The Gospel of Judas is a tractate of “Classic” or Sethian” Gnosticism, so named because Biblical Seth, the son of Adam, plays a prominent role.

The most important tractate of the Sethian version of Gnosticism is the Apocryphon (“Secret Book”) of John.1 Versions of it are included in three of the Nag Hammadi codices (as well as in the Berlin Codex).

In the Apocryphon of John, the risen Christ reveals secrets to his disciple John, son of Zebedee. A basic and somewhat elaborate myth is presented as a dialogue between the two. In my view this myth arose in Jewish circles, but it has been Christianized by editorial additions and revisions.

The myth begins with the description of the primal Father, a Monad (sole unity) above and beyond everything. From him, as Mind thinking, comes his “First Thought,” a feminine figure called Barbelo; from her comes a son called Autogenes (“self-begotten”). The myth thus begins with a primal divine triad of Father, Mother and Son. From them come many other emanations, including four “luminaries” presiding over Perfect Man (a projection of Biblical Adam), heavenly Seth, the “seed of Seth,” and the souls of those who come late to repentance. From these, 12 other heavenly entities, or aeons, are projected: personifications of virtues and divine attributes such as Grace, Truth, Peace, etc.

The last of these 12 aeons is Sophia (“Wisdom”). Sophia provides the occasion for a tragic break within the heavenly world. Wishing to produce a likeness of herself without the consent of the Father, she produces an ugly being called Yaldabaoth (“Child of Chaos”), also named Saklas (“fool”) and Samael (“blind god”).a (In the Gospel of Judas, the 12 disciples worship Saklas.) When Yaldabaoth/Saklas/Samael declares “I am God and there is no other God beside me” (cf. Isaiah 45:5; 46:9), Sophia repents and is elevated to the ninth heaven.

At one point Yaldabaoth says to his fellow archons, “Let us create a man according to the image of God” (cf. Genesis 1:26). A luminous human-formed image appears in the cosmic waters. Then they create a being that remains lifeless until the Mother (Sophia) contrives to retrieve the remaining power she had given to Yaldabaoth by getting him to breathe into Adam life-giving breath (cf. Genesis 2:7). This is the origin of the divine spirit in humans.

Yaldabaoth and his archons, seeing that Adam is now superior to them, throw him into the lowest regions of matter. Yaldabaoth then creates a woman, and she, together with Adam, eats of the forbidden tree and thus receives gnosis. Adam begets his son Seth, and he is the father of the elect Gnostics, the “seed of Seth.” Yaldabaoth continues his dirty work, creating fate and bringing all sorts of evils upon humanity. Salvation is made possible by the intervention of the Mother Sophia, who sends various emissaries into the world to reveal gnosis.

In Christian Sethianism, Jesus Christ is the revealer of gnosis.

A truncated version of the Sethian myth is found in the Gospel of Judas (47:1–54:12). This version of the myth lacks reference to the redemptive work of Sophia, and concentrates instead on the lower cosmos, the various levels of which are seen as counterfeit copies of the heavenly world.

The emphasis in the Gospel of Judas is on the wicked roles played by Judas and the 12 disciples. The 12 disciples symbolize the growing catholic church of the mid-second century, the perceived enemies of the Gnostic author.