The publication of the Gospel of Judas has rightly attracted press attention, particularly because of the market-savvy timing by the National Geographic Society to release it just before Easter.
The Gospel of Judas was a text of a group of Gnostic Christians. There were many different varieties of Gnostics. They had a more mystical conception of Christianity, and their name derives from the Greek word for knowledge. The Gnostics, like many mystical groups, emphasized the special knowledge one has to acquire to achieve full understanding of the things of God.
Gnosticism was regarded as a heresy by the theological tendencies that became mainstream Christianity, i.e., the early Catholic Church. The Gnostics that produced the Gospel of Judas shared a typical Gnostic notion, that the god that created the world was some kind of subsidiary god. Gnostics generally regarded the material world as tainted in a way that went far beyond other Christians' sense of humanity's sinfulness.
Here is how the National Geographic's feature article puts it (The Judas Gospel by Andrew Cockburn, April 2006):
“Gnosis means ‘knowledge’ in Greek,” [biblical scholar and translator Marvin] Meyer explains. The Gnostics “believed that there is an ultimate source of goodness, which they thought of as the divine mind, outside the physical universe. Humans carry a spark of that divine power, but they are cut off by the material world all around them”—a flawed world, as the Gnostics saw it, the work of an inferior creator rather than the ultimate God.
While Christians like Irenaeus stressed that only Jesus, the son of God, was simultaneously human and divine, the Gnostics proposed that ordinary people could be connected to God. Salvation lay in awakening that divine spark within the human spirit and reconnecting with the divine mind. Doing so required the guidance of a teacher, and that, according to the Gnostics, was Christ’s role. Those who grasped his message could become as divine as Christ himself.
This notion of the material world being corrupting as opposed to the pure world of spirit is contained in the line that has been quoted frequently in the news articles on the Gospel of Judas:
The key passage comes when Jesus tells Judas: “You will sacriﬁce the man that clothes me.” In plain English, or Coptic, Judas is going to kill Jesus - and thus do him a favor. “That really isn’t Jesus at all,” says Meyer. “He will at last get rid of his material, physical flesh, thereby liberating the real Christ, the divine being inside.”
One notable feature of this Gnostic Gospel is that Jesus is said to laugh a lot in it. Guy G. Stroumsa comments on this in And the traitors will become heroes Ha'aretz 04/17/06:
A striking characteristic of the new text is the fact that it depicts Jesus as laughing a lot. This is a laughter of superiority and scorn for the blindness of others - including his disciples, who do not understand the essence of things, nor the significance of their acts. This laughter is typical of the figure of the Gnostic Jesus, and is familiar to us from other Gnostic texts, especially those found toward the end of World War II at Nag Hammadi, south of Fayum. The Nag Hammadi "library" is comprised of approximately 50 Gnostic texts in 13 codices in the Coptic language (into which books had been translated from the original Greek). The texts had not been known beforehand. ...
Jesus laughs at the sight of the stupidity of the "rulers" (Archons) - the angels of evil. These act under the command of the god Saklas (the Fool - related to the Hebrew word ksil), who is the God of Israel, the creator of our material and evil world. Saklas and his cohorts intend to crucify Jesus, but they succeed only in killing the material body, an empty shell that the spiritual redeemer succeeded in exiting before the calamity. Therefore Jesus laughs.
Stroumsa suggests an association with one of the patriarchs from the Hebrew Bible:
Some time ago I suggested the hypothesis that Jesus' laughter in the Gnostic texts hints at constructing the figure of Jesus as a parallel to the biblical Isaac (whose name comes from the Hebrew root for laughter), who is also saved at the last minute from an attempt to sacrifice him. The new text supports this hypothesis, both because of the centrality of laughter and because it includes a probing discussion of sacrifice in general, and human sacrifice in particular. The possibility of seeing Jesus as an avatar of Isaac hints that the first Gnostics were Jews, and that at the basis of their interpretation stood the difficulty of acknowledging that the messiah died (and in such a humiliating way). The new discovery helps us draw a more precise picture of the complex religious situation that existed at the inception of Christianity.
He also gives this background on Gnostic thought:
The true essence of Jesus [in the view of the author of the Gospel of Judas] is entirely spiritual: It is his soul, and it is imprisoned, supposedly, in his material body.
This anthropological dualism was already present in the Orphic movement in Greece during the first half of the first century B.C.E. ("somo sema" - "The body is a tomb," said Plato), and it is one of the building blocks of the radical dualistic interpretation of early Christianity. This kind of interpretation of Christianity was developed by the stream called Gnosis ("knowledge" in Greek), that is - knowledge of the secret of redemption, which is hidden from most people. This stream, in different forms and sects, was the main challenge to the crystallization of Christianity in the second century.
The Hassidic scholar Gershom Scholem wrote of the period in which Gnosticism emerged in his book Kabbalah (1974):
The development of the Kabbalah [Jewish mysticism] has its sources in the esoteric and theosophical currents existing among the Jews of Palestine and Egypt in the era which saw the birth of Christianity. These currents are linked with the history of Hellenistic and syncretistic religion at the close of antiquity. Scholars disagree on the measure of the influence exerted by such trends, and also by Persian religion, on the early forms of Jewish mysticism. Some stress the Iranian influence on the general development of Judaism during the period of the Second Temple, and particularly on certain movements such as the Jewish apocalyptic, a view supported by many experts on the different forms of Gnosticism, like R. Reitzen-stein and G. Widengren. That there was an extensive degree of Greek influence on these currents is maintained by a number of scholars, and various theories have been adduced to explain this. Many specialists in the Gnosticism of the first three centuries of the common era see it as basically a Greek or Hellenistic phenomenon, certain aspects of which appeared in Jewish circles, particularly in those sects on the fringes of rabbinic Judaism - ha-minim. The position of Philo of Alexandria and his relationship with Palestinian Judaism is of especial weight in these controversies. In contrast to scholars like Harry Wolfson who see Philo as fundamentally a Greek philosopher in Jewish garb, others, like Hans Lewy and Erwin Goodenough, interpret him as a theosophist or even a mystic. Philo's work, they believe, should be seen as an attempt to explain the faith of Israel in terms of Hellenistic mysticism, whose crowning glory was ecstatic rapture.
Stroumsa closes his article with this provocative thought:
Traitor or hero, evildoer or righteous - there are few options, but they are dizzying, in the relations between the Devil and God. Literature is perhaps able to absorb today some of the echoes of the early heresies, and thus Marcel Pagnol in his play "Judas" and Jorge Luis Borges in his story "Three Versions of Judas" succeeded in our own times in reconstructing the theology of the Gospel According to Judas: The Messiah only appears to be suffering, but in secret he is laughing and announcing, "In the Kingdom of Heaven, the traitors will become heroes."
Since I've been writing this month about the American Abolitionist John Brown, this reminded me of one thing Brown said after his capture at Harper's Ferry. Lying wounded, exhausted and defeated, with the bodies of two of his sons who had perished in the fight lying in a nearby room, Brown carried on a remarkable dialogue with his interrogators, which included Virginia Governor Henry Wise and Robert E. Lee. One of his interrogators asked, "Mr. Brown, who sent you here?"
Brown responded, "No man sent me here; it was my own prompting and that of my Maker; or that of the devil, whichever you are pleased to ascribe it to." Reviled by the Southerners of the time as the worst of traitors, convicted in court of treason to the State of Virginia (of which he was not a citizen), Brown became a favorite symbol of the Union cause in the Civil War.
"In the Kingdom of Heaven, the traitors will become heroes." The sternly Calvinist John Brown would have understood.
(The National Geographic Web site features several articles related to the Judas Gospel.)