WASHINGTON — An ancient manuscript rediscovered after 1,700 years takes a "contrarian" view of the relationship between Jesus and Judas, the disciple who handed him over for crucifixion.
Instead of portraying Judas Iscariot as a traitor, as the canonical gospels of the New Testament do, this document — the Gospel of Judas — indicates that he acted at the request of Jesus to help him shed his earthly body.
“Let a vigorous debate on the significance of this fascinating ancient text begin,” the Rev. Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union of Chicago, said Thursday. Senior expressed doubt that the new gospel will rival the New Testament, but allowed that opinions are likely to differ on it.
The text helps show the diversity of beliefs in early Christianity, added Marvin Meyer, professor of Bible studies at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.
Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, commented that “the people who loved, circulated and wrote down these gospels did not think they were heretics.”
Found in the 1970s in Egypt
The papyrus manuscript was written around 300 A.D. in Coptic script, and is a copy of an earlier Greek text, said Terry Garcia of the National Geographic Society, which made the manuscript public.
Discovered in 1970, the papyrus was kept in a safety deposit box for several years and began to deteriorate before conservators restored it. More than 1,000 pieces had to be reassembled. The manuscript was authenticated through radiocarbon dating as well as ink analysis, multispectral imaging and an analysis of the content for linguistic style and handwriting style, National Geographic reported.
Garcia said the National Geographic Society has spent "north of a million [dollars] and south of $2 million" on the restoration so far, and "the bills are still coming in."
Scholars are still analyzing two other unorthodox scriptures that were included in the same set of papyrus sheets, he said. Those works are reportedly known as the Letter of Peter to Philip, and the Revelation of James.
Eventually, the material will be donated to the Coptic museum in Cairo, Egypt, so it can be available to all scholars, said Ted Waitt of the Waitt Institute for Historical Discovery, which helped finance the restoration.
‘Contrarian’ view of Christian climax
Unlike the four gospels in the Bible, this text indicates that Judas betrayed Jesus at Jesus’ request. The manuscript thus represents "one of the most unusual and contrarian" views of New Testament events, said Bart Ehrman, a scriptural scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Video: Experts discuss 'Gospel of Judas' The newly translated document’s text begins: “The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot.”
In a key passage Jesus tells Judas, “You will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” This indicates that Judas would help liberate the spiritual self by helping Jesus get rid of his physical flesh, scholars said.
“Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom,” Jesus says to Judas, singling him out for special status. “Look, you have been told everything. Lift up your eyes and look at the cloud and the light within it and the stars surrounding it. The star that leads the way is your star.”
The text ends with Judas turning Jesus over to the high priests and does not include any mention of the crucifixion or resurrection.
Long considered heresy
Experts said the author of the Gospel of Judas — most likely a Christian scribe in the 2nd century who drew upon even earlier oral tradition — believed that Judas Iscariot alone understood the true significance of Jesus' teachings.
"The Gospel of Judas turns Judas' act of betrayal into an act of obedience," Craig Evans, a New Testament scholar at Acadia Divinity College, said in a National Geographic statement on the find. "The sacrifice of Jesus' body of flesh in fact becomes saving. And so for that reason, Judas emerges as the champion and he ends up being envied and even cursed and resented by the other disciples."
There were several gospels in circulation at the time in addition to the four in the Bible. When the heretical scriptures were denounced, those who held the manuscripts hid them away. Garcia said the newly authenticated manuscript was reportedly hidden for centuries inside a coffinlike box within an Egyptian cave.
The Gospel of Judas is linked to a group called the Gnostics, who believed that the way to salvation was through secret knowledge given by Jesus to his inner circle.
Gnostic texts include various manuscripts attributed to figures mentioned in the canonical gospels as well, such as Mary Magdalene and the apostle Thomas, as well as philosophical treatises with heavy Greek or Jewish influences. Scholars say the manuscripts were written by believers who gradually lost out as the early Christian church became institutionalized.
Echoing other scholars, the Catholic Theological Union's Senior said the Gospel of Judas "reveals the diversity and vitality of early Christianity."
"This diversity among various Christian groups was something taken for granted in the early centuries of the church, but may be a surprise to many people today," he told reporters.
Some of the claims from Gnostic texts — for example, the idea that Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus' most important disciples and perhaps even his mate — have been woven into the plot of the popular novel "The Da Vinci Code."
Senior said the Gospel of Judas will likely spark another wave of popular interest in the debates of the early church. "God only knows what will be said on Sunday after this," he remarked, half-jokingly. But in the long run, the text would have little impact on the main tenets of present-day Christianity, he said.
"At first there will be a lot of sensation, until people start reading the Gospel of Judas," Senior said, "and then I think the impact of this on ordinary lives of Christian believers is going to be somewhat minimal."
This report includes information from The Associated Press and MSNBC.com. National Geographic Channel will air "The Gospel of Judas," a documentary on the manuscript and its story, beginning April 9.
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