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How I First Learned About the Gospel of Judas Iscariot

Over the past few weeks I’ve had a thread dealing with Judas Iscariot and another thread dealing with claims from the second century that Christians were highly immoral (sexual reprobates, murderers, and cannibals).  Or at least that some Christian heretics were.  As it turns out, these two threads are closely related in a way one would not expect – at least in a way I never expected until I got involved with the “Gospel of Judas” that was discovered in recent times.  I posted on this many years ago but it would be interesting to do so again.

This will take several posts.  I begin with how I first found out about the Gospel of Judas, back when experts in early Christianity knew virtually nothing at all about a Gospel of Judas.

In the Fall of 2004 I was in my study minding my own business (well, talking with a graduate student) when the phone rang.   It was a woman named Sheila, whom I had known for years.  Sheila had sponsored a number of archaeological digs in Israel, and I knew her because of my long-term involvement with the Biblical Archaeology Society, for whom I had given lectures periodically (even though I’m not an archaeologist–my lectures were generally on biblical manuscripts and topics related to biblical archaeology, with an emphasis on “biblical”).  We talked for a bit – she had never called me before, so I wasn’t sure why she was calling to chat now – and then she asked me “What do you know about the Gospel of Judas”?

Well, the answer was short and sweet.  I knew next to nothing about the Gospel of Judas.  I told her that we didn’t have a Gospel of Judas, but that it had been mentioned by some of the early church fathers as a heretical book.  But since we didn’t have it, we really didn’t know much about it.  She seemed disappointed, thanked me for the information, and we hung up.

I thought that the question were strange, and so I decided I’d better look it up to see what I could find out.  I remembered that the Gospel of Judas was mentioned in the writings of the church father Irenaeus.  It turns out that this is our best ancient discussion of the text, even if it is almost certainly not particularly reliable.  I did a search, found the passage, and refreshed my memory.

Irenaeus was …

If this has piqued your interest, keep reading.  It gets way more interesting soon.  To read you need only belong to the blog; to belong you need only join.  There’s small membership fee — about fifty cents a week — but you get a flippin’ unbelievable amount for that.  And every cent goes to charity!

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When I Learned the Gospel of Judas Had Been Discovered
Slurs Against Religious Opponents and Makin’ Stuff Up



  1. Avatar
    fishician  July 20, 2020

    in re bad guys being the good guys: It seems to me I’ve read of Jewish philosophers who praised Adam and Eve because they chose knowledge over life. Or am I confusing that with a Christian Gnostic group, perhaps? Either way, it’s an interesting concept: choosing between eternal life with blind obedience versus temporary life with knowledge and free will. Which would you choose?

  2. Avatar
    Eskil  July 21, 2020

    Do you use the law of Moses to refer the 10 commandments or the 613 commandments in general?

  3. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  July 21, 2020

    The more I read about Gnosticism, the more it sounds like a more sophisticated version of polytheism. With only a few changes of emphasis, a Gnostic could be a pagan and vice-versa. One difference: Gnosticism puts the chief being at the top of a pyramid of beings somehow emanating from the chief being. But the chief being is very, very, far removed from us. The pleroma seems to be like a continuum. The number of divine beings is an uncountable infinity. Something like the infinity of real numbers. That would make worship complicated!

  4. Avatar
    EricLL  July 21, 2020

    There’s something that’s always confused me about Gnostic Christianity. I realize it shows the diversity of early Christianity, but if many Gnostic groups were so opposed to everything in the (proto-Orthodox?) Christian doctrine, why were they Christians at all? This is especially jarring with the Cainites. They flip the entire Bible on its head, every good guy is a bad guy and vice-versa, except Jesus still gets to be a good guy who teaches Judas the truth? Was this a tactic to win converts from and persuade other Christians that they were worshiping the right figure, but for the wrong reasons? Thanks for the posts.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 21, 2020

      It’s a good question. But the answer is complicated. When these groups were around there was not any accepted Bible or doctrine that defined someone as Christian. Both teh Bible and acceptable doctrine emerged *out* of the arguments among the groups, so that what we think of as Christianity today was up for grabs in their day.

  5. Avatar
    NTDeist  July 21, 2020

    I love this! Thank you for sharing the background on how you learn about the information you know. Your work is like a detective – you gather evidence and make conclusions based on the facts at hand. I’ve always enjoyed how you present your evidence and your conclusions. I look forward to the rest of this story!

  6. sschullery
    sschullery  July 21, 2020

    It sounds like the Gnostics were not necessarily linked to Christianity, but could have been another crackpot Jewish cult had Jesus never existed. I hope you’ll clarify.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 21, 2020

      I’d say lots and lots of bona fide religions sound crackpot to those who hear about them for the first time! But there were many Gnostic groups who were definitely Christian, in that they believed that Christ provided the way of salvation. But not in the way that other Christians (including those that defeated them) thought.

      • sschullery
        sschullery  July 22, 2020

        Might there have been pre-Jesus Gnostics? Kind of like the Jews, waiting for their messiah?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 22, 2020

          For many years that was the standard view, that Gnosticism arose prior to Christianity. But it has fallen by the wayside; I don’t know of any scholar of Gnosticism who thinks that any more, though there were certainly some groups (Hermeticists, e.g.) that had some similarities. Today I’d say most experts think that the Gnostic movements were most especially influenced by Middle Platonism.

  7. Avatar
    janmaru  July 21, 2020

    Does the story end with a monk buried with a collection of different books, with a partially preserved Gospel of Judas Iscariot copied into it?
    Probably the man wanted to leave this world with his most valuable possession and be preserved with it. Theology seems to dwell very well in graves.
    Also, it gives me the idea of being buried with a complete telephone book.
    At the end of the time, it would be easier to make wake-up calls.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 22, 2020

      Nope,doesn’t end that way.

      • Avatar
        janmaru  July 22, 2020

        Gosh! My star led me astray.
        Don’t you think that Gnosticism solves brilliantly the dichotomy material body/soul, knowledge/ignorance, and God versus Evil more than what later came to be known as the teachings of the “true” church?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 24, 2020

          Personally I don’t buy either explanation, but I myself don’t subscribe to the idea of a divine/supernatural realm.

          • Avatar
            janmaru  July 24, 2020

            Of course, nobody believes in Santa Claus when she/he comes to age.
            The point here seems more: if there was a sled of reindeers helping Santa how fast they would have to go to cover the whole world.
            Technicality is like this, a focused look at things, a microscopic attempt to go beyond the atomic world, a look that becomes so refined that what is left is almost nothing.
            My question was a historical one. I asked why a hard Hellenized theology like the one carried on by the Gnostic, so dense, so inventive, so colorful would loose at the end. For instance, if we look at some dogma like the Virgin Mary in the Catholic world compared to the idea of a Sophia.

  8. Avatar
    dankoh  July 22, 2020

    Slightly O/T: I agree that it’s rare to get a true picture of someone’s position from his enemies, but would you say that Origen did try to give an honest presentation of Celsus’s arguments against Christianity?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 22, 2020

      Yes indeed. He often quotes him verbatim, and there are solid reasons for thinking he has quoted him correctly. (I wrote an article once showing that the citations of the Gospels in Origen’s quotations of Celsus differed in wording in places from Origen’s own quotations of teh same passages, with both forms of the text known from surviving manuscripts, and that in some instances Origen didn’t take note of the difference and accused Celsus of interpreting a text that didn’t make much sense from Origen’s own form of the text but made good sense from Celsus’s; that shows he was quoting Celsus directly, not putting words on his lips)

  9. Avatar
    vallancemjv@gmail.com  July 22, 2020

    I love Gnosticism. To me it makes so much sense.

  10. Avatar
    moose  July 23, 2020

    One of the heroes of the Cainanites should have been Esau, but Esau is absent – or is he really?
    When the Lord’s Supper was instituted, Jesus asked the disciples to go to a city where they would meet a man carrying a jar of water: Follow him to the owner of the house!
    This was a prophecy of Jesus following the pattern of Rebekah’s selection when she came carrying a jar of water: Follow Rebekah to the owner of the house, which in this case is the house of Isaac.
    It was in Isaac’s house that Esau sold his birthright. Esau sold the birthright for some bread and some red lentil stew.

    John 13:30 As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.

    Genesis 25:34 Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left.

    • Avatar
      moose  July 23, 2020

      Luke 22: 24-27 A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. 25 Jesus said to them, “the greatest among you should be like the YOUNGEST, and the one who rules like the one who serves. 27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

      There are many prophecies concerning the fate of Esau / Edom in the Tanakh, including this one.

      Isaiah 34:5-6 My sword has drunk its fill in the heavens;
      see, it descends in judgment on Edom,
      the people I have totally destroyed.
      6 The sword of the Lord is bathed in blood,
      it is covered with fat—
      the blood of lambs and goats,
      fat from the kidneys of rams.
      For the Lord has a sacrifice in Bozrah
      and a great slaughter in the land of Edom.

  11. Avatar
    clerrance2005  July 24, 2020

    Prof Ehrman,

    Thanks for the post.

    1. Contrasting the views of Irenaeus in his writings against what came to light by the discovery of the Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi, do these significantly contradict or corroborate the writings of Irenaeus et al.?

    2. If they do, what do you think is the motivation behind why early church fathers would want to depict the Gnostics in such an unpleasant manner?

    Thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2020

      1. Yes, in some key ways. Most especially they show that the Gnostics Irenaeus attacked were not licentious but quite ascetic. 2. They were afraid the Gnostics would get a huge following adn it would destroy they church.

  12. Avatar
    moose  July 25, 2020

    Matt 27:59-60 Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, 60 and placed it in his OWN new tomb that he had cut out of the rock.

    The story of when Moses struck the rock so that the Israelites got water is told in both Exodus 16 and Numbers 20. In Numbers 20 it is said that Aaron died right after the event.
    According to some midrash and aggadah the pillar of cloud which proceeded in front of Israel’s camp also disappeared at Aaron’s death. Aaron went to the summit of Mount Hor, where the rock suddenly opened before him and a beautiful cave lit by a lamp presented itself to his view. Moses said, “Take off your priestly raiment and place it upon your son Eleazar! Aaron did as commanded; and they entered the cave, where was prepared a bed around which angels stood. “Go lie down upon thy bed, my brother.»
    When the Israelites cried in bewilderment, “Where is Aaron?” angels were seen carrying Aaron’s bier through the air.

    • Avatar
      moose  July 25, 2020

      Joseph of Arimathea is also closely associated with the legend of the Holy Grail. This may be due to a special responsibility Moses imposes on Aaron.

      Exodus 16:33-34 (lxx) And Moses said to Aaron, Take a golden cup, and cast into it one full homer of manna; and thou shalt lay it up before God, to be kept for your generations, 34 as the Lord commanded Moses: and Aaron laid it up before the testimony to be kept.

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