The Gospel According to Judas According to National Geographic

The cover of the issue of National Geographic that described the Gospel of Judas. Note only did the Gospel of Judas warrant front-cover recognition, it also warranted a special on the National Geographic Channel.

“I’ve been nominated to be a member of the National Geographic Society!”

Thus said a young George Bailey early on in It’s a Wonderful Life. This statement helped solidify George as a character who desired to travel, explore, and see the world. As a magazine, National Geographic certainly wows people with its fantastic photographs taken from around the world. However, National Geographic occasionally dapples into topics that reveals its dark underbelly. One such instance was when National Geographic published a feature article about the Gospel of Judas.[1]

I do not want to delve into the text of the Gospel of Judas. Not because I fear it. I have read it. In fact, it is rather easy to find a public domain translation of the Gospel of Judas online. I do not believe that it is heretical to read it nor that its existence is a blight on Christianity. I certainly believe that it is false, but that is precisely why I do not fear it: there is no truth in it to damage what I know to be the truth. If you were to read the Gospel of Judas, you would quickly notice that it does not read like the four Gospels in the canon of scripture. As a quick comment about that, Jesus rather frequently noted that his disciples had little faith. But the Jesus in the Gospel of Judas did not reprimand His disciples about their lack of faith. Rather, he laughed at them, not laughing with them, but laughing at their lack of understanding. Frankly, that is one of the points of the Gospel of Judas: the eleven disciples completely misunderstood Jesus and his teachings while Judas was the only who understood Jesus and his purpose on Earth. In fact, Jesus requested Judas to betray him, as only his death could release him from the constraints of his fleshly body.

In short, the Gospel of Judas is way off based compared to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It should be noted that the Gospel of Judas does not date back to the time of Christ, and therefore does not represent an eyewitness account of Jesus and his actions, and certainly not the testimony of Judas, since he was long dead.[2] Plus, the Gospel of Judas was not a “bolt out of the blue” that completely shocked Christianity and shook it to its core. Church leaders from as early as 180 AD knew about, and condemned as heretical, the Gospel of Judas.[3] If the existence of the Gospel of Judas was already known to exist, what did National Geographic so breathlessly report about?

It was the discovery of a mostly complete ancient text of the Gospel of Judas that triggered the interest of National Geographic. Prior to the discovery and public reporting of this new text, most of what was known about the Gospel of Judas came from the writing of those who denounced it. Thus, having a full text was a big deal for the Gnostics and National Geographic.

Who were the Gnostics? This is a “sect” of Christianity that believed there is “secret knowledge” which can free people. Part of this knowledge is that the material world is flawed, that it separates us from the “divine mind,” and that every person has a spark of divinity within him.[4] This is why I hesitate to call Gnosticism a “sect” of Christianity: it actually bears little resemblance to true Christianity.

If the Gospel of Judas was already known to exist, and a “sect” of Christianity, the Gnostics, where already known to exist and hold to ideas described in this rediscovered “Gospel,” what was the big deal about the Gospel of Judas being discovered?

For one, a big deal was made about the antiquity of the document. Several tests confirmed that the papyrus the document was written on dated to between 220 and 340 AD. That is certainly ancient, but note that is well after the death and resurrection of Jesus, which would have been around 30 AD. There are two things to note about this.

First, there is a trap in assuming that an ancient document is more authentic. Sure, the Gospel of Judas is not a modern fraud, but just because it is ancient does not mean that it is any more truthful that the four Gospels found in scripture. After all, we know that falsehoods about Jesus were being promulgated the day of his resurrection (Matt. 28:11-15). Thus, antiquity is not a test of authenticity. Instead, the Gospel of Judas must be compared to known scriptures, scriptures that tell a cohesive story about God saving the fallen descendants of Adam. The Gospel of Judas does not fit into that story, so it was rejected as authentic, no matter how old the story is.

Second, note that dating all the way back to 220 AD does little to overturn the four Gospels in the canon of scripture. As already noted, that is well after the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, meaning it was not written by Judas nor by an eyewitness of Jesus’s life. In contrast, two of the Gospels, Matthew and John, were written by two of Jesus’s disciples, another, Mark, was written by a man who witnessed some of Jesus’s life and was influenced by another of Jesus’s disciples (Peter), and the last, Luke, was written by a contemporary of the disciples and who interviewed several people who all witnessed the life of Christ. There is a reason why the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are held as canon and other Gospels, like the Gospel of Judas, are not, and the age of the documents has little to do with it.

In addition to the age of the Gospel of Judas, another thing repeatedly highlighted in the National Geographic article is how this new document demonstrated that there were multiple schools of thought in early Christianity. Frankly, this point is rather moot, too. One has to only read the four Gospels to know that there were multiple interpretations of Jesus during his lifetime. It should come as no surprise, then, that multiple sects began following different “versions” of Jesus after his death and resurrection. Indeed, the history of Christianity is littered with heretical ideas. The Church has, on multiple occasions, addressed these false ideas and made pronouncements about them. In fact, one of the earliest such councils is recorded in the pages of scripture (Acts 15:1-29). Once again, if we have a proper understanding of scripture and its truth, the Gospel of Judas is easily understood, explained, and even anticipated.  

However, the author of the National Geographic article does not accept the Gospels in the scripture as authentic. He stated that “it is unclear whether the authors of any of the Gospels–even the familiar four–actually witnessed the events they described.”[5] Considering that John said, “we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), to suggest that the author of the Gospel of John did not witness Jesus’s life and resurrection is to call John a liar. And if John is a liar, then his whole Gospel is suspect. And if the Gospel of John is not authentic, then some explanation other than its authenticity must be given to explain its canonicity. Indeed, the author of the National Geographic article considered the prominence of the four Gospels as mere outmaneuvering, as if those Gospels simply had better and louder promoters than had the Gospel of Judas. To him, the Gospel of Judas represents the early, internal struggles of Christianity, as it attempted to find its voice. During that process, some documents, such as the Gospel of Judas, simply lost to other documents, like the four Gospels, and proponents of the four Gospels did their best to squelch opposition, not because they were concerned with falsehoods, but because they were concerned with power.

When it comes down to it, the Gospel of Judas revealed nothing and changed nothing in Christianity. Yet, to one who already didn’t believe in the authenticity of scriptures, the Gospel of Judas confirmed what he already believed: that Christianity was a religious movement that developed over time. Jesus was not God become man who died on the cross to save his people from their sins, he was simply a man who inspired a religion that took a long time to figure out what it really believed about him. Thus, accepting the Gospel of Judas as altering our understanding of Christianity is mere self-confirmation: the Gospel of Judas is important to those who already believe that Christianity is not based on the truth.

And that is the dark underbelly of National Geographic. Christianity, and by implication, the God of the Bible, is treated as just one of many cultural manifestations of religious beliefs. In a magazine that focuses on cultures around the world, the truth of the Bible is relegated to being just one aspect of one particular culture.

Thoughts from Steven

[1]Andrew Cockburn (2006) “The Judas Gospel: Betrayer was his Truest Disciple” National Geographic 209(5): 78-95

[2]Courier & Press (2006) “Gospel of Judas was left out of the Bible for good reason” Courier& Press, retrieved from on August 15, 2022

[3]Andrew Cockburn (2006) “The Judas Gospel: Betrayer was his Truest Disciple” National Geographic 209(5): 78-95

[4]This is how Gnosticism is described in ibid.


%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close