Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Pseudo-Tertullian and Irenaeus on Judas

Patrick McCullough had a nice post on the Gospel of Judas last week, in which he asked, "Would Dr. DeConick suggest that scholars working on the Gospel of Judas are too quick to accept Irenaeus' understanding of its message (if not his judgment of it as heresy) and let it influence their translation?"

I suspect that this is the case, although the understanding seems to me to be coming from a pesher of texts that have been read together. Note that Irenaeus never says that Judas is a hero in the Gospel of Judas, or a Gnostic. He simply says (as our manuscript of the Gospel of Judas reports) that Judas is the only one who understands anything in this gospel, and that his betrayal of Jesus has chaotic consequences for the cosmos.
Others again declare that Cain derived his being from the Power above, and acknowledge that Esau, Korah, the Sodomites, and all such persons, are related to themselves. On this account, they add, they have been assailed by the Creator, yet no one of them has suffered injury. For Sophia was in the habit of carrying off that which belonged to her from them to herself. They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.
It is Pseudo-Tertullian who is our earliest witness to the idea that Judas is considered a hero by Gnostics he calls the Cainites. He never mentions the Gospel of Judas. In my opinion, there is every reason to think that the Cainites never existed, but were fabricated by the heresiologists, perhaps based on Irenaeus' mention of Cain as a power (which the Sethians do say, but he is an archonic evil power!). Our manuscript was written by Sethian Gnostics, not these Cainites.

The heresiological texts have been read together in our collective scholarly consciousness so that we expected the Gospel of Judas to present us with Judas as a good guy. It is my suspicion that this expectation has influenced the translations (and interpretations), since the Coptic does not present us with a positive Judas, or a hero. Any attempt I've seen so far to interpret our manuscript with Judas as the hero results in dissonance and uneven commentaries.

Again I ask, if the text is anti-sacrifice and is saying that God is against this and does not consider it to be efficacious, then how can Judas be a hero by sacrificing Jesus at Jesus' request?


The DeGreiners said...

You've mentioned to be before about Pseudo-Tertullian being the one that says Judas is a good guy, but I don't think I had seen the actually passage before. It is interesting that the explanation given for why the "Cainites" think he is good does not fit at all (at least that I can see) with the explanation of why the betrayal is made in the Gospel of Judas we have. Pseudo-Tertullian says that Judas didit "observing that Christ wished to subvert the truth, betrayed Him, in order that there might be no possibility of truth’s being subverted." I don't remember anything in GofJ suggesting Judas thinking he was betraying him to prevent the subversion of the truth. The other view that P-T gives (that the powers of the world wanted to prevent Jesus from suffering etc.) likewise doesn't appear in the Gospel of Judas, does it?

Stephen C. Carlson said...

I agree that the "Cainites" never was an actual self-designation and was a term fabricated by the heresiologists, who seemed to love coming up with derogatory names for their opponents (e.g. the "Alogoi" meaning "those without reason").

Patrick George McCullough said...

Thanks for the info on the Cainites, Dr. DeConick (and for your agreement, Stephen). I had indeed been wondering about who these "Cainites" were. I didn't really have time to look it up, except in my Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, which, interestingly, says, "They are said to have had an apocryphal Gospel of Judas Iscariot." Just another reminder of how discoveries change our perspective. I wonder how they will update this entry in the next edition.

On your question: Again I ask, if the text is anti-sacrifice and is saying that God is against this and does not consider it to be efficacious, then how can Judas be a hero by sacrificing Jesus at Jesus' request?

I think this is a perceptive note on inconsistency. I have been wondering, though, whether the Gospel of Judas could itself be logically inconsistent rather than the modern scholars interpreting the GofJ (or maybe it's both). Is that a valid question to your point?

Geoff Hudson said...


The writer regarded 'Jesus' as a spirit character who could appear. Thus the 'sacrifice' of 'Jesus' was not of a human. Judas was the one who could invoke this spirit. The text has Judas with the foresight to see his own death by stoning at the hands of the priests. It was Judas who sacrificed himself by allowing the priests to take him in the 'guest room'. Judas's death meant that his ability to invoke 'Jesus' was lost. In effect, 'Jesus' was sacrificed.

I am intrigued by the possibility that the writer may have grafted some real history of Judas (‘he was regarded by all as a prophet’) into his gnostic theology. Is the writer also reflecting a tradition or a collective understanding that ‘Jesus’ was originally a spirit?

Judas's mode of death by stoning in the gospel is equally interesting. In Jewish tradition, stoning meant being pushed from a high place first, no doubt resulting in considerable injuries and death. If death did not occur, it was necessary to drop 'the first stone' on the chest of the dying person to stop the heart. According to Acts 1:18, Judas 'fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines fell out'. Stoning was a punishment for a false prophet.


Simon Gathercole said...


I'm not in the habit of leaping to the National Geographic's defense, but on the question of the representation of Judas in G.Jud., I offer a critique in my forthcoming book of the new, negative view, and a defense of the position that he's portrayed positively. That'll be out in September-ish, with OUP.

Best wishes,


beowulf2k8 said...

Don't miss the possible connection between this stoning and the stoning of James the brother of the Lord, who is said by some sources to have been stoned and others to have been thrown off a pinnacle of the temple and the had his brains bashed out with a fuller's club. And of course that in the gospel of Mark, Jesus has brothers named Simon, Joses, James and Judas.