The Gospel of Judas - Some Observations
Having now read the full text of the Gospel of Judas, I would like to offer the following observations. It is of great value to have this text which we had known of through Irenaeus (ca 180 CE). It has some similarities with the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), both in its rhetorical strategy and in its success, apparently then and now, in making its point. There is something appealing about people who seem to be (or portray themselves as) underdogs fighting the dominant system. In this case Christians who identify themselves with Judas or Mary are fighting ‘the church’, identified with the apostles. In the case of Mary there is the added element of discrimination by the male disciples.
I know where my sympathies lie in such struggles, but in these instances I can see that this is a rhetorical strategy on the part of one religious group in the second century whose views I personally find quite unattractive. The Judas gospel reflects the view that the material world (including human flesh and blood) is something negative, the creation of a depraved deity, and that hope lies in escape from this realm, the inner spark being released. So, of course, it follows that Judas did the real Jesus (the inner one) a favour by facilitating the demise of the flesh and blood Jesus ("the man who clothed" him, as the gospel puts it).
The secrets which Jesus is alleged to have confided to Judas and not in the others (or to Mary in intimate liaisons and not to the men) happen to coincide with this system of thought, which we find in second century gnosticism. Those who focus on the empathy evoked by Mary as victim of ostracism by the male disciples often overlook the very negative implications such systems usually have for women, who are often blamed in such systems for perpetuating evil matter/flesh and blood! The scenes created for the gospel play out the tensions with ‘the church’, including ridicule of its Eucharistic prayer of thanksgiving - who’d want to thank a god who made matter and flesh and blood!
Further back behind such movements, and before they started shaping Christian thought, are possibly the creative subversions of people forced to live under Jewish rule, who took Jewish scriptures and turned them on their head, making the creator god a villain and the serpent a hero. They also express a (for the time, fairly intellectual) protest against life in this world: there is no meaning here except to find an escape. We who largely enjoy what this world offers have difficulty appreciating this mindset, but it arises from what has been arguably the experience of most of humanity for most of history.
The Christian versions of this response which come down to us in such second century gospels have little if any relevance for reconstructing the historical Jesus of the early first century, but they are valuable historical relics which help us understand that response first hand, of which we have known mostly only through second hand and unsympathetic reports.
Return to Home Page