Gospel of Judas
|Light iron-age reading
|Gabbin' with God
The Gospel of Judas is an apocryphal testament of Jesus’ life according to his disciple Judas. The one physical version of the text known to exist today is from the 4th century CE; however other ancient texts make references to it, so scholars suggest an original date anywhere from the late 2nd century to the 4th century CE.
While a "Gospel of Judas" sounds deliciously sacrilegious (or unfunnily heretical, depending on your point of view), the actual text is much less subversive than the title would suggest. It has a simple logic that makes sense based on Christian teachings, even if one considers the conclusions plainly wrong.
Anyways, the story goes that a guy with long hair and a lot of crazy ideas walked the Earth until his number came up at or around 30 CE.
Brian Jesus, to varying degrees, were his twelve disciples, who walked around with him, ate dinner with him, preached whatever he commanded them to preach, possibly healed and/or saved the poor, carried his suitcases, and generally did all the other things that the apostles are said to have done.
The plot further states that these same dudes (and maybe even a gal or two) went out to teach their leader's ideas after he was put to death (and/or came back again, depending on which disciple you ask). And, like with most human endeavors, politics eventually got in the way.
Early Christianity spread to centres of Jewish population and into the Roman world and until the First Council of Nicaea, and a number of different interpretations (Gnosticism, for example) proliferated. Heck, even a guy who had never met any physical Jesus got in on the act.
The upshot is that by the 2nd century CE, there were minor churches and sects all over the place claiming to represent the Truth™, and generally running around making a muck of things, like enthusiastic believers tend to do.
Gospel of Judas
Thus enters the Gospel of Judas, written by an author whose spiritual leader was the honored apostle chosen by Jesus to be the one to turn him in to the Romans. The argument roughly goes: Since Jesus’ death is necessary for his resurrection, the one who turned him in to be executed must have been an honored apostle or he wouldn’t have been chosen. (It is a very Jewish concept to admit that you’ve been chosen by God to be tormented by others.)
The author of the Gospel of Judas comes from the Gnostic tradition, reiterating that Judas received "secret" teachings from Jesus and that he and he alone could pass on his Master's secret knowledge to other disciples. In a Gnostic tradition, Judas would have been understood not to have participated in the killing of Jesus, but in his own release from this early life to the true form of spirit. The author of the Gospel belonged to a type of Gnosticism called Sethianism which holds a very Platonic vision of the world.
What has been historically known about the author of the Gospel of Judas is that his church was vilified by several contemporary authors. What is now coming to light, almost 2000 years later, is that the church which "won" the "battle for Christianity" in the 2nd and 3rd century was bitterly despised by whole other churches fighting to be "the" Christian Church. Only in the last 100 years have the views of the "other churches" begun to be presented. Judas is not the work of someone who was on the fringes of mainstream religion, but was in fact one of the major players—a major player, however, that possibly knew very well that he was losing the battle.
Though various ancient texts had referenced both the Church and the Gospel, no actual work was found until 1970, in a desert cave near El Minya in Egypt's Nile valley. The document is a Coptic translation of the original Greek Gospel, in the form of a leather-bound papyrus codex, from around 300 CE. The document was passed around between dealers, languishing for several years in a safe deposit box, until reaching the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Basel in 2001. The text itself was in such deplorable condition that few pages remain legible. Thousands and thousands of pieces are being painstakingly assembled to attempt to have a readable, comprehensible text.
The text is possibly set after Jesus's death (although that isn't totally clear) and describes a conversation between Jesus and his disciples in which he rebukes them and says it will be left to a later generation to really understand him, followed by a secret conversation between Jesus and Judas where Jesus explains his plans and the role Judas must play in them. Judas is referred to as the "thirteenth daimon", meaning some kind of spirit, although some Christians want to interpret this as being about devils with pitchforks. The whole thing has a strong sense of "I alone know the truth and all the well-known Christians are wrong."
For what it's worth, there is a wonderful documentary called The Gospel of Judas, narrated by Peter Coyote, that goes into the cloak-and-dagger-esque aspects of finding the text, selling it, and reselling it. Little attention is given to what is actually said in the gospel, but 10 literary experts wondering about the translation of any given word and arguing about the gender of a pronoun is not nearly as fun as a 30-year chase across the desert with the antiquities "underground".