The Gospel according to Judas

Review: David Brakke’s sober-minded commentary on the recently discovered Gospel of Judas is an intelligent insight into this quixotic text’s literary and spiritual quality.

Marble statue beside the Scala Sancta in the Lateran Palace of Jesus and Judas. Credit: Svabo / Alamy Stock Photo.
Marble statue beside the Scala Sancta in the Lateran Palace of Jesus and Judas. Credit: Svabo / Alamy Stock Photo.

David Brakke, The Gospel of Judas: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Yale Bible 45, Yale University Press, 2022, 320 pp

The Gospel of Judas was originally composed in Greek, but is preserved only in Coptic translation, in a single manuscript discovered in Egypt in the 1970s, and first published in 2006 by the National Geographic Society. Its theology and sectarian perspective stand in stark contrast to what became Christian orthodoxy. It interprets the Bible’s creator god as a malicious angel who rebelled against the true god to establish his own world order. While its true god has no description beyond an invisible spirit dwelling on high, ‘whom no angel eye has seen,’ it parodies the creator god with the name Saklas, which means ‘Fool’ in Aramaic. Its Jesus is not the son of the biblical god, as other Christians believe, but was sent by the transcendent spirit to save righteous humanity from the creator’s curse of mortality. In tandem with its unflattering appraisal of the biblical god, it criticises other Christians, represented by Jesus’s twelve disciples, for serving the false god through the Eucharist and sacrificial worship. In one of its most vivid episodes, the twelve disciples see themselves in a dream serving as wicked priests at an altar, committing a litany of sins, and leading their congregants into death like sacrificial lambs to the slaughter. Jesus then takes Judas Iscariot aside from the others, reveals to him these theological mysteries, and predicts that Judas will sacrifice his mortal body, ‘the person who bears me.’ Judas’ sacrifice of Jesus’s body will, in turn, initiate the end of the biblical god’s reign and ultimately allow the righteous to be exalted.

David Brakke’s new book marks a significant advancement in our understanding of this recently-recovered Gospel and varying perspectives ancient Christians held toward the biblical god, the Eucharist, church leadership, and their relationship with Judaism. The volume is less a monograph with a sustained argument than a textual commentary with detailed exposition of each passage. It exemplifies the quality scholarship for which the Anchor Yale Bible series has earned such a high reputation over the past half-century, through its many commentaries on individual books of the Bible firmly grounded in traditional disciplines such as philology and historical criticism, and with insights from sociological and literary studies. Brakke’s commentary also inaugurates a new era for the series: its first volume devoted to an extra-canonical book.

Early media attention on the Gospel of Judas provocatively asked if it could be the genuine story, the one omitted or deliberately suppressed about Judas Iscariot on the eve of the crucifixion by the New Testament Gospels. But readers interested in sensationalising exposés and religious conspiracy theories are better off with the Da Vinci Code. The serious student of the history of religion, interested in the enigmatic questions of translation and interpretation, will delight in Brakke’s thoroughly sober-minded commentary. He reads this Gospel as the fictive composition of a gnostic Christian in the second century, who aimed to discredit the theology and rituals of contemporary Christians. It does not tell us about the historical Judas and Jesus, but about how these characters were interpreted by Christians a century later. In this vein, its anonymous author worked like a writer of modern fan fiction, creating a new story with familiar characters and expanding on narrative gaps left open in New Testament gospels.

In its opening lines, the Gospel of Judas presents itself as ‘The secret account of judgement that Jesus spoke with Judas Iscariot over eight days, before the three days, before he celebrated Passover.’ The incipit places its story squarely in the week leading up to Jesus’s crucifixion during the Passover celebration in Jerusalem — eight days refers to a week’s time, counting inclusively, while the three days refers to the days of crucifixion, death, and resurrection, the Paschal Triduum of the liturgical calendar. Its opening scene then begins ‘in Judea,’ just where Jesus traveled with his disciples to celebrate Passover before he was crucified.

Despite these narrative sign-posts, however, Brakke maintains that the ensuing dialogues take place in an ‘indeterminate time and space . . . distinct from the narrative world that the New Testament gospels create.’ He compares the dialogues to the way the Gospel of Thomas and some other non-canonical ‘dialogue gospels’ deliver sayings of Jesus with no narrative context. But surely the explicit setting must relate to its polemical aims. Its story expands on what Jesus did and said before Passover because that is precisely when Jesus instituted the Eucharist in terms of the biblical god’s covenant with Israel (‘This is my blood of the covenant’). Likewise, this Gospel times the disciples’ dream, in which they see themselves as wicked priests offering sacrificial animals, on the very night before pious Jews would ritually slaughter lambs for the Passover. Far from being distinct from the familiar New Testament narratives, the setting reinforces its claims that those Christians who celebrate the Eucharist in service of Saklas merely perpetuate the worship Jews offer to their god. The antisemitic character of this theology is self-evident, but is not an issue that can be discussed here.

What role, then, does Judas Iscariot play in this story? Does it recast Christianity’s infamous villain as Jesus’s loyal disciple, as some readers have seen, comparable to Jorge Luis Borges’ irreverent tale in Three Versions of Judas? Or does it preserve, even amplify, the evil Judas of the canonical narratives? Brakke strikes a middle path on this question: Judas becomes morally ambiguous. He betrays Jesus according to a divine plan, but nevertheless remains guilty for his treachery. As Jesus says in the New Testament, ‘The Son of Man goes as it is written of him. But woe to the man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed.’ This Judas was not motivated by mere greed or driven by satanic possession, as the canonical gospels claim. Rather, he was chosen to perform the mystery of the betrayal because he alone understood Jesus’s divine identity. This account provides a much more meaningful explanation for Judas’ betrayal. As Borges wrote, it would be intolerable ‘to admit an accidental happening in the most precious event in world history. Ergo, Judas’ betrayal was not accidental; it was a preordained fact which has its mysterious place in the economy of redemption.’

Nevertheless, Judas remains a villain in his Gospel. He is not praised for his actions. He will be separated from the twelve and his privileged place among them taken by another; he will be persecuted and cursed by humanity; he will not join the righteous in heaven, but, in a strange twist to Judas’s fate, is told he will rule over humanity as the ‘thirteenth demon.’ Brakke suggests that the numerology, unfamiliar to modern readers, means Judas will take the toppled Saklas’s position in the cosmic order. He will be set above the twelve disciples and their heavenly analogs, the twelve signs of the Zodiac. None of this is good news for Judas, Brakke observes, but will make him lament all the more over his fate.

Whatever unique interpretations this Gospel makes of Judas, we must not forget that its primary purpose was to shame the twelve disciples and their successors for serving the biblical god. What role could Judas play in this criticism? Put bluntly, this Gospel insinuates that while Judas may be evil, the disciples are even worse. It develops this message through a series of seemingly intended contrasts between Judas and the other disciples. In the opening scene, Jesus commands the disciples to show spiritual maturity and stand before him. They all say they can, but immediately fail, except for Judas (although he cannot look Jesus directly in the eyes). Next, none of the disciples know Jesus’s divinity, except for Judas (although his knowledge of heavenly mysteries remains limited and requires further instruction). Finally, the disciples have a vision in which they see themselves serving as wicked priests in an earthly temple, while Judas alone has a vision of a grand house in heaven, a celestial temple, reserved for the righteous —although he will not be allowed to enter it. In each case Judas outstrips the other disciples, though still fails to achieve perfection. This Gospel does not rehabilitate Christianity’s most infamous villain into a hero; it subordinates its heroes to its villain.

In his preface, Brakke confesses that he finds little spiritual value in this Gospel beyond, perhaps, that it asks us to evaluate the gods we serve, whether economic or political. While I sympathise with that view, I think we must also not lose sight of the fact that the author of this Gospel was deeply concerned with the moral failures of those who claim positions of leadership and hold the power to lead multitudes astray. Despite the arcane character of this bizarre Gospel, that concern should remain very much relevant for us in the twenty-first century, both in our religious communities and in our politics.

Author

Lance Jenott