Comments Related to the So-Called "Gospel of Judas" - by Rabbi Michael Cook, Ph.D - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Comments Related to the So-Called "Gospel of Judas" - by Rabbi Michael Cook, Ph.D

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Monday, April 3, 2006


Comments Related to the So-called "Gospel of Judas," by Rabbi Michael Cook, Ph.D. 

KEY POINT #1 (#2 closes this piece): The story of Judas was damaging to Jesus' image. As for the so-called "Gospel of Judas," whatever other purposes it was intended to serve, it represents an attempt to undo that damage. 

What was the damage? Judas' presence among Jesus' inner circle is disconcerting indeed since it suggests not only Jesus' lack of insight into Judas' character but Jesus' inability to reform Judas once he became a follower. Indeed, around 200 CE, the pagan Celsus ridiculed the presumably all-knowing Lord of Christianity for selecting among his close followers one who became a traitor. 

By now intimating that Judas was, instead, Jesus' best friend, the "Gospel of Judas" repairs Jesus' reputation. It rescues Jesus' image by showing that Jesus made no mistake after all. 

We see similar attempts to shore up presumptions of Jesus' omniscience or foreknowledge already in the Gospel of John (ca. 95 CE). It tries to show, e.g., Jesus:

  • (Purposely?) choosing Judas, already well-knowing his evil character: "'Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?' ... For Jesus knew from the first ... who it was that should betray him" (6:64-70f.).
  • Exposing Judas in particular at the Last Supper: "Jesus answered, '[The traitor] is he to whom I ... give this morsel of bread.' ... [Then] he ... gave it to Judas" (13:26).
  • Even stage-cuing Judas to launch his invidious deed: "What you are going to do, do quickly" (13:27). The last passage (above) is very intriguing since it is virtually a segue into the "Gospel of Judas," the latter alleging that Jesus asked Judas' help in bringing about Jesus' execution.


Historically, there never was a betrayal of Jesus by anyone, including Judas. The story came into being partially to explain (rather poorly!) the ease by which - gauged from a later vantage point - the ostensibly powerful Christ and Son of God had anomalously fallen captive to mere mortals (the answer was that the arresting authorities had inside help!). 

It also functioned to help Christians cope with Roman persecution, initiated when Nero scapegoated Christians in particular for a fire in Rome in 64 CE (Tacitus, Annals xv.44). To find and escalate the number of Christian victims, Nero tortured Christians into betraying one another. 

That apprehension over betrayal to Rome was running rampant in the 60s we gauge when Mark has Jesus predict that "brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child ..." (13:9). Against the backdrop of being "delivered up" even by siblings or parents, surely a story that Jesus himself likewise had been "betrayed" by one of his closest companions would have proved instructive, even comforting, to Christians fearing such treachery - whether during the mid-60s (before Mark wrote) or during Mark's own day (ca. 72). 

When the story first arose -- after Paul (62 CE) but before Mark (72 CE) -- the traitor had no assigned name. Then Mark selected "Judas" as the traitor's name, based on the "Judah" (Judas, in Greek) in Genesis 37:27f. who had sold his brother (Joseph) likewise for pieces of silver. (Do not overlook: this betrayal happened during a meal!) 

With the backdrop of the Jewish Revolt against Rome in 66, Christians needed to dissociate themselves from Jews. Here, the assonance (in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) of "Judas" with "Jew" also suited Christian efforts to blame the Jews for Jesus' death: Jesus' betrayal by a disciple echoed the notion of a communal betrayal by Jesus' blood-relatives, the Jews. 

Other Jewish Biblical Antecedents? 

Other correspondences with Jewish Scripture are so marked as to fuel suspicion that the entire episode is fabricated (i.e., derived from these texts). Besides the correlation of Judas with the Judah of the Joseph saga in Genesis, other correlations echo stories about King David - as if to suggest that whatever David experienced transpired thereafter also with Jesus, David's "son" (cf. Mark 10:47f.; 11:10; 12:35ff.). Thus,

  • David's betrayal by a trusted adviser, Ahithophel, who hangs himself (2 Samuel 17:23), could have engendered Judas' betrayal and supposed hanging (in Matthew), especially in conjunction with
  • (David's) Psalm 41:9, revealing how "even my bosom friend [= Ahithophel] in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me" (cf. John 13:18), as well as
  • (David's) Psalm 55:12ff.: "it is not an enemy who taunts me.... But ... you ... my companion, my familiar friend."
  • Joab, about to assassinate Amasa (David's preferred general), treacherously takes hold of him as if to kiss him (2 Samuel 20:9), even as
  • David's son, Solomon (paralleled by Jesus, also "son of David"), informs us (in Proverbs 27:6) concerning "the kisses of an enemy." (Jewish tradition ascribes Proverbs to Solomon.)

Correlations of Matt 27:3-5 with Zechariah 11 seem equally sobering: in the latter,

  • the wages of Israel's shepherd king (verse 12) are thirty pieces of silver (matching Judas' blood money),
  • which are (verse 13) hurled into the (temple) treasury (as with Judas' payment in Matt 27:3ff.).

KEY POINT #2 - That the Judas story is itself only a legend of course defuses the use of the so-called "Gospel of Judas" for purposes of historical reconstruction of the time of Jesus. After all, it cannot help us understand what never happened to start with! 

(Rabbi) Michael J. Cook, Ph.D.
Sol & Arlene Bronstein Professor of Judaeo-Christian Studies
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Cincinnati, OH
[W] 513-221-1875 

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