'Gospel of Judas' Tells His Side

A National Geographic Society exhibitthat contains actual artifacts of the Gospel of Judas opens today in Washington. (Image credit: AP Photo/Mannie Garcia)

WASHINGTON (AP)—For 2,000 years Judas has been reviled for betraying Jesus. Now a newly translated ancient document seeks to tell his side of the story.

The "Gospel of Judas'' tells a far different tale from the four gospels in the New Testament. It portrays Judas as a favored disciple who was given special knowledge by Jesus—and who turned him in at Jesus' request.

"You will be cursed by the other generations—and you will come to rule over them,'' Jesus tells Judas in the document made public Thursday.

The text, one of several ancient documents found in the Egyptian desert in 1970, was preserved and translated by a team of scholars. It was made public in an English translation by the National Geographic Society.

Religious and lay readers alike will debate the meaning and truth of the manuscript.

But it does show the diversity of beliefs in early Christianity, said Marvin Meyer, professor of Bible studies at Chapman University in Orange, California.

The text, in the Coptic language, was dated to about the year 300 and is a copy of an earlier Greek version.

A "Gospel of Judas'' was first mentioned around A.D. 180 by Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon, in what is now France. The bishop denounced the manuscript as heresy because it differed from mainstream Christianity. The actual text had been thought lost until this discovery.

Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, said, "The people who loved, circulated and wrote down these gospels did not think they were heretics.''

Added Rev. Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union of Chicago: "Let a vigorous debate on the significance of this fascinating ancient text begin.''

Senior expressed doubt that the new gospel will rival the New Testament, but he allowed that opinions are likely to vary.

Craig Evans, a professor at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, Canada, said New Testament explanations for Judas' betrayal range from money to the influence of Satan.

"Perhaps more now can be said,'' he commented. The document "implies that Judas only did what Jesus wanted him to do.''

Christianity in the ancient world was much more diverse than it is now, with a number of gospels circulating in addition to the four that were finally collected into the New Testament, noted Bart Ehrman, chairman of religious studies at the University of North Carolina.

Eventually, one point of view prevailed and the others were declared heresy, he said, including the Gnostics who believed that salvation depended on secret knowledge that Jesus imparted, particularly to Judas.

In Cairo, the editor of the Coptic weekly "Watani,'' Youssef Sidhom, did not want to make an immediate judgment on the manuscript.

"However,'' he said, "this will not greatly affect the central belief that considers Judas as a traitor, but there is an old school of thought that says one should not persecute Judas because his role was to complete the prophecies. It seems that the new manuscript will support this point of view—that Judas' role was pivotal to completing the prophecies.''

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, the 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.

National Geographic said the author believed that Judas Iscariot alone understood the true significance of Jesus' teachings. The author of the text is not named in the writings.

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 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.

In addition to radio carbon dating, the manuscript was also authenticated through ink analysis, multispectral imaging, content and linguistic style and handwriting style, National Geographic reported.