By Brett Strohl
I’d imagine during the Easter season most normal people tend to contemplate the resurrection, but for some reason my mind always starts wandering toward one of our more controversial texts, The Gospel of Judas. I suppose there are a lot of reasons for that, but for one thing, I’ve always really hated unfinished stories, and until the unlikely event that a complete copy of the gospel is discovered, Judas will always be a mystery, and even at that point a complete text still might only offer more questions than answers.
But beyond the frustration of not having a complete version of the text, the portions we do have are so bizarre that it’s somehow managed to lodge itself so uncomfortably in my mind, since I first read it over ten years ago, that I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m not going to be hyperbolic and say it’s, “The weirdest Christian text ever written,” (there are some seriously insane ones out there), but the narrative and tone of the Gospel of Judas are still unlike anything else I’ve ever read.
For those unfamiliar with the gospel, the text discusses some visions the disciples have, including one of them offering of children and other believers as blood sacrifices. Christ informs the disciples that they are in fact the ones leading people to slaughter in His name. After that Christ pulls Judas aside and the text continues to become even more bizarre. He describes to Judas a quite baffling description of spiritual structure of the heavens and the world; one that is full of multitudes of emanations and arcane numerical details. Christ then ends his lecture with a final cryptic curse for Judas: “Lift up your eyes and look at the cloud and the light within it and the stars surrounding it. The star that leads the way is your star.” The text ends with Judas betraying Jesus to the high priests, and for all the disciples’ grotesque visions of their own betrayal, the more literal betrayal of Christ is so unceremonious that it is basically an afterthought.
Tonally the text has always really bothered me. It’s extremely nasty. And while I’ve read more vulgar Christian writing (I’m looking at you Apocalypse of Peter), it’s largely the venom Christ is doling out to his own disciples that bothers me. It’s not uncommon at all for Christian texts to portray Jesus as hurling sassy insults towards his enemies, but the vitriol of the Christ in this gospel is never tempered by anything remotely redeeming. Christ helps no one in this text in any way whatsoever, and it’s basically as if He just keeps showing up over and over with the singular task of making his own disciples’ lives worse. Add that to the depiction of Him continually laughing at the disciples strikes me as condescending in a hateful way; completely unlike the Christ who chides his disciples in order to teach them to be better people.
Even more bothersome still, I recently stumbled upon a newer translation of the text by David Brakke, which I believe makes Christ’s role in the gospel feel even more sinister: “I will tell you the mysteries of the kingdom, not so that you will go there, but so that you will be much grieved.” Contrast this curse dealing Jesus with the liberator Christ of “The Apocalypse of John,” who reveals the structure of the universe in order to save man from it. If there is another gospel where Jesus or another aeon, delivers Gnosis solely as a curse, I’m not familiar with it.
All this leads me to wonder, just where in the hell does the reader fit into this narrative? The theme of the text is of course betrayal, and when it comes to the differences between Judas and the rest of the disciples, there isn’t much distinction when it comes to the betrayal department. When it comes to Christian texts the reader usually follows the perspective of the hero, or the people God is saving, but in this text, the reader isn’t aligned with the perspective of Christ, and God doesn’t save anyone at all. The reader of the Gospel of Judas follows the experience and perspective of the betrayers, and the people God is cursing. Also, it seems like emotionally the reader is aligned with the confusion of the disciples who find out that it is they who are leading people to slaughter, and the dejection of Judas who finds out that his fate has been sealed. Combine this perspective with how angry and venomous the text is, it feels like the author is exasperated with the state of everything, and is basically giving everyone one giant polemic middle finger. I certainly can’t claim to know for sure, but I’m starting to suspect that it may actually be the reader who is being symbolically portrayed as the betrayer of Christ, and if on the offhand chance that guess is accurate I certainly can’t think of another text that is an all-out attack against its very own readers.
But wild speculation isn’t exactly quite the real reason I wanted to write about the Gospel of Judas. I actually wanted to weigh in on the controversy that has surrounded the text since it was first translated. Initially, the National Geographic team published the translation of the text and concluded that Judas was, in fact, the hero of the text. Apil DeConick followed up with her own translation and fantastic book: “The Thirteenth Apostle,” arguing the exact opposite, that Judas was in fact as evil as ever. I tend to think DeConick’s reading of the text is much more accurate. Gnostic writers, after all, weren’t just inverting symbols for fun, because if they were contorting characters and symbols it was for a very calculated theological reason. They certainly haven’t made Judas the hero here, just because they felt like being ironic.
So was Judas the bad guy? I don’t think so; not exactly. I think basically everyone I’ve read who has weighed in on this question is missing out on the meaning of one extremely important line, which is the one verse that has always stuck out to me more than any other. When I first read the text this passage stood out to me like it was written in giant flashing red neon lights, and I firmly believe it holds the answer to this debate: Jesus tells Judas, “For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” Notice Jesus isn’t saying, “You will sacrifice me,” it’s the “man who clothes me.” In Gnosticism, there is an enormous distinction between matter and spirit. Spirit is real and eternal, while matter is a temporary illusion. And remember this is the condescending asshole version of Jesus that is revealing all of this stuff as a curse. Christ isn’t bemoaning the fact that he is being sacrificed and betrayed. I believe he’s actually saying: “You couldn’t betray me no matter what you do!” So anyway, there you have it: Judas Iscariot neither good nor bad, just ugly and impotent. And for all the gospel’s negativity and nastiness, I think this is the actual main thrust of the Gospel of Judas, and for me at least, probably it’s only positive message: The forces of the world are impotent to betray the true message of Christ whether that betrayal is by accident, as with the disciples, or willful as it is with Judas.
Brett Strohl is a psychiatric nurse from Muncie Indiana, with obsessive interests in anime, horror, and esoteric religious practices.
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