In 2006 National Geographic made public a new manuscript of a document known as the Gospel of Judas whose origin was shrouded in mystery. Researchers and media quickly sought to discover more, creating a frenzy of information and fascination about the manuscript. What is the Gospel of Judas?
Many people are familiar with the New Testament character of Judas Iscariot. He was recorded as the disciple who betrayed Jesus and led enemies to arrest Him in exchange for 30 pieces of silver. Judas felt guilty afterwards and later hung himself. Yet the Gospel of Judas offers an alternative account that portrays Judas as betraying Jesus in obedience to the command of Jesus, making him look like less of a "bad guy" and rather as a faithful disciple.
Two important questions regarding the Gospel of Judas include the origin of the manuscript and its accuracy. The origin of the Gospel of Judas dates to the second century. In approximately AD 180, Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons wrote against the Gospel of Judas, calling it out as a contemporary writing and therefore indicating it was not written by the biblical Judas. No known copy of the Gospel of Judas existed until the 2004 revelation of a Coptic manuscript, which claims to have been stolen from Egypt in the 1970s, moved to Geneva, and made available to scholarship as early as 1983. The content of the manuscript was made public in 2006 and carbon dating has dated it to approximately 280 plus or minus 60 years.
Second, what is the accuracy of the manuscript? If the Gospel of Judas was spoken against when it was first released in the second century, there must have been some concern about its accuracy from the earliest time. The concern was certainly with its contents. Rather than revealing Judas as the betrayer, Judas is portrayed as the one disciple who understood the mission of Jesus. He obeyed the command of Jesus to betray Him. Later, Judas was stoned by the other disciples.
Of course, this contradicts numerous New Testament passages, changes the Gospel message, and portrays the apostles as murderers (or at least as enforcing capital punishment on Judas). Other different teachings in the Gospel of Judas include that only some people have a soul and that the death of Jesus was not required as a sacrifice, but rather allowed Jesus to escape humanity and return to the "luminous cloud."
These ideas flatly conflict with and change central teachings of the New Testament. It is quite understandable that the early church leaders rejected the Gospel of Judas and the writing did not have more widespread influence in the church's history. While the manuscript offers many important opportunities for research, it is not a Gospel nor should it be taken as a literal account of history.
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