Skip to content

The “Strange” Gospel of Judas and its Window into Early Christianity

April 26, 2018

The Gospel of Judas is no longer “new” and is out of the news coming from the popular press.  However, it retains a place of importance, if we keep it in right context.

As radical as its thesis seems to us in this century, this gospel’s revelation just a dozen years ago fits right in with many discoveries in the last 75 years or so, and the great significance they hold for our understanding of how Christianity formed and grew in its first two to three centuries.  In this article, after some important context, I’ll give only a very short review of Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and The Shaping of Christianity” by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King.  They both are highly accomplished scholars of the New Testament, early Christianity and its milieu.

So how is it that, after nearly two millennia, discoveries have been made in recent decades which profoundly affect our picture of Christianity’s origins and early nature? Were historians and archaeologists not searching in earlier times? Certainly they were.  And they made important finds in various periods.  Some significant ones were in the latter part of the 19th century, particularly in Egypt, others mid-twentieth century.

Luck (or “providence” or “synchronicity”) may have played a part.

For example, Bedouin explorers happened upon, without knowing what they’d found, the treasure trove we call the Nag Hammadi library (a good number of bound volumes dating to early centuries of the Common Era, buried in a vessel in a remote area of Upper Egypt).  That was 1945. Like the Gospel of Judas, these volumes were in the Coptic of the area, having been translated from Greek originals in many cases.

We can’t very precisely date the Gospel of Judas, but we know something by this title existed during the 2nd century, and with some amount of circulation, because it is named and opposed by the proto-orthodox Irenaeus, writing around 180 C.E.  The assumption (it being very likely) that this is the same book places its composition within less than 100 years of our four Gospels of the New Testament, probably within roughly 50 years of the Gospel of John.

However, in the few-to-several decades that are likely between this gospel and the canonical gospels, and which is roughly a century past the writings of Paul, things changed… a lot in some areas.  Among the most critical of these is increased persecution of Christians, parallel with their increased separation from Jewish (fully or partially “observant”) followers of Jesus in the first few decades after his death.  The latter generally could benefit from a “Jewish exception” the Romans allowed to the typically-required worship of the Emperor, earliest Christianity being primarily a Jewish sect rather than a new religion apart from Judaism.

Returning to the context and importance of the Gospel of Judas, it involves this: As the Romans had begun persecution of certain Christians, particularly leaders, various Christian groups were reacting differently.  According to Pagels and King, this document particularly reveals the internal “family” tensions and acrimony over how to react. Literally, lives were at stake.  Anxiety must have been high, to say the least.  This drives at least much of the emotion and invective found in this short volume.

There were worldview differences in addition to the martyrdom issues driving the counter-narrative of Judas as the most loyal and “getting it” disciple of Jesus.  But a similar kind of hostility is evidenced within the other gospels and epistles of the New Testament, whether toward “the Jews” or other break-away Christians (as seen in 1 John).

Analyzing the content further, as to the beliefs involved, becomes difficult.  This is made worse by there being substantial missing pieces in the manuscript due to physical decay and damage.  Textual damage aside, the range of novel expressions of Judaism, emerging Christianity and pagan or “classical” (e.g., Platonic) religious views makes understanding many documents of this period particularly challenging.  Determining if and how the Gospel of Judas may fit in with the broad range of Gnostic documents we now have (mostly since 1945) is a specialized process with debated conclusions, beyond even summarizing here (and beyond my more detailed areas of study).

Here’s why this relatively short and quite accessible (for non-scholars) book on the Gospel of Judas is of particular importance, in my view: It analyzes this recently-discovered document in relation to the broader religious and societal issues of its period, one in which we have relatively few documents outside of those preserved by the gradually-developed orthodoxy of the late 2nd century and beyond (particularly works that became our New Testament and a number of works largely harmonious with them).

The very fact that only in the last century or so have we discovered numerous “Gnostic” (this label being hard to define or delimit) or other heterodox texts indicates the powerful effect of winning doctrinal battles.  With dominance it was, in that day, possible to almost completely “bury” opposing viewpoints (or force their burial by those hoping to preserve them).  One of the key things strongly confirmed by their unearthing is the broad diversity of early Christianity.

Seeing this reality undercuts the “received” narrative pushed by Luke in Acts of the Apostles (placed right after the Gospels in our NT) that a single and relatively unified “church” developed from the first weeks after the death of Jesus.  Per Luke, this simple Spirit-led development continued at least until the unspecified “ending” he gives to Acts around the time of Paul’s final imprisonment and journey to Rome.  (In this, conveniently ignoring the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and its massive impact on both Judaism and Christianity.)  After Luke’s story, unwritten legend takes over for a lengthy period.  It isn’t until Constantine and his hired “historian”, Eusebius, early 4th century, that anyone picks up on Luke’s beginning and tries to create the picture of continuity of authority and orthodoxy going straight back to Jesus and his original Apostles.  Among other key documents from this over-two-century period is the Gospel of Judas.

If the Gospel of Judas or this work by Pagels and King on it is unfamiliar to you, I highly recommend reading their book.  It is well written and moves one along without bogging down in details of a scholarly nature.  Still, it is well footnoted with scholar references as well as good added explanations, so I recommend at least perusing these (special notes section, actually).

The introduction section is strong and certainly not to be skipped.  Then follows four chapters about the setting and contents of the Gospel.  After that is an English translation of the text with notation of the places where some of the text is missing or has been reconstructed, if suitable.

Wrapping up, before “Notes” (see above) and indices is “Comments on the Translation”.  This is not technical, as it may sound, but important commentary that is definitely not to be skipped….  As long as one has read this far, silly to miss the meaty stuff included here.

If you are, like me, doing “catch up” reading (years after publication), or are merely interested in the history and nature of how our most widespread world religion developed in its early days, I think Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity” is worth your time.
















































































































































































































































































































































































8 Comments leave one →
  1. April 26, 2018 5:27 pm


    A good informative review. Just a few thoughts…

    I often compare the modern sciences and all their disciplines to modern forensics, criminal forensics especially. As we’ve seen over the last two decades forensics is getting better and better and better. It must or else our law-enforcement, politics, and civil peace will allow the O.J. Simpson’s of the world to run rampant when they don’t like someone’s behavior or words! Right? That’s scary. Science and forensics MUST keep improving and must keep getting the evidence interpreted right! In this day and age it shouldn’t be much of a suprise that due to the archaeological discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi texts, and many other non-canonical manuscripts, and then the proper Historical Methodology applied to these textual discoveries, today well-informed, non-emotional, well-educated individuals have been able to accurately as well as more unbiasedly LEARN the bigger picture of their once previous social-familial (birthed) beliefs and heritage — which of course is NEVER a guarantee of truth.

    I have always enjoyed and given Elaine Pagals a lot of respect as a renown scholar of this period ever since she was part of the academics in PBS’s Frontline “From Jesus to Christ” which was argueably one of the BEST documentaries on the Era and topic back in 1983! Since then only more fantastic scholarship and discoveries have been made, embraced, and publicized that haven’t really grossly contradicted or flown-in-the-face of that well done ’83 documentary.

    Great stuff Howard. Thank you Sir. 🙂

    • April 27, 2018 1:14 pm

      Thanks much for your kind comments! I appreciate hearing your respect for Pagels, as I’ve not read a lot by her, though been impressed by what I have, particularly her part of dealing with this particularly puzzling recent discovery. I hope she’s still active in the field for a while…. John Cobb of Claremont, Process Center, etc. is still quite active at 93! (Longevity is why I want to be a philosopher when I grow up 🙂 )

  2. April 28, 2018 5:06 am

    Great article, Howard! Pagels has always been a great help to me in understanding Gnostic gospels, and in deciphering the meanings that are no longer easily understood in our times (or because of difficulties with translations). I will definitely check out this book re; the Gospel of Judas. I know the Gospel is considered important and I have read it, but I wasn’t able to truly grasp why it was considered so important, beyond simply the age of the Gospel. Thanks!

    • April 28, 2018 1:49 pm

      So glad you enjoyed it and may lead to enjoying the book. I was feeling almost guilty that I didn’t say much about either the authors’ treatment of it or the Gospel’s content itself. But it had gotten to 1000+ words so I didn’t feel so bad. 🙂 . And what I did focus on I believe to be quite important, and poorly understood.

      If I can eventually work all the way through a now-much-neglected scholarly classic, “Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity” by Walter Bauer, it will elaborate (as I will in a watered-down review) a lot on the theme of the wide variation in very early forms of Christian faith and their gradual development toward eventual orthodoxy. (It’s one I won’t be recommending for most lay readers but I think you have enough bkgd and interest to appreciate and learn from it… or have you read it already?)

      • April 30, 2018 4:49 am

        I will be very interested in your insights in the Bauer book when you’ve finished reading it. I would love to read that book. It seems like I have an ever-growing stack of scholarly books on early Christianity that I want to read! One of my reasons for moving out to this old house in the country was to get more quiet time for reading. So far, it’s working, except that now I’m laboring over finding the best lamp to read by! Always something…. 🙂

        • May 5, 2018 6:37 am

          OMG… TELL me about “… stack of scholarly books…” (even tho many are just in a couple nearby libraries…. I’m privileged to be very close to a decent theological library with a seriously-minority “progressive” or “higher critical” line that still supplies me fairly well). Glad you’re finding more reading time! And imagining a time we might combine your fiction talents with my, and other writers’, interdisciplinary and visionary (esp. re. education) ones to do some genre-inventing.

        • May 6, 2018 4:23 am

          Genre-inventing! Yes, I do think so. I went to divinity school, got my first degree, was more than halfway to my next degree when I realized I needed something entirely different for my ministry. I left school, got ordained in a non-denominational ministry and Knew that my ministry would be in the written word…

        • May 9, 2018 9:34 pm

          Sorry…. I’ve been so into other stuff I kept forgetting to get back here and reply. We’ll have to talk sometime about your seminary education (and mine) and what you’ve pursued on your own since; about what interests you in this realm at this point, etc. I also did only a little “professional” traditional “ministry” work, as in a church. More in some Christian non-profits, plus a whole lot of self-directed learning, some of which is reflected on this blog and in my couple ebooks (plus an out-of-print book on parenting).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: