The Jewish Background of the So-Called 'Gospel' of Judas

Article excerpt


Just before Passover 2006 the National Geographic Society (1) announced the imminent publication of a 'Gospel' that was written in an ancient language, Coptic, which is the abbreviation for aigyptios (Lambdin 1983:vii). This was one of the most epochmaking finds to be made in the Nile Valley, second only to the astonishing discovery of the Nag Hammadi corpus of texts in 1945 (Robinson 1972:1). It has been the talking-point of many discussions and controversies. In the process many issues have been addressed. One has to do with the question of whether this is in fact a Gnostic text and if so, what brand of Gnosticism is at issue (King 2003). Its relationship to Christianity and, more specifically, whether it should be seen as a gospel, as is indicated in the final word of the text, is another issue (Ehrman 2007). A crucial question is to ascertain what impact this discovery would have on Christianity, and whether the claim by Pagels and King (2007)--'it will shake Christianity to its foundations'--in fact holds true. (2)

It stands to reason that these problems urgently need to be addressed. However, this contribution is far less ambitious and it will concentrate on the composition of this Coptic document in order to determine to what extent it has been influenced by Jewish thought. This aspect is, nevertheless, fundamental and will have a bearing upon all of the aspects mentioned.

The problem

The so-called gospel of Judas exhibits signs of being influenced by various religious systems. It is immediately evident that it was fundamentally influenced by Hellenism. The fact that it is written in a language that is the end-result of a dramatic Hellenistic impact in Egypt, namely Coptic (Egyptian in Greek with a number of Demotic signs) instead of Egyptian is surely determinative in this regard. The author(s) also had first-hand knowledge of Platonism. There is a direct reference to the fact that each generation is ruled by angels of the stars ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] , page 5, (3) verses 1-12) and, in fact, each one has its own star (page 9, verses 6-9).

That the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (OT) played a role in the background to this writing is also evident. There are direct references to the temple and to other passages in the OT. However, as stated above, not much attention has been given to the Israelite/Judaic (4) background of this writing. It is the intention of this contribution to address this desideratum. However, firstly, it is necessary to deal with the intricate history of this Coptic text.

The history of the find

As to be expected, this aspect has received extensive attention in the press and elsewhere. A relatively objective, or rather less sensationalising account is found in Kasser et al. (2006:47-76). This shadowy story runs from the original discovery in 1978 of texts by tomb excavators at Jebel Qararar along the Nile, approximately 60 km from Al Minya (Kasser et al. 2006:50), through to their publication in 2006. The codex changed hands several times --originally it was apparently sold to a certain Hanna from Heliopolis, a dealer in antiquities, from whom it was stolen but later recovered. Hanna made contact with Ludwig Koenen, from the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Michigan, who in turn involved Jim Robinson from Claremont, California. He in turn sent Stephen Emmel, at the time one of his students, to Geneva, where he had access to the codex for a short period of time. He immediately realised the significance of the find. (5) However, Hanna was not satisfied with the sum offered and the planned deal fell through. He apparently deposited the codex in a safe-deposit box in Hickville, New York, where it was kept, and unfortunately severely damaged, until 2000, when Frieda Tchacos Nussberger, a dealer in ancient art from Zurich, bought the codex from Hanna. …