Newly authenticated, ancient text says Judas was no traitor
and World Science staff
An ancient manuscript dating from the third or fourth century, containing the only known surviving copy of the Gospel of Judas, has been conserved, authenticated and translated after being lost for nearly 1,700 years, scientists say.
The National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. announced the findings April 6, when it also unveiled pages of the papyrus manuscript, or codex. The document is believed to be a translation of an original Greek text written by a group of early Christians considered heretics in their time.
The document gives a different view of the relationship between Jesus and Judas, offering new insights into the disciple, who according to the biblical story, betrayed Jesus. Unlike the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which portray Judas as a traitor, the document portrays Judas as acting at Jesus’ request when he hands Jesus over to the authorities.
The 66-page manuscript contains not only the Gospel of Judas but also a text titled James (also known as First Apocalypse of James), a Letter of Peter to Philip, and a fragment of a fourth text scholars are provisionally calling Book of Allogenes.
Terry Garcia, executive vice president for Mission Programs for the National Geographic Society, said the text has been authenticated as dating from about the third or fourth century using radioarbon dating, ink analysis and three other methods.
“This dramatic discovery of an ancient, non-biblical text, considered by some to be the most significant of the past 60 years, enhances our knowledge of the history and theological viewpoints of the early Christian period,” he said.
The leather-bound papyrus codex, believed to have been copied down in Coptic probably around A.D. 300, was found in the 1970s in the desert near El Minya, Egypt. Researchers said it then circulated among antiquities traders. Eventually a Zürich-based dealer, Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos, alarmed by its rapid deterioration, handed it over it to the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Basel, Switzerland, in 2001 for conservation and translation.
The long-buried manuscript, now known as Codex Tchacos, will be delivered to Egypt and housed in Cairo’s Coptic Museum, society officials said.
Rodolphe Kasser of Switzerland, a leading Coptic scholar who was recruited to reconstruct and translate the manuscript, said he had never seen one in worse shape. Pages were missing, some pages had been rearranged, the top half containing the page numbers had broken away, and nearly a thousand fragments lay scattered. “The manuscript was so brittle, it would crumble at the slightest touch,” he said.
Putting together its scattered fragments was a challenge, he said. “If you take a nine- to 10-page typed document, rip it into tiny pieces, throw away half the pieces and try to reconstruct the other half, you will get an idea how difficult this process is,” Kasser said.
The manuscript would be a Coptic translation of an original Greek text written between the time of the biblical gospels and 180 A.D. by a group of early gnostic Christians. Gnostics believed that the way to salvation was through secret knowledge delivered by Jesus to his inner circle—that revealed how people can escape the prisons of their material bodies to return to a spiritual realm.
The first known reference to a Gospel of Judas is around 180 A.D. in a treatise, “Against Heresies,” by Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, who denounced a group that “produce a fictitious story… which they style the Gospel of Judas.” Irenaeus declared that of the many different gospels circulating at that time, just four should be recognized: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Scholars believe that after other gospels were declared off-limits, followers hid copies of them.
In the Gospel of Judas, Jesus selects Judas from among the other disciples for a special task: “... you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” Jesus would thus have been asking Judas to help him get rid of his physical flesh, to free the spiritual being within.
The gospel also suggests Judas will be reviled, but rewarded: “...you will be cursed by the other generations—and you will come to rule over them,” Jesus says. Judas also reports a vision where he is persecuted by other disciples, suffering stoning from them.
The gospel ends abruptly. “They [the arresting party] approached Judas and said to him, ‘What are you doing here? You are Jesus’ disciple.’ Judas answered them as they wished. And he received some money and handed him over to them.” No mention is made in this gospel of Jesus’ crucifixion or supposed resurrection.
Biblical scholars said this alternative tale is an important window into the minds of early Christians and offers new evidence of the diversity of the early Church.
It “is transforming our understanding of early Christianity. These discoveries are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion, and demonstrating how diverse and fascinating the early Christian movement really was,” said Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J.
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