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The Gospel of Judas Inspires Countercultural Hope in the Face of Darkness

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

Star in Circle on Sunset Background

Darkness is all around us. Frightened families with nowhere to go, diseases threatening innocent lives, cybercrime hiding in sinister places, and a new climate nobody understands.

There was darkness in Bible times too. A little girl had just died, the only daughter of the synagogue ruler. Jesus is said to have had compassion for people, but he had little patience with darkness.

“Go away!,” Jesus ordered the professional mourners. “She isn’t dead; she’s sleeping.” And they all laughed at him (Matt 9, Mark 5, Luke 8). The synoptic gospels tell us when Jesus heard the news from the anguished father, he went to help. Shooing all the mourners out, he quietly took the girl’s hand, and she revived.

But people still scoff today when good news speaks out. Why? Do they know better than people who have hope? Is it smarter to know evil things than good things? Good news is deemed too naive for serious thinkers.  The dictum for the press is no secret: “It has to bleed to lead.” How much easier it is to tell the world what’s wrong and who’s to blame, than to shed light, lift and heal.

But why is sorrow the default instead of joy? Fear instead of hope?  Sorrow seems to be a compelling story in religion as much as in daily news. (See our Early Christian Texts video on the image of the sorrowing mother of Jesus replacing the woman of authority, for example.)

Friends have told me they feel guilty if they are not grieving enough when a loved one passes away. Society affirms it’s intellectually right, religiously right, and morally right to be sorrowful.

And yet the parents I know strive for happiness – not sorrow – for their children.

That includes Jairus, the Biblical father of the 12-year old girl who was cured. Are we parents wrong to strive for happiness and well-being? Do we do our children a service or disservice to teach them hope?

The author of the extracanonical Gospel of Judas leans toward parents who want happiness.

Jesus said [to Judas], “Come and I will teach you about the things…that no human will see. For there exists a great realm and a boundlessness whose measure no angelic race has comprehended” (10:1).

He did not instruct Judas to leave the earth to find this great realm, but the next four chapters of the text include Jesus’s teachings on how to understand the great good, in the here-and-now world. Judas evidently perceived that human existence was patterned after a higher, good realm of God. But knowledge of this divine realm required a savior who could enlighten.

The appealing aspect of this ‘great realm’ in antiquity was its safety and freedom from the cruel worldly Roman rulers (emperors, regional prefects, and soldiers). Suffering occurred because the world rulers were off course. It could be said that the power of the rulers was like that of the demons who controlled people’s lives, bodies and souls. The synoptic gospels do not tell us what caused the girl’s suffering, but her father desperately wanted to spare her from suffering the effects of a cruel, controlling power.

Jesus’s defiance of the mourners at the death-bed resonates with the message for Judas (about “the great realm and a boundlessness” never seen before). In both example and teaching, Jesus is portrayed as defying human victimization, or inevitable doom and gloom imposed from some evil force.

The Gospel of Judas raises as many questions as it answers, and one of those questions is why we hear anger in author of the Gospel of Judas: 

Truly I [the Savior] say to you, no race from the people among you will ever know me (2:11). 

Through the voice of the Savior, the Gospel of Judas is rejecting the people who just go along with the darkness and who don’t rebel against oppression. This author is angry that people would mourn and agree to limitations and suffering, instead of throwing out the powers of darkness.

This message of optimism is not naiveté, but a rebuke to acquiescence.  

Ancient texts hold their value for modern readers when we discover ideas that illuminate our lives today. When we realize that the darkness of antiquity could have been just as overwhelming as our modern problems with global immigration, pandemics, cybercrime, and extreme weather disruptions, we might also consider what the savior meant when he said, “… I will teach you about the things…that no human will see. For there exists a great realm and a boundlessness whose measure no angelic race has comprehended” (10:1).

We could ask ourselves: “Am I willing to search for this power from the realm of God that opposes evil forces, or am I satisfied that I have mourned?” “Can I defy victimization and oppose the powers of demons and off-base rulers?”

A powerful call to hope, in the midst of the world of mourners may have contributed to the rejection of some of the extracanonical texts from the canon. Hope, in the face of fear and darkness, can seem too hard to hear. It threatens the power of false rulers. But the promise from these ancient stories can also inspire us to take our stand and claim our rights to the light.