The portrayal of Jesus in the Gospel of Judas

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In the Gospel of Judas (hereafter GJ), Judas makes an important confession about the identity of Jesus, saying: “I know who you are and from what place you have come. You came from the immortal Aeon of Barbelo, the one who sent you is he whose name I am not worthy to speak” (GJ 35:15–20; translations of GJ are taken from DeConick 2007). Thus reads one of the most important statements regarding the identity of Jesus in GJ. The purpose of this article is to examine the portrayal of Jesus in GJ. While a great deal of attention has been given to the identity of Judas, less work has been done on the construction of Jesus in GJ.

The study commences with a short overview of the discovery of GJ, as well as its publication and the accompanying media sensationalism at its release. Thereafter, GJ is discussed within the context of Sethian Gnosticism, the form of Gnosticism represented by GJ, with special attention to how the cosmology of GJ agrees with and differs from the cosmology of other Sethian texts, such as the Secret Revelation of John. It is shown that GJ displays the fundamental traits of Sethian Gnosticism, but that it also departs from some of these in some respects. This discussion serves as a basis for the subsequent examination pertaining to the portrayal of Jesus in GJ. The article first examines the mythological identity of Jesus as the one who comes from the eternal realm of Barbelo. Thereafter, the construction of Jesus as a laughing teacher-prophet is investigated, with emphasis on the use of irony and tragedy as literary techniques in GJ which colours the identities of both Jesus and Judas. Finally, the study views the presentation of Jesus as being in opposition to that of the proto-Orthodox church.

GJ is part of a branch of Gnosticism known as Sethian Gnosticism. While care needs to be taken when using the term and describing the phenomenon of Gnosticism (see Williams 1996; King 2005; Brakke 2010; Schmid 2018), it is evident that GJ conforms to the main outlines of the Sethian Gnostic myth as one would find, for instance, in the Secret Revelation of John. In this myth, there is a supreme trinity of the Great Invisible Spirit (Father), the Mother Barbelo, who is the representation of the thought of the Spirit, and the Autogenês, the Self-Generated One. From the Autogenês come forth the four great Luminaries and their accompanying aeons. The aeons are occupied by the ethereal Adam, Seth, and the generation of Seth. The fourth aeon of Eleleth is where Sophia lives. In some versions of the myth it is Sophia who attempts to contemplate the Invisible Spirit without permission, which then leads to the creation of Ialdabaoth, the malevolent creator-god. Ialdabaoth creates the material world and also Adam and Eve (first as a unified androgyne). Through various interventions by Barbelo, however, the true human couple is never lost to the ethereal realm of the Luminaries. The essence of Barbelo is transferred to Seth and his generation, who embodied the ideal Gnostic figure. GJ conforms broadly to this myth, but regarding the identity of Jesus there are some ambiguities. For instance, GJ does not explicitly associate Jesus with the Autogenês as is found in the Secret Revelation of John. There is also a puzzling section in 52:5–6 where the first translators reconstructed the text to indicate that Seth and Jesus are part of the 12 angels of the 12 archons of the underworld. DeConick (2007:85) has argued, rather, that the lacuna in 52:6 that is reconstructed as Seth should actually be Atheth, and that Christ should actually be “the Good One” (from chrêstos). DeConick’s view is quite plausible, although the ambiguities and even confusion (as Turner 2009:100 points out) in the mythological section of GJ make it difficult to be certain. Mythologically the author views Jesus as coming from Barbelo, but he seems to show much ambiguity as to where Jesus fits into the Sethian cosmology.

Jesus is not only constructed in mythological terms. He is also portrayed as the laughing teacher-prophet of irony in GJ. Jesus often laughs in GJ, but the laughing Jesus is ironic and even tragic. Jesus laughs at the lack of knowledge of his disciples. The irony and tragedy lie in the fact that the disciples, who are supposed to be his closest confidants, know neither Jesus nor themselves. It is ironic that the figure closest to Jesus in GJ is Judas, who is also represented as the thirteenth demon. Only the demon knows who Jesus truly is. Jesus is, moreover, also depicted as a major opponent of the proto-Orthodox church, which is represented by the 12 disciples. The sacraments of the proto-Orthodox church are depicted as horrific human sacrifices that falsely take place in the name of Jesus, but are actually dedicated to Ialdabaoth. In this way, the author constructs the identity of Jesus in contrast to whom the proto-Orthodox church believes Jesus to be. While they think they worship Jesus, they actually worship the evil gods Ialdabaoth and Saklas.

In GJ, if one reads it as a parody, Jesus is therefore portrayed as a tragic figure, similar to Judas. He is a teacher who has disciples who do not understand him, and who actually confuse him with Ialdabaoth. His closest disciple is a demon who eventually betrays him unto death. He shares the true gnosis, but it is to the benefit of no one. The generation of Seth seems constantly at a distance in GJ. Jesus visits them only sporadically.

Not only does GJ demonstrate the varieties of early Christian views of Jesus, but it also shows how these views – like the views of those who portray Jesus in some ways today – are informed by theology, cosmology, social and cultural contexts, and psychological factors.

Keywords: Codex Tchacos; early Christianity; Gnosticism; gospel; Gospel of Judas; Jesus; Judas; Sethianism


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Die uitbeelding van Jesus in die Evangelie van Judas

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  • An excellent piece of work! A very difficult concept brilliantly formulated and well explained.

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