What is the Gospel of Judas?
"I didn't find a sublime Judas. I found a Judas more demonic than any Judas I know in any other piece of early Christian literature." -April DeConick
In 2006, National Geographic released the first English translation of the Gospel of Judas, a second-century text discovered in Egypt in the 1970s. The translation caused a sensation because it seemed to overturn the popular image of Judas the betrayer and instead presented a benevolent Judas who was a friend of Jesus. Writers and academics have been quick to seize the opportunity to "rehabilitate" Judas as to re-examine our assumptions about this archetypal figure. April DeConick was the first to seriously challenge the National Geographic "official" interpretation of a good Judas. DeConick contends that the Gospel of Judas is not about a “good” Judas, or even a “poor old” Judas. It is a gospel parody about a “demon” Judas written by a particular group of Gnostic Christians we call the Sethians.
AMID much publicity last year, the National Geographic Society announced that a lost 3rd-century religious text had been found, the Gospel of Judas Iscariot. The shocker: Judas didn’t betray Jesus. Instead, Jesus asked Judas, his most trusted and beloved disciple, to hand him over to be killed. Judas’s reward? Ascent to heaven and exaltation above the other disciples.
It was a great story. Unfortunately, after re-translating the society’s transcription of the Coptic text, I have found that the actual meaning is vastly different. While National Geographic’s translation supported the provocative interpretation of Judas as a hero, a more careful reading makes clear that Judas is not only no hero, he is a demon. Read more.
The following publications address my work on the Gospel of Judas
2011. “After the Gospel of Judas: Reassessing What We Have Known to Be True about Cain and Judas.” Pages 627-662 in “In Search of Truth”: Augustine, Manichaeism and other Gnosticism. Edited by J.A. van den Berg, et al. NHMS 74. Leiden: Brill.
“Apostles as Archons: The Fight for Authority and the Emergence of Gnosticism in the Tchacos Codex and Other Early Christian Literature.”
2009. “Apostles as Archons: The Fight for Authority and the Emergence of Gnosticism in the Tchacos Codex and Other Early Christian Literature.” Pages 243-288 in DeConick, The Codex Judas Papers 2009.
2008. “Transgressive Gnosis: Radical Thinking about the Gospel of Judas.” Pages 555-570 in Gnosis and Revelation: Ten Studies on Codex Tchacos. Edited by M. Scopello. Rivista di Storia e Letteratura Religiosa 44:3.
2008. “The Mystery of Betrayal: What Does the Gospel of Judas Really Say?” Pages 239-266 in The Gospel of Judas in Context. Proceedings of the First International Conference on the Gospel of Judas. Edited by M. Scopello. NHMS 62. Leiden: Brill.
Abstract: DeConick covers several grammatical points of difference between the National Geographic translation and her own. She then makes an examination of the narrative of the Gospel of Judas, and concludes what we do know from the manuscript is that Judas was separated from the everlasting generation and his soul was connected with the archons and the fate of his star. Judas’ tragedy is used by the Sethian author to criticize and mock his mainstream brothers and sisters who do not themselves realize that the demonic disciple they curse is in fact the one who made possible their atonement.
2008. “The Gospel of Judas: A Parody of Apostolic Christianity.” Pages 96-109 in The Non-Canonical Gospels. Edited by Paul Foster. London: T&T Clark.
An Interview with April DeConick about the Gospel of Judas
Can you tell me about the background of the Gospel of Judas? When does it date from, where was it found?
The manuscript was discovered in the 1970s in an ancient catacomb that was being looted by local peasants living near the cliffs of the Jebel Qarara. The Jebel Qarara hills are only a few minutes on foot from the Nile River not far from El Minya, Egypt. Although we know that the Gospel of Judas existed in the middle of the second century because Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons mentions it (ca. 180), the manuscript that we have is a fourth- or fifth-century Coptic translation. It was only one text in a book of Gnostic Christian writings.
It was buried along with three other books that had been copied in the fourth- or fifth centuries – a book of Paul’s letters in Coptic, the book of Exodus in Greek, and a mathematical treatise in Greek. All four books had been sealed in a white limestone box and buried in a family tomb. If nothing else, their burial in this tomb points to their favoritism in the life of an early Christian living in ancient Egypt, a Christian who seems to have had esoteric leanings, and no difficulty studying canonical favorites alongside the Gnostic Gospel of Judas. In fact, he appears to have wanted to take them with him in death.
Why did it take so long to make the first English translation?
The English translation wasn’t what took so long. What took the time was recovering the text from the antiquities market, which finally was done in the early 2000s.It also took time to restore the manuscript so that it could be read. The book that contains the Gospel of Judas was in the worst possible shape due to terrible handling once it left the grave. It had been torn in parts to make quicker and more profitable sales. The pages had been reshuffled so that the original pagination was gone. It was brittle and crumbling thanks to a stay in someone’s freezer. The ink was barely legible because of exposure to the elements. Members of the National Geographic team have told me that initially they photocopied every fragment and then used the photocopies to piece together the pages. They worked with tweezers to fit together the scraps of papyrus and also relied on state-of-the-art computer technology.
Once the restoration was complete, the manuscript could be read. It is written in an old Egyptian language called Coptic. The Coptic text had to be transcribed, which was no small job given the fragmented nature of the restored pages and the eroded ink. After the initial transcription was made, it was then translated into English.
What was it about the National Geographic translation that inspired you to make your own translation?
When National Geographic finally released the transcription and translation of the Gospel of Judas, I was enthusiastic because my area of expertise is ancient Gnostic religiosity and early Christian mysticism. Most of my career as a professor has been devoted to the study of the Nag Hammadi texts.
The Gospel of Judas came upon most of us out of a whirlwind. I had heard whispers about the Gospel of Judas for years, but nothing really concrete. Then there it was captured on film and on the web. I was repelled by the sensationalism of its release, but still attracted to the idea that here was a brand new Gnostic text that no one has read for how many centuries?! I guess I wanted to know what stories it had to tell us about the Christians who wrote it in the second century. And once I started to work out my own translation, I realized that I had an obligation to other scholars and to the public to set the record straight about what the Gospel of Judas actually says.
What makes your interpretation so different from the National Geographic version?
For a long time, scholars have thought that the Gospel of Judas featured a Judas hero because testimony from a couple of Church Fathers led us to believe that there were a group of Gnostics known as Cainites. The Cainites were said to believe that all the bad characters in the bible, including Judas, were actually heroes. I tend to be extremely skeptical of the testimony of the Church Fathers on these sorts of issues for the sheer fact that the Fathers saw the Gnostics as their opponents and they did everything they could to undermine them, including lying. So I didn’t have an opinion on what the Gospel of Judas should say about Judas.
Once I started translating the Gospel of Judas and began to see the types of translation choices that the National Geographic team had made, I was startled and concerned. The text very clearly called Judas a “demon.” Why did the team feel it necessary to translate this “spirit”? The text very clearly says that Judas will be “separated from” the Gnostics. Why did the team feel it necessary to translate this “set apart for” the Gnostics? And so forth.
I didn’t care if Judas was good, bad or ugly. I just wanted to hear what the Sethian Gnostics had to say about him, and make sense of the text as a whole.
Why do you think that the National Geographic interpretation doesn’t work?
Not only is this interpretation based on a problematic English translation, rather than on what the Coptic actually says, but the opinion that Judas is a hero and a good guy is nonsense in terms of the bigger gospel narrative. For instance, this gospel berates sacrifice and understands it to be a horrifying practice dedicated to the god who wars against the supreme Father God. If this is the case, then Judas’ sacrifice of Jesus simply cannot be a good thing. To say it is, is to rip apart the logic of what the text is saying as a whole.
Why do think so many scholars and writers have been inspired by the National Geographic version?
I have been truly amazed at the number of people who have jumped on this bandwagon. One of my colleagues upon hearing my concerns at a conference, stood up and said, “I just don’t see why Judas can’t be good. We need a good Judas.” This really stopped me in my tracks and took this discourse to an entirely new level for me.
There is something bigger going on here, in our modern communal psyche. I haven’t been able to put my finger on it exactly, but it appears to have something to do with our collective guilt about anti-Semitism and our need to reform the relationship between Jews and Christians following World War II.
Judas has been a terrifying figure in our history, since he became in the Middle Ages the archetypal Jew who was responsible for Jesus’ death. His story was abused for centuries as a justification to commit atrocities against Jews. I wonder if one of the ways that our communal psyche has handled this in recent decades is to try to erase or explain the evil Judas, to remove from him the guilt of Jesus’ death. There are many examples of this in pop fiction and film produced after World War II. It seems to be that the National Geographic interpretation has grown out of this collective need and has been well-received because of it.
Who do you think wrote the Gospel? Why do you think they wrote it?
The Gospel of Judas was written by Gnostic Christians called Sethians in the mid-second century. They wrote it to criticize Apostolic or mainstream Christianity, which they understood to be a form of Christianity that needed to reassess its faith. Particularly troubling for these Gnostic Christians was the Apostolic belief in the atonement, because this meant that God would have had to commit infanticide by sacrificing the Son. They wrote the Gospel of Judas to prove that this could not be the case. Why? Because Judas was a demon who worked for another demon who rules this world and whose name is Ialdabaoth. How did they know this? Because Jesus had revealed this to Judas before Judas betrayed him. That is the bottom line. That is what this gospel says.
What do you think this manuscript tells us about early Christianity? Why is the Gospel of Judas important?
This gospel’s voice is different. It represents the opinions of Christians in the second century who came to be labeled as “heretical” by later bishops who wished to gain control of the religious landscape. Because this is a Gnostic Christian tradition that did not survive, the chance find of this gospel has let us tune into a second century discussion about theology. And the voice we are hearing is the voice of the guy who lost the debate.
Not only is the recovery and integration of this voice into our history important, but also its contribution to Christian theology, which is enormous. The challenge against atonement theology as it is presented in the Gospel of Judas is a challenge that rocked the Apostolic Churches, forcing them to refine and recreate their position. The end result is a doctrine of atonement that became very popular in the Christian Church, a doctrine that understood the sacrifice of Jesus as a ransom paid to the Devil. This doctrine exists as a response to the Gnostic criticisms of atonement that we find in the Gospel of Judas.
What do you think it is about the figure of Judas that seems to fascinate both scholars and the general reader?
Judas Iscariot is a frightening figure. For Christians, he is the one who had it all, and yet betrayed God to his death for a few dollars. He is the archetype of human evil, the worst human being ever to live. He is the antithesis of the true Christian. Because of this, his image works as a religious control – he is someone the Christian never wants to become. For Jews, he is terrifying, the man whom Christians associated with Jewish people, whose story was used against them for centuries as a religious justification for their abuse and slaughter. Even his name “Judas” has been linked to “Jew,” due to their root similarities (Judas/Judea/Jews). I think that Judas is someone whose shadow haunts us.