The Gospel of Judas: Is it a Hoax?

Journal of Unification Studies Vol. 9, 2008 - Pages 35-48

What shall we make of the authenticity of the recently published Gospel of Judas? Was this sensational find really written by a second-century scribe, a Gnostic whose theology we are familiar with from the Nag Hammadi texts?[1] Or was it written in our own time, by someone familiar with these texts and who had access to some old papyrus leaves?  We find tell-tale evidence that the Gospel of Judas is an elaborate and original hoax. Its genre is not entirely at home in a third-century Gnostic setting; its revelatory polemic against priestly religion betrays modern issues; its retelling of Gnostic myth is defective and excessively dependent on the Apocryphon of John; and most tellingly certain Coptic grammatical forms betray the hand of a modern copyist.


Genre Criticism

Let us begin with an examination of its genre. The Gospel of Judas has some of the earmarks of a regular gospel: an account of Jesus last days in Jerusalem with his disciples, who, as usual, are dim-witted and unappreciative. Looming behind the narrative is the underlying tragedy of the story of Judas, who must be used as an instrument of death. Jesus’ affection for him is plain, but there is no escaping the destiny written in the stars. In all of this we are on the familiar ground of gospel narrative. There are disciples, Jews, priests, temple, and esoteric teaching about what is to come in the future.

The genre of the Gospel of Judas is akin to the canonical type, in that it consists of two very different veins of material: (a) a narrative of Jesus' comings and goings over a period of several days in the Passion week, including allusions to his death and departure, and (b) a number of revelatory teachings to the disciples and to Judas alone of future events affecting the disciples and the church. The gospel ends sharply with the betrayal by Judas, with the understanding that the events that are about to happen are well-known to the reader.

All talk of the significance of the character of Judas as some kind of model for Christian discipleship is trivial. Judas is a necessary character for the Gospel under his name, but his role is mostly useful for the window of revelation, and any other features of his are not likely to be historical or theologically compelling. Certainly there is no kerygma of the death and resurrection of Jesus in this gospel, or any leading role for an exemplary disciple. Judas’s own career and individuality is superior to anything like that of the other disciples, but he is not their leader in the usual sense of the word. His career is subsumed under a generic type of destiny; he is to follow his own star:


Look up! Lift up your eyes and see the cloud and the light within it, and the stars surrounding it. And the star that leads the way is your star (GJ 57.16-20). 


As with the canonical gospels there is a corpus of teaching in this gospel. It can easily be separated from the narrative, and then the teaching quickly shows itself to be very much of a Gnostic revelatory character. The teachings, moreover, are not public lectures. Rather they are revelations given in dialogue with the twelve disciples, and then with Judas alone. This material is a capital matter for the scholar, who, to be sure, is not very interested in any nuggets of historical data which the new gospel might yield, since it is assumed by all that this is a second-century document, written in the heyday of Gnostic extravagances. There is certainly a Gnostic element to the teachings, and there is a definite connection both in form and matter to the Gnosticism of the Nag Hammadi documents, particularly to that Sethian type exemplified in detail by the Apocryphon of John.

Yet there is a slight but telling difference between the manner of revelation in the Gospel of Judas compared with the typical form of the Gnostic dialogue, in which the heavenly revealer answers questions of a disciple and brings forth new and old variations on mystical themes. In the Gnostic writings, the heavenly revealer is almost always the risen Christ, who in dreams and visions reveals mystic truths. Even in the Gospel of Thomas, which scholars compare with the Q source, the prologue indicates that the words are from “the living Jesus” and not the historical Jesus of Nazareth.

The visions in the Gospel of Judas, however, are not from the risen Jesus but are rather dreams and visions of the disciples, of Judas and the Twelve. Jesus—the historical Jesus—has the role of explaining the meaning of his disciples’ visions. This subtle change has a modern ring to it. Giving the historical Jesus the role of revelator is foreign to Gnostic writings. The ancients drew a strict distinction between the historical Jesus, who left many things unspoken, and the risen spiritual Christ, who is the source of secret revelations. A modern writer, living at a time when evangelical theology has equated Jesus with God and liberal theology has lifted up the teaching role of the Jesus of Nazareth, might not be sensitive to the distinction.

Analysis of the genre suggests that a modern writer is trying to produce a traditional-sounding narrative of the Twelve and Jesus during the Passion Week, using a gospel format to introduce revelatory material. Although that material lies within a Gnostic thought-world of aeons and archons, the Gospel-type genre giving the teaching role to the historical Jesus is atypical of Gnostic writings. These Gnostic revelatory dialogues are quite easily adapted to refer to theological and ecclesiastic crises of a much-later era.


Polemic against Priestly Religion

The gospel contains a polemic against the temple and priests. There is a strong word against the temple cult, “Stop sacrificing!” (GJ 41.1-2) However, it is not so easy to say that this is a reference to the Herodian temple, because there is a general rebuke of all priests:

  It has been said to the generations of mankind: Behold God has received our sacrifice from the hands of a priest – that is, a servant of deception. But the Lord who commands – he is the Lord of the universe, and on the last day, they shall be put to shame (GJ 40.18-26).   

This polemic does not seem to be an attack upon Pharisees, Sadducees, or temple priests of his own day so much as an attack upon a future priestly apparatus.

Jesus’ explanations of the visions of his disciples have a prophetic air and are denunciatory in flavor. When the Twelve recount their vision of the temple and of a crowd of people worshipping in his name (38.26), Jesus denounces them one and all.

  It is you who are presenting the offerings on the altar which you have seen [in your vision]. You are the twelve men whom you have seen. And the cattle that are being brought in for sacrifice which you have seen – these are the many people you lead astray before the altar (GJ 39.18-40.1).   

For the author of this gospel, the twelve disciples stand for future leaders of a false religion. It is clear that the polemic is addressed against a priest-ridden sacrificial cult of Christianity in which Jesus’ name is a feature of the worship, but the hearts of the priests are far from God.

In fact, the priesthood is described in troubling terms, which remind us of ourselves. This attack upon the Christian church of the future has a modern ring to it. Jesus asks the disciples, “What are these priests [of the vision] like?” (38.12)

  And they said: Some [fast] for weeks; others sacrifice their own children; others their wives, as a praise and in humility before each other. Others sleep with men. Some others are involved in murder, while others commit all kinds of sins and lawlessness. And the men who stand before the altar – they call upon your name! (GJ 38.14-26)   

The manner of this type of dire warning for the future, after the leader shall be gone, is familiar and is typical of the pseudonymous letters of the New Testament:

  In later times, some shall fall away from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of demons, through the hypocrisy of men who speak lies, branded in their own conscience as with a hot iron, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats which God created to be received with thanksgiving… (1 Tim. 4.1-3)   

In this type of prophecy, the situation behind the writings often reflects concerns of a later era than would be expected by the reader. If Paul is giving warnings against fasting and marrying, this might very possibly be an indication of a later concern of the church, and the mark of a later writing. Does the Gospel of Judas, with its uncomfortable critique of what could be called modern problems of the priesthood—abortion and homosexuality—belong to a much later era than that presumed by the text?


The Gnostic Mythology

The Gnostic material shows up in revelations and teachings of Jesus given to Judas, which can be described as of the same type as a source Bultmann separated out from the Gospel of John and defined as Gnostic revelatory speeches. As with Bultmann’s partitioning of the Gospel of John, so in the Gospel of Judas, it is the Gnostic revelatory source with its imaginative and alien-sounding material that appears to be least-integrated into the narrative thread. The revelatory material is the type which most likely would have been borrowed from a non-Christian source and clearly indicates an extraneous set of ideas. In the Gospel of Judas, it is here that we find odd-sounding astrological ideas and cosmogonic themes that are recognizably Gnostic. In particular, there is a section describing the births of the three sons of Adam in language closely allied to that of the Apocryphon of John, and ultimately based on a Jewish-Gnostic hermeneutic in which only Seth belongs to the spiritual seed.

The revelatory material of the Gospel of Judas is given in three sections:

1) A commentary of Jesus on the temple vision of the disciples (38.12-44.14).
2) Judas' visions and Jesus' responses (44.15-47.1).
3) Jesus' revelatory message to Judas (47.2-57.20).


The Sethian myth as told by the Gospel of Judas begins with the origin of the protarchon, here presented with one of his many titles, “the Autogenes” (GJ 47.20), literally, “the self-begetter”; it is an old term for the kings of Egypt who proclaimed that no one begat them in heaven, but rather they begat themselves there before their birth on earth.

  And a great angelic figure, the Autogenes (AJ II.8.31), the self-generated one, the self-begotten god of light, emerged from the cloud. And, because of him, four other angels (fire, air, water, earth: AJ II 24.22) came into being from another cloud, and they became attendants for the angelic self-begotten one. And the self-begotten one said: “Let Adamas come into being!” (GJ 47.18-48.3; cf. AJ II 8.31-35).   

Now there begins the story of the myth of Seth and the begetting of the three sons of Adam, who are the three types of the human spirit. The story sounds familiar to students of Gnosticism, but it is peculiarly condensed. In particular, it reads like a condensation of material found in the Apocryphon of John II.24-25. Particularly condensed are the accounts of the creation of two lesser aeons. Students of this literature know that these two aeons are Cain and Abel, but since these names never occur in the Gospel of Judas, the unsophisticated reader would never know who they are.

In the Gospel of Judas neither Cain nor Abel, nor their divine names, “Eloim” and “Yave,” are mentioned. We are only told of the production of two aeons: (1) the “first luminary” (vwsthr), and (2) the “second luminary” (vwsthr). Seth, however, does make his appearance shortly (GJ 49.6).

For what reason does the gospel mention these two “luminaries,” the “first” and the “second,” who indeed must be the first two sons, Cain and Abel? The titles “first” and “second” do not do justice to the story. In fact, these luminaries, the first creations of the Autogenes, are practically anonymous! We might with some suspicion ask, why are they mentioned at all?

And then the mythical story line fades away; and there is unease with the reader who learns nothing of the relationship between the Autogenes and his first two luminaries. Below is a literal translation of the final sentences of this section.

  He (Autogenes) created the second luminary to rule over him (Adamas) with countless myriads of angels to offer service. And that is how he created the rest of the aeons of light. And he (Autogenes) commanded them (the first and second luminary) to rule over them (the countless aeons which the Autogenes created) GJ 48.12-18.   

This elliptical account of the myth of Cain and Abel ought to make us suspicious about the sources of this text. The narrative here is almost impossible to follow without recourse to a fuller account, such as that found in the Apocryphon of John II 24-25, in the Codex III version (III 31.10-32.8) and the version of the Berlin Codex (BG 62.8-63.14). Quite obviously, our author has borrowed and condensed an account of the Sethian myth, and he has left us with a mutilated and obscure version which totters whenever one tries to read it on its own.


Coptic Grammatical Forms

On my first reading of the Gospel of Judas, I looked in vain for Achmimicisms – evidence of that dialectical influence in the Coptic of the gospel. There is almost nothing; the Coptic is written in a form of pure Sahidic permeated with great irregularities of spelling, but there are no Achmimicisms, save for one startling exception. To this day, I have not found another, although there are a great number of Subachmimic forms and spellings. The one pure Achmimic feature occurs in GJ 48.18:



It is the unique Achmimic morpheme tou-, in the place of Sahidic treu-, which stands out in this sentence. This same Achmimic form tou- also stands at the same point of the parallel passage in the narrative of the Codex II version of the Apocryphon of John:



Here is my translation of the entire passage from the Apocryphon of John in which the unusual Achmimic morpheme occurs:


But the Protarchon defiled her, and begat from her two sons: the first, and the second, Eloim and Yave: Eloim with the bear-face, and Yave with the cat-face. The one is just, but the other is unjust. And he appointed Yave over the fire and the wind, and Eloim he appointed over the water and the earth. And he called them by the names Cain and Abel, seeing his guile. Now up until the present day, the sexual intercourse of the first archon continued, for he planted a seed of lust in Adam, and he created through intercourse offspring in the likeness of their bodies, and he supplied them with his counterfeit spirit. And he appointed the two archons over some archai so as to command them to rule over the grave.

But when Adam knew the image of his own foreknowledge, he begat the image of the Son of Man. He called him Seth. (AJ II.24.15-25.1) 


The Achmimic form tou- in the Apocryphon of John occurs precisely at the parallel place of the tou- in the narrative line of the Gospel of Judas. The major difference between the two narratives is the greater detail in the Apocryphon of John, which names the two archons as Cain and Abel, and also gives them their divine titles, Eloim and Yave. In both narratives the birth of Seth is the next feature of the story, immediately after the joint occurrence of the form tou-. Here is the complete passage from the Gospel of Judas:


And the Autogenes said: Let Adam come into being. And the emanation occurred. And he created the first luminary to rule over him. And he said, Let angels come into being to serve him; and myriads without number came into being. And he said, Let a luminous aeon come into being; and he came into being. He created the second luminary to rule over him, together with myriads of angels without number for service. And that is how he created the rest of the aeons of light. And he commanded them to rule over them.

And he created for them myriads of angels without number for their assistance. And Adamas was in the first cloud of light, which no angel could see, among them called gods… and he revealed the incorruptible Seth… (GJ 48.1-49.6).


The question must be asked: how did the unique form tou-, an error in the text for treu-, come to be found both in the Gospel of Judas and in the Apocryphon of John, Codex II version, and in sentences which identically serve to end the Cain-Abel episode?

In order to shed some light on this odd Achmimic form, we need to look at the Nag Hammadi documents in some detail to observe the number and the role of Achmimicisms there. Briefly, we can say that many Nag Hammadi documents are rife with dialectical forms, syntactical, morphological, lexical, as well as orthographical.

In the case of the Apocryphon of John, we are blessed with four copies which can tell us many things about the presence and the absence of dialectical forms. The version found in Codex II is that version most affected by Achmimic variants. By means of an analysis of these variants, it can be shown that the vorlage, the exemplar of our copy, or more likely, the first translation, was written in some form of Achmimic.

It is clear that the copies of Codex II and that of Codex IV are late copies of one and the same Coptic translation of a Greek original. It appears that the Codex II version with its full complement of Achmimicisms stands closer to the original Coptic than the more Sahidic-sounding Codex IV copy. The Codex IV copy seems to be an updated version, one that has removed most of the Achmimic variations but yet retains a number of forms which existed in the original translation into Coptic.

The following schemata of quotations are an outline which will show that the identical occurrence of joint Achmimic forms in the two codices are a proof of the antiquity of these particular forms, which otherwise have been randomly corrected and improved in the textual history of both documents. The evidence compares the occurrences of the Achmimic form etax- with the proper Sahidic forms in enta-. The evidence is limited to the clear usage of these forms for the relative particle used with the relative perfect clause in Coptic. The data has been limited to those passages where clear readings are to be found in both Codex II and Codex IV.


Relative Perfect with Same Subject
Apocryphon of John II and Apocryphon of John IV

(1) These are great things which have arisen in your mind.

(2) The host of angels surrounding him, which came into being from him.


(3) The powers which came into being from him.


(4) These who have also known.

(5) His thought rose above all those who had created him.


(6) That you are the one who has heard.

(7) Over the light which had come into being, the first to be revealed.


(8) Until the day when they will torture those who have blasphemed against the Spirit.


(9) And all these came into being from a silence.



The logic of these comparisons is to show that the Achmimic variants are not randomly spread around, but in a large number of cases are jointly found in parallel passages of the two documents. The data shows that the Achmimic form etax- quite surprisingly shows up in both documents more often than the proper Sahidic form enta-. The reason for this must have been that the two documents independently wrote their new Sahidic forms, and therefore the corrected text lost its early unanimity.

The display above will show that although a number of different spellings occur in the two documents, there is not one clear agreement in the two documents with respect to enta-, while there are at least three identical occurrences of the Achmimic form etax-, viz., in items 7a, 8, and 9. The last item is noteworthy because it features an agreement in error: both codices have the wrong grammatical form. Both texts form the sentence with a relative perfect syntax, using etax-, the relative morpheme, but the correct syntax of the sentence calls for the use of the second perfect tense, without a relative clause. In this situation, the Achmimic reading should have been eta-, the sign of the second perfect tense in Achmimic. We can only imagine that this is an original error in the earliest Achmimic translation, a rather disguised error which went undetected in numerous scribal copies.

These joint occurrences, in parallel passages, of the Achmimic relative perfect particle etax- strongly point to an original version in some kind of Achmimic dialect. Of course, if an Achmimic original be posited, then the case of Achmimic tou- in II.24.34 is only a relic from the earliest translation, something like a disguised relic which has missed its revision, yet to be erased or corrected. We should not be surprised to find another causative infinitive in tou- in the Codex II version, and there is one:



Note that the form tou- here is also disguised; it looks like a pronominal adjective of the third person, plural, but, unfortunately for that translation attempt, the gender is feminine.




There is also an occurrence of the absolute form te (Ach.) in the Codex II version of the Apocryphon of John:



And so we can see that the occurrence of Achmimic tou- in AJ II.24.34 is not so remarkable.

But how is it with the tou- in the Gospel of Judas 48.18? How did this mutual error occur? It is not just the singular occurrence of this Achmimicism in the Gospel of Judas that arouses suspicion, but the fact that when one looks for a source for this unusual error, it can be found in the parallel of the Codex II Apocryphon of John.

Are we obliged to say that an ancient translator of the Greek Gospel of Judas working on his translation into Coptic was familiar with the Codex II-IV translation of the Apocryphon of John and decided to make use of an Achmimic form at this one place only, and that he did so without correction, and that his corruption endured through as many copies as there were before the Tchacos Codex was copied?

I am certainly open to any and all explanations for the rare duplication of an erroneous reading in the Coptic version of the Apocryphon of John, Codex II, now found to be in the Gospel of Judas. I can imagine some of the possibilities: (1) the original translation of the Gospel of Judas was in Achmimic; therefore there was no erroneous agreement with the original translation of the Codex II version of the Apocryphon of John; (2) some Coptic scribe, interested in harmonization, introduced tou---- into the Coptic version of the Gospel of Judas; (3) a marginal gloss noting the agreement with Codex II.24.34 afterwards entered the text of the gospel; (4) a random hearing error, or a random orthographical error, occurred in the history of the Tchacos text. All of these explanations seem to depend either on a special knowledge of Nag Hammadi Codex II or else on a rare and random dialectical reading which remained without correction in the present-day Tchacos document.

Let me give a true-to-life example from the experience of an American professor who received a term paper on a scholarly subject. In the paper there occurred the spelling, “colour,” unusual for an American student but not unusual from an English writer. The professor looked up some likely sources for the term paper and found a book which said substantially the same thing which his student had written. It so happened that the book in question was published in England, and in a sentence very similar to one which his student wrote there occurred the spelling, “colour.” The student averred that it was a typing error, and also that he was a lousy speller, yet it did not take long for the professor to conclude that his student had used that book for a source.

I believe that the presence of the mutual error tou- in these two documents cannot be explained on the supposition of a random agreement of two ancient documents. Certainly there is always the rare possibility of a random occurrence of this type of dialectical variation, but its uniqueness in the Gospel of Judas is remarkable. Other possible explanations that could be given for the agreement in error—for example that the ancient scribe engaged in writing the Tchacos Codex[2] was in fellowship with the scribes who wrote other Nag Hammadi codices and the Codex II copy of the Apocryphon of John in particular—seem to be nothing but an ancient model of a modern scenario: that our hoaxer is a member of the community of modern Coptic scholars who have special regard for Codex II as the first exemplar of the Apocryphon of John from Nag Hammadi to be published.



The literary genre of the Gospel of Judas is not unlike that of the canonical gospels. There is a particular similarity with the genre of the Gospel of John, where the Bultmannian School once very persuasively argued that revelatory speech interspersed with dialogue from disciples was a characteristic of a pre-Christian Gnosticism which affected the Christian movement in its formative stage. In the case of the Gospel of Judas, however, the convenience provided by this window of revelation could lend itself to an elaborate and original hoax whereby prophetic denouncement of modern sins could be clothed in antiquity. Modern scholars suspect that this subterfuge was practiced by writers of the pseudo-Pauline corpus, and the same strategy seems to have been employed by a modern writer of this newly-published gospel. The gospel seems to show a modern provenance with its critique of priests who sleep with men and carry on ritual sacrifices of both children (abortion) and women.

When we look at the content of the revelatory material provided by the new gospel, there is surprisingly little that is traceable to the Sethian type of Gnosticism familiar to us from reading the Nag Hammadi documents. In the one instance where the Gospel of Judas shows close parallels to the Apocryphon of John, the account in the new gospel sounds both lame and derivative. Owing to the lack of detail in this section (GJ 47.2-49.6), which should include the begetting of the three sons of Adam but in fact only mentions the begetting of Seth, the story line is almost impossible to follow. Two archons who apparently are given power to rule over Adam are vaguely called “the first luminary” and “the second luminary.” The logic of the narrative calls for these two beings to be “the first son, Cain” and “the second son, Abel,” but this understanding cannot be derived from the text of the Gospel of Judas. For that, the reader must turn to the parallel passage in the Apocryphon of John. This excessive dependence on a well-known Gnostic text argues against the integrity of the Gospel.

Finally, there is the rare occurrence of a joint error in the improper usage of an Achmimic form, found both in the Gospel of Judas and in the same context in the Apocryphon of John. The appearance of this agreement in an uncommon and erroneous form can hardly be explained apart from the existence of a modern writer who was familiar with the 1945 codex that contains the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and the Apocryphon of John, all writings which are heavily permeated with genuine Achmimic variants.

The Gospel of Judas is probably a hoax, and all the writings in it of recent authorship. These writings were prepared in our time, on some old papyrus leaves, probably from a palimpsest, without a binding. There is no cause for rebuke. One of our colleagues has created great excitement; he is a jolly fellow and has done us all a favor.



[1] Such is the accepted viewpoint; see Laurie Goodstein, “Document Is Genuine, but Is the Story True,” New York Times, April 7, 2006, p. A18. For recent treatments, see James M. Robinson, The Secrets of Judas: The Story of the Misunderstood Disciple and His Lost Gospel (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006), and Bart D. Ehrman, The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[2] The Tchacos Codex is the purportedly ancient document containing the Gospel of Judas and three other Gnostic texts. The critical edition is Rodolphe Kasser, Gregor Wurst, Marvin Meyer and François Gaudard, The Gospel of Judas, together with the Letter to Philip, James, and a Book of Allogenes from the Codex Tchacos, Critical Edition  (Washington: National Geographic Society, 2007).