The Gospel of Judas, which disappeared before the 4th century and was discovered sometime in the 1970s in Al Minya in Egypt takes the story of Judas as the betrayer and turns it upside down, similar to what Malayalam novelist M T Vasudevan Nair has done many times. According to this Gospel, Judas did not betray Jesus for money, but because Jesus asked him to.
Also in this Gospel, written in Greek by someone who revered Jesus, Judas is the favorite disciple to whom Jesus imparts secret teachings. Contrary to the teachings of other Christian texts, Jesus came to save the world, predicted his own death and used Judas as an instrument in that process.
This book, published by National Geographic, is written by Herb Krosney, who first alerted the National Geographic Society about the existence of the document and convinced them to publish it. Besides narrating the history of early Christianity and the significance of this new Gospel, the book also explains the 30 year journey of the fragile papyrus from Egypt to the offices of National Geographic.
This Gospel written in the century that followed Jesus’ life gives fresh insight into the evolution of early Christianity like what the Nag Hammadi codices revealed. The thirteen Nag Hammadi codices, again translated from Greek to Copt, contained texts that inspired the Gnostic movement. Gnostics — religious mystics who proclaimed knowledge and not belief in death and resurrection of Jesus as the way to salvation — expanded beyond the teachings of Jesus, were highly intelligent and used symbolism which were difficult to understand.
Following the death of Jesus, his disciples were trying to make sense of the event. Some believed that he died for their sins while some others had different interpretations. Before the early second century, Christianity did not have a definitive faith or Bible and it was a time when numerous Gospels (besides the Canonical ones), secret teachings, myths and poems were being circulated. The thirty or so Gospels agreed on the outline of the story of Jesus, but disagreed on specific facts or the sequence of events.
The disagreements with beliefs led to conflicts and Ireneus, the Bishop of Lugdunum ( in France) — the man who should be credited for inventing present day Christianity — decided to act. Though he lived quite far away from the scene of action, he noted that Christianity was full of energy and the influence was spreading all over the world. He declared that only four Gospels would be acceptable, wrote a five volume work titled, Against Heresies: Refutation and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So-Called, and pursued those who committed heresy. One of the Gospels he refuted by name was the Gospel of Judas.
Imagine if someone took the Bhagavd Gita and mandated that only Bhakti Yoga is acceptable and the rest are all heresy. According to the Gnostics, you don’t need intermediaries like priests to reach God and apparently the priests and bishops were not happy since they would lose their powerful middleman job. Soon the Gnostic gospels started disappearing because scribes stopped copying them since there were no customers for it.
Thanks to the work of Irenaeus and similar people like St. Athanasius, all those Gospels, including the Gospel of Judas, were not mentioned by anyone from the third century onwards. Yet one copy of it, a Copt translation survived, and we get to know much about the history of that period. Carbon dating has shown that the specific papyrus was copied forty or sixty years after Irenaeus condemned it, right in the middle of Early Christian Era, thus presenting a fascinating picture of a sect that believed that Jesus ordered his own betrayal.
Besides providing the context for appreciating the Gospel of Judas, Krosney also describes the teachings that were considered heretic. Even the name, the Gospel of Judas, is shocking to people who have been taught for ages that Judas is a sinner who betrayed Jesus. In this book Jesus says that death is no tragedy, nor is it required to bring forgiveness of sins. Jesus laughs, both at his disciples and at the absurdities in life and requests Judas to help him sacrifice the man that clothes him.
Herb Krosney shows what a lively society the early Christians had in terms of openness of debate and the co-existence of competing ideologies. In the Gospel, Jesus is a teacher who imparts knowledge and not a person who died for his sins. While “sin” and removal of “sin” has become the core focus of Christianity now, the Gnostics believed that the problem in human life is not sin, but ignorance and it should be addressed through knowledge and not faith.
Vasishta tells Rama in Yoga Vasishta (Story of Vitahavya), “Self-knowledge alone bestows delight on you. A man of self-knowledge alone lives. Hence, gain self-knowledge, O Rama. If one has achieved even a bit of control over the mind by self-enquiry, such a person has attained the fruit of his life”. It is as if Gnostics had read Vasishta’s teachings.
The need according to the Gospel is to listen to the words of wisdom and become aware of the divine light within which is again very similar to what Vasishta tells Rama in Yoga Vasishta. Vasishta uses the word Brahman, while Jesus says that there is a transcendent deity so exalted that no finite term can describe it accurately. Once Jesus mentions that “the bodies will die, but their souls will be alive and they will be taken up”, which is what the sage Yajnavalkya taught another sage Jaratkarava Artabhaga in Brhadaranya Upanishad (3.2).
Irenaeus and Athanasius and the rest removed the quest of knowledge as a goal and replaced it with blind faith in Jesus. Their countless evangelical followers parrot those lines and try to save others by conversion. If only they knew their history.