Secret revelations and dialogue gospels - The Apocryphal Gospels: A Very Short Introduction - Paul Foster

The Apocryphal Gospels: A Very Short Introduction - Paul Foster (2009)

Chapter 5. Secret revelations and dialogue gospels

Listening to Jesus beyond the grave

While travelling along the Damascus Road, Paul - or, as he was then, Saul - had a dramatic encounter that was to transform him from being a persecutor of the early movement centred on devotion to Jesus into a promoter and advocate for that system of faith. What changed him? The debate is endless and the attempts to psychologize the inner turmoil that led to this transformation tend to be pure speculation. The only firsthand data are Paul’s own testimony and interpretation of events: that the God who had set him apart even from his mother’s womb, called Paul on the Damascus Road through a revelation of Jesus his son given to Paul, in order that he might preach Jesus to the Gentiles (Gal. 1.15-16). For Paul, both the authority and authenticity of that revelatory calling was unquestionable. It transformed his understanding of the movement he had been persecuting and it shaped the events of the rest of his life. There was no division between the authority contained in what Jesus said during his earthly life and what he continued to say after his death. For Paul, both were undeniably authentic, and no separation was possible.

Yet, this raises the fundamental question that links both authority claims and decisions about legitimate interpretation: namely, what was to stop other believers receiving equally valid communications from the risen Jesus, and how could fellow believers question the veracity of such revelations if the recipient claimed they came directly from Jesus? Paul’s call to preach to the Gentiles was a radical departure for a movement that had grown up inside Judaism as a messianic group. However, his ‘revelation’ appeared to be vindicated by the success he achieved among those non-Jewish believers who came to faith in Jesus. What other radical new teachings might the risen Jesus wish to communicate through later generations of followers? Some of the earliest surviving examples of this phenomenon from the post-Pauline phase can be seen in the gospel-like texts that record revelatory dialogues with Jesus, often in his risen state. The tone of these documents ranges from relatively sober and understandable encounters to the communication of bizarre descriptions of the aeons and cosmic realms - but they all claim to be written with the authority of Jesus behind them.

The Gospel of Judas

Exciting stories of the discovery of non-canonical gospel texts are not confined to the end of the 19th century. In fact, in many ways the most bizarre and tragic story belongs to the end of the 20th and start of the 21st centuries. It appears that four codices were ‘discovered’ (if that is not too soft a euphemism for what was probably tomb robbery) around 1978 near the village of Ambar, 60 kilometres north of Al Minya in Egypt. Details of the codices are still emerging but they seem to have comprised of the following: a Greek version of the Exodus, a Coptic version of Paul’s epistles, a mathematical treatise, and a codex with multiple texts, the third of which was titled the Gospel of Judas.

The ‘journey’ of this final codex from discovery to publication has been extremely turbulent. It was left unstudied and decaying for several decades. The reason for the delay was simply the greed of those trying to sell the codex. The brittle, though at this stage well-preserved, codex came into the hands of an Egyptian antiquities dealer called Hanna. The story becomes somewhat murky at this point. Around 1980, Hanna attempted to sell a number of his sequestered treasures including the ancient codex. He arranged a viewing of the artefacts for a potential buyer, Nicolas Koutoulakis of Geneva, accompanied by two women. The day after the viewing, Hanna’s apartment was robbed and all his antiquities taken. One of the women, described as a ‘red-haired beauty’ known as Mia, appears to have had some part in the robbery, since later the missing items were recovered indirectly from her. By 1982, the manuscript was back in Hanna’s possession but now housed in a bank vault in Geneva. In 1983, a team of American scholars were allowed to view the codex for the purpose of purchasing it. They expected to have to pay in the region of $50,000 to $100,000, but they were astounded when Hanna asked for $3 millon. Negotiations broke down. The following year Hanna visited the United States with the codex, in an attempt to find a buyer. For safekeeping, the codex was deposited in a safe-deposit box in the Hicksville branch of Citibank on Long Island, New York. The manuscript was to languish in that bank vault for 16 years, undergoing serious disintegration in the humid atmosphere. On 3 April 2000, the codex was sold to Frieda Tchacos Nussberger, from whom the codex received its name - Codex Tchacos. It was then sold on to Bruce Ferrini, who appears to have frozen the manuscript in the belief that this would aid its preservation. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Freezing resulted in the partial destruction of the sap holding the fibres together, and accelerated the destruction and crumbling of the papyrus. When he was unable to pay the agreed cost of the codex, Ferrini returned it to Nussberger, although it appears that he held back some of the now highly fragmented pages.

In 2001, contact was made with the Maecenas Foundation in Basel, Switzerland. At last the work of serious reconstruction was to begin. Professional papyrologists described the codex as being the most structurally compromised they had ever seen. The work of reconstruction should be highly praised for its skill, care, and brilliant dedication to detail. Obviously gaps exist in the reconstruction, but large sections of the text were able to be preserved and the ordering was assisted by the presence of page numbers throughout the codex. The existence of the text of the Gospel of Judas was announced at the Eighth Congress of the International Association for Coptic Studies in Paris on 1 July 2004. The wider public dissemination of knowledge about the Gospel of Judas came through the May 2006 edition of National Geographic with the broadcast of an accompanying, although at times somewhat sensationalized, documentary. Approximately 28 years after discovery, the Gospel of Judas was finally in the public domain.

The actual contents of Codex Tchacos in its original form as unearthed in 1978 still are not totally certain. The codex certainly housed four texts, and it is likely that a fifth text was also originally part of the collection. The contents may be listed as follows:


The fourth text is extremely fragmentary, it is impossible to determine if page 66 represents its conclusion or whether the text breaks off at some midpoint. Some of the fragments held by Ferrini, known as the Ohio fragments, have been identified with the Corpus Hermeticum. The recent critical edition of The Gospel of Judas published by National Geographic makes the following statement: the ‘identification of the contents of Ohio 4578 is clear, and it suggests that Codex Tchacos originally also contained a hitherto unattested Coptic translation of Corpus Hermeticum XIII’. This description of contents reveals the literary tastes of the compiler of the codex, and one can note that he read an eclectic range of texts that can loosely be classified as ‘Gnostic’, and it is within this setting that the Gospel of Judas is to be understood.

Prior to the discovery of the text of the Gospel of Judas, its existence in antiquity was known by reference to its title. Originally written in Greek, Irenaeus states that:

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.

(Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 1.31.1)

The Gospel of Judas represents a tractate from the Sethian branch of Gnosticism, and it purports to be a secret revelation of a conversation between Jesus and Judas that occurred three days before Jesus’ final Passover. In this belief system, the divine unassailable God exists beyond the reach of the base material realm. From his mind comes forth his ‘first-thought’, a feminine deity called Barbelo, and in turn from her emanates her son Autogenes - the self-begotten one. After various stages of emanations, heavenly Seth, the perfect man, comes forth and his seed is the souls of repentant humanity. An abridged version of this cosmological salvation myth occurs in the Gospel of Judas(47.1-54.12) and it is this understanding that shapes the thought-world of the text.

One of the key concerns in the Gospel of Judas is to present a new understanding of the eponymous figure of Judas. While the original team of scholars deserve praise for their work of reconstructing the text, in the areas of translation and interpretation there were a number of fundamental errors. A leading scholar, April DeConick, has corrected the translation at a number of points and as a result has made the text more self-coherent and understandable as a Sethian parody of apostolic Christianity. Perhaps the most important case of mistranslation, which affects the way one understands the whole text, is to be found in Gos. Jud. 44.18-21. The translation published in the National Geographic edition reads as follows: ‘When Jesus heard this, he laughed and said to him, “You thirteenth spirit, why do you try so hard? But speak up, and I shall bear with you.”’ The trouble stems from the decision to render the Coptic loanword daimon as ‘spirit’ and not as ‘demon’. While the translation of the term as ‘spirit’ is possible in Classical Greek from about five centuries before the composition of the text, close study of the use of the term in Gnostic texts from Nag Hammadi reveals that it uniformly is a negative reference denoting ‘demons’, ‘devils’, or ‘evil spirits’. The original translation also presented Judas as occupying a privileged place in Jesus’ eyes:

When he heard this, Judas said to him, ‘What good is it that I have received it? For you have set me apart for that generation.’ Jesus answered and said, ‘You will become the thirteenth, and you will be cursed by the other generations - and you will come to rule over them. In the last days they will curse your ascent to the holy generation.’

(Gos. Jud. 46.14-47.1)

Yet a more accurate translation reveals that Judas is not set apart ‘for’ that generation, rather he is set apart ‘from’ it. This means that Judas is not set apart for the privileged Gnostic generation but he is separated from it - this is the very opposite of privilege.

Judas has insights into Jesus’ origin that evade the other disciples, for he alone perceives that Jesus is ‘from the immortal realm of Barbelo’ (Gos. Jud. 35.17-18). While Jesus acknowledges the superiority of Judas’ insight in comparison to the rest of the disciples, he also gives this praise with a barbed warning: ‘for somebody else will replace you in order that the twelve may again come to completion with their god’ (Gos. Jud. 36.1-4).

Perhaps the most sensational aspect of the Gospel of Judas was seen as being the praise that Jesus supposedly lavishes upon Judas for his impending act of betrayal. The National Geographic translation states: ‘But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me’ (Gos. Jud. 56.17-18). Again, mistranslation and misunderstanding have led to seeing this as a request from Jesus to Judas that the latter might hand the former over to execution. There is no doubt a docetic perspective here which sees a separation between the spiritual ‘ungenerated one’ and the human outer shell, but there is no request for Judas to be the mechanism for the shedding of that shell. This verse needs to be read in the wider context where Jesus berates the other disciples for offering sacrifices to the lower god (Gos. Jud. 37.20-40.26), and where he commands them to stop sacrificing (Gos. Jud. 41.1-2). Yet Judas will do ‘more than’ these disciples who lack insight, he will actually sacrifice ‘the man that clothes’ Jesus. This is not a good thing, but it is a greater travesty. In effect, the text mocks apostolic Christianity by saying that even Judas the thirteenth demon had more insight concerning the origin of Jesus than the other disciples. Nonetheless, Judas perpetrated the worst sacrifice by handing Jesus over to death and the followers of the apostles venerate Jesus’ death as an act of salvation when it was brought about by a demon. This bitter satire of apostolic Christianity may have been an attempt to win over converts, or it may have been written for the internal consumption of those already committed to Sethian beliefs. Either way, it is illustrative of the factionalism that existed in emergent Christianity and of the vastly different understandings of salvation and the nature of Jesus.

The Gospel of Mary

Fragments of the Gospel of Mary survive in three different manuscripts, two Greek and one Coptic. The Greek fragments are significantly earlier than the Coptic and it is generally agreed that the text was originally composed in Greek. The earliest fragment is probably Rylands Papyrus (P.Rhy.) 463. This is dated to around the early 3rd century and is a single-leaf text written on both sides, thus indicating that it probably came from a codex. The material contained by P.Rhy. 463 overlaps with the section numbered 17.4-19.5 in the more extensive Coptic text. The second, perhaps slightly later, Greek fragment was discovered at Oxyrhynchus (P.Oxy. 3525) and published in 1983. This papyrus scrap has text only on one side, thus suggesting it was written in scroll format. It also overlaps entirely with the Coptic text for the material in 9.1-10.14.

The fullest witness to the Gospel of Mary is a Coptic translation, purchased in 1896 by Carl Reinhardt from a dealer in Cairo, which has been dated to the 5th century. This copy is, however, incomplete. The page numbering suggests that the text occupied the first 19 pages of the codex, of which only pages 7-10 and 15-19 survive. The end of the text is clearly present on page 19, so the ending is certain, but although likely, it is impossible to be sure that this text commenced on page 1 of the codex. The dating of the composition of the text is uncertain. It must be placed before the surviving Greek fragments, which themselves date from around the early 3rd century. It does not reflect some of the more developed mystical soteriological systems of Gnostic texts known by Irenaeus, who wrote around AD 180. The text also appears to show knowledge of the canonical gospels, so it must be later than the 1st century. Perhaps the most likely date range is some point within 25 years either side of AD 150, i.e. AD 125-175. Publication of the Coptic papyrus was greatly delayed; the tragedy of a burst water main in a printing house in Leipzig in 1912 meant that the originally prepared edition of the text was destroyed before going to press in 1912. The intervention of two world wars delayed publication further until the text was finally printed in 1955.


The text falls into two main sections, with a bridging framework between that links the two major parts. This apparent editorial framework also resurfaces at the end of the text. First, there is a dialogue between the risen Jesus and his disciples (7.1-9.5). This ends with a note of the risen saviour’s departure from the disciples followed by the introduction of Mary Magdalene (9.5-10.9). The remaining text preserves Mary Magdalene’s report of a vision she had of the Lord (10.10-23; 15.1-17.9) and the ensuing debate between Mary and three other disciples about the validity of her vision (17.10-19.5).

The opening section is wide-ranging, but contains a clear cosmological focus. It discusses the nature and the conservation or destruction of matter, the origin of sin, and the appearance of ‘the Good’ as a restorative force. This is followed by a call to obedience, and a series of sayings from the risen Jesus that are reminiscent of material in the canonical accounts, that commend peace, warn against straying from the teachings of Jesus, caution against false claims of the Son of Man’s return, promise that seekers will find him, command the preaching of the gospel, and prohibit the introduction of any rules beyond those given by Jesus, especially ‘laws’ like those given by the ‘law-giver’. This dialogue could be responding to a number of ecclesial situations around the middle of the 2nd century. There could be disquiet over developing hierarchical forms of church leadership, especially with standardization of practice. The last concern over promoting laws like those given by Moses may also be a reference to Jewish-Christian groups advocating adherence to the Jewish law. The exact situation against which these injunctions might be warning is uncertain, but the spirit of the dialogue is to uphold variety and to guard against an overly structured form of discipleship.

The transitional material contained in Gos. Mary 9.5-10.9 serves to introduce a new dynamic in the text. Upon the departure of Jesus, the disciples weep and wonder out loud how they will preach the gospel to the Gentiles since they did not spare Jesus. Unlike certain non-canonical gospels that shift the blame for the death of Jesus on to the Jews, this text sees the Gentiles as responsible for his death. In response to the grief of the disciples, Mary (not previously mentioned in the extant portion of the text) arises and greets them. After comforting the disciples, it is stated that: ‘When Mary said these things, she turned their hearts to the Good, and they began to discuss the words of the Saviour’ (Gos. Mary 9.21-24). Before Mary launches into her speech, Peter addresses her, revealing two important perspectives. First, it is acknowledged by Peter himself that ‘the Saviour loved you more than the rest of women’, and second, that she is the possessor of knowledge of hidden sayings of the Saviour which were not disclosed to the disciples: ‘Tell us the words of the Saviour which you remember, which you know but we do not, and which we have not heard’ (Gos. Mary 10.4-6). Thus the narrative is set up to introduce the report of Mary’s visionary conversation with the Lord, having acknowledged the legitimacy of this vision through the apostolic authority of Peter.

The opening section of the reported vision is brief, caused by the large lacuna in the text of four missing pages. It does discuss the medium through which visions occur. In response to Mary’s question, the Saviour answers that the one who sees a vision ‘does not see through the soul, nor through the spirit, but the mind which is between the two sees the vision and it…’ (Gos. Mary 10.20-24). When the text resumes, it is in the middle of a discussion about ‘powers’. The soul, presumably of some representative believer, is engaged on a journey through the realms of the spheres occupied by these powers. Here ‘desire’ is being discussed as the second in a list of four powers. ‘Desire’ is personified and is in conversation with ‘the soul’. Acknowledging that ‘desire’ considers the soul as only a garment, the soul departs from the presence of ‘desire’. Next it encounters the third power - ‘ignorance’. The primary fault of ‘ignorance’ is that it passes judgement without understanding. The soul admits that previously it was bound, although it did not itself bind anybody. This may resonate with the warning in the first section not to ‘give a law like the law-giver lest you be bound by it’ (Gos. Mary 9.3-4). Upon overcoming the third power, the soul continues its upward journey, coming into contact with the fourth power - which, although not initially named, appears like some multi-headed hydra, having seven forms. These forms are named as darkness, desire, ignorance, jealousy of death, the kingdom of the flesh, foolish understanding, and wrathful wisdom. It is only after this description of the seven forms that the text states that ‘these are the seven powers of Wrath’ (Gos. Mary 16.12-13). Thus it appears that the climactic fourth power is ‘wrath’, but this subdivides into seven entities which are themselves designated as powers.

Such fragmentation of entities is a common feature of Gnostic cosmologies, often with certain pieces of a higher-order being falling to a lower realm and resulting in a more derivative and partial mode of existence. It is interesting that the second and third forms of the fourth power, ‘wrath’, are the same entities that are described as the second and third powers in their own right, namely ‘desire’ and ‘ignorance’. If this pattern holds, then the first power, which presumably was mentioned on the missing pages of the text, could likely have been ‘darkness’. The soul responds to ‘wrath’ that it has gained release from the world and from henceforth it will reside in ‘the rest of the time of the season of the aeon in silence’ (Gos. Mary 17.5-7). Having outlined the escape and restoration of the soul from the various powers, Mary’s vision ends, and as if to underline the purity and insight of her own soul, she falls silent.

The response of the named disciples to Mary’s vision may symbolically represent the reaction of apostolic Christianity to mystical branches of the movement. Andrew declares that he is unconvinced by Mary’s visionary account.

But Andrew answered and said to the brethren, ‘Say what you wish to say about what she has said. I myself do not believe that the Saviour said this. For these teachings seem to be giving different ideas’. Peter answered and spoke about the same things. He asked them about the Saviour: ‘He did not speak with a women without our knowing, and not openly did he? Shall we turn around and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?’

(Gos. Mary 19.10-22)

As in the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip, here also Mary Magdalene is presented as a figure of resistance against apostolic Christianity, especially in the form represented by Peter and other named apostles. She seems to offer an alternative kind of authority stream, and therefore is claimed as a valid source of tradition that stems back to the risen Jesus. The portraits of both Peter and Andrew are used to subvert the authority structures that claim to be derived from these figures in the 2nd-century Church. Mary’s reaction is that of an aggrieved and grieving individual, who cannot believe that the validity of her vision of the Saviour has not been accepted: ‘My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I thought this up in my heart, or that I am lying about the Saviour?’ (Gos. Mary 18.2-5). The next figure to appear in the narrative is a certain Levi, whose status is not explained, although he appears to be one of the disciples of Jesus. He may be understood as the same person who is mentioned in the two accounts of the tax-collector Levi who is called to follow Jesus (Mark 2.13-17 and Luke 5.27-32). Levi takes a mediating position, although he is more clearly convinced by Mary’s vision. He accuses Peter of ‘hot-headedness’, and acknowledges that the Saviour did indeed love Mary more than the disciples. Levi counsels that rather than engage in bickering, they should ‘put on the perfect man’ in order that they might ‘preach the gospel, not laying down any other rule or law beyond what the Saviour said’ (Gos. Mary 18.18-21). The narrative ends with the disciples going out to preach in accordance with Levi’s injunction. Finally, the title of the document is written at the end in Coptic: ‘The gospel according to Mary.’


What is to be made of this complex text? The clear difference in tone between the first and second major section, the dialogue between the risen Jesus and his disciples (7.1-9.5) and the account of Mary’s vision (10.10-23; 15.1-17.9) has led to the suggestion that the text as it is preserved is a composite which knits together two originally discrete documents. The character of the vision is very different to the dialogue, and Mary plays no part in the opening section. While not minimizing these highly significant differences or necessarily wishing to exclude the theory of a composite text, it can be noted that there are certain affinities in both of the large sections, especially in terms of not being bound by either legalistic perspectives (9.4), nor allowing the soul to be bound by the powers (16.17). This may suggest that it is not impossible to maintain that the text may have been written as a unified composition.

Peter’s attack on Mary is framed in terms of her womanhood. This has led to the suggestion that the text is an intentional tool of feminist resistance. While such a womanist perspective has been theologically appealing in some quarters, it is uncertain whether the text will actually bear the weight of this agenda. First, Andrew’s attack against Mary’s teaching is not gender-related, but stems from the different quality of her teaching. Although Peter may speak with the androcentric perspective of his time, his primary concern is said to be the same as that of Andrew, namely the source of this previously undisclosed teaching. Second, if Mary’s gender were the issue in relation to her status among the apostles, it is strange that the text keeps her voiceless and instead allows Levi to present her defence. This is surely not the vehicle of feminist resistance. Rather, the issue appears not to be that of gender or the status of individual figures; instead the text promotes the status of secret or personal revelations which seem to add new elements to the received tradition. It appears that in many ways the ancient question the Gospel of Mary was seeking to address was similar to the one that has been the basis of much of the discussion throughout this book: namely, what is the ‘gospel’ and how are the boundaries of that category established?

Nonetheless, the Gospel of Mary does not represent a totally closed division between apostolic Christianity and the mystical type of belief promoted in Mary’s vision. This may provide evidence for seeing this text written at an early stage of the dispute between these opposing views, when there was still hope of a rapprochement of the type advocated by the literary figure of Levi. Thus, perhaps more than any other of the non-canonical gospels, the Gospel of Mary may allow one to more fully appreciate what lay at the heart of the division between emergent orthodox Christianity and developing Gnostic versions of that faith. Specifically, the difficulty was the validity of ongoing visionary encounters with the risen Jesus, and the problems of accommodating such new perspectives within existing understandings of faith. For the traditionalists, the core of the Christian faith had been fixed by the apostolic traditions received and transmitted through recognized significant authority figures. However, for Gnostic believers, visions could be received by any soul that was seeking escape from the constraining powers of the physical universe.

The significance of secret revelations and dialogue gospels

Sociologists of new religious movements in the 20th and 21st centuries have highlighted the spread and appeal of charismatic forms of belief, which promise direct unmediated access to the divine. Personal search and personal journey are important aspects, albeit within the context of a community of like-minded co-religionists. The opportunities for creativity and spontaneous expression of religious fervour freed from the fixity of liturgical forms and the rigidity of hierarchies has resonated with many who feel alienated by institutional religion. Although still a relatively new phenomenon, by the 2nd century Christianity had formed many settled structures, it was developing standardized patterns of worship and had begun to regulate its leadership around a local bishop. This tendency to ‘routinize the charisma’, as it is described in scholarly literature, may have been necessary for the long-term survival of the movement as an empire-wide phenomenon. However, it also left many feeling alienated and hankering after the golden age when the Jesus movement provided a close-knit familial community. In its place they may have felt the early Church was evolving into a somewhat colder and autocratically regulated belief system. Both to resist these developments and to legitimize one’s own desires, visions received directly from the Saviour allowed for the creation of the space in which to practise the type of religion that permitted a more direct encounter with the divine and a more active participation in the quest for personal salvation. The gospel-like texts that gave insights through communication with the risen Jesus were products of this larger spiritual impulse.