this century. It is a great discovery because it is an authentic testimony.
Kasser meant to say that it is an authentic testimony as to what the text and group in the second century said, not what actually happened with the historical Jesus and Judas. This is obvious from what Kasser himself says:
Lost. At first, this codex was lost. Obliterated, annihilated, gone, like so many other ancient manuscripts that have disappeared: genuine testimony lost forever...Recovering a text through its testimony is a wonder even in the best of circumstances...
So we see that the authentic testimony that Krosney misquotes refers to the text of the Gospel of Judas itself and what the group believed, not a testimony about what happened with the historical Jesus and Judas.

Thus, Bart Ehrman accurately summarizes the situation by saying:
It will be important for people constantly to bear in mind what this Gospel is not. It is not a Gospel written by Judas, or one that even claims to be. It is a Gospel about Judas (and, of course, Jesus). It is not a Gospel written in Judas’s own time by someone who actually knew him or who had inside information concerning his inner motivations. It is not a historically accurate report about the man Judas himself. It is not as ancient as the four Gospels that made it into the New Testament. It is not even older than all of our other noncanonical Gospels: the Gospels of Thomas and Peter are probably earlier by at least a couple of decades (although neither of these mentions Judas). The Gospel of Judas was written at least 100 or, more likely, 125 years after Judas’s death, by someone who did not have independent access to historical records about the events he was narrating. It is not a book, therefore, that will provide us with additional information about what actually happened in Jesus’ lifetime, or even in his last days leading up to his death.
Of course, the Gospel of Judas states that it was discourses secretly given to Judas and ends with the title "Gospel of Judas", so one is inclined to disagree with Ehrman about his statement that the work doesn't claim to have been written by Judas. Either the work claims to have Judas as its author, or someone who was acquainted with Judas or at least his statements; it is a forgery either way. The same introduction is given in the Gospel of Thomas, so the writing's intention is obvious. But in general, Ehrman notes that the Gospel, early as it might be, is still not a source for the historical Jesus or Judas.

Porter and Heath paraphrasing James Robinson best summarize the situation by saying that he,
statest that the Gospel of Judas is a second-century apocryphal gospel that probably tells us about second-century Cainite Gnostics, not about what happened in A.D. 30.
And so we will see that the Gospel of Judas is dependent upon the stories in the canonical Gospels (whether directly upon the text or having heard them from Christians), that its differences lie entirely due to its Gnostic outlook, not historical recollection, and historical and logical impossibilities that show it to be generally unreliable.

II.A. Evidence of Dependence upon the Canonical Gospel stories

It is obvious that the author of the Gospel of Judas neither used sources besides the canonical Gospels, nor wrote his work to describe the historical ministry of Jesus except for the little that suited him. The entire work is short and focuses on one specific episode, similar to and based on the Last Supper, where the author expounds his and his group's theological views via Jesus. This much is obvious as the motive since the whole gospel begins by giving an extremely brief introduction of Jesus' arrival on Earth, comprising about one leaf of the codex, followed by 24 leaves mainly concerned with theology, angelology, and soteriology, and then one leaf that ends with an extremely brief account that Porter and Heath rightfully call "a postscript." They write:
This opening [the beginning of the Gospel of Judas] distinguishes the Gospel of Judas from the New Testament Gospels, however, because they have a much wider scope - the New Testament Gospels cover the period of Jesus' entire ministry as a minimum - and they include both dialogue and narrative, whereas this is simply a dialogue.
The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver (Matthew 26:15; 27:3). We can already see that the Gospel of Judas probably wasn't dependent upon the canonical Gospels textually: all three Synoptic Gospels have Judas receive silver (Mark 14:10, Matthew 26:15, Luke 22:5). The Gospel of Judas ascribes copper coins as his reward, which implies that he didn't receive much: copper coins were among the least valuable coins at the time (e.g. the poor widow who offered two copper coins in Luke 21:2). This is enough to show us that the author wasn't even really that acquainted with the canonical Gospels or the rest of the Judeo-Christian writings, nor what the early Church fathers said and taught about doctrine. This applies to the author's community at large as well, since hardly would the author have many followers who, while reading his gospel and believing it, are also much more knowledgeable than he.

But the fact that the Gospel of Judas is familiar with the canonical episodes is obvious: the text deals with Jesus' sayings that occurred shortly (three days) before he celebrated Passover, alluding to the Last Supper that occurred on Passover (Mark 14:12; Matthew 26:17; Luke 22:7).

There were no other sources to widely circulate in those days in the Church, besides what stories one might hear (i.e. Papias), which are obviously not used. The episodes are super-short and focus basically on one specific occasion, three days before the Last Supper. The Gospel briefly introduces Jesus, giving him the Gnostic alteration on his origin the way Marcion does, an apparition that can change shape into a child similarly to other Gnostic texts, though Jesus is also said to have a body of flesh, jumps right to a scene where the disciples are eating and after theological explanations by Jesus, the story concludes with a brief sentence noting Jesus was given over to the Pharisees. This presupposes knowledge of the main story, one that was well-known and that's without a doubt based on the canonical Gospel narrative. It doesn't seem that any other sources were used in this brief work.

Porter and Heath give thirteen examples of dependence upon the canonical Gospels, particularly Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I will mention the strongest of these that show that the Gospel of Judas presupposes the Christian traditions that ultimately come from our four Gospels. These are:

1. The thanksgiving prayer - Porter and Heath write: "In the introductory episode to scene one, Jesus speaks with his disciples. Then they are gathered together and seated and a thanksgiving prayer is offered over the bread. The Coptic word that is used for “thanksgiving prayer” is a loanword from Greek, and a form of the word that has made its way into English as “eucharist." This shows that the author of the Gospel of Judas had the Last Supper in mind for the first scene and was modelling that episode's setting based on it.

2. The "guest room" - "In the concluding episode, the high priests are depicted as grumbling because Jesus has gone into the "guest room" for prayer. The word that is usd here for "guest room" is a loanword from Greek of the same word that is used in Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11 for the room where the last supper was held." This shows once again that the author had the Last Supper in mind for his setting.

3. Judas receiving payment - It makes little sense in the Gospel of Judas for Judas to receive money for handing over Jesus to the chief priests. This is an obvious dependence upon the canonical Gospel tradition, particularly Matthew. Unlike Luke and Mark, Matthew seems to say that Judas received the money when he agreed with the chief priests to give them Jesus (Matthew 26:15). In the Gospel of Judas, Judas receives payment and then delivers Jesus, whereas Matthew intended to say that Judas was given this money eventually, since no one will pay before the actual service has been done. The way the Gospel of Judas phrases the event makes it obvious that Judas first received the payment, unlike Matthew, but shows that it's nevertheless dependent on Matthew whose narrative would easily be interpreted that way.

4. Matthias replaces Judas - The Gospel of Judas mentions how he will be replaced and this certainly reflects Acts 1:15-26.

In sum, the Gospel of Judas uses the canonical Gospels' traditions as its sources. Pagels and King even detect a possible influence from the Gospel of John:
1:1 The first word in the Gospel of Judas is logos, which means "word," "speech," or "account." For readers of the Gospel of John, the Word (logos) is Jesus...The author of the Gospel of Judas very likely was acquainted with the Gospel of John and may be referring to it in this way. As in the Gospel of John, in Judas it is Jesus who reveals the unknown (hidden) nature of God. This kind of double meaning also occurs with the term translated here as "pronouncement" (apophasis), which has two connotations: "something declared openly" and "a court judgment." Jesus's teaching has both of these meanings in the Gospel of Judas: He speaks plainly to Judas, but his words also serve as a kind of judgment against the other disciples. Again, this is very similar to the Gospel of John, which presents Jesus as the revelation of God in the world; he saves some with his teaching but shows that others are condemned:...(John 3:17-18). In both gospels, Jesus comes to bring salvation, but the disciples are judged based on whter or not they understand who Jesus is and where he comes from.
Intriguing as these observations might be, I'm personally more inclined to ascribe these similarities to a common theme (salvation) that used similar terminology and technique of expression. Logos and logoi (sayings) were already a common way of introducing the sayings of an important teacher in Greco-Roman literature at the time (e.g. Papias, Gospel of Thomas). And we can't stress any perceived similarities with apophasis too much. Nevertheless, the Gospel of Judas is without a doubt dependent upon the stories of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, if not John as well.

II.B. Proof of Gnosticism

The detailed theology of aeons and various beings that exist in the spiritual realm in the Gospel make it an obvious member of Gnostic works. That's why Bart Ehrman writes:
It [the Gospel of Judas] is a Gnostic Gospel that describes the formation of the divine realm with all its aeons, luminaries, and firmaments, which narrates how this world of matter came into existence not through the creative activities of the one true God but through the work of much lower, inferior, wicked divine beings - a bloodthirsty rebel and a fool.
Porter and Heath observe that:
The document has many of the features of both typical Coptic KGnostic literature and New Testament literature...The Gospel of Judas begins with an "Introduction: Incipit" that states that it is a secret document revealing material spoken between Jesus and Judas Iscariot in conversation before the last supper. This opening places the Gospel of Judas within the scope of other Gnostic literature that emphasizes special revelation of secret knowledge to those who are within the boundaries of the group.
The similarities to the New Testament are due to imitations of its tradition and that much is certain because of the overall dependence on that tradition as shown above. Porter and Heath further summarize the core beliefs of the Gnostics and the Gospel of Judas fits right in with them:

1. Special "Gnosis" - "Gnostics were those who believed that they had gained access to special knowledge that would help them achieve salvation and escape the material world. This special (and often secret) knowledge was revealed by God and transmitted to others by an elite group of followers." This fits right in with the Gospel of Judas whose very first sentence is: "This is the hidden word of the pronouncement, containing the account about wh[en Je]sus spoke with Judas [I]scari[ot] for eight days, three days before he observed Passover." The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas opens the same way. Jesus also tells Judas to separate himself from the others in order to tell him the "mysteries of the kingdom."

2. Matter/Spirit Dualism - "For Gnostics, the physical or material was something evil that needed to be escaped from; only the spiritual was good. Salvation, therefore, was not about a physical resurrection (as orthodox Christians claimed), but about a freeing or liberating of one's spirit from one's body." In the Gospel of Judas Jesus says that no one of the human mortal generation will see the spiritual realm and he tells Judas that he will sacrifice the man that "clothes him". Judas does enter the luminous cloud, but that doesn't seem to be the actual spiritual realm, since he comes back from it. Instead it is probably something similar to Jesus' transformation, ironically making Judas replace Jesus in that respect!

3. Creation by a Lesser God - The Gospel of Judas clearly has Jesus differentiate the "god" of the apostles from his own. He moreover mentions numerous spiritual beings to Judas and angels created and rule over the world - the one who created it, Saklas, was himself created by Nebro, which the Gospel of Judas tells us means "rebel" and that his appearance was defiled with blood.

4. Allegorical Interpretations of the Bible - The Gnostics made heavy use of allegorical interpretation of the Bible and had a "fascination with numbers, parallels, etymologies and hidden meanings in the Scriptures". We don't have many direct citations of Scripture in the Gospel of Judas, but it certainly reflects traditions that did this, such as the doctrine of aeons and Barbelo which Kasser et al note seems to have been based on the Jewish tetragrammaton. Adam and his children's longevity are involved in a Gnostic explanation. Besides this, the numerology and etymology of various names, as well as parallels are abundant in Judas. Marvin Meyer gives an even more detailed discussion about the Gospel of Judas' Gnosticism.

Pagels and King take issue with the designation of "Gnosticism":
To understand what inspires the author's passion [in the Gospel of Judas], we have to place the people who wrote and read the Gospel of Judas in the midst of the controversies and visions that shaped it. Some scholars have tried to do this by categorizing the Gospel of Judas as a "Gnostic" gospel, placing it on the losing side of battles waged among early Christians with diverse interpretations, beliefs, and practices, each group claiming to be the only one with the truth (the "orthodox")...

But calling the text Gnostic can also lead to a number of false impressions, primarily because until recently, scholars have derived their descriptions of "Gnostic" christians almost solely from the early church fathers, not from the newly discovered writings...So modern scholars' views are defined by their characterizations of heresy. As a result, we continue to hear only one side of the debates - the view of the winners...reading the new texts through the lenses of their opponents distorts what the Gospel of Judas and other newly discovered texts are saying, and makes it hard to see what the passionate arguments that informed them were really about. Reading the Gospel of Judas as just another example of well-known Gnostic heresy merely repeats entrenched clichés, for we only hear the losers' voices yet again.
But even the authors acknowledge that the Gospel of Judas does indeed belong in the family of Gnosticism:
indeed the Gospel of Judas in some respects resembles other early Christian works that have been discovered in Egypt over the last century and that scholars label "Gnostic," especially those from the remarkable find near the village of Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945...Like some of these other newly recovered works, the Gospel of Judas understands human nature to be essentially spiritual, believing that the physical body decomposes at death while the spirit-filled soul lives forever with God in a heavenly world above. It, too, sees Jesus as the divine revealer sent by God to teach about his kingdom to an ignorant and unrighteous - or self-righteous - humanity.
They further note:
The name Barbelo will be unfamiliar to most readers, and indeed she appears only once in the Gospel of Judas, but this figure is familiar from other ancient texts discovered in Egypt over the last century. Many of these belong to a type of Christianity scholars call Sethianism (or Sethian Gnosticism)
In addition, throughout much of the book, Pagels and King mostly compare the Gospel of Judas' theology to numerous other Gnostic Gospels (the Gospel of Philip's rejection of the resurrection of the flesh, p.86; Testimony of Truth and its criticism of martyrdom, p.87; First Apocalypse of James: "As in the Gospel of Judas, Jesus reveals to him that he comes from a divine source, to which he will return." p.88).

It's one thing to reject prejudice about a written work, it's another to reject its designation as "Gnostic" simply because the source was the group's enemies: much of our knowledge about sects has (legitimately) come that way. Gnosticism was quite a varied movement so naturally there might be differences between the Gospel of Judas and other Gnostic sects' works. But those differences are small and due to the fact that different groups produced them: the basic Gnostic theology, however, remains the same. So when Pagels and King criticize Ehrman for concluding that the Gospel of Judas is a Gnostic document, they deny that concepts exist in the work, when they in fact do. They writes:
One scholar writes that "Judas was the only one who could do what Jesus needed: Turn him over to the authorities that he might be killed and escape his temporary entrapment in a mortal body" (Bart Ehrman, The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006, p.172). This statement presupposes that Gnostics hated the body and the world and considered them to be evil; the Savior thus supposedly came to free people from the prison of the body but became trapped himself and needed someone to save him (a view often referred to as the "saved Savior"). In this case, supposedly it was Judas who saved the entrapped Jesus. But according to the Gospel of Judas, Jesus was never trapped in the mortal body. The author tells us that at least once during his ministry he left the disciples and went up to visit the heavenly world (Judas 3:4) - and indeed, not only Jesus, but Judas too is able to gaze upon that heavenly world and enter it, before either of them is killed. What, then, is the point of the betrayal if it is not so-called Gnostic redemption from the body? For the Gospel of Judas, the point is that the glorious life of the spirit transcends the suffering and violence of this troubled world, and that it is possible to live that life here and now. What we learn from the Gospel of Judas is the true nature of God and the world, what it means to be fully human, fully divine. Imposing the Gnostic redeemer myth onto the Gospel of Judas distorts the text and complicates attempts to understand what is at stake in how it presents Jesus and Judas.
But there are some big problems with this interpretation. First, the Gospel of Judas does depict the "saved Savior" motif. The Gospel of Judas has Jesus say, "For you will sacrifice the human being who bears me." (15:4). Second, the text seems to contradict itself as to whether Jesus is human or not. Although he says he is clothed by a human (15:4), he appears to Earth seemingly out of nowhere (1:3) just like in Marcion's revision of Luke (where Jesus only appears human), and in the Gospel of Judas, Jesus frequently appears to the disciples in the form of a child (1:8). Moreover, if the luminous cloud is the spiritual realm that Judas enters near the end, then that's a contradiction in the Gospel of Judas, because Jesus says that no mortal offspring can enter or see it (3:7-15), which further makes one wonder whether Jesus has a human body in that Gospel or is just an apparition. The differences Pagels and King note are not so much due to a sharp contrast with Gnostic theology, as they are because of a development of them by the community in another direction, or, more likely, a simple contradiction.

Thus Porter and Heath are justified in concluding that the Gos. Jud. is Gnostic:
The content of the Gospel of Judas is consistent with the kinds of documents found at Nag Hammadi, reflects a highly consistently similar Gnostic worldview, and is consistent with ancient references, such as those found in Irenaeus and Epiphanius, to Gnostic writings of the time. Some of the most obvious Gnostic features of the Gospel of Judas include reference to Barbelo, Seth, aeons, angels, spirits, and private knowledge, among many others. Consequently, a reasonable conclusion is that this particular manuscript of the Gospel of Judas was written by Gnostics as part of the Gnostic movement in Egypt sometime in the early to mid part of the fourth century A.D.

II.C. Historical Nonsense

Why would Jesus have 11 disciples who understood nothing?

Despite the fact that the Twelve in the beginning of the Gospel of Judas are said to have been chosen to be Jesus' disciples, why is it that only one of them gets Jesus' message? Why would Judas be asked to step away from them for Jesus to reveal to him only the secrets; why not reveal this to all of them? After all, they are a select few, the way the Gnostics portrayed their religion. Why are the rest of the Twelve called at all if they're always treated as outsiders? As Ehrman points out:
It is true that in the Gospel of Judas Jesus picks the Twelve to fulfill a noble purpose. We are told that they were chosen "since some [people] walked in the way of righteousness while others walked in their transgressions" (33:9-14). We might suspect, then, that the Twelve are chosen as representatives of the former group. But there is nothing positive said about them in the rest of the text.
It makes sense for Jesus to have eleven "inner circle" disciples with one traitor (John 6:70-71), in line with Psalm 41, which says of a similar situation, "He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me." But to have every disciple of them except one not get it, simply makes no sense if Jesus came to spread (Gnostic) Christianity. Not only this, but the Gospel of Judas maintains disciples were blasphemers and unrepentant sinners in general. That simply makes no sense for Jesus to have so many with such impiety and is obvious that the Gospel of Judas is turning history on its head to justify his own beliefs.

Why is it that Judas has to do this (seemingly heinous) act?

First of all, if Judas is to hand over Jesus to be crucified under Jesus' bidding, it would have probably been easy enough for Jesus to say so to the others. Let's say if he had, they would have ignored it anyway. Why, then, is it that Judas has to be the one to do this openly? Is it really impossible for him to stay at a distance and have a helmet? Or get the guards to arrest Jesus when Jesus is by himself, thus being able to be pointed out secretly? In the canonical Gospels, Judas couldn't care less, so he goes ahead and identifies Jesus the fastest and easiest way possible - personal interaction while he's attended by the guards. But in the Gospel of Judas, for Judas to take so much shame and suffering seems unnecessary, especially since the Gospel says that martyrdom is sinful sacrifice. As Pagels and King note:
Finally, although the Gospel of Judas does not encourage martyrdom, ironically - or better, paradoxically - it portrays Judas himself as the first martyr. This gospel reveals that when Judas hands Jesus over, he seals his own fate.
Pagels and King answer that Judas in the Gospel knows that only his mortal self would be killed and that he and all believers found a sustenance in their hope in Christ. But the whole martyrdom of Judas is unnecessary and contrary to the statements in the Gospel that martyrdom is a sinful sacrifice. It didn't have to be Judas that "hands over" Jesus to the authorities: Jesus could have easily presented himself in an opportune way to be caught. The whole point in the canonical Gospels is that his death was necessary and was done at the hands of unrighteous men, so a betrayal is quite fitting. In the version of the Gospel of Judas where Jesus orchestrates the betrayal with Judas, it doesn't make as much sense. Moreover, had Judas not been openly involved, the Gnostic "truth" would not have been lost for those 100 years before the Gospel of Judas restored it. It seems that the God of the Gnostic never knows how to get anything right.

One might say that if Judas did not hand over Jesus himself, it would have made him a "non-player" and thus not lend credence to his "knowledge of the truth". However, this happened anyway, and Judas not being seen as a traitor would have greatly helped him spread the "truth". Not to mention that having disciples that actually follow you and would have understood Judas' actions would have been a much better start. Overall, it makes much more sense for Jesus to willingly allow a disciple to betray him (canonical version), than to willingly have 11 disciples who corrupt the truth and then have one "falsely" betray him, helping him achieve his purpose: had the Gospel of Judas' version been truth, Jesus would have either had all or most apostles understand him, or have someone less important on the inside or outside, or Judas himself secretly, deliver him. It simply shows the Gospel of Judas is a reworking of the canonical version.

Why does Judas receive money from the Jewish priests for handing over Jesus to them in the Gospel of Judas if he is obeying Jesus' instructions to turn him in?

Why exactly Judas should receive money from the Jewish priests in the Gospel of Judas for turning Jesus in to them is incomprehensible if his sole purpose was to "help" Jesus. In the Gospels, the motivation of money is abundantly clear (Matthew 26:15 and the same is implied by Mark 14:11 and Luke 22:5). But why would the Judas in the Gospel of Judas do this? He certainly wouldn't have asked for the money. Why would he then be offered any in the first place and why would he take it? If Judas wanted it for the poor, would he have settled for some copper coins, leptas, which were the least valuable (see Luke 21:2)? As Porter and Heath write regarding the Gospel of Judas:
It is true that there is no crucifixion depicted, but this is a book that concentrates on Judas - and it ends with the nadir of his career, an account of his handing over of Jesus for money. Any attempt to mitigate Judas's involvement, even in this gospel, must reckon with the fact that Judas is depicted not only as doing what Jesus asks him to do in helping him to rid himself of his human clothing, but as receiving payment from the high priests for doing so. This act, even in the Gospel of Judas, compromises the motives of Judas in participating in the betrayal of Jesus.

II.D. Contradictions

1. The number of disciples - The Gospel does state that Jesus picked twelve apostles. But it seems to treat Judas as the thirteenth: Jesus calls him the "thirteenth spirit" and the Twelve are constantly alluded to as enemies, but this is not just a title but an actual count of twelve apostles because they had a dream with twelve priests which Jesus says represented them. Judas' replacement is indeed mentioned, but not in a way as if he is counted with the others as twelve already. For example, this replacement apostle is supposed to come after Judas' death, yet while Judas is still alive, the other apostles have the dream with the twelve priests that Jesus identifies them with.

2. Jesus' nature: flesh or no flesh - The beginning of the Gospel clearly states that Jesus simply came, implying a descent in the form of the apparition, in the same terminology and brief introduction as Marcion where Jesus has no fleshly body. Moreover, the Gospel of Judas says Jesus would frequently appear to the disciples as a child, thus obviously not having a physical body, but only an illusion of one. This is further confirmed by the fact that Jesus says that no mortal of the human generation (all people on Earth) would see the spiritual realm (he came from), yet when he leaves one day, the disciples ask him where he went and he says he went to that same realm. However, Jesus tells Judas, "you will sacrifice the man that clothes me." So there seems to be an inconsistency here.

III. Evidence in the Gospels: Judas - Betrayer or Accomplice?

As Porter and Heath note the New Testament has a number of passages about Judas and, "There have been a number of recent attempts to reinterpret these passages on Judas in order to reassess his guilt regarding the death of Jesus." Naturally, since the age old interpretation has been that of malicious traitor, the reinterpretation is going to be towards a more positive direction. But these attempts are misguided. We will look at the passages that refer to Judas in the New Testament and whether the earliest Christian tradition considered Judas a traitor.

First, it has to be recognized that the historical Jesus was indeed betrayed by someone from his own disciples. Pagels and King write:
Some conclude, then, that the account of Judas's betrayal has no historical basis whatsoever. While this is not impossible, it leaves the question of why Jesus's followers would have made it up. For to admit that one of Jesus's closest followers actually had turned upon him and betrayed him was an enormous disgrace. If it was not true, would Jesus's followers have risked bringing such shame upon the movement? And if someone outside the group had invented a character like this, wouldn't Jesus's followers have been likely to denounce it as a slanderous lie? Since the story was widely known and not challenged, it is likely that someone in the movement did betray Jesus.
This is the position of Crossan, Who Killed Jesus? pp.69-75. He argues that Judas was a historical follower of Jesus who betrayed him but was not one of "the twelve," a designation that developed later. So, too, the incresingly negative portrait of Judas is created by Christian authors, and adds to the anti-Jewish tone and polemics of the passion narrative.
So we see that it was most likely a disciple of Jesus' who betrayed him. The idea that the designation of "the twelve" developed later is, of course, impossible. Paul, writing in the 50's, obviously knew this title from the Apostles as a source, seeing as how he met some of them (Gal. 1:18-19, 2:9), and he certainly found the title in the tradition before him (1 Cor. 15:5), so it's unlikely that "the twelve" is an ahistorical title. That being the case, the question of why the Gospel writers would unanimously declare Judas as one of the Twelve is also a mystery if they were embarrassed by the fact that it was a disciple of Jesus' at all. Moreover, why would they or the tradition before them make him one? So it is clear that there was a Judas, one of the Twelve, who betrayed Jesus.

This is an important point against works such as that of the theologian William Klassen. Klassen writes in his book, Judas: Betrayer or Friend? (1996) that the earliest tradition in Paul considered God to be the one that "hands over" Jesus and not Judas. Then the tradition after Paul gave an accomplice that did this, Judas, but not a traitor. Finally the Gospel authors turned Judas into a traitor. But if Paul didn't know of an accomplice/traitor it is incomprehensible how Church tradition invented Judas, overturning all of the previous tradition, and then Mark, Matthew, Luke and John would successfully overturn this new tradition and make Judas into a traitor near-universally despised in the early Church all within 20 years! Then Matthew would try rehabilitating Judas' character as much as possible without absolving him from his status as traitor by portraying him as endlessly remorseful about his betrayal. Not to mention that as we noted above, the early Christians were embarrassed that one of Jesus' disciples betrayed him so there is no way the Gospels would have made this change in addition to all of Christendom at the time accepting it and forgetting the older version that would have been just as recent and just as extant.

First, Judas is almost never mentioned by name in the Gospel tradition and Paul with respect to Jesus being "handed over" to the authorities. This, however, is irrelevant since Paul mentions very few names: no Pontius Pilate in his earliest letters, no Nazareth and names only Peter, James, and John from amongst the disciples. Moreover, if Judas' status was changed from accomplice to traitor, then obviously the Gospel tradition before Mark knew of him even if he's not frequently mentioned. Klassen says that the Greek word used in the Gospels to describe Judas "betraying" Jesus, paradidomi, in reality means "to hand over", and does not have the perjorative denotation the Gospels and Christian tradition gave it later. He writes that in Classical Greek the word is best rendered as "give up, hand over, or surrender", that in the LXX, the word for deceive and betray is paralogizo, and that Josephus uses prodidomi and prodosia for betrayal and prodotes for traitor. But it doesn't occur to Klassen that "to hand over" (paradidomi) may not denotate to betray, but might certainly connotate it. That is, the word may not specifically mean to betray, but depending upon the context, implies it or something bad indeed. So when Klassen gives these examples, he shows that he is giving the same exact meaning the Gospels do regarding Judas' action:
Jacob delivers Benjamin to the brothers (Ant 2.18) on Joseph's request and the same brothers "offer themselves up" for punishment to save Benjamin (Ant 2.137).
There might be words Josephus preferred for betrayal, but that hardly means paradidomi cannot be used in that sense. Besides, D. L. Page (Loeb Classical Library, Select Papyri, Vol. III, p.139) notes regarding an anonymous fragment of ancient Greek tragedy (probably Aeschylus' Myrmidons) that the word prodosia is rare:
The rare word prodosia v. 20 is not found elsewhere in Tragic iambic trimeters (or in [sic] indeed in Tragedy at all, except Eur. Hel. 1633, troch. tetr.)
William Klassen's conclusions for the New Testament usage of the word in regards to Jesus' death is simply strained. He mentions that it often appears in the New Testament without reference to Judas, implying that Jesus was being handed over by God to be killed. If the Gospels changed the earlier tradition, this would explain away Judas' motivation for money and giving Jesus to the authorities without Jesus' knowledge as Gospel unhistorical additions. But since he admits the Gospels portray Judas as a traitor, they obviously used paradidomi in the sense of betrayal, or else at least some of it would have been changed to the stronger and more condemning, prodosia (betrayal) and prodotes (traitor). The fact that the Gospels didn't do this shows that the term was used for betrayal in earlier Christian tradition and that they took it from there and didn't change Judas' status from accomplice to traitor.

Klassen's idea that Judas only wanted to get Jesus to meet with the proper Temple authorities and not betray him is also very implausible. Had this been the case Judas would not have brought a war party to "escort" Jesus like a criminal in the night (Mark 14:48), in the absence of a crowd (Luke 22:6) which ended up getting Jesus killed. This is why Porter and Heath write,
The outcome, however, speaks for itself. The role of noble informer is difficult to support when Judas accepts money for the role, performs it clandestinely, and does things that end up working against Jesus and his followers...
As Porter and Heath point out, there were plenty of opportunities for these authorities to meet Jesus in the Temple (Matthew 26:55).

Mark certainly considers Judas a traitor (Mark 14:21, 44). Matthew is even more obvious in depicting Judas as such, especially when Judas says that he betrayed, or as Klassen would have it, "handed over", innocent blood (Matthew 27:4). Luke and John both say that Satan entered into Judas when he went to "hand over" Jesus to the chief priests (Luke 22:3-6; John 13:27-30), and scholars agree that none of the Gospels consider Judas to not be a traitor. Moreover, Judas was regarded as a traitor from the earliest Christian tradition, and was near-universally held to be such. This alone establishes the fact that in the Christian tradition, paradidomi was used in the sense of betrayal, even if stronger words existed. So when Ceslas Spicq comes to this same exact conclusion and Klassen says that he has "departed far from his evidence", it is in fact Klassen who has done so. It is therefore highly unlikely that Paul is speaking about someone other than Judas in 1 Corinthians 11:23, and is not referring to God handing over Judas in that verse like he is in Romans 8:32 - obviously God used an intermediary, and it's unlikely that Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John rewrote the whole tradition of Paul's time and earlier.

IV. What does the Gospel of Judas really tell us?

Scholars acknowledge that the Gospel of Judas was partially composed to explain the death of fellow believers. As Pagels and King note,
The Gospel of Judas, as no other surviving work from earliest Christianity, exposes the agonizing passion and the anger some Christians felt at the horrible, violent deaths of their family and friends - fellow believers who were put to death to entertain the Roman crowds and to cower any resistance into submission. But their anger was directed less against the Romans than at their own leaders for encouraging Christians to accept martyrdom as God's will, as though God desired these tortured bodies for his own glory."
Like every Christian of his time, the author of the Gospel of Judas knew that becoming a Christian was dangerous. Wherever persecution flared up, fear must have permeated the lives of those who belonged to the movement.
What lies behind these polarizing accusations [against the apostles]? After working on the Gospel of Judas for some time, we came to see that we cannot easily dismiss this author either as a madman or a heretic. When we place the gospel in the context of what we know about Christians in the second century, the period when the Gospel of Judas was written, we can see him as a Christian who takes a strong - and, ultimately, losing - stance on an issue that intensely engages Christians at his time: the continuing persecution of Jesus's followers at the hands of the Romans.
The observation that the Gospel of Judas vehemently disagreed with the martyrdom practiced by the mainstream Church, or at least by others outside of the author's group, is without a doubt true. However, one cannot downplay the accusations against the Twelve as merely a historical "mask" or cover, as if it was the writing's main theme. The Gospel is preoccupied with far bigger topics on theology and soteriology and focuses very little on the subject of martyrdom. The attack on the disciples is a very real claim which the author tried to authenticate by maintaining that the Gospel was a secret conversation between Jesus and Judas. Pagels and King themselves note that the author of the Gospel of Judas was trying to authenticate his teachings via apostolic legitimacy just as much as Irenaeus and the other orthodox writers, but in the "extreme form" that only Judas understood Jesus' message. Irenaeus himself attests the actual usage of the Gospel as history and all the other church fathers' testimony does the same and can't be ignored.

V. Conclusion

Think of it this way: the Gospel of Judas is no more historically reliable than if someone today wrote a "memoir of Benedict Arnold" which said that he joined the British only because he was trying to create outrage amongst the Americans at the (seeming) betrayal and thus give them more zeal to win the Revolutionary War; not because he was actually changing sides. It would be like someone writing a supposed journal of Napoleon these days, saying that he engaged the other European countries only because he wanted to unite them and achieve peace for the world through Britain's Pax Britanica, instead of actually trying to conquer the world.

VI. Resources

  • Ehrman, Bart. The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed, Oxford University Press (2006).
  • Kasser, Rodolphe, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, with François Gaudard. The Gospel of Judas, 2nd ed., (2008) National Geographic.
  • Krosney, Herbert. The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot. National Geographic (2006).
  • Pagels, Elaine and Karen L. King. Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity Viking Press (2006).


  1. Kasser et al. The Gospel of Judas, p.79
  2. Ehrman, Bart. The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot, p.8
  3. Kasser, The Gospel of Judas, pp.121-135
  4. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book I, 31.1; From CCEL
  5. Pagels and King. Reading Judas, p.xi
  6. Ehrman, The Lost Gospel, p.102
  7. Pagels, Reading Judas, p.xiii
  8. Ehrman, op. cit., p.vii
  9. Pagels and King, op. cit.
  10. Pagels and King, ibid., pp.xiii-xiv
  11. Pagels and King, ibid., pp.43-44
  12. Pagels and King, ibid., p.8
  13. Pagels and King, ibid., p.xiii
  14. Krosney, The Lost Gospel, p.48
  15. Krosney, ibid.
  16. Kasser, The Gospel of Judas: Together with the Letter of Peter to Philip, James, and a Book of Allogenes from Codex Tchacos (2007), pp.1-2
  17. Ehrman, The Lost Gospel, p.172
  18. Porter and Heath, The Lost Gospel of Judas, p.11
  19. James Robinson, Secrets of Judas, p.177
  20. Porter and Heath, ibid., p.66
  21. Porter and Heath, ibid., p.67
  22. Porter and Heath, ibid., pp.90-95
  23. Porter and Heath, ibid., p.91
  24. Porter and Heath, ibid., p.94, citing Kasser et al, Gospel of Judas, p.44, n.147
  25. Porter and Heath, ibid., p.92, citing Kasser et al, Gospel of Judas, p.23, n.25
  26. Pagels and King, Reading Judas, p.123
  27. Ehrman, The Lost Gospel, p.172
  28. Porter and Heath, The Lost Gospel of Judas, pp.66-67
  29. Porter and Heath, ibid., pp.28-31
  30. Porter and Heath, ibid., p.28
  31. Pagels and King, Reading Judas, p.109
  32. Pagels and King, ibid., p.111
  33. Porter and Heath, The Lost Gospel, pp.28-29
  34. Porter and Heath, ibid., pp.72, 93-94: "In the Gospel of Judas, we see that Judas has displaced not just the other disciples, but Jesus himself as the object of transfiguration, and that the words from the cloud probably said something about him."!Cites Kasser et al, The Gospel of Judas, p.44, n.145 on possible content of the words.
  35. Porter and Heath, ibid., p.31
  36. Kasser et al, The Gospel of Judas, p.23, n.22
  37. Marvin Meyer, "Judas and the Gnostic Connection," in Kasser, Meyer, and Wurst, eds., The Gospel of Judas, pp.137-69
  38. Pagels and King, Reading Judas, pp.xiv-xv
  39. Pagels and King, ibid.
  40. Pagels and King, ibid., p.133
  41. Pagels and King, ibid., pp.170-171
  42. Porter and Heath, The Lost Gospel of Judas, p.77
  43. Ehrman, Lost Gospel, p.136
  44. Porter and Heath, op. cit., p.94
  45. Porter and Heath, ibid., p.14
  46. Pagels and King, Reading Judas, pp.29-30
  47. Pagels and King, ibid., p.174, n.21
  48. Porter and Heath, The Lost Gospel of Judas, p.15
  49. Klassen, Judas, p.47
  50. Klassen, ibid., p.48
  51. Klassen, ibid., p.49
  52. Klassen, ibid., pp.49-50
  53. Klassen, ibid., pp.50-51
  54. Klassen, Judas, pp.66-73
  55. Porter and Heath, The Lost Gospel of Judas, pp.16-17
  56. Porter and Heath, ibid., p.18
  57. Pagels and King, Reading Judas, p.16
  58. "Judas Iscariot," in Frank L. Cross, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), p.750.
  59. Pagels and King, Reading Judas, p.xxiii
  60. Pagels and King, ibid., p.45
  61. Pagels and King, ibid., pp.43-44
  62. Pagels and King, ibid., p.8
  63. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book I, 30.15, 31.1