In a previous post, we outlined the narrative of the recently discovered Gospel of Judas. What we didn’t go into that post were the content of the secret teachings, themselves.
The very concept of “secret teachings” can raise eyebrows among those who are only versed in canonical Christian texts; after all, isn’t part of the point of Christianity that there are no secrets, that all are equal before God?
As it turns out, this isn’t quite right. All three of the synoptic gospels claim that Jesus had secret teachings. Want to learn more about role of secret teachings in the canonical gospels, and the content of the secret teachings in the Gospel of Judas? Click below to read more!
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Secret Teachings in the Canonical Gospels
As it turns out, all three of the synoptic gospels– Matthew, Mark, and Luke– claim that Jesus had secret teachings. In fact, secret teachings were a core part of his ministry; consider his use of parables! When Jesus told parables publicly, it was rare for him to publicly share their meaning.
Consider this section from the Matthew 13:
Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
‘You will indeed listen but never understand,
and you will indeed look but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes,
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.’
“But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.
In Matthew, Jesus makes it very clear– he speaks in parables not because of their use as metaphors or anything like that. No, he uses parables precisely because they allow him to publicly give teachings with secret content, and the truer secret teachings are only accessible to the initiated.
Of importance here is this line from the above section: “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.“. Compare that to the Gospel of Thomas, Saying 41:
Jesus said, “Whoever has something in hand will be given more, but whoever doesn’t have anything will lose even what little they do have.”
This saying appears in both Thomas and Matthew; the gospel of Thomas has no context, but Matthew clearly argues that this saying should be understood in regard to comprehension of and initiation into Jesus’ secret teachings.
What about in Mark? There, too, in Mark 4, the purpose of parables is explained to be initiation into secret teachings:
When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything comes in parables, in order that
‘they may indeed look but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’ ”
And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?
Similar reasoning is found in Luke 8:
Then his disciples asked him what this parable meant. He said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but to others I speak in parables, so that
‘looking they may not perceive
and hearing they may not understand.’
What are we to make of this? An important takeaway here is that secret teachings, despite some claims to the contrary (here’s looking at you, Irenaeus), “secret teachings” were not strictly reserved for non-canonical (or “gnostic”, as they were disparagingly called) gospels. They are similarly present in the canonical gospels.
So, then, what about the Gospel of Judas? Ready to learn more about its secret teachings? Let’s go!
The Holy generation
First, to set the stage: according to this gospel, Jesus shared this information with Judas over the course of eight days, which was three days before he celebrated Passover.
Jesus reveals to the disciples that their god is not his father, for their god is a demiurgical lesser deity and a vile pretender who accepts blood sacrifices. The father of Jesus, the gospel asserts, is not that god, but a higher and more holy one.
Jesus departs to go to “another great and holy generation”. When the disciples ask about what this generation is, Jesus shares the following with them:
“Why are you wondering in your hearts about the strong and holy generation?
Truly I say to you, no one born [of] this realm will see that [generation],
no army of angels from the stars will rule over it,
and no person of mortal birth will be able to join it,
because that generation doesn’t come from
[…] that has become […]
the generation of the people among [them] is from the generation of the great people
[…] the powerful authorities who […]
nor the powers […]
those by which you rule.”
In the narrative, the disciples were troubled by this. But what about us? What does this mean?
The holy generation should probably be understood in Sethian terms to refer to Sethian Christians. For these Sethians, the power of God has protected them from the astrological powers of fate and from the angelic might of the Demiurge.
Judas’ Mystic Vision
Soon after, Judas speaks privately with Jesus and professes to have seen a vision in which the other disciples were trying to stone him and were chasing him. He then comes across a house whose dimensions could not be measured. The house had a thatched roof and was surrounded by people of great importance; inside the house was a tremendous crowd of people.
Judas knew this dream was in truth a mystic vision, and implored Jesus to take him to that place. Unfortunately for him, Jesus declined and stated, per Marvin Meyer’s translation of the text:
No person of mortal birth
is worthy to go into the house you have seen:
that place is kept for the saints,
where sun and moon will not rule,
nor the day,
but they will stand there always
in the eternal realm with the holy angels.
Jesus is revealing to Judas that he has received a vision of what awaits the Sethians, those who are free from the grasp of the Demiurge, where the astrological powers of the sun and moon shall have no sway. Unfortunately for Judas, this is not his fate– he is not in “that generation”; he was not born free of the powers of the Demiurge.
Judas is understandably upset by this and asks why Jesus would’ve let this be the case. Why would Jesus have chosen Judas to be a disciple, considered him worthy, yet not allow him entrance into the holy generation?
Jesus responds that he will become the “thirteenth”, and will be “cursed by the other generations and will rule over them.” Jesus reports that, “in the last days they’ll […] to you and won’t go up to the holy generation.”
Scholars disagree about what this secret teaching means, but Marvin Meyer notes in translation found in the Nag Hammadi Scriptures one possibility: that, due to Judas’ service to Jesus and his opposition to the Demiurge, other (non-Sethian, Demiurge-worshiping) Christians will try to prevent Judas from joining the holy generation; however, Judas will be victorious in the end and will rule over them.
The Great and Infinite Realm
Jesus then revealed, in further secret teachings to Judas, that there is a “great and boundless realm whose horizons no angelic generation has seen” where the true God, the Great Invisible Spirit, dwells.
The Great Invisible Spirit then summoned an angel to come into existence as his helper, resulting in the Self-Begotten, the “God of the Light”, emerging. This results in four other angels emerging to serve the Self-Begotten.
The Self-Begotten then commands that a realm “come into being”, and he created the first “luminary”– an important concept in Sethian works, which we’ll get to in another blog post– to rule over it. The Self-Begotten summoned innumerable angels to serve this luminary. Then, the Self-Begotten commanded that another “eternal being of light” be created, the second luminary, who too received innumerable angels.
According to the text, this process continued until the creation of the eternal beings of light and the realms of light were created.
An entity of light called Adamas was in the very first cloud of light; following the will of the Great Invisible Spirit (the true God), Adamas begat Seth in his own image. Adamas then made the “incorruptible generation of Seth appear to the luminaries (who are described as being 12 in number and “androgynous”, perhaps noting their inability to further proliferate).
Adamas then proceeded to make numerous luminaries in the holy generation of Seth.There is a significant to the numbers chose, but what those numbers mean is contentious. For example, at one point 360 luminaries are created, which could be understood to the universal scope of these luminaries’ authority; other readings, however, are possible.
Jesus explains that all these luminaries and eternal beings taken together are called “cosmos”, or “perishable”, by Adamas and the Self-Begotten. In these realms, the first human– who was in the holy generation– appeared, alongside an angel called Eleleth. Eleleth is a big deal in Sethian texts; we’ll get to them in another post.
Eleleth summoned into being twelve angels to rule over Chaos and Hades. While this was going on, however, an angel appeared “whose face flashed with fire and whose likeness was defiied by blood”. This vile being, called Nebro (meaning “Rebel”) or Yaldabaoth, was the demiurge. He partnered with another angel, Saklas, to create twelve assistants. They worked together to create five angels to rule over Hades and Chaos:
The first [is Yaoth], who’s called ‘the Good One.’
The second is Harmathoth, [the eye of fire].
The [third] is Galila.
The fourth [is] Yobel.
The fifth is Adonaios.
Yaldabaoth then decide to try replicating Adamas’ work (but without the blessing of the Great Invisible Spirit) and create a human being after their own likeness and image. They created Adam and Eve, as we know through the Genesis story. Saklas then restricted their lifespan so they could never grow too powerful, and must always serve him and Yaldabaoth.
The Plan to Stop the Demiurge
Continuing the secret teaching, Jesus then shares with Judas what the Great Invisible Spirit intends to do about the Demiurge’s selfish grasp for power. God commanded that the spirits and souls of the holy generation, stemming from Seth created by Adamas (who Yaldabaoth poorly copied), be made to live into flesh here in the realm of the Demiurge.
Those in this world, then, who are descended from Seth, are charged with bringing this knowledge to those in the world. This will destroy the illusion created by the Demiurge. His reign will be weakened, the evil they have sowed will be destroyed, and even the generation of Adam (not just that of Adamas, from whom Yaldabaoth plagiarized to create Adam) will be exalted.
Judas is key for this plan, because he will sacrifice Jesus’ body– so the Demiurge will think he will have received Jesus as a sacrifice– but in reality the spirit of Jesus will have left, and all that will be left will be the body that once housed him. This trick played upon the Demiurge will show the way for others to follow and will reveal Yaldabaoth for who he is.
The Gospel of Judas is brief, but powerful. It’s very condensed, not even having other common aspects of many Sethian texts like the fall of Sophia. And yet, despite its brevity, it contains compelling secret teachings of that explain a set of mythological underpinnings.
It’s worth noting that pretty much every Sethian document we have discovered which contains mythology like this is unique. There was not an impulse in the early Christian communities like the one that generated the Gospel of Judas to standardize. Rather, one should consider this to be one way that certain early Christians understood their story. Just as most modern Christians read four canonical gospels with varying and dissonant accounts, so too did ancient people find meaning in the reading of dissonant stories, including Sethians.
This text challenges us to wrestle with complex and perennial questions. Why would a good God have permitted us to live in this world of suffering and misery? Why would they permit sacrifice and death as vehicles for atonement? Who is Jesus and what did he accomplish? Why are we here, where did we come from, and where are we going? Who are we?
Like many of these ancient texts, there are many ways to grapple with it. Hopefully this post has helped you understand the secret teachings of the Gospel of Judas. What it means for us today, however, is complicated! What do you think? Is there value to be had here? We look forward to reading your thoughts in the comments section, below!