The recent discovery of The Gospel of Judas seems to turn Christianity on its head. It raises Judas to the status of the most gifted and heroic of Jesus’ disciples and even seems to be mocking ritual. The document is authentic. What does it tell us about the early history of Christianity, the true nature of Christ, and the truth of betrayal?
The Gospel of Judas
The Crisis of Christian Faith
The Collapse of the Christian Narrative
Insufficiency of Historical Veracity
The Gospel calls into question a basic Christian story
Monotheism vs Monism
1. Who Betrayed Christ?
The Question of Judas
2. The True Betrayal of Christ
Early Christian Gnosticism
The weakness of Gnosticism
The suppression of Gnosticism by Imperial orthodoxy
Narrative of Patriarchal Christianity
Narrative of Gnosticism
3. The Betrayal of the True Christ
The Betrayal of the Ego
Identification of the ego with the body
The Clarification of the Contradictions
Losses and Gains from The Gospel of Judas
Freedom and domination
The Gospel of Judas: Who Betrayed Christ?
Judas Iscariot was the greatest of all disciples and the favored of Jesus. His act of turning Jesus into the authorities was the most profound dedication to the divine truth of Christ. Jesus was a comedian, so childlike he often appeared to serve his disciples as a child, but he also ridiculed their slavish observance of rites dedicated to the Jewish God.
If all of this were so, would Christianity be turned on its head?
Much has been made of the recent discovery in a Coptic cave of The Gospel of Judas. With much fanfare in 2006 National Geographic presented the story of its discovery, near destruction and authentication. Careful age analysis indicates that this document is a copy from the Third Century, but references to the Gospel in the works of the early Biblical codifier, Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons, indicate that it was already in existence in the Second Century.
Numerous scholars, including Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, Gregor Wurst, and Bart Erdman, have studied the text at great length and commented upon it in the context of the complex understanding of Christ that arose in the several hundred years before Christianity was assimilated into the Roman Empire. (See Bart Erdman, The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot, Oxford, 2006, and Rodolphe Kasser, The Gospel of Judas, National Geographic, 2006)
Preeminent among these is Elaine Pagels, the church historian who has dealt extensively with the ancient gnostic texts discovered earlier in Egypt. In Reading Judas (Viking Penguin, 2007), anyone interested in the Gospel itself will find a superb translation by Karen L. King, as well as a concise and elegant commentary and interpretation by Pagels. In this definitive work, Pagels describes the discovery of this Gospel as “astonishing” and shows how it reveals much about the truth of the history of the early church. Far from being merely bizarre and marginal as it may initially appear, the Gospel leads us right into the center of the heated controversy of the time as to what Christianity would become. She concludes that the Gospel “…offers a window onto the complex world of the early Christian movement and shows us that what later historians depicted as an unbroken progression of a uniform faith was nothing of the kind. …. the traditional history of Christianity is written almost solely from the viewpoint of the side that won, which was remarkably successful in silencing or distorting other voices, destroying their writings and suppressing any who disagreed with them as dangerous and obstinate “heretics.”(Reading Judas, Introduction xviii)
The Gospel of Judas is upsetting because in many ways it stands the story of the fate of Jesus on its head. Four contradictions are particularly outstanding.
1. Judas, betrayer of Jesus, justification for all anti-Semitism, arch-villain of Christianity, appears here as Jesus’ special disciple and as the hero of the truth of Christ.
2. Jesus sometimes appears in the Gospel as a child.
3. Jesus is often laughing and even mocking derisively his disciples at certain points.
4. The Gospel entirely omits the crucifixion or resurrection.
From these outrages, one might almost mistake it for one of those cheeky sensationalistic aberrations that appear in London Galleries—”Piss Christ” or “Virgin of the Feces” — that basically spit on Christianity. However, its historical authenticity and the distinct tone of deep reverence in the document authenticate it as a profound Christian teaching. Seen in the right light there are treasures to be found here that actually illuminate the truth of Christ in a way that no historical accuracy could ever do.
The Crisis of Faith and the Collapse of the Christian Narrative
The appearance of a Gospel that so fundamentally questions the Biblical narrative seems to be one more blow to our very beleaguered Western religion. Over the last centuries many Christian believers have been increasingly losing their faith. This has happened in many subtle ways, having to do with the real ascendant faith that characterizes our culture: namely, the faith in the material world and the science that can know it, and the belief that historical veracity is the basis of all truth.
I have heard many Christians say that if they discovered that the virgin birth did not happen or that Jesus was not in fact raised from the dead they would have no basis for faith. One might imagine that a revelation that Judas was in fact the great hero of the living Christ might prove to be the death knell of the entire belief system.
The tendency of Christians to base their faith on belief in the historical veracity of biblical events is inimical, to say the least, since there are no historically contemporary documents outside the Christian canon that confirm anything besides the existence of a rebellious cult in Palestine whose charismatic leader was put to death. At the same time, the tendency of non-believers to dismiss Christianity on the basis of historical veracity is equally blind, based on the same fundamental error: that the essence of truth is factuality and the validity and value of the Christian story is that it is historically factual.
According to present biblical scholarship, the gospel accounts written u
nder the names of the disciples were composed thirty to one hundred years after the events they recount and were only attributed to the authors whose names they bear. They are basically inspired hearsay. No one knows who really wrote them. Aside from this fact, the writers of the Gospels were never historians in our sense. History and historical accuracy, pursuing factual veracity in the past, is a conception that grows out of our modern devotion to scientific fact, historically a very recent phenomenon.
Even more damaging is the increasing evidence that the miraculous themes of the story of Jesus Christ — the virgin birth, the crucifixion and resurrection — are found in the mythologies of many middle Eastern cultures predating the time of Jesus, so that the Christian belief system appears increasingly to be a fabrication of many current mystical themes woven together over the early centuries of the Christian era.
In a scientific world where material cause and effect reign and the scientific understanding of the universe and the earth increases exponentially every year, the stories of the Old and New Testaments upon which Christianity are based appear more and more ludicrous. The church has been fighting this tendency since the Renaissance, because it threatens its power base of belief. And it is still fighting. That fight is about the “wrapping” of the Christian gift, a monumental distraction from any real understanding of the nature of that gift.
The mansion that houses man’s relationship to the divine source has many rooms. Rooms such as scientific and historical veracity as the basis of faith are the least among them. Those who worship at these minor temples have a faith that is very vulnerable indeed.
These issues are enormously exacerbated by the discovery of the gnostic gospels, and especially The Gospel of Judas.
While there have been cogent arguments in the past, particularly on the part of Blaise Pascal, that the very absurdity of the biblical stories forces the faithful to take the critical step of relinquishing slavish devotion to reasoning intelligence, history as the assemblage of facts about the past is an erroneous road to spiritual truth. What happened around the life and death of Jesus has only become a historical concern since the modern concept of history came into being. “Objective reporting” was never a concern for those who composed the gospels: their concern was spiritual, and they used their interpretation of these events to frame a symbological truth that is far deeper and of infinitely more importance than the facts. The modern preoccupation with historical truth is actually a distraction from the existential truth, which is the real import of scripture. That is to say, even if magically we discovered a way to determine the facts of the past and we could assemble the entire factual life of Jesus and his disciples, we would be no nearer to the spirit, just more profoundly distracted by a shiny new intellectual toy.
Monotheism vs Monism
To get to the bottom of the contradictions posed by The Gospel of Judas, we need to step back into the understanding of God and man that was the theological background of the time when Jesus lived.
The Old Testament tradition is resolutely theistic, specifically monotheistic. There is one God and there is His creation and never the twain shall meet. The very word “God” has this absolute separation built into it. Mankind, having fallen from his primordial union with God’s creation must recognize this separation and strive to overcome it. In Judaism this separation is to be breached by observing the Law and following the prescribed rituals and ceremonies throughout the year. In Christianity the medium by which this can be achieved is Jesus Christ.
But Christ brought with him a truth that is truly revolutionary, because in essence it is not monotheistic but monistic, succinctly expressed by Jesus in the words “I and my father are one”. This means that the oneness is prior to any separation. Monism, being spectacularly counter intuitive, presents great difficulty in the West and has done so since the time of Jesus.
By contrast to a reality ruled over by God, monism sets forth one ultimate reality that is almighty in that it is the source of all understanding, beautiful as the origin of all wisdom, true as the source of compassion, and good as the fount of all morality. Because each of us is a manifestation of this one reality, we can come to realize it as our ultimate truth. Monism underlies the great religions of East Asia, Taoism, Brahmanism, and Buddhism, as well as many of the mystical traditions of the classical world, most prominently Platonism and neo-platonism. This “God” is one with all of reality, and every human is fundamentally “made in the image” of this One. As in a hologram, each particle contains the whole of the hologram, each of us is a particle of the hologram of God, so that the fullness of the divine is within each of us: in fact this is what we are. Every human has the potential and the ultimate goal of overcoming the delusion of separation and achieving the state of realization. The origin and final goal are the same, the One. This is Monism.
To me all evidence points to the fact that Jesus was born into the proud monotheistic culture of Judaism, but realized (or very likely learned in the eighteen years missing from his biography) that He and the Father are One. With this he returned to his own culture and tried to revise his monotheistic culture into monism. This was absolutely revolutionary and created great controversy. Jesus could overcome neither the hierarchical structure of monotheism in his home culture, nor the strict political hierarchy of the Roman Empire. The political hierarchy of Rome, based on polytheism and the worship of authority in the person of the emperor, together with the hierarchy of Judaism and based in monotheism, finally brought Him down.
The struggle between oneness, the monistic experience, and the hierarchical view of monotheism continued to create great chaos in the early centuries of Christ. Those who understood this monistic base of Jesus’ teaching became the Gnostics who saw that achieving gnosis is attaining the monistic realization, the living Christ that is one with God. Those who could not lift themselves out of the monotheism of the Judaic tradition had the burden of transforming the monistic insight of Jesus into the “mystery” of Christ in a monotheistic hierarchy. These became the paternalistic orthodox Christians who merged with the imperial hierarchy of Rome and became the authoritative Roman Catholic Church and its structure. Jesus himself warned against this. When two of his disciples came to him and asked how he would structure his followers, he said simply do not do as the gentiles (the Romans) do.
What the newly discovered gnostic gospels show is that there was considerable chaos in the early church between these factions, one that was finally ended by the authoritarians, because they were most adept at wielding and maintaining power.
A monotheistic hierarchy suited and indeed justified the authoritarian structure of the Catholic Church. In order to bring order into the chaos of early Christianity these monotheistic elements first suppressed and then laid waste to the entire gnostic segment of Christianity. Once they gained political power, they systematically destroyed its communities and all their writings, so that they have been wiped out of Christian consciousness for many centuries, leaving the impression that Christianity in its catholic form was seamlessly handed down through Christ by Peter who established its church.
Nevertheless monism and the gnosticism by which it is realized is a tendency that offers direct access to the living Christ. It is the existential n
ature of Christ. Therefore this tendency has surfaced throughout Western History in the inspiration and works of great Christian mystics and reformers. It is in fact hidden just beneath the surface of the New Testament canon and discernible there, but only those who approach the state of gnosis are capable of discerning it.
While the hierarchical deployment of power based on a monotheistic hierarchy succeeded in suppressing the Gnostics, it has proven in time to be the great weakness of the church. With the corruption consequent upon such power as the church possessed in the Middle Ages, it was only a matter of time before a Luther would declare this degeneration to the world. With the development of Western thought since the time of Copernicus, the entire structure of monotheism and the authority it conferred upon the Church has slowly collapsed. As the monotheistic view becomes increasingly untenable with every scientific advance, those who identify it with the truth of Christ cling ever more desperately to it, trying to justify the Bible and its mythology with creationism and other hardened reactionary views. It could be said that in the greater justice of things, this is the ultimate result of Rome’s usurpation of the monistic realization of Christ. The chickens have come home to roost.
As this moral and intellectual collapse has been reaching its nihilistic peak in the Twentieth Century, discoveries of the gnostic gospels, hidden away in the Fourth Century as the Catholic suppression proceeded, have given a far clearer view of the early history of the church, and how the other, monistic Christianity, was violently suppressed and wiped out by the monotheistic order.
It is the gnosis, or apprehension of the living Christ, so antithetical to domination and authority, so richly expressed in these documents, that are the true existential roots of Christianity and the only hope that the truth of Christ may prevail.
The struggle of hierarchical monotheism and the monism of Christ therefore works itself out on both a political and spiritual level. This whole drama between the commitment to theism and the secret underlying the living Christ is laid bare by The Gospel of Judas.
1. Who Betrayed Christ?
The Question of Judas
The issue of Judas has always been up for questioning in the mind of any critically thinking Christian. Devotees of historical authenticity find troubling contradictions underlying the conventional account. In traditional Christianity, the central event is the suffering, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. This is the symbolic core of Pauline Christianity. The assumption is that Jesus in his perfection was betrayed by Judas, a Jewish zealot (the meaning of his second name, Iscariot) who was disappointed that this messiah did not dispatch the Romans with a sword. Once he betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, he promptly (and rightly) hung himself out of anguish and disgrace.
But a careful reading of the New Testament gospel accounts indicate that Jesus knew the whole scenario was going to unfold and obviously could have prevented it in any way. The implication is that he realized that it had to happen, that it was God’s will, in the sense that it would be the basis for this central imagery of crucifixion and resurrection through which his followers in succeeding ages would reach salvation. In this sense, Jesus used, even exploited Judas to accomplish the destiny that forms the basis of this central Christian vehicle of salvation. Who betrayed whom here? I remember having this insight as a child, but feeling if I wanted to be a good Christian I had better not go there or even allow such perceptions to come into my thoughts.
The fact is that the taking of Jesus and his crucifixion was such a traumatic and appalling event that early Christians were hard pressed to explain it in such a way as to preserve their faith. Each Gospel deals with it in a slightly different way, showing that each splinter group of Christians had a characteristic way of explaining and justifying this calamity. With the careful eye of a detective, Elaine Pagels examines this explanation in each gospel in the New Testament and in the gnostic gospels, throwing great light upon the consternation that existed about the crucifixion and how early Christians dealt with it. She also shows how the interpretations that served the political and spiritual needs of a community horrendously persecuted and often facing terrible death led to the interpretations of the crucifixion that are found in the four Gospels of the New Testament. This explanation is subtle, informed and brilliant, and I recommend that the reader who has any doubt about this interaction of history and scripture read her book. What matters here is that in the context of these variations the story related in The Gospel of Judas is not so deviant.
The Gospel of Judas goes way beyond my youthful perceptions of the contradictions in the story, challenging every aspect of this narrative. In order to understand it spiritually, we must look at some more history and consider the gnostic form of Christianity that focused on the realization of the living Christ in the individual. This Gnosticism lost out to the patriarchal Christianity that took on the structures of the Roman Empire, which looks to the ordering of society and civilization and forms the basis of the Christianity we know today as we recite the Nicene Creed.
2. The True Betrayal of Christ
So long as Christians were a persecuted underground minority in the first centuries after Jesus, the religion thrived spiritually and grew in many ways. Among these variations was the spirituality based upon achieving a certain level of self-realization and awareness, the state of monism in contrast to the doctrine of monotheism. Gnosticism was not hierarchical imposition of belief that might be codified by a creed so much as a teaching of individual responsibility for ones own salvation with the help of proficients who understood the mysteries of the truth of Christ.
One of the main interpreters of The Gospel of Judas is Bart Erdman, who has explained the historical background and theological understanding of the Gnosticism that gave birth to the Gospel. Through the examination of gospels and documents contemporary to The Gospel of Judas, he traces its belief system to Sethian Gnosticism, a type of monism that fell into disrepute as the orthodoxy of Christianity came into power. Here are the outlines of this form of Gnosticism.
The world, and the humans that populate it are the product of a hierarchy of deities, headed by the Hebrew God, that were the creators of this world. This anthropomorphic God and the other forces that surround it are the cause of this chimerical world of suffering and strife. This world is represented by the two sons of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, who symbolize good and evil. By contrast, the one-monist reality is a transcendent consciousness that is the true home of the soul, prior to and beyond good and evil. Seth, third son of Adam and Eve, born after Cain and Abel, was the child who was a divine spark of the transcendental Absolute and who could come to know this truth. Christ was the manifestation of Seth, available to all spiritual descendants of Seth, that is, those who have the divine spark and therefore the potential to become one with the fire of transcendent consciousness.
The state of transcendental consciousness is the true Kingdom of God. Access to this monistic Kingdom is through realization, which is gnosis. Gnosis, the highest transcendent state and the true God are one and the same. But the world as we know it a
nd live it is the product of ignosis, the foundational ignorance. The Sethians see the entire belief system of the Hebrew God as the basis and structure of this ignosis, and were therefore entirely anti-authoritarian.
Gnosis, capitalized, refers to the early Christian groups. But gnosticism itself is universal. This monistic view of reality appeared in most religions throughout the world many centuries before Christ. The entire structure of gnostic reality including the monotheistic God just described is expressed with utter economy in the following words of Lao Tzu from the Tao Te Ching as he describes the Tao.
It is hidden but always present.
I don’t know who gave birth to it.
It is older than God.
The same gnostic themes are fundamental to Brahmanism and Buddhism. This world, presided over by one or many deities, is understood to be the product of ignosis (ajnana), non-awareness of this fundamental state of existence, “hidden but always present.” Thus the “real” world, the created world, is described as maya, or magical delusion. In each tradition hierarchies of gods and demons, generators of good and evil, bring about this world and manipulate it to their own ends. For the early gnostics, these, in the end, are the real betrayers of Christ, who is the manifestation and revelation of the one monistic reality.
The Challenge of Gnosticism
The challenges to gnosticism are overwhelming in a world based upon hierarchical order, and certainly overwhelmed Jesus himself. The primary challenge of gnosis is that monistic realization, obeying its own deep law, is radically individual and not conducive to collectivistic organization. In the end the state of gnosis is achieved through individual practice and it is foundationally freeing. The state itself is the authority. This ultimate freedom, based as it is in individual as opposed to collective experience, in no way lends itself to authoritative legislation and cultural organization, in many ways the bulwarks of an ordered society. The revelations of gnosis intrinsically generate kindness and compassion, and while it is true that, as Jesus taught, kindness and compassion realized in the Kingdom are the spiritual basis of morality, ethics and civil order, there is no way of controlling who has this insight and who does not. On the level of order and governance, the true values of Rome, this was a formula for anarchy. The function of the State is to maintain order. It is for this reason that when Christianity finally became the official religion of the Roman Empire, elements that could lead to such anarchy (and individual freedom) had to be eliminated. The irony is that these anarchic elements are the very nature of Christ and were the reason that he was brought to trial and crucified in the first place. Order betrays freedom.
In a way, the gnostic gospels functioned to counter the void created by this aspect of freedom. They were in a sense guides to attaining the state of the Kingdom and revelations of the intrinsic moral order of Being that is revealed once this state of freedom is achieved. Thus the core of The Gospel of Judas is the teaching of the vision of this ultimate order to the one disciple who Jesus sees as capable of receiving it, Judas. This it does in eschatological terms. At stake is not only the survival of people beyond the grave, but the question of whether justice will prevail in spite of the play of power, violence, unjust suffering and evil that people suffer. In spite of the horrors of Christian persecution and its own internecine absurdities, justice does exist and the glorious life of true spirit will triumph over every evil. What will happen in the end times reveals the eternal order intrinsic to the present.
Once the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, everything shifted. There is considerable conjecture as to whether this was a spiritual realization or political expediency based on the pragmatic realization that Christians were becoming a critical mass. Gone were the days of persecution of the Christians, a situation which made life dangerous, but religion authentic. Instead, Constantine made Christianity the primary political force of the Empire, volatile excess that was not tempered or clarified until the conception of the separation of church and state 1300 years later. Under the emperor, the central figure of the empire, the way of Christ shifted from a spiritual path based on personal conviction in the face of public persecution to a doctrine which had to take on the imperial role of establishing and maintaining a patriarchal order on the model of the Roman Empire and its legal structure. As the Emperor was to Jove, so Christ was to God. And so the imperial hierarchy was transliterated into God, Christ, Pope, Cardinals, clergy and laity.
As Patriarchal Christianity conquered Christendom and became the prevailing view, all of the outer traces of Gnostic Christianity were hunted down and eliminated. In the purge, all Gnostic gospels throughout the empire and their communities were destroyed. In great haste Gnostics hid or buried their gospels before the “armies of Christ” descended upon them to destroy all trace. It is the discovery of some of these buried gospels during the last century that gives us a clue to the richness of the Gnostic practice and tradition in pre-Constantinian Christianity.
One of the reasons that there was so much antagonism towards Gnosticism is that it proceeded from a very different philosophical base than patriarchal Christianity, that which we have described by contrasting monism and monotheism.
But in fact, Gnosticism is a way of being spiritual that exists in the whole of humanity. It is a fundamental spiritual tendency and not a doctrine. The written traces of it in the Christian tradition were wiped out by the armies of Constantine, but the tendency simply cannot be wiped out. It will be there as long as the human spirit is there, because it represents the highest possibility of human freedom. Furthermore it is there as the base of all the great religions, in the higher forms of Hinduism represented by the Upanishads and Vedanta, but most of all, in Buddhism. Without any question Buddha was a scientific gnostic, perhaps the greatest that ever lived. In these religions, which are not constituted by overriding hierarchical structures, the gnostic realization is regarded as the highest spiritual achievement. The tendency also exists in the Semitic religions but is always subsumed under the dominating monotheistic and patriarchal forms, which are accepted as the norms. In Judaism, it exists in the Kabala. In Islam it exists in the Sufi tradition. These forms of gnosticism have also been persecuted by the patriarchal elements of Judaism and Islam. In Christianity gnosticism is the underlying impulse of Christian mysticism that has surfaced throughout Christian history but has for the most part been suppressed by those who value order above all else.
Why is Gnosticism and gnosis suppressed? Because it is not subject to hierarchical control it places the responsibility on the part of the individual to gain insight into the ultimate truth. This truth has to be realized. It cannot be imposed. It cannot be transferred from an authority or conferred through a hierarch
ical structure. Gnostic realization eliminates the need for authority. It cannot be legislated or controlled by external authority. It is intrinsically anarchical, therefore dangerous to the civil order. This, as we have seen, is why Jesus was crucified. He had to be: he threatened the civil order.
However, where gnostic realization is authentic, it is the quintessence of goodness and godliness and even as a shadow tendency in the West, always acts as a corrective to the militant excesses of patriarchal Christianity. Some of its greatest exponents greatly influenced the history of Christianity: among them, St Francis and Martin Luther and the many authentic Christian mystics and reformers since Rome became the Roman Catholic Church.
The Point of view of Hierarchical Christianity
Let us consider the basic existential situation of the patriarchal Christian story. The protagonist is you, the sinner. Jesus is a paragon of goodness that you can never measure up to but must always strive towards. He was betrayed by Judas, who represents the nadir of sin, rightly punished by the inner horror that results from the betrayal of love, which must on some level always lead to suicide.
According to patriarchal Christianity, in order to be saved one must engage with the hierarchy in order to be absolved through the mystery of the crucifixion and resurrection. This deep dependence upon the authority of the church and its hierarchy had the necessary organizational advantage, like the Roman Empire, of controlling and maintaining order. But in this way, the patriarchal Church stole the keys to the Kingdom. With these keys firmly in hand, the authority of the Church and its entitlement became a license for conquest and domination, as we have seen throughout the history of religious wars in the West and the colonization of the lesser peoples of the world by superior Christian based empires and rulers.
With the grievous degeneration and excesses of medieval Catholicism, this entitlement was discredited. The protest against this usurpation and abuse of power, fuelled by a sense of injustice and inspired by the gnosis or its great visionaries, became the Protestant movement and resulted in the manifold forms of Christianity we know today. Here, in a reaction back towards gnosticism, individual faith and engagement in the mystery of the resurrection became the basis of salvation. The Bible and the codex of faith and morality therefore became the authority of the Church rather than the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
Such a base of hierarchical domination does not exist in Gnosticism.
The Point of View of Gnosticism
The Gnostics (and their Asian counterparts) have a completely different point of view with a very different approach. The basic reality is the transcendental ground of existence, which can be known through contemplation. But attaining gnosis is so difficult that the Sethians accorded the possibility only to those who were gifted with “the divine spark” whom they saw as “the descendents of Seth”. Brahmanism sees the possibility as a function of one’s karmic past, and Buddhists see it as one’s accumulated merit over lifetimes.
What is called into question is the nature of the individual and the world. It is your individual ego, identified as it is with the individuality of your body and predisposed to see itself separated from the transcendental ground, that betrays true being. Your ego separation and the world it projects is the betrayer of your true consciousness.
In Gnosticism Christ is this consciousness. It is the fundamental base of what you are and what the world is. This truth has no history or future, it can only be known as the present. Once “apprehended” this present is always here/now, and thus eternal. Most of all, it is knowable, but not through knowledge that resembles factual or scientific knowledge or belief in past events, but only through gnosis, which is basically the understanding arising from consciousness knowing itself. This occurs through the skillful means of contemplation, a great feature of the pre-Christian mystery schools and of Gnosticism itself, but completely lost to mainstream Western thought.
Jesus Christ is the symbol of the state of pristine gnosis by which one experiences the blissful divinity of the universe, an existential state of being in the Kingdom. It is real as opposed to illusory being. It is a real state that has been experienced at the peak of all religions and described in a fundamentally identical way by all the mystics of the world who have realized it. From the gnostic point of view this is the absolute and true meaning of Christ, of which Jesus is the perfect exemplar, the one who shows his followers how the state of the Kingdom is lived out in this real world.
The consciousness of every human being is basically structured in the same way. With the perspective of all the great world religions now available to us, this has become abundantly clear. The pattern of existential transcendence is what is universal and true, not the belief system of any particular religion. Imposing belief systems always ultimately fails, because it betrays the universal truth.
True religions reveal this structure in manifold ways. Theoretically, anyone can experience the state of the Kingdom, because it is the essential nature of human consciousness. This is hateful to patriarchal Christianity, because salvation is a realization, having nothing to do with legislation that supports a worldly hierarchy and order, the ancient dream of the Roman Empire.
3. The Betrayal of the True Christ
The living Christ IS power. When the gnosis has been realized there is no more need to exert power in the world. One is certainly powerful, because one is standing in the very nature of power, but one does not need to HAVE power. When gnosis has not been realized, in the condition we have called ignosis, existence is a vacuum of nothingness that has to be filled at all costs with some form or other of self-importance. This ignosis makes men desperate to have power. What stops up this vacuum is the ego. Out of this negative void of ignosis, the ego arises to control and dominate its world with all its tentacles. Power corrupts: absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is the betrayal of the true Christ.
The ego is the center of the world. It is the point of false identification, which “exists” in its past history and in its possible future. This ego is who I was yesterday, am today and will be in the future. All wants and needs are directed towards itself. As such, ego goes on fortifying the separation from the whole, or God. Its physical locus is ones body, and the body is always the point of reference for this ego-centered reality. The body is the vehicle of the ego, for Jesus, as for all of us.
The body is deeply contradictory. On the one hand, life is about protecting and strengthening the body. In the yoga tradition bringing the body to its highest perfection is the precondition for gnosis. At the same time, death, often accompanied by great suffering and illness is the inevitable fate of the body. The body is intrinsically a betrayer. Body “betrays” us in the sense that it is sure to fail us at some point, and at almost any time observable in the illness and death of those around us, will bring us down in terrible suffering. Its crucifixion is inevitable. The ego, identified with the body, is the reference point for our separation from God. The ego is inevitably the source of suffering.
This is represented in the central imagery of patriarchal Christianity. The crucifixion is the crucible of transformation
in which the body suffers the crucifixion of old age, sickness and death, and the Resurrection is the ultimate realization of the human spirit by which one comes to experience the immortal nature of essential being. At this point, all the promises of salvation are realized.
In Gnosticism, it is the ego’s identification with the body that is the great betrayer of the true nature of the divine or transcendent self. The Gnostic project is therefore to free the transcendent being into the Kingdom by overcoming the betrayal of the ego identification with the body. It is this fundamental freeing of Christ from the body of Jesus that is accomplished by Judas.
The Clarification of the Contradictions
Now let us use this expanded understanding of the Betrayal to reconsider the ways in which The Gospel of Judas contradicts the orthodox Christian view:
1. Judas is presented as Jesus’ special disciple and as the hero of Christianity.
All of the gospels are the accounts of disciples who are attracted to the truth and gather around the Master who has achieved it. Each disciple represents some way of being with regard to this true state. In this gospel, Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, the justification for all anti-Semitism, the arch-villain of Christianity, is presented as Jesus’ special disciple and as the ultimate Christian hero.
Judas here represents the intelligence of one who can truly follow the Master and achieve the state. He is presented as the only one of the disciples who is gifted with the capacity for true gnosis and is therefore the dearest disciple, the one entrusted with the sacred betrayal of the ego, by which the ultimate truth can be known. His “betrayal” is the symbolic act by which the truth of Christ is freed from the body of Jesus. The deep fundamental truth of this is that the function of the ego is ultimately to eliminate itself and its identification with the body so that it can enter into the Kingdom.
While this cannot be reconciled with the orthodox history of Jesus, existentially it is the equivalent of the symbology of the crucifixion, death and resurrection.
2. Jesus appears in the Gospel as a child
The image of a child points to the hidden or unexpected presence of the divine.
A characteristic of the enlightened state of gnosis is simplicity and innocence, the attainment of the natural mind. But this does not mean lack of experience, or lack of sophistication. It is experience transformed into radically pure intelligence. It is simplicity itself. It is the pure innocence of gnosis. When one enters the Kingdom, one is blessed as a child is blessed. One is almost giddy. The things of the world that others cling to are merely ornaments of bliss about which wisdom is neither serious nor grave, but playful. Buddhists call this “crazy wisdom,” and there are many legends and tales about this in the Buddhist literature.
As Jesus has entered his true Christ nature, and lives out of the natural mind, he is childlike. In The Gospel of Judas he is portrayed as a child, thus emphasizing the radical quality of his innocence and the incomprehension of his disciples before it.
3. Jesus is often laughing and even derisively mocking the disciples and their observations of ritual.
In this Gospel, Jesus shows how the ego has overtaken all the disciples, indeed many in the church. It all makes him laugh. Whenever he laughs, a new teaching is forthcoming.
In The Gospel of Judas, Jesus laughs at piety around the sacred rituals of the tradition, ridicules them and makes fun of them. The other disciples are dismayed and angry with him for ridiculing their monotheistic observances. Only Judas understands, which demonstrates how spiritually gifted he is.
In part this is another way of expressing the giddiness of the innocent bliss, which turns the gravity of what most humans experience as reality into a kind of joke. But beyond this, Jesus has no respect for that which does not lead directly into gnosis, and this includes all religious observance and ritual that becomes a meaningless end in itself and a fortification of authoritarian hierarchy. In the Gospel Jesus is making sport of the rituals surrounding Judaism and its worship of the anthropomorphic God. One can be sure that, in this spirit, were he to appear today, he would also laugh at all the ritual surrounding orthodox Christianity.
There is another dimension to the derisive tone of the Gospel that is direct evidence of the intensity of anger towards other groups of Christians, among the Gnostics themselves, but particularly between the group which produced this gospel and the patriarchal elements who were clearly threatened by the gnostic tendency itself, the faction that eventually obliterated this sect and its gospel. Pagels in particular discloses that this vituperation is clear evidence of the intense hatred between these strains of early Christianity, a conclusion further confirmed by the fact that all trace of Gnosticism was wiped out.
When Jesus laughs, a “reformation” is forthcoming. In a general sense, every Christian reformer has gone through this rejection of traditional ritual. It is a kind of purification consequent upon the renewal of gnosis throughout history. The Reformation ridiculed and destroyed the richness and rituals of Catholicism. Quakers threw out the rituals of Protestantism. When such ritual becomes an end in itself, like philosophizing, it simply no longer fits the essential goal of realizing the true Kingdom.
For gnostics, the goal of existence is the arrival into the state of understanding emitted from the ongoing experience of the luminous ground of Being and its many revelations. One is led to a monistic understanding that there is one ground of Being and that the rest is fundamentally illusory. From this perspective, rituals propitiating some exterior God are primitive, pathetic, and rather ridiculous. Jesus laughs at them.
In reflecting these values, Jesus says to his disciples, “Let the person of perfect knowledge stand before me.” Only Judas is able to step forward, but he stands very humbly, not meeting the eyes of the Lord. But then Jesus takes him aside and reveals the wonders that constitute gnosis, all in figures familiar to the Sethian Gnostics. Then he points to a star in the firmament and indicates that this is Judas’ star. Only Judas has the divine spark, which, followed, can lead back into the Kingdom. Christ is that divine spark that needs to be set free from its ego identification with the body. This is the true spiritual work, not mindless repetition of ritual and delusional belief. Thus, as Judas is the only one capable of receiving the living Christ, Jesus reveals to him the eternal truths of gnosis. With this, He raises Judas into the living Christ so that Judas is able to betray the ego and finally release Jesus into the fullness of Christ.
4. The Gospel entirely omits the crucifixion or resurrection.
The crucifixion and resurrection are the Pauline experience of Christianity that forms the basis of patriarchal Christian symbology. While Paul certainly had an experience of gnosis that overwhelmed him entirely, he experienced this through the imagery of the risen Christ. Many Christians have experienced this throughout the centuries, but for the gnostics, this imagery was simply not necessary.
The scholars of early Christianity also show with great sophistication, empathy and skill how this doctrine of physical suffering and transcendence was used to comfort and encourage early Christians who were under constant threat of having to die horribly for defending
their faith. It provided a point of identification, which made torture and death a way of identifying with Jesus Christ.
The identification of the ego with the body is what has to die so that true gnosis can occur. This is expressed in the central imagery of crucifixion and resurrection, but this imagery is not necessary to gnosis.
These points contradict traditional Christianity, but they validate the truth of the living Christ.
Let us consider The Gospel of Judas in terms of its value to us.
What do we lose by taking the Gospel seriously?
• A clear sense of the story of the passion of Christ
• Jesus as a victim of the betrayal of Judas
• Everyone’s favorite villain
• An excuse for blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus
• Assurance that we know the story of Jesus
• The historical veracity of the Bible
What do we gain?
• A deeper understanding of the situation of early Christianity
• Clarification as to the suppressive nature of the Roman assimilation of Christianity in which it expunged all that did not contribute to the order imposed by the new imperial hierarchy.
• An appreciation for the aspect of the Christian revelation that established gnosis as the highest Christian possibility
• A deeper understanding of the role of the ego and its betrayal of Christ
• The link of gnostic understanding that connects Christianity into the universal human reality and spirit
The Grand Inquisitor, written by Dostoevsky in the late Nineteenth Century, expresses the fundamental theme of this essay. The Inquisitor, grand authority of the church, visits the living Christ who has returned to earth but has been imprisoned and condemned to die. He recognizes Christ, but gives Him to understand that he must be eliminated in order to preserve the order established by the church. This story represents a significant point of self-awareness in Western culture.
Order is necessary, but the love of power is the betrayer of Christ.
The central question we are dealing with here is freedom and domination. They are an important theme of the history of the church as well as the existential nature of the human spirit. They have both a political/ historical dimension as well as a psychological/ spiritual one. Domination is the exercise of manipulation that is not the power of true spirit. We have seen how the Roman Catholic Church thrived on its power over the mind of the West, but science and technology are also forms of domination. So are the many manipulations of ones own ego in the state of ignosis.
Just as achieving the state of gnosis, the living Christ, and the experience of the one monistic reality is the freedom of ultimate oneness with God, so does true gnosis free one from the necessity of all manipulation and governance. Gnosis frees up a love that is its own divine order and needs no ordering. As the Gospel shows, few achieve true gnosis. Without gnosis, in the state of ignosis, one needs to attain a high level of moral and ethical development through reason, a relatively rare accomplishment, or else one requires the guidance, discipline and domination of authority. Therefore the authority and discipline of external governance is necessary to maintain order.
From a historical perspective, the monism revealed in the Gnostic Gospels brings into relief the truth that the triumph of Patriarchal Christianity over Gnosticism was in the end a pyrrhic victory. Over 1500 years the “dictatorship of the spirit” has proven itself a failed experiment. The proof has been the excesses of the Catholic Church during the thousand years of its absolute rule. This produced the Reformation that attempted to restore true spirit to organized religion. But this fragmentation of authoritative domination and its own internecine absurdities created the political excesses of monarchies which attempted to rule on the authority of the spirit as “the divine right of Kings”, epitomized by the violent abominations in the reign of Henry the Eighth. The dictatorship of the spirit was such a catastrophic failure that it was not clarified until the Eighteenth Century conception of the separation of church and state, that is, the separation of civil order from spiritual freedom. This rise and fall of the dictatorship of the spirit is a cycle not yet complete, for the spiritual responsibility attendant upon democracy is still in the process of clarifying itself. It is however on the horizon and is described by scholar thinkers such as Jeffrey Kripal in his analysis of the way the truth of religion is working itself out at the vibrant fringes of American culture in what he describes as “the religion of no religion”. (See Jeffrey R Kripal, Esalen, the Religion of no Religion, Chicago University Press.) In this context of democratic freedom and the self responsibility of the spirit unmediated by religious authority external or internal, the living Christ might once again establish its truth in the human heart.
But where are Christians to go?
The state of gnosis is the living Christ. Direct access to it as supported by Gnosticism was too anarchistic for Roman Catholicism, so it had to be eliminated. However, it is still to be found in the Christian canon as it exists. It is the hidden “mystery of Christ” which gleams like gold in the dirt if one has the eyes to see it. The purpose of radical Christianity is to gather the gold by clarifying that state as the supreme achievement of Christ, to show how faith leads to this state, and to purge the religion of the power base that has led to its “religulous” excesses.
The discoveries of the Gnostic Gospels over the last century have been unsettling to some, but in the end they may vindicate Christianity of the excesses that suppressed them in the first place.
Christians, like the adherents of the other Semitic religions, like to think that they are not just the best, but the only religion. While this may have strengthened the faith of some over the centuries, it has been for the most part a justification for grievous excesses of power leading to horrible consequences all over the world with regard to factions within the religion and almost all indigenous peoples of the world. The entitlement of specialness of a religion whose fundamental premise is compassionate love for all justified centuries of war within Christendom, constant war with Islam and persecution of Judaism, and then the carnage of colonialism, in particular enslavement of Africans and the obliteration of five hundred indigenous nations of the Western Hemisphere with no compunction. Would anyone who “knows Christ” possibly be able to countenance any of this? The contradictory nature of this history has significantly contributed to the demise of Christianity. It is not Judas that was the great betrayer, but the entitlement of Christian authority. This IS a historical fact.
When the excesses of an institution militate against it, the only way to save that institution is to go back to its roots. The gnostic gospels bring Christianity back into the human family. They indicate and clarify the roots of spiritual truth not only in Christianity, but also in the fundamental unity of all humanity.
The root of Christianity is not any historical event, but the experience of “the living Christ”, which is the arrival of gnosis. All the great religions agree that this attainment of gnosis is the achievement of eternal
life, which transcends the permutations and suffering of physical existence. This attainment is the Kingdom of Heaven. It is an existential state of being which reveals the luminous truth. Because it is a natural human tendency towards true maturity it can happen in any context and within the structure of any religion.
This understanding of Christ as the primordial realization of the true nature of consciousness meets patriarchal Christianity at its peak. That is to say, the central Christian imagery of suffering, crucifixion and resurrection is another set of images that refer to the same gnostic reality. To commune with the Christ means that the body of every human is in the end crucified by the physical suffering of old age, sickness and death. The body, the vehicle of life is also its betrayer. The ego that identifies with the body is the betrayer of the Christ nature. But the ground of human consciousness, which is what we truly are, is transcendent and eternal and can be experienced, known and dwelt within as the most fundamental condition of being. This is gnosis.
The Christian way of faith surrounding the central symbology of the death and resurrection, wisely followed, is also a path to gnosis. Authentic revision of patriarchal Christianity always strengthens the true possibility within the tradition. One takes on the imagery of Christ and Jesus, one studies the word of the patriarchal Bible, enters it deeply, essentially comes to live within it, and gradually gnosis happens. The psychological position of faith provides a crucible in which gnosis may arrive. Then the existence of God and the historical validity of the biblical events cease to be an issue. True transcendental love happens upon understanding.
If one is truly interested in achieving the Kingdom therefore, one will come to see that the highest truth of Patriarchal Christianity is one and the same as Gnosticism. They deeply inform each other, and each corrects the weakness and excesses of the other. All the conflicts around the truths of Christianity are of an entirely different and lower order of fearful mentality in which historicism, literalism, the confusion of beliefs with factuality create a morass of confusion.
The truth of transcendence, transformation, and realization as a viable state is simple. Wise men call it by many names. Fools fight over those names, defending their own against others under the banner of piety. If one reaches true silence, one can hear Jesus laughing.