The Gospel of Judas views Jesus and his ministry from a Gnostic perspective—a very different perspective from the one described in the canonical Gospels.
What Is Gnosticism?
During the second century AD a number of Christian groups were vying with each other to legitimate their particular interpretation of Christianity. History records that the group that eventually won the battle became known as “orthodox” Christians, while those who lost became the “heterodox.” Latter-day Saints, however, recognize that by the second century the Apostasy was already in full swing and that the labels of orthodox/heterodox are largely artificial terms. In this context we find the flowering of Gnosticism. This is an umbrella term that scholars first used in the eighteenth century1 to describe a number of Christian and other groups that flourished from the second to fourth centuries AD.2 The word “Gnostic” comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning knowledge. A number of Gnostic texts, including the Gospel of Judas, indicate that salvation comes, not from Jesus’ Atonement and Resurrection, but from a secret knowledge that Jesus imparted to a select group of his followers.3 Thus the heading of the Gospel of Judas reads, “The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot.”4 Clement of Alexandria defines the type of knowledge for which Gnostics sought as knowledge of “who we were, and what we have become, where we were or where we were placed, to what place we hasten, from what we are redeemed, what birth is and what rebirth.”5 For Gnostics the acquisition of knowledge about their origins and their earthly environment was a source of spiritual empowerment and the central focus in their quest for salvation.
The Nag Hammadi Library
Modern understanding of ancient Gnostic teachings was greatly enhanced with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library in 1945.6 Prior to that discovery most of our understanding about Gnostic groups came from heresiologists who sought to expose and eradicate their opponents. In circa AD 180, Irenaeus of Lyons wrote a five-volume work entitled Against Heresies, the length of which suggests that he considered these groups to be a significant threat.7 In his preface, Irenaeus acknowledged that “their language resembles ours” but insisted that “their sentiments are very different.” He argued that they “falsify the oracles of God, and prove themselves evil interpreters of the good word of revelation. They also overthrow the faith of many, by drawing them away, under a pretence of [superior] knowledge, from Him who founded and adorned the universe; as if . . . they had something more excellent and sublime to reveal.”8 He concludes his first book with an attack against a group who appealed to a text known as the Gospel of Judas, which indicates that Judas “accomplished the mystery of the betrayal.”9 Irenaeus’ descriptions are laced with polemic, and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish that polemic from reality. The texts from Nag Hammadi allowed us, for the first time, to learn about Gnostic teachings from an insider’s perspective, without the polemical bias of the heresiologists.
In the Nag Hammadi Library we find gospels that were ascribed to New Testament Apostles, such as Thomas and Philip, but were not included in the New Testament canon. In addition, some of the texts interpret biblical figures very differently than the canonical text does. For example, in the story of the Garden of Eden, the serpent is the hero rather than the villain because he encourages Eve to gain knowledge (an important characteristic for Gnostics) by eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.10
It should not surprise us, therefore, to find a Gnostic gospel ascribed to Judas, portraying him as a hero because he betrays Jesus. In contrast, the rest of the Twelve Apostles are described in inferior ways. Jesus laughs at them when they gather together to partake of the Eucharist because they are partaking of the ritual without knowing him. Jesus’ explanation for his laughter causes them to become angry.11 Despite their declarations to the contrary, none of the Twelve are strong enough to stand before Jesus, except Judas, who not only stands before him but declares, “I know who you are and where you have come from. You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo.”12 Jesus, therefore, instructs Judas to “step away from the others” so that he can tell Judas “the mysteries of the kingdom.”13 In addition, Jesus tells the Twelve that “each of you has his own star,”14 but he tells Judas that “the star that leads the way is your star.”15 These passages reflect the author’s attempt to discredit his opponents’ version of the Christian tradition.
The Gospel of Judas, as has been argued by Marvin Meyer,16 appears to belong to a specific form of Gnosticism known as Sethian Gnositicsm, wherein descendants of Seth are an elect race who gain power to return to their origins as they learn this knowledge.17
Sethian Gnostics had a complicated creation myth that is assumed in the Gospel of Judas. It appears to be an amalgamation of Plato’s Timaeus and an interpretation of the biblical account of Genesis. The classic Sethian text that describes the Gnostic version of the creation myth is the Apocryphon of John. The supreme god is an unknowable being who is described as much by what he is not as by what he is.18 This god creates a complex series of male and female divine beings, beginning with Barbelo and followed by Autogenes, who fill the Pleroma (the place where god dwells) with light.19 One of the last of these beings is named Sophia. She falls from grace when she desires to create without her consort.20 The resulting creature is a defective being often identified as either Yaldabaoth21 (“child of chaos”) or Saklas22 (“fool”).
This Yaldabaoth is the Jehovah of the Old Testament who, along with his angels, created the material world and entraps human souls in material bodies to prevent them from returning to the Pleroma. For the Gnostics, therefore, the world and physical bodies are negative entities, things that those with special knowledge want to escape.23 This is a very different view of the world when compared with that of the canonical text. In the Gospel of Judas it is Yaldabaoth (also known as Nebro, “rebel;”24), not Jesus, who is the god that the Twelve Apostles worship. Jesus often makes the distinction between himself and the “Twelve’s God.”25 Jesus celebrates Judas’s betrayal because he “will sacrifice the man that clothes me,”26 a common reference to the physical body. Thus the betrayal frees Jesus from the limitations of his physical body and allows him to return to the Pleroma.
Judas Introduced as a Descendant of Seth
Sethian Gnosticism receives its name because of the pivotal role played by Seth. The elect are his descendants. They are not subject to the God of this world or his angels. In the Gospel of Judas, Seth is called Christ.27 His descendants are “the great generation with no ruler over it.”28 It is the generation “which is from the eternal realms.”29 Jesus teaches Judas, “The souls of every human generation will die.” In contrast, “When these people [the descendants of Seth], however, have completed the time of the kingdom and the spirit leaves them, their bodies will die but their souls will be alive, and they will be taken up.”30 Judas belongs to this generation. He was “set apart” from the seed that “is under the control of the rulers [meaning Yaldabaoth’s angels].” Jesus then tells him, “You will become the thirteenth, and you will be cursed by the other generations—and you will come to rule over them. In the last days they will curse your ascent to the holy [generation].”31 The Gospel of Judas is at home within the context of Sethian Gnosticism.
The Fate of Gnosticism
Eventually, in AD 381, Gnosticism was outlawed in the Roman Empire when Theodosius I declared the Catholic Church to be the state religion. As a result, the Nag Hammadi texts and the particular Christian interpretation found in the Gospel of Judas were marginalized. Epiphanius of Salamis, a heresiologist from the fourth century AD, described his personal contact with a Gnostic group. He said that he “lost no time reporting them to the bishops there [in Egypt], and finding out which ones were hidden in the church. <Thus> they were expelled from the city, about eighty persons, and the city was cleared of their tare-like, thorny growth.”32 Under these conditions Gnosticism failed to thrive.33 Their texts were hidden rather than copied, only to come forth in our day if they had been hidden in conditions that were conducive to their survival, as in the deserts of Egypt.
LDS Perspectives on Gnosticism
For Latter-day Saints, a study of Gnosticism can be a valuable pursuit. For example, it is an important resource for understanding the complexity of the growth and development of the early Christian Church. In addition, it is possible that a text from the Nag Hammadi Library, the Gospel of Thomas, could contain some authentic sayings of Jesus that are not recorded in the canonical Gospels, although it would be difficult to identify them with any sense of certainty. For Latter-day Saints in particular, a study of Gnostic groups shows that they accepted some teachings that have certain parallels with Latter-day Saint doctrines: a belief that we had a premortal existence as spirits,34 that a number of levels of salvation are possible,35 that the restoration of lost knowledge is essential for salvation,36 and that a type of marriage, associated with the Holy of Holies in the temple, is required to return to the highest level of salvation.37 These types of teachings are not prominent in modern traditional Christian theology. Thus, the Gnostic texts indicate that, in antiquity, these were important issues for some Christians.
Latter-day Saints, however, must be cautious. They must guard against any endeavor to study Gnostic writings with the purpose of identifying proof-texts for their own doctrine. We have noted, for example, that the Gnostics had a very different understanding of the nature and purpose of mortal existence and the identity of the God of the Old Testament. They believed that salvation was possible only for a select, predetermined group of people. In addition, their concept of “temple marriage” was a celibate union between individuals and either Christ or their own divine image.38 Any Gnostic teachings found in these writings must be understood within their own Gnostic context.