The Gospel of Judas: The Rediscovery of the Earliest Gnostic Gospel

About this Episode

Guests
David Brakke

In 2006 a small group of historians startled the world by announcing the discovery and publication of a Gospel of Judas. Could the disciple who betrayed Jesus be a hero? Sixteen years later we can see the true significance of this strange text, which reveals to us the amazing diversity of Christianity only one hundred years after Jesus.

Speaker | David Brakke, Professor and Joe R. Engle Chair in the History of Christianity at The Ohio State University.

Moderator | Nicholas Breyfogle, Associate Professor of History and Director, Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching at The Ohio State University.

Hosted by the Department of History Clio Society and Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective.

Cite this Site

Nicholas Breyfogle , "The Gospel of Judas: The Rediscovery of the Earliest Gnostic Gospel" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
February, 2022
https://origins.osu.edu/listen/history-talk/gospel-judas-rediscovery-earliest-gnostic-gospel?language_content_entity=en.
February, 2022

Transcript

Nicholas Breyfogle
Hello, and welcome to The Gospel of Judas: The Rediscovery of the Earliest Gnostic Gospel brought to you by the History Department, the Clio Society in the College of Arts and Sciences at The Ohio State University, and by the Bexley Public Library. My name is Nick Breyfogle. I'm an associate professor of history and Director of the Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching, and I'll be your host and moderator today. Thank you so very much for joining us. In 2006, a small group of historians startled the world by announcing the discovery and publication of a Gospel of Judas. In this Coptic text from the second century, Jesus engages in a series of conversations with his disciples and with Judas, explaining the origin of the cosmos and its rulers, the existence of another holy race, and the coming end of the current world order. 16 years later, we can now see the true significance of the strange text, which reveals to us the amazing diversity of Christianity, only 100 years after Jesus. Today, we'll explore the story of this gospel and the early history of gnostic mythology. 


Let's take a moment to get to know our speaker today, David Brakke. David Brakke, he is a professor and Joe R. Engle Chair in the History of Christianity in the Department of History at The Ohio State University. He received his PhD in religious studies from Yale and taught at Indiana University for 19 years before coming to Ohio State in 2012. He studies and teaches the history and literature of ancient Christianity from its origins through the fifth century, with special interests in asceticism, monasticism, Gnosticism biblical interpretation, and Egyptian Christianity. He's the author of several books, including "The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual and Diversity in Early Christianity," and the newly published "The Gospel of Judas," a new translation with introduction and commentary. And he's currently the president of the International Association for Coptic studies. With that introduction, let me lay out the plan. Professor Brakke will begin with a talk about the Gospel of Judas. And then he'll take your questions and we'll open things up for discussion. If you're interested in asking a question, please write it in the Q&A function at the bottom of your screen. We'll do our best to answer as many questions as we can, with several questions having come in during registration, and we look forward to receiving more during the webinar. Now, without further ado, let me pass you over to Professor David Brakke, who will take us on an exploration of the Gospel of Judas: The Rediscovery of the Earliest Gnostic Ggospel. Over to you, Professor Brakke.           

 

David Brakke

Thanks to Nick Breyfolge and the Clio Society for inviting me and to the College of Arts and Sciences for its support.

This is a great day to do this because it’s the official publication day of my new book on the Gospel of Judas, shown here. I’m afraid that it’s really aimed at advanced students and scholars who know ancient languages, and so I don’t encourage anyone else to get it. Plus, it’s $65.00! The Apocryphal Jesus, L10 v1: The Gospel of Judas

The newest apocryphal gospel to appear isThe Gospel of Judas.  Its publication was first published in the spring of 2006. It surprised a lot of people, but historians of Christianity had long known that the existence of such a gospel was possible.  Around the year 180 AD, the Christian bishop of Lyons in France, Irenaeus, had briefly mentioned a gospel with this title.  He claimed that a group of Christians named the Gnostics had “fabricated” it.

Still, even many modern historians doubted that Christians would name a gospel for the disciple who, according to the New Testament gospels, had betrayed Jesus.  Maybe, they wondered, this Judas is actually the disciple known as Judas Thomas, the one who wrote the New Testament epistle of Jude – which is really Judas – and the one after whom the Gospel According to Thomas is named.

No, it turned out, the Gospel of Judas really is about Judas Iscariot.  The gospel does not claim to have come from Judas.  It’s not the Gospel According to Judas.  But it is a gospel about Judas – about his knowledge of what Jesus really means, about his difference from the other disciples, and about his ultimate role in the future reorganization of the cosmos.  The gospel explains that Jesus’ death, which Judas played a major role in causing, will bring an end to the world order that we currently know, open the path to salvation for the saved, and place this cosmos under new divine management.

The Coptic codex that contains the Gospel of Judas seems to have been discovered with three other books in the late 1970s near Al Minya in Egypt.  The other three books found in the cave near Al Minya contain a Greek mathematical text, a copy of the biblical book Exodus in Greek, and a copy of the letters of St. Paul in Coptic.  The codex containing Judas was probably copied in the early 300s, but we know that the original Greek text was composed in the middle of the 100s because Irenaeus mentions it around 180.

Can we be sure that the Gospel of Judas found in the twentieth century is the same Gospel of Judas that Irenaeus knew in the second century?  We can't know this 100% for certain because Irenaeus never quotes from the gospel, but he does describe it briefly.  Here’s what he says:

And furthermore — the Gnostics say — Judas the betrayer was thoroughly acquainted with these things; and he alone was acquainted with the truth as no others were, and (so) he accomplished the mystery of the betrayal.  By him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thrown into dissolution.  And they bring forth a fabricated work to this effect, which they entitle The Gospel of Judas.

As we’ll see, this description matches well what the newly discovered gospel is like.  Judas does know the truth in a way that no one else in the gospel does, and he does cause all things in this universe to go into dissolution by sending Jesus to his death.  So, even though a direct quotation would make us feel more confident, nearly all historians agree that the text found in Egypt is a Coptic translation of the gospel that Irenaeus would have read in the original Greek back in the 100s.

Even though the Coptic manuscript was found in the late 1970s, scholars did not publish the Gospel of Judas until 2006, but that’s not their fault.  Instead, a series of middlemen and antiquities dealers prevented scientific conservation and study of the text as they tried to get lots of money for it.  I regret to say that an Ohio man was particularly negligent in this regard.  As a result, the codex is badly damaged and fragmentary. After the initial publication in 2006, additional fragments were discovered and published in 2010.

If you want to read a translation of the Gospel of Judas, you want to be sure to have one that includes these 2010 fragments. On your screen you see two anthologies that contain such translations.

Unlike the gospels in the New Testament, the Gospel of Judas does not tell us much about Jesus’s life and ministry.  There are no stories of Jesus being born; there are no travels around Galilee, no miracles.  The author just says that Jesus “performed signs and great wonders for the salvation of humanity.”  Instead, the gospel narrates a series of conversations between Jesus and his disciples and between Jesus and Judas.  These conversations take place in the days before Jesus’ death.  In this respect, it’s similar to the dialogue gospels that we looked at previously.It’s what scholars call a dialogue gospel.  During these conversations Jesus deprecates all the disciples, including Judas, but he never criticizes Judas as harshly as he does the other disciples.  None of the other disciples know anything true about Jesus, and Jesus compares them to evil priests who are leading their followers to their deaths.

Eventually Jesus delivers a long speech of revelation to Judas.  Jesus explains to Judas the nature of God and the origin and destiny of this cosmos.  After this revelation, the divine nature of Jesus departs toward heaven on a cloud, leaving only the human Jesus for Judas to betray.  Next the human Jesusbut next he is with his disciples in the upper room of some house, presumably sharing the Last Supper.  Outside Judas meets with Jewish leaders, accepts their money, and hands Jesus over to them.  Then the gospel ends.  The author expects that we know what happened next.

So this gospel assumes that readers are familiar with the gospels of the New Testament.  You appreciate the meaning of certain scenes better if you have read those texts.  Consider the opening scene.  Jesus comes upon the disciples “offering thanksgiving over the bread,” and he laughs at them.  The disciples ask Jesus, “Teacher, why are you laughing at our prayer of thanksgiving?  What did we do?  This is what’s right.”  And Jesus replies, “I’m not laughing at YOU — you don’t do this by your own will.  Rather, by this your god receives praise.”

Now, the word used for “thanksgiving” here is “eucharist.”  So when the disciples are portrayed as saying “thanksgiving over the bread,” it looks like they are celebrating the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper — even though that would be anachronistic because Jesus has not yet instituted the Lord’s Supper.  In any case, Jesus mocks this ritual as offering praise to what he calls “your god.”

This is the first indication that the Gospel of Judas is Gnostic, for a key belief of the Gnostics is that the god that other Christians worship, the God of the Old Testament, is not the ultimate God who sent Jesus.  IWe’ll come back to that point in a bit.

As the scene continues, Jesus’s pronouncement that the god the disciples worship is not his God angers the disciples, and Jesus challenges them: “Let whoever is strong among you people represent the perfect human being and stand before my face.”  In other words, Jesus wants to know whether any of the disciples belong to the saved people, those who are perfect, and whether any of them can display their perfection before him.  None of the disciples dare to answer Jesus — except for Judas Iscariot.  Judas stands before Jesus, albeit with his eyes averted, and says, “I know who you are and where you have come from.  You have come from the immortal aeon of the Barbēlō.  But as for the one who sent you, its name I am not worthy to proclaim.”  This, we shall see, is the correct answer.  Jesus comes from a realm above this cosmos, from an aeon called Barbēlō.  An aeon is an emanation from the divine, and the Barbēlō aeon comes from the ultimate true God who cannot be named.

Now here’s how the Gospel of Judas describes what happens next:

Jesus, because he knew that Judas was thinking about the rest of the exalted things as well, said to him, “Separate from them, and I will tell you the mysteries of the kingdom, not so that you will go there, but so that you will be much grieved.”

Notice that, on the one hand, Jesus commends Judas and promises to tell him mysteries that he has not told anyone else, mysteries about the kingdom.  On the other hand, Jesus tell Judas that he will not go to that kingdom himself, but he will be grieved.

This scene is almost certainly modeled after an episode that occurs in three of the New Testament gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  In the New Testament scene, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”  They give various answers, but only Simon Peter answers properly: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Especially in Matthew, chapter 16, Jesus’ reaction to Peter’s correct identification is ambiguous.  On the one hand, Jesus commends Peter, calling him blessed, the recipient of divine revelation, and the rock on which Jesus will build his church.  On the other hand, when Jesus foretells his suffering and death, Peter protests, and then Jesus rebukes him severely: “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”

The scene in Judas echoes that in Matthew.  In both cases Jesus poses a challenge to the disciples, and in both cases only one disciple steps forward and correctly identifies Jesus’s divine identity – Peter in the Gospel of Matthew and Judas in the Gospel of Judas.  And in both cases, Jesus commends that disciple, saying that he receives a special revelation, and then Jesus condemns the disciple, as Satan or someone who will not enter the kingdom.

The author of the Gospel of Judas wants the reader to remember the scene in Matthew and to make the comparison.  Judas replaces Peter – he is the disciple who knows more than the others, who is both insightful and yet can be rebuked.  And Judas’s identification [Office1] of Jesus as coming from the Barbēlō aeon and a god that he cannot name contrasts with Peter calling Jesus the Christ and Son of God.  To understand this gospel we need to understand these two basic contrasts – between Judas and Peter (as well as the other disciples) and between these two confessions of who Jesus really is.

According to Judas, Jesus has come from the immortal aeon of the Barbēlō and has been sent by a God whose name he is not worthy to say.  Later in the gospel, in a long revelation speech to Judas, Jesus explains the view of God and the cosmos that lies behind Judas’s statement.  What Jesus tells is one version of the Gnostic myth, the basic narrative of God and creation that Gnostic Christians taught during the second and third centuries.

Jesus explains that the ultimate source of everything, the true God of all things, is the great Invisible Spirit.  Not even angels have seen the Invisible Spirit, and it has not been called by any name.  This is why Judas said that he cannot say the name of the one who sent Jesus.

Now, no one may be able to see or name the Invisible Spirit, but the Invisible Spirit unfolds into or emanates from itself a series of lower aspects or manifestations of itself, which the gospel calls aeons and sometimes angels.  These aspects of God can be known by human beings, but only by those who are saved and gain knowledge – or in Greek, gnōsis – hence, the name of this group of Christians.  They are Gnostics because they have gnōsis, knowledge.

The first aeon to emanate from the Invisible Spirit Jesus calls a luminous cloud, but we know from other Gnostic works that this first aeon is also called the Barbēlō.  This is an obscure name, and historians do not agree on where it may have come from.  The Barbēlō is the aeon closest to the Invisible Spirit, and it is the immortal aeon from which Jesus has come – so Judas declares early in the gospel.

 From the Barbēlō aeon emanate a series of additional aeons, some of which are named and most of which are not.

The Gnostic vision of God is complex and intricate, but the details are not important for our purposes.  What is important is that the Gnostic myth in the Gospel of Judas presents a view of God that is both single and multiple, remote and accessible.  A remote and entirely unitary God, the Invisible Spirit, expands into more accessible and multiple divine aspects, which are both separate from and the same as the one God.

Now this may sound complicated to us.  We’re used to thinking of Christians believing in just one God – or maybe one God, who is also three – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  But that last idea – the idea of the Trinity – did not just pop up when Christianity began.  Instead, Christians spent centuries debating how there could be just one God, and yet also other aspects or manifestations of God, such as Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

The Gnostics drew on the Old Testament as well as pagan mythology and philosophy to answer this question.  For example, they drew on contemporary Platonism.  Platonists of the second century taught that there must be only one God, but that this one God must also be so spiritual and unitary that we cannot know him directly.  Instead, God must emanate or overflow into lower aspects of himself, which we can know.

Both the Gnostics and the Christians we call orthodox adapted and applied this insight to the Christian God.  For all early Christians God is both single and multiple.  Most Christians of the second century limited God’s multiplicity to just two – the Father who cannot be known directly and the Son who makes him known – or there are three – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  But the Gnostics did not – they argued that God emanates into many aeons or aspects of himself.

But everything I have said thus far applies to God in and of himself.  According to the Gnostics, the cosmos in which we live is separate from God and not ruled by God directly.  Instead, Jesus tells Judas, the universe in which we live is perishable and corruptible, and it’s ruled by a lower divine being with two names: Nebrō and Ialdabaōth.  Ialdabaōth was appointed by the higher divine realm to rule over the chaos in which we dwell.  He is assisted by his own set of angels, also called rulers.

Ialdabaōth and his fellow rulers gave some order to the chaos of the material universe.  It is Ialdabaōth who created the world in which we live, and so it is Ialdabaōth who in the Book of Genesis is the Creator God.  In other words, the God of the Old Testament, the God of Israel, the God worshiped by Jews and most Christians is not the ultimate God, but a lower ruler named Ialdabaōth. And even more, Ialdabaōth rebelled against the Invisible Spirit—his other name Nebrō means “apostate.” Ialdabaōth wants everyone to worship him alone.

Ialdabaōth and his rulers created the first human beings, Adam and Eve, and it is one of the rulers who placed a limit on how long human beings might live.  But the higher gods did not leave human beings in complete servitude to Ialdabaōth and his cronies.  As Jesus says, “God caused knowledge – gnōsis – to be given to Adam and those with him, in order that the king of chaos and Hades might not rule over them.”

Ialdabaōth is the king of chaos and Hades from whom the saved people can be liberated.  Ialdabaōth, the god of the Old Testament and creator of this world, is not the true God, but a lesser ruler.   And yet this is the God to which the disciples were offering thanksgiving at the beginning of the Gospel of Judas.  So Jesus was laughing because they are worshiping the wrong God – Ialdabaōth.  That’s your God, Jesus tells them.

By now your head may be spinning with the many stark differences between the Gnostic view of existence and that found in the New Testament gospels.  But theThe greatest theological contrast between the Gospel of Judas and the views of most early Christians lies in this notion that the God of the Old Testament is not the ultimate God—and what that says about Jesus.  The gospels of the New Testament identify Jesus as the Son of the God of Israel, the Creator God of the Old Testament. The Gospel of Judas, however, says that Jesus comes from a God higher and more spiritual than that god.  It is, in fact, an error, a laughable mistake, to worship the God of Israel as the Father of Jesus.

This brings us to the contrast between Judas and Peter and the other disciples as leaders.  The Gospel of Judas presents the disciples, with the exception ofexcept for Judas, as mistaken and confused about the truth. Therefore, they are leading people to their spiritual deaths.

At one point in the gospel the disciples report to Jesus that they have had a nightmare.  They saw a large house with a great altar within it.  Twelve men were serving at the altar as priests, offering sacrifices to what they vaguely called “a name.”  A multitude of people, including the disciples, were offering devotions at the altar.

The priests who offered sacrifices would bless and show humility to one another, but their behavior was contradictory.  They engaged in pious fasting, but they also killed their own children and committed sexual sins.  These priests invoked the name of Jesus at the altar, and they were making so many sacrifices that the altar was full of slaughtered animals.

The disciples are disturbed by what they have seen, and they fall into silence after they have told Jesus the nightmare.

Jesus’ interpretation of the nightmare is shocking.  He tells the disciples:

It is you who receive the offerings at the altar that you saw.  That is the god you serve, and you are the twelve men whom you saw.  The cattle that are brought in are the sacrifices that you saw, that is, the multitude that you are leading astray at that altar.

In other words, the disciples’ vision was of the emerging orthodox church, which is leading its followers to their spiritual deaths.

By the middle of the second century, when the Gospel of Judas was written, some Christians had begun to compare the weekly Christian ritual of the Eucharist to the sacrifices that had been made in the Temple in Jerusalem.  Until the Romans destroyed the Temple in the year 70, Jews brought animals to the Temple to sacrifice to God, sometimes in thanksgiving and sometimes as atonement for their sins.  A tribe of sacred priests, the descendants of Aaron, offered these sacrifices on behalf of the people.  After the destruction of the Temple in 70, some Christians began to depict their Eucharist as the replacement or continuation of worship in the Temple.

At the Eucharist Christians brought bread and wine, which they offered to God with prayers and thanksgivings.  This bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ, and the ceremony commemorated Christ’s death on the cross, which was a sacrifice for the sins of humanity.  The Eucharist, in the view of some Christians, re-enacted that sacrifice of Christ’s body.  And so the Christian leaders who presided over this ritual were like priests, bringing the offerings of the people to God.  Not only this, but they claimed that the Christian clergy were the successors of the apostles.  Just as the Jewish priests of the Temple had been successors to Moses’ brother Aaron, so too the Christian priests were successors to Jesus’ apostles, Peter and the others.

Now I should be clear that this way of understanding the clergy and the Eucharist was by no means universal among Christians in the 100s.  It would take centuries for this spirituality to become dominant all over the Christian world.  But we do find Christian sources in major cities like Rome and Antioch presenting Christian worship in this way starting around the year 100.

The Gospel of Judas attacks this view harshly.  As the disciples’ nightmare has it, the Christian clergy may bless each other and treat each other with humility, but they also commit terrible sins.  The sacrifice they claim to be offering they make to the wrong God.  And who’s really being sacrificed here is not any animal, but human beings, the people that tragically follow them and their erroneous teachings.  Everything they do they do in the name of Jesus, but Jesus will have none of it.  “In my name,” he says, “they shamefully have planted fruitless trees.”

The gospel condemns the original disciples and the later Christian clergy who claim to be their successors as misguided sinners who can never know the truth.  Jesus says to them, “No race from the people among you will know me.”

But what about Judas?  He does know the truth, as his original confession indicates, and Jesus explains the complete truth about reality to him later.  And yet Jesus also tells him that he will not enter the kingdom, but he will be grieved.

The first editors and translators of the Gospel of Judas suggested that this was a gospel in which Judas is the hero, the model for those who are saved.  But other scholars quickly pointed to passages that do not show Judas so positively.  Not only will he not enter the kingdom and be grieved, but at one point Jesus calls Judas “the thirteenth demon.”

Judas, just as he does in the New Testament gospels, plays a paradoxical role.  In the New Testament, Judas betrays Jesus, and all the gospels condemn him for this – they claim that Satan inspired him or that he did it for money.  And yet, at the same time, what Judas did was necessary, part of God’s plan for the salvation of humanity.  Judas does what he must do.

The Gospel of Judas takes a similar view.  On the one hand, Jesus tells Judas, “You will sacrifice the human being who bears me.”  Sacrifice is never good in this gospel, and so I don’t think Judas sacrificing the human Jesus is good either.  Notice that Jesus refers to “the human being who bears me.”  In this way he makes clear that he, the divine savior from the Barbēlō, is distinct from the human being in which he dwells.  Only the latter will be killed, but it’s still a bad thing.

On the other hand, Judas’s action will set in motion a series of events that will lead to the end of Ialdabaōth and his fellow rulers and the reorganization of this universe with Judas as its new ruler.  Thanks to Judas, says Jesus, the kings have become weak, the races of angels have grieved, and the ruler is destroyed.  In contrast, the great race of Adam, the human beings who have true knowledge of God, will be elevated to their true home with the divine beings above this world.  This is good news for the saved people.

And yet this cosmos will not be entirely destroyed.  Ialdabaōth and his rulers will be gone, but a new regime will administer the material realm, a new regime led by Judas.  When Jesus calls Judas the thirteenth demon, he is indicating the position that Judas will come to hold in the future cosmos.  Right now the heavens are ruled by twelve angels in twelve heavens, over whom Ialdabaōth presides.  The number twelve most likely reflects the Zodiac as well as the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles.  Judas’s position as thirteenth indicates that he will take over the lead role in this universe.  He will replace Ialdabaōth as the god of this cosmos – a promotion, to be sure, but not to heaven, where the saved people will be.

Jesus admits that Judas will be hated for what he has done, but Judas will rule over those who hate him.  “You will become the thirteenth,” Jesus tells him, “and you will be cursed by the rest of the races, and you will be ruling over them.”

Again, it’s helpful to compare this with something we find in the New Testament.  In Matthew, chapter 19, Jesus tells the twelve disciples that they will play a leading role in the end of this world and the birth of the new kingdom of God.  “You will sit on twelve thrones,” Jesus says to them, “judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”  In the Gospel of Judas, Jesus tells Judas that he will preside even higher: he will be the thirteenth, ruling over everyone else, even those who now curse him for his act of betrayal.  Judas, as Jesus said, will not enter the kingdom – that is, he will not leave this universe and dwell with the truly spiritual beings – and this fate may grieve him.  Nonetheless, Judas has an essential role to play in the drama of salvation.  By sacrificing the human being who bears the divine Savior, Judas will bring about the dissolution of the current unjust world order and inaugurate a new regime in this universe, one that he will rule as the thirteenth demon.

After Jesus reveals all this amazing information to Judas, he enters a luminous cloud.  But the next thing we know Jesus is in the upper room of the house where he shared the Last Supper with the disciples, and he is praying with them.  Outside Judas meets with some Jewish scribes.  The scribes approach Judas and ask, “What are you doing here?  You are Jesus’ disciple.”  The author then says that Judas “answered them as they wished.  And Judas took money and handed him over to them.”  And with these words the gospel ends and gives the title.

The ending seems rather anti-climactic, but it sends the reader back to the New Testament gospels for the rest of the story.  In effect, the Gospel of Judas tells its readers, “Now you know the real truth about who Jesus is and who his God is, so that you can now re-read Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John with true understanding.”  The Gospel of Judas is more than an apocryphal alternative to the canonical New Testament gospels – it seeks to be a correction of them.  It gives you what it presents as the true understanding of the gospels, their newly revealed Gnostic meaning.  In this way, you the reader are offered the opportunity to escape the fate of Peter and the disciples and become a member of “the undominated race” that has true knowledge or gnosis.

Thank you and I look forward to your questions and your comments.

Nicholas Breyfogle

Thank you, David, so very much for that really fascinating talk and exploration of the Gospel of Judas. We've had some questions come in. If any of you have questions that you'd like to ask, please put them into the into the Q&A, and we'll do our best to kind of make ourway through them. Let me start with a couple that have come in while you were, while you were talking. The first is a question from Professor Daniel, which is about really about Gnosticism. And I wonder if you might actually use this question to offer a little bit of background on Gnosticism in general, for those who are less familiar with it. But he asks, "How useful is the category of gnostic since the Gnostics and pro Orthodox hold too many things in common? John's gospel, thinks of Jesus descending from the realm of the Houthis, the High God. He walks through the world, untainted by the darkness of the world and gives true knowledge to his followers. Early Church follow fathers also draw from a platonic idea of emanation and God being the one and good." So. Thoughts on that, David?

David Brakke

Yes. Thanks for that question. That's  really great. Actually, the use of the term Gnostic and Gnosticism for the people we've been talking about is a matter of great controversy among historians right now for precisely the reasons that you mentioned, Daniel, that is that you know, they share many views with other Christians as well. And, you know, the term gnostic and gnosticism has often been used by people in antiquity and today to kind of stigmatize and ostracize Christians who hold certain kinds of beliefs, right? And so I myself am not particularly wedded to that term as the one to use for the kinds of people that the gospel Judas represents. But I do think and this, this is one where I and other historians would probably have a debate, I do think that there is good evidence that there was in fact, a group of Christians in the 100s and 200s, that did refer to themselves as Gnostics, and that the Gospel of Judas comes from them and represents their views. But, and, and also in so anyway, that's why I still use the term. But we should also notice that other Christians, who are certainly orthodox also use the term gnostic, because it means one who has knowledge, which is a great thing, we'd all like to be that. So it's used not only in this kind of sectarian self-identifying sense, but also used by other Orthodox Christians for kind of the paradigmatic ideal Christian who really knows, knows truth. But yeah, it's, it can, the term gnostic can set people off too far away from Christians. That's why I kept saying Gnostic Christians, because they certainly are such.

Nicholas Breyfogle

We had a question come in about sort of the authoritative nature of this Gospel of Judas? And I guess the question really is so why is this gospel not included in the Bible? What's the process by which that happened? And and yes, why does it have less kind of authoritativeness than the standard ones?

David Brakke

Right? Well, I do hope that maybe the theological issue I talked about may make clear why it's not in the Bible. I mean, at some point, Christians, the vast majority decided that yes, Jesus actually is sent from come from the son of the God of the Old Testament, who's the father, and not from some higher God. In other words, most Christians rejected the views that the Gnostics expounded. And so as they began to collect and eventually make a New Testament from the works that they considered authoritative these kinds of theological criteria definitely played a role. We do have evidence, so as we said, we know, in the middle of the 100s there were Gnostics who circulated the Gospel of Judas and apparently thought it was important. And we have also people in the 300s and 400s who refer to Gnostics having a Gospel of Judas, though this is less certain whether this is still the case, or they're just repeating what Irenaeus had said 200 years earlier, and were just reading it. But yes, I think you can see that its ideas were out there enough that they were eventually rejected, and also a gospel attributed to Judas Iscariot, probably in the end wasn't going to be that popular anyway. But the process of forming the New Testament is a kind of long and involved thing that really only finalized in the mid- to late-fourth century, the mid to late 300s, but the set of four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, we can see Christians talking about already in the late 100s. In fact that Irenaeus we met, he's one of the first people who says you should, these are the four Gospels and this is it. So it was a complicated process. But in this case, it's probably due to both its association with Judas Iscariot who no one really liked very much, and its theological assertions which most Christians came to reject.

Nicholas Breyfogle

Wonderful. We've had several questions about whether the kind of slides and this presentation and the webinar itself will be available later on. I just want to say yes, indeed. We will send out and an email to everyone who was signed up with a link to the recording of this event, and so you'll be able to go back back through those at your leisure later on. We have a question from Emma Montgomery who'd like to know why would the Gnostics choose to use Judas as the contrast to Peter and the vehicle through which they would promote the secret knowledge of their own version of Christianity? Could they not have used another figure of Christianity or introduced their own?

David Brakke

Great question, Emma. Thank you so much. There are other Gnostic works from the same group that attribute their teachings to other authoritative figures. So Judas is not the kind of mascot for the Gnostics always. For example, one of their other major works is called, "The Secret Book According to John," by which they mean the apostle John, right. And another Gnostic work called, "The Reality of the Rulers," actually cites Paul, St. Paul, right. So they did look to other Gnostic sighted other people. Why, in this case, Judas? Well, I think Irenaeus tells us about the Gnostics who published Judas, that they actually valued and promoted other figures in the Bible in the Old Testament, like Cain. You know, Cain, who killed Abel, and was therefore kind of punished by the God of the Old Testament that they highlighted as virtuous and role models, characters like this. Because as you can imagine, because they see the God of the Old Testament as kind of a hostile God. They see figures in the Old Testament, that that God went after and was mean to if you want to put it that way, as, as good people, right? And so some of that is the same logic that carries over to Judas. Judas is vilified by other Christians, and therefore he must have a clue. But I think in the end, the other thing to add to this is simply they are trying to understand just as other Christians were, why did Judas do this? Why would, you know, betray Jesus? Why was this necessary? And and they felt as though rather than just being inspired by satan or taking money, Judas must have known what Jesus was really about. And that's why he did this necessary thing. So I think in the end, they don't want to, and it's very important in the Gospel, unlike some other kind of dialogue Gospels, Judas isn't promoted as the source of revelation for others. It's not like you should listen to this gospel because it comes from Judas. Instead, this is the information Judas receives in order to do what he needs to do, that is, to sacrifice the human being who bears Jesus. So he gets the information he needs, as do we by reading the Gospel. But I think that's what they're interested in. And so this is a great example of a kind of stream of interpretations of Judas that continued to the present day, in which people retell this story and think that Judas must have had motivations other than just being bad and wanting money. And, you know, if we had more time, it'd be fun to do a whole webinar on like Judas and contemporary Jesus movies at the 20th century. Because they often ascribe to Judas various, even noble motives, for what he did, and I think this is more in that tradition than it is holding up Judas as a model for whom we all should follow. Great question, though.

Nicholas Breyfogle

Thanks, David, we have several questions. We have in fact, lots of questions that have come in. So let's bring a couple together here that are looking at sort of the reception of the, of the gospel, how people responded to it. So we have a question about, do we have any sense of how the Orthodox Christians responded to this gospel? We have a question about is there any way to know how large a following this gospel had? And what what kept it from growing as large as more traditional Christian thinking? And then we have a question related to this? Is that are there? Are there other references to the Gospel of Judas between 180 CE, and 2006? Or was it really sort of lost for all these years? So just I think questions all around the sort of presence of this and in the broader culture and its reception.

David Brakke

Okay, so let's first talk about the survival of it as a text, right. And, obviously, no copy of the original Greek has survived, right? Which shows that at some point, Christians stopped copying it. Most likely, because it was no one wanted it. I mean, it was of no use. I mean, if it wasn't authoritative for your group, there was no, in antiquity to copy something was a big deal. You had to, you know, hire someone and buy the paper they have to do you know, it's a skill and so forth. So it's not like us, you know, taking something to a photocopy machine or making a PDF, right. It was a big deal. So, so part of that is just, you know, the people stopped using it. Now at some point someone translated it from Greek into Coptic, which is the last stage of the Egyptian language in Egypt, right. And, yeah, so that's how we have it. Let me say something about references to it. We've talked about Irenaeus in 180, right? The next reference to the Gospel of Judas doesn't come until the late 300s from a guy named Epiphanius, who also refers to Gnostic followers of Cain, of Cain and Abel, who publish the Gospel of Judas, and then there's a guy named Theiotter Cyrus who mentions it in the early 400s. And here's the thing, it's not quite clear whether they and they would have, they did not read Coptic. So if they knew it, they had to know it in Greek and so it means it would still have been circulating in Greek in the late 300s and early 400s. However, they don't say anything more about the Gospel of Judas than we read in Irenaeus. So we, it's very possible that they were just reading Irenaeus and repeating his information, you know, it's like, you know, we would repeat something we read in a book, okay. So that's the survival on references to it. And that's it, right? So our measure of how accepted it was by wider Christianity is its, you know, failure to survive, and so forth. How many people would have been interested in this, this is a real problem. Because of course, in the ancient world, we have no demographic information about anything. But the important thing to realize here is, in the 100s, the number of Christians was very, very, very small, right? Out of all the people in the Roman Empire. And so the subset of Christians who were into this idea must have also been very, very, very small, right. But on the flip side of that, that means that because there were so few Christians in this, you know, huge Roman Empire, they kind of knew about each other. Yeah. You know, they're a smaller group. And so they tend to fight to know what's going on. And yeah, so there was a lot of rejection for these kinds of ideas. But what could they do? They didn't run, they didn't have any coercive powers to do anything about this. So usually, it just meant they would break up into different groups, not talk to each other. The Gnostics would write books like the Gospel of Judas that said, You guys are wrong, right. And Irenaeus, when he mentions the Gospel of Judas, it's part of a whole book that's about how Christians like the Gnostics are themselves also wrong. So there was just a lot of fighting about this. And then it's in the 300s after Constantine becomes emperor, the Roman emperor, that Christians can be a little bit more effective in controlling what is taught, and so forth. But the gist of it is to say that, you know, there isn't a lot of surviving reactions to the Gospel of Judas specifically, but there's lots of surviving condemnation and invected against the ideas that you find in the Gospel of Judas.

Nicholas Breyfogle

Great, we have a lot of questions about the process of actually finding the text and also the sort of the, the structures of the text and the physical kind of make up of the text. Let me put those all together for you, hopefully, in a nice little package. So one of our audience asks, can you talk more about the context for the discovery of the manuscript? The combination of Coptic and Greek, religious, and mathematical texts is interesting. Are there other similar sites nearby or theories about the provenance? We had another question about who exactly found it and who has authenticated the text? We have a question about what material is the gospel written upon? And then we have questions about the structure of the Codex. If it follows similar patterns to other courtesies from from that time. 

David Brakke

Okay, I'm going to share my screen again so that we can look at go all the way back. Okay, so the place where it was found, as we said, is near Almenia. Here's the thing. The account of its discovery, which we think was in the late 1970s, is very murky. And the only book that really talks about it bases its description of the discovery on interviews with people, most of whom are given pseudonyms, and everyone else has pseudonyms. That's because of the kind of bad handling of it afterwards. So people don't want to be named. So the exact circumstances of its discovery, we think in a cave right, is not particularly well-known. Okay. Now, as I said, it was found with other books, it is this and the other books that were found are all papyrus, right, which is a paper material that is made from a plant. So the Gospel, the Codex, as it's called now, Codex Chacos, which you see here, has been radioactive carben dated, which gives a range of possible dates from about 250 to about 450. You know, it only can give a big range, right? But examination of the script and so on makes us pretty confident it comes from the 300s. It resembles other texts, we have no, because of the ill reported circumstances of the discovery, we have no real, we don't know the exact place. And so we have no archaeological context for it. Somewhat similar, but a little different as you've probably heard discovered it Nagamani in the middle of the 20th century, were 13 Codices that also contain works from Gnostic Christians, but also from other Christians and people who aren't Christian and are gnostic, and so forth. So that's a bunch, but you see the distance between these two places. So the whole thing does not survive. So we don't know how many pages in the end it had. One estimate is that it may have had as many as 180 pages, which would make it a pretty expensive book to produce, you can see how crumbly and everything it is, just to say in brief. You know, it spent years at least a decade, simply stuck in a safe deposit box in a bank on Long Island. An antiquities dealer in Ohio decided to preserve it by putting it in a freezer. And of course, this is organic material. So freezing and then thawing, you know, think about when you buy like lunch meat, ham at the grocery store, and then you freeze it, and you thaw it out and it's all wet, right? That's what happened with this. So it's all, I mean, the whole thing is just horrible. So we can't even reconstruct exactly how many pages it had. We know it had a total of at least five different texts in it because we have some of the other texts, right? Why would there be? I know these are lots of questions. Why would there be these other, like a mathematical text? Probably it was just some really educated person. And Egypt in the late ancient period in the fourth century was a bilingual society. People, many people, knew both Greek which was kind of the official language of business and commerce and so forth, and Coptic, which is kind of like the, you know, local language or whatever. And so a lot of people more educated especially would be  able to move between these languages, both Greek and Coptic, right. We could go into whole thing about then why are these things translated into Coptic? This is a fascinating question. Who might have owned this? We know the owner of or the person who commissioned because you had to say I want this Codex made and go to someone who could make it. We know the producer and the owner of the Codex was Christian because it has like crosses, decorative crosses on it and other kinds of indication of Christianess. Some people say these people must have been monks. But you know, there were lots of educated folks interested in reading things. So all of this is to say it's, uh, most of it is still a great mystery.

Exactly who owned this, why, even the extent, you know, we keep hoping that more fragments will turn up, you know, as they did in 2010. In fact, I, this book I just published, I was given the contract to do it in 2010. And they said, when are you going to turn it in, and I said, How about 2020? And they were like, 10 years? And I said, I just want to make sure no more fragments come out before I publish this book, or appear or surface or get discovered or whatever. And so finally, I had to write it. So now if new, you know, they may discover all new fragments tomorrow, that mean that everything I just said may not be correct, but I've tried to stick to that. So anyway, I'm sorry, that was a little bit longer than I should have been in that answer. But it's really interesting. But we don't know enough as we should about the the Codex itself.

Nicholas Breyfogle

David, I think I'm going to sneak in one more kind of little package of questions. And I'm going to try this. There's been multiple, there's multiple questions, and my apologies to those whose questions we're not going to get to. But we've had multiple questions about some of the ideas found found in this in this gospel. So and I'm going to put them all together even though they're not exactly related. But so one of our audience members asked what is the relationship between the Gnostics and the practice of Kabbalah, the idea of divine emanation seems rather similar. Another asks back then, were demons bad? Were angels and demons, the same concept? Did the disciples become evil demons? And then another is asking, would the Proto-orthodox, excuse me, have regarded the Houthis as the same as Hashem, or something altogether different?

David Brakke

Great questions. Let me be really quick. Yes, the Gnostic ideas look like Kabbalah and other strains of kind of Jewish mystical contemplation and esoteric stuff. We are not sure whether there's any kind of genetic connection, you know that there was a continuing stream of knowledge. Instead, I think they are independent. But similar responses to the entire problem of how can the ultimate God, a God who says through a burning bush to Moses, I am who I am, you know, and what is that? Right? How can that God be both known and unknowable at the same time, and the idea of kind of God emanating or having, you know, lower versions of God's self emerged from him is a way that both Jews and Christians in various forms came up with and that's kind of where the Trinity originates, is that idea. God had to emanate his son, so that we could know God? Okay. Angels and Demons? Great question. In antiquity, dimons, demons, for most people could be either good or bad. But for Jews and Christians, they rapidly became just bad. So it's unlikely. So when it's applied to Judas, it's probably a negative term in some way, right? Angels, it's an interesting thing, because in this gospel, the term angel is used for kind of good divine beings and bad divine beings, but see that, it has much more precedent in the New Testament. In the New Testament, there are references to good angels and references to evil angels. So it's a term that kind of refers to beings that exist, both demons and angels, between us and God. They're not God, they're not us. They're higher on the totem pole of ontology or being, right? But in Christian usage, demon becomes uniformly used in a negative way, while angels retains an ambiguity. That is, there can be bad angels. Right? You find this usage even in the New Testament, right. I think I did all that.

Nicholas Breyfogle

Thank you, David. I think we have put you through your paces. And we're through this hour. And so I want to thank you all very much for joining us today. I'm particularly grateful to Professor David Brakke for sharing his expertise, and his passion for history. Please join me in giving him a virtual round of applause. Thanks. Thank you very much, David. And we'd also like to thank the College of Arts and Sciences at Ohio State, especially Jade Lac and Maddy Kurma. And also the history department, the Harvey Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching, the Clio Society, the Bexley Public Library and the magazine Origins, Current Events in Historical Perspective for their sponsorship. And once again, thank you, our audience, for your excellent questions and ongoing connection to Ohio State. Stay safe and healthy, and we'll see you next time. Thank you very much. Bye.

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