The Gospel of Judas is an oft misunderstood (even abused) Gnostic text which portrays Judas not in a positive light, but in a radically negative light. As a matter of fact, Judas in this Gospel, is intended to represent the early Catholic Church, and it was written from the perspective of Gnostic detractors – indeed, polemicists. Despite that (or perhaps because of it) I think this Gospel has very useful apologetic value for Catholics. For one thing, the detractors attacking the early Catholic Church give us a rough sketch of just how the early Catholic Church looked, and that will include such things as speaking about their Eucharist as a sacrifice from very early on.
The opening scene of the Gospel is quite telling, as it says the following:
his disciples, gathered together and seated and offering a prayer of thanksgiving [Eucrekharisti] over the bread, he [Christ] laughed.
Here, Christ’s laughter is a tell-tale sign of docetic theological influence, as it was first in docetic theology that the theme of Christ’s laughter first reared it’s head (I’m composing another post about that topic for the future, but I’ll just ask readers to trust me on this for the time being). This docetic theme will be born out in this gospel before the end, as will shortly be seen. After this immediate opening scene, the disciples turn to Christ, indignant that he is laughing at them for performing the Eucharist just as he had taught them to. Christ responds saying:
I am not laughing at you. You are not doing this because of your own will but because it is through this that your God [will receive] thanksgiving.
A footnote in the second edition says “The God described above as the God of the disciples is not the exalted deity above but rather the ruler of this world.” This is important to keep in mind. Shortly following this, the Gospel of Judas has Judas’ profession of faith (equivalent to the Petrine confession in Matthew 16):
Judas said to him, “I know who you are and where you have come from. You have come from the immortal aeon of Barbelo. I am not worthy to utter the name of the one who has sent you.
Then Christ’s response comes, and with it the Gnostic paradox:
I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom, not so that you will go there, but you will grieve a great deal.
Here, Christ tells Judas that he will give him knowledge (Gnosis) of the mysteries. However, in Gnostic soteriology, having the knowledge of these mysteries, such as knowing that one has the divine spark and must return to the pleroma, IS salvation (or at least effects salvation). Yet here, there is a tension: the mysteries will be revealed to Judas so that he shall ‘know’ them, yet this will not be unto salvation, for he will not enter the kingdom, but will grieve a great deal.
The Apostles later see a vision of twelve priests at the temple offering sacrifices, and Christ says to them:
It is you who are presenting the offerings on the altar you have seen. That one is the God you serve, and you are the twelve men you have seen. And the cattle that are brought in are the sacrifices you have seen – that is, the many people you lead astray before that altar.
The language here is such an obvious allusion to the early Mass that it is hard to miss, and the criticism is hardly any more subtle. The orthodox conviction of the early Catholic Church was precisely that:
We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat.
In response, Christ in the Gospel of Judas calls the ecclesial Church, represented here by the twelve apostles, to cease Eucharist as a sacrifice, since it is leading people astray, and it represents a kind of backslide into the Jewish roots which must be avoided. Christ picks out “those who say, ‘we are like angels’” as being in gravest error (this is clearly a caricature of Bishops – see 1 Cor. 11:10, Rev 2:1 et al). He calls them to:
Stop sacrificing… over the altar, since they are over your stars and your angels and have already come to their conclusion there.
Next, an interesting note; Judas calls Jesus ‘Rabbi’ which possibly indicates an affinity between this Gospel and the Gospel of John, in which Jesus was often called Rabbi more often than all the synoptics put together (see John 1:38, 49; 3:2, 26; 4:31; 6:25; 9:2; 11:8). Yet, in this Gospel Judas is presented as wholly damned, and even as the incarnation of Satan (for narrative purposes). In John’s Gospel Jesus, in his high priestly prayer of John 17, actually calls Judas the ‘son of perdition’ (John 17:12), a phrase which was used by St. Paul (see 2 Thessalonians 2:3) to designate the anti-Christ (the term ‘anti-Christ in place of ‘son of perdition’ only appears in the Johannine letters (1 John 2:18, 2 John 1:7), but not in Revelation, nor in the Gospel of John, and I have argued in a paper elsewhere that we ought to understand this Johannine use of the term to be borrowed from Pauline theology – thus Jesus is here calling Judas the Anti-Christ in the Gospel of John). Next we will find in the Gospel of Judas something similar happens to Judas which will offer more evidence that the author of the Gospel of Judas was influenced by John’s Gospel.
Coming back to the narrative, we find that Judas appeals to Jesus, begging Christ to listen to him. Yet, Jesus responds thus:
He laughed and said to him, “you thirteenth daimon, why do you try to hard?
Thus, Judas is here called a Demon (earlier commentators suggested that the sense of ‘daimon’ used here was perhaps positive, but a more careful reading suggests that isn’t plausible, as Scholars today are beginning to realize). So Judas is receiving all this revelation, but it seems to forecast only suffering and sin for him, and he exclaims:
What is the advantage that I have received? For you have set me apart from that generation
Here, ‘that generation’ refers to the generation which will enter the kingdom. Jesus tells him in response: “you will not ascend on high.” After a long excursus on the creation of the cosmos, Christ then refers to the sinfulness of the Catholic church trotting out a very common Gnostic criticism that marriage being recognized as an institution is itself a great sin – thus: “They will fornicate in my name and slay their children“. This distaste of the physical body is consonant with docetism, and indeed the author comes out of the closet entirely with his/her docetic theology in the next passage when Christ declares to Judas:
But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man who bears me.
Here, ‘the man who bears me’ is understood to be ‘Jesus’ as opposed to Christ. This is how docetism understands that episode on the cross where Jesus exclaims “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me” – the God who is forsaking him and leaving him is ‘Christ, who laughs at those who think they can hurt him or kill him’.
Look, you have been told everything. Lift up your eyes and look at the cloud and the light within it and the stars surrounding it. And the star that leads the way is your star.”
So Judas lifted up his eyes and saw the luminous cloud, and he [Christ] entered it.
Then the Gospel ends this way:
And they [the scribes] approached Judas and said to him “what are you doing here? You are Jesus’ disciple.” And he answered them as they wished. And Judas received the money and handed him over to them.
Thus the Gospel ends, and it ends with this curious Gnostic paradox, where Judas was predestined to damnation, Christ laughing at him, and even while Judas has all Gnosis of the divine mysteries at hand, he is perpetually, irrevocably damned. When read as a commentary on the early Catholic Church’s sacramental theology (particularly here with respect to the Eucharist as a sacrifice of the mass), it furnishes the Catholic apologist with some very persuasive evidence for the early Christians having not only a Catholic Mass (we already know that) but an entirely Catholic theology of the Eucharist.