Gnosticism and the Gospel of Judas

This is a “blast from the past” that I wrote in 2006 when National Geographic’s publication of the Gospel of Judas was getting a lot of press.  I’m highlighting it here again today following our discussion after Mass last night about how the canon of the Bible was determined by the Church, and what happened with this sort of spurious gospel account.

I’ve noticed that whenever Christmas and Easter roll around the news is suddenly filled with stories about religion. However, in order for it to be “newsworthy,” it has to be controversial, and the controversy for Easter 2006 is the newly rediscovered Gospel of Judas.

For those who have missed the buzz, it is a second century Coptic text, unearthed in Egypt in the 1970s, and recently authenticated, translated and published by National Geographic. This gospel account delves into the relationship between Jesus and Judas. Specifically it reveals that Jesus gave Judas secret information withheld from the other Apostles; moreover Christ actually instructed Judas to turn him in to the authorities in order to facilitate the crucifixion.

Of course, this is not a canonical gospel. It is not now, nor has it ever been, approved by the Church as a divinely inspired text. The canon of the Bible was put together during the first few centuries of the Church, with the final proclamation being made by Pope Innocent I in 405 AD. Prior to that time, many other so-called “gospels” were in circulation, purporting to give “the real story” about Jesus, all of which were refuted by the Church as falsehood. One of these was the Gospel of Judas.

News stories about this gospel say that it is a Gnostic text, but they don’t really tell you what that means. To read the news, the Gnostics were just another branch of Christianity. “Christian Gnostics,” according to the Washington Post (April 7), “believed that salvation came through secret knowledge conveyed by Jesus.”
An AP article posted on Fox News (April 6), quoted Marvin Meyer, professor of Bible studies at Chapman University in Orange, CA, as saying that the text illustrates “the diversity of beliefs in early Christianity.” Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University quoted in the same AP article, gave her opinion that “the people who loved, circulated and wrote down these gospels did not think they were heretics.” But to really understand the Gospel of Judas we need to know the real truth about the Gnostic believers who wrote it. Contrary to the impression given by the publicity surrounding this document, Gnosticism was not simply a rival form of early Christianity. It was a completely distinct religion that in fact pre-dated Christianity by some time. The Gnostics might not have considered themselves heretics, but they certainly were not Christian.

Gnosticism actually originated as an Iranian cult, but over time borrowed from Greek philosophy, as well as from other religions such as Judaism, popular mystery cults, and (after the coming of Christ) Christianity. One of the key tenets of the Gnosticism was a dualistic belief in two gods. There was a lesser evil god who created the material, physical universe; and there was a greater good god, who created the spiritual realm. The good god created our souls, but by some disaster at the beginning of creation, they were trapped in evil physical bodies. Salvation, for the Gnostics, consisted of possession of secret knowledge (gnosis) so that the good soul may be freed from the evil body upon death. The Old Testament God was identified with the evil god, while Christ, in the New Testament, was identified with the good god, come to give special knowledge to a select few of his followers.

One can easily see how such a view of the universe is completely incompatible with Christianity, especially Catholicism, which has always taught that there is but one God, creator of everything, seen and unseen (that is, physical and spiritual) and that, as stated in the Genesis account, this entire creation is seen by God as essentially good. Nor does salvation mean freeing our souls from our bodies. To separate the soul from the body is death, and we believe Christ came to free us from death; that our souls will be reunited with our resurrected bodies in eternity.

Knowing that this Gospel of Judas is a Gnostic, and not a Christian, text allows us to better understand certain controversial elements. The following passage from the Washington Post article illustrates the point:

[The Gospel of Judas] describes conversations between Jesus and Judas Iscariot during the week before Passover in which Jesus tells Judas “secrets no other person has ever seen.” The other apostles pray to a lesser God, Jesus says, and he reveals to Judas the “mysteries of the kingdom” of the true God. He asks Judas to help him return to the kingdom, but to do so, Judas must help him abandon his mortal flesh: “You will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” 

We clearly see Jesus offering Judas “secret knowledge” (a key element of Gnosticism). The other Apostles, who do not possess this gnosis, pray to a “lesser god,” (another key element), and Judas is instructed to help Jesus abandon his body so that he may return to the kingdom. All of this is Gnosticism in a nutshell, and it is all foreign to Christianity.

What is the Church’s response to this? It was made over 1800 years ago, when St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote Against Heresies in 180 AD. Speaking of the spurious gospel accounts used by the Gnostics, he writes:

It is not possible that the Gospels can be either greater or fewer in number than they are. Just as there are four regions of the world in which we live, and four universal winds, and since the Church is disseminated over all the earth, and the pillar and mainstay of the Church is the Gospel, the breath of life, it is fitting that she have four pillars, breathing immortality on every side and enkindling life in men anew… [3, 11, 8] 

The true gnosis is the doctrine of the Apostles, and the ancient organization of the Church throughout the whole world, and the manifestation of the body of Christ according to the succession of bishops, by which successions the bishops have handed down the Church which is found everywhere; and the very complete tradition of the Scriptures, which have come down to us by being guarded against falsification, and which are received without addition or deletion… [4, 33, 8] 

The fact that people are willing to rewrite the story of Christ is nothing new. It is still going on today. Whether it is the Gnostics and The Gospel of Judas or Dan Brown and his DaVinci Code, Jesus is being remade in the author’s image. The real Jesus, as portrayed in the authentic gospels of the New Testament, calls us to be remade in His image.

This is the real story, and the real controversy that no news editor dares print. Apocryphal gospels and pulp fiction novels may titillate us, but they serve merely to distract from the greater story. The gnosis brought by Christ was not meant to be kept secret. In fact, He gave his followers a mandate to spread the news to all the nations. Let us continue, then, to preach that gospel – the real gospel, transmitted by the Church