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Bishop Hilarion of Vienna and Austria

The discovery of previously unavailable texts dating back to great antiquity is always a subject of a certain degree of scholarly interest. However, interest in the “Gospel of Judas” – a 2nd or 3rd century literary historical document preserved in the Coptic language – was artificially heated up over the course of several months in some mass media outlets. The public was fed the idea that at long last hidden information had been obtained, information that Church officials had hidden from the faithful for centuries, and that the newly discovered historical document would rock the traditional teachings of Christianity. It was expected that publication of the document, which contained a “rehabilitation of Judas,” would have the same effect as that made by the Da Vinci Code.

However, at the first mention of the discovery, theologians and clergy familiar with the history of Christianity and literature related to Christianity warned that one should not expect a sensation, as the “Gospel of Judas” was far from the first historical document of its type. A large number of manuscripts of Gnostic origin were extant, and they were of interest only in the study of the development of heretical movements in the early history of Christianity. Not a single one of those compositions had succeeded in rocking the foundations of the teachings of the Church, although in their day - in the early stages of the spread of Christianity - some of them had served to draw Christians away into Gnostic sects.

Early Church writers had been aware of the “Gospel of Judas.” In enumerating the Gnostic sects of his time, the 2nd century Hieromartyr, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, mentioned the Cainite sect, which taught that “as only Judas knew the truth, it was he that performed the mystery of betrayal, and through it, they say, everything on earth and in heaven had been resolved. They likewise disseminate an imaginary history of that type, calling it the Gospel of Judas.”

Tertulian, another great teacher and apologist of the early Church (circa 160-225 A.D.), comments on this false and highly pernicious teaching in the following manner: “Another heresy has flared up, called the Cainite heresy. The reason for it is that they (the Cainites) glorify Cain for supposedly having been engendered by some exceedingly powerful energy that acted in him, while Abel, having been conceived from a weaker force, was the poorer (smaller). Those who assert this also defend the traitor Judas, telling us that the latter is worthy of respect and is even to be considered great because of the blessings which he supposedly passed on to mankind; some of them think that he (Judas) is due gratitude for the reason that he, realizing clearly that Christ wished to betray the truth, betrayed Him in turn, so that there would be no opportunity to pervert the truth. And there are yet others who, on the contrary, assert that because the rulers of the world did not agree to have Christ suffer and thus obtain salvation for mankind through His death, he (Judas), wishing to assist the salvation of mankind, betrayed Christ in order to prevent opposition to salvation, which salvation was truly being impeded by the forces which opposed Christ’s suffering; thus, through Christ’s suffering, nothing would impede the salvation of mankind.”

As we see from the above-mentioned quote, the heresy now being spread by various false Western theologians is not new at all. On the contrary, it has its roots and precedents in great antiquity and was combated by some of the most famous apologists of Orthodoxy in those times.

What gave rise to the renewal of this ancient Cainite heresy in our times? In 1945, 13 papyrus scrolls were found near the Nag Hammadi village in Egypt, containing a total of 49 Gnostic treatises. However, the so-called “Gospel of Judas,” mentioned by St. Irenaeus in his essay on the Cainite heresy, was not found among them. For this reason many theologians thought that the hierarch of Lyons was mistaken. But was he mistaken? Not at all! Recently a 14th scroll was discovered, which was found to contain this “Gospel of Judas.”

The recent discovery of the document fully supports information about its Gnostic origin. The text has undergone significant damage, thus complicating the problem of fully establishing the author’s impressions as to Judas’ role in the matter of betraying Jesus. From the surviving fragments, however, it becomes evident that the author of the document saw in Judas a disciple who was especially close to Jesus, one to whom Jesus revealed the “mysteries of the Kingdom.” It seems that his act of betrayal was upon direct orders from Jesus.

Gnostic sects of the 2nd and 3rd centuries displayed a wide and diverse range of theological teachings. However, they held in common the tendency to combine elements of Christianity with elements of Eastern religions, occultism, magic, and astrology. Characteristic of most Gnostic systems was the concept of two equally powerful forces - the force of good and the force of evil - in control of the history of the universe. Within that framework, the material world was presumed to be a creation not of the good God, but the evil Demiurge. The concept of man as a creature endowed with free will was absent from Gnostic systems; man was something more like a toy in the hands of good or evil powers.

The figure of Christ did not occupy a central role in any of the Gnostic systems. Only individual elements of His teachings were woven into the Gnostics’ phantasmagoric constructs. Thus, the Gnostics were not satisfied with the Gospels used in the Church; they created their own personal alternative Gospels. One of them was the “Gospel of Judas.”

The concept that in betraying Jesus, Judas was merely obeying Jesus’ will, is absolutely consonant with Gnostic teaching about good and evil as two equal forces controlling the universe. However, in no way is it consistent with Church teaching, which insists that each man has personal responsibility for his actions, and that no one is predetermined to do some evil or other.

According to Christian teaching, there is a mystical paradox between God’s omniscience and individual free will. On the one hand, God knows in advance about evil deeds that will be done by any individual. On the other hand, God’s omniscience does not justify evil deeds: St. John Damascene wrote in the 8th century, “One must know that God knows everything in advance, but that He does not predetermine everything. For He knows in advance what is in our power, but does not predetermine it. For He does not wish transgressions to occur, but does not forcibly compel us to move in the direction of virtues.”

Judas’ betrayal was not foreordained for him, and when the Lord chose him to be one of His twelve disciples, He chose him not to be a traitor, but to be an Apostle. Judas was not deprived of any of the gifts with which the other apostles were endowed. He was with them at the Mystical Supper, and together with them received into himself the Body and Blood of Incarnate God. However, as it says in the services for Great Thursday, “the glorious disciples were illumined at the Supper during the washing of the feet, but ungodly Judas was darkened by the disease of avarice.” While the other disciples heeded the Savior’s words, in Judas’ heart a plan of betrayal took shape.

Judas' kiss
Judas' kiss

No one forced Judas to commit an act of betrayal: it was solely his own free choice. Jesus’ words to Judas, “that thou doest, do quickly” (John 13:27), were neither an order nor a signal to take action. Judas could have seen them as evidence that Jesus knew of his plans, and they could have stopped him at the last minute. However, the plan of betrayal had already taken shape in Judas’ heart, and even the words of the Savior did not stop him.

The perniciousness of Judas’ betrayal is augmented by the fact that it was committed after Judas had communed of the Holy Body and Blood of Christ at the Mystical Supper. This is clearly stated by the great theologian and universal teacher of Orthodoxy St. John Chrysostome: “Judas was not turned toward Christ when he partook of the Holy Mysteries. Thus his crime becomes even more abominable for two reasons: being hardened with such resolve (to betray Christ), he yet dared to partake of the Holy Mysteries; and, having partaken of them, he did not become any better, neither from fear, nor from the benefit received, nor from the honor which he was granted.”

As St. Augustine says: “And it is not surprising that condemnation followed his (Judas’) ingratitude for the blessing received. And because of this ingratitude all that was good in him turned into evil, as happens with those who partake of the Holy Mysteries unworthily.”

And there is another important point: did Judas act of his own free will for the good of mankind, as is asserted by both ancient and modern Cainites, or was he prompted by the ancient lying serpent, i.e. the devil? The answer to this question is given to us in the Gospel of St. John the Theologian: “And He (Jesus) dipped the sop and gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon. And after the sop Satan entered into him” (John 13:26). Thus, if Judas acted at the prompting of the devil, as Church tradition and the Holy Scriptures themselves teach us, then what kind of rehabilitation are we talking about? For what communion can there be between light and darkness?

Christ said to His disciples: “Woe unto the world because of offences! For it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” (Matthew 18:7). Those words referred first of all to Judas the betrayer. Jesus Christ accepted his Passion voluntarily, and His Passion had a redemptive meaning for all mankind. However, Judas did nothing deserving in the work of salvation and redemption of mankind. Salvation and redemption would have taken place even without Judas’ participation. Betrayal was not the essential link in the chain of events that brought mankind to salvation.

On Great Thursday, the Orthodox Church reminds the faithful not only of the Mystical Supper, the first Eucharist, offered by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. It also reminds us of that moral responsibility borne by each of us, by everyone Jesus calls to salvation and eternal life.

And it is no accident that before the Eucharistic Chalice, Orthodox Christians say the words, “nor will I give Thee a kiss as did Judas.” The image of Judas is kept by the Church as an example of a man who had crossed the last boundary line, the line man must not cross for any reason, or at any price. Beyond that line lies perdition and eternal death.

Excerpts in italics are from an article on the same subject, written by priest Mikhail Amelchenya
and printed in “Orthodox Russia,” No. 3, 2006
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