“If it were not for hopes, the heart would break.” So wrote the Englishman Thomas Fuller (1608–1661), a clergyman and historian. We all cling to hope. We want to believe that the future holds the best. That’s why we root for the underdog, why we like happy endings. If there’s the possibility that the worst villain might be rehabilitated, that the smallest David might defeat the biggest Goliath, that the ugliest duckling might become a swan, then perhaps there’s hope for us.
But the biblical narrative leaves no hope for Judas.
The Bible presents the crucifixion as a study in dramatic contrasts: life and death, fidelity and betrayal, light and shadow. All four biblical gospels paint a portrait of Judas in the darkest shades. John flatly calls Judas a thief.1 Of all the disciples, Judas alone conspired with Jesus’ enemies, selling his master for the price of a slave.2 Using a treacherous kiss, Judas designated Jesus for arrest. Later, overcome with remorse, he returned the blood money, but his accomplices dismissed him with, “What do we care? That’s your problem!”3 A betrayer himself betrayed, in despair he committed a grisly suicide.
Of all the major characters in this drama, Judas troubles us the most, even though he isn’t the only one who mistreated Jesus. All the disciples fled when Jesus was arrested. Peter denied Him three times. Cowardly Pilate saw Jesus’ innocence but abandoned Him to the mob. And Jesus refused even to answer the corrupt and dissipated King Herod.
But Judas troubles us because he spent more than three years with Jesus, and still he never really understood Him. Judas troubles us because his treachery set in motion events that led to salvation for others but meant eternal condemnation for himself. As Jesus warned, “That man who . . . turns traitor to the Son of Man—better never to have been born than do this!”4
Judas troubles us because his story leaves us without hope. So it’s only natural that we want to rewrite the story, to somehow find hope for Judas, hope for our own darkest moments.
Someone did just that sometime in the late second century or early in the third century A.D. He called his 26-page manuscript “The Gospel of Judas.” Of course, Judas had died long before. Whoever wrote it, it wasn’t Judas. But the author spun an intriguing tale that tells of a secret, conspiratorial relationship between Jesus and Judas. In this account, Judas takes first place among the disciples, closest to Jesus. And because of this closeness, which no other disciple shares, Jesus requests that Judas betray him. Rather than being a villain, or a tragic figure, Judas emerges as a hero! This “gospel” satisfies our desire to find hope, even for Judas.
It’s possible that Irenaeus, an early Christian leader, read a book with the same title, because he mentioned it by name about A.D. 186. We don’t know if it was the same book. Like Irenaeus, the early Christian church rejected the Gospel of Judas, and eventually it vanished—all except one copy, preserved, with several other documents, on papyrus. And that papyrus spent the next 17 centuries hidden away. Meanwhile, the power of the New Testament narrative transformed the world, so that all of history came to be dated in relation to the birth of Jesus. And during those centuries, generations of readers wrestled with the fate of Judas.
Even as the ancient papyrus remained undisturbed during the twentieth century, two novelists explored the role of Judas. Mikhail Bulgakov, in The Master and Margarita, solved the dilemma of Judas’ behavior by portraying him as an outsider who turns Jesus in strictly for the money. According to his tale, Judas didn’t even become one of the twelve disciples. On the other hand, French novelist Roger Caillois portrayed a Judas very much like the one in the ancient papyrus in his “Pontius Pilate.” Caillois had never seen the aged manuscript, but, wrestling with the motivation of Judas, he came to similar conclusions.
Then sometime during the last century, someone found the ancient papyrus. It might have been a shepherd boy, like the one who found the Dead Sea scrolls. We don’t know. But someone discovered it, someone who cared little for its historical worth, who valued it only in terms of the price it would bring. And so it came out of hiding, only to be placed in the shadowy world of the black market for antiquities. Eventually, it ended up in a safe-deposit box on Long Island, New York. Then, in 2000, Swiss antiquities dealer Frieda Nussberger Tchacos “rescued” the papyrus.
Ancient artifacts that have been obtained lawfully carry with them a record of such things as dates and locations of the find, methods of authentication, chain of possession, and so on. By contrast, looters often raid archeological sites seeking artifacts they can sell and simply remove them. This often damages other objects and destroys archeological evidence in the process, robbing us of much crucial information. To discourage this looting, many nations have passed laws forbidding the purchase of such items.
Because of these laws, Tchacos could not legally sell the papyrus. Some years ago, Yale University refused to purchase the manuscript from her because of these legal concerns. To circumvent those laws, Tchacos and her attorney sold the contents of the papyrus, but not the physical manuscript itself. Given such ethical contortions, it shouldn’t be surprising that Tchacos felt a sort of kinship to Judas. She has been widely quoted as saying, “Judas was asking me to do something for him.” In return for that good deed, Tchacos will receive in excess of two million dollars. Clouding matters still further are charges that Tchacos had long been a dealer in looted antiquities.
Despite these problems, National Geographic decided to publish the contents and produce a television program touting this forgotten “gospel.”
The real question, however, doesn’t have to do with how the manuscript was obtained. The issue is whether the story told by this long-hidden manuscript sheds new light on the crucifixion story. Does it help us to better understand the truth about Judas?
And the answer is No. Scholars agree that it reflects not the thoughts of Judas but the traditions of an early Christian sect called the Gnostics. The word Gnostic comes from the Greek word gnosis, which means “knowledge.” The ancient “Christian Gnostics” believed that the way to salvation was through secret knowledge delivered by Jesus to his inner circle.5 And that’s precisely what the Gospel of Judas portrays: a Judas whose concealed relationship with Jesus makes him privy to secret knowledge that the other disciples lacked, and who conspires with Christ rather than betrays him.
This directly contradicts the biblical account. Matthew and John were firsthand witnesses who declared what they had “seen and heard.”6 Scholars agree that Mark’s account came from Peter, who was also an eyewitness. Luke, living within a few years of the events described, “carefully investigated everything from the beginning.”7 As we should expect from four independent witnesses of the same events, their accounts differ in detail but agree on all the major points. And all agree that Judas betrayed Jesus.8
As one of the twelve disciples, Judas spent many hours with Jesus. To Judas, as well as the others, Jesus revealed “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God.”9 But, contrary to the Gnostics, who believed knowledge leads to salvation, the Bible teaches that knowing about Jesus isn’t enough. We must know and be known by Him.10 The biblical account demonstrates that Judas never really believed in Jesus. He never understood that Jesus’ death would bring eternal salvation. Instead he saw Jesus only as a political leader. And with the death of that political leader, his own ambitions died. And so he took his own life.
The story of how this ancient papyrus came to light provides a fascinating tale. But the story of Judas remains a tragedy of friendship betrayed and eternal loss.
Ed Dickerson writes from Garrison, Iowa.