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An ancient manuscript paints Judas Iscariot not as Christ's betrayer but as his favorite disciple

A long-lost manuscript dating to the early Christian era and unveiled Thursday tells the Easter story from a strikingly different perspective: that of Judas Iscariot, long reviled as the man who betrayed Jesus.

The "Gospel of Judas," as the document has been titled, portrays Judas as Jesus' favorite, entrusted with secrets withheld from the other disciples. His role in the crucifixion was laudable, for it enabled Jesus to escape the limitations of the flesh.

In this version, "Judas is the good guy," said Bart Ehrman, a University of North Carolina professor of religious history.

The 3rd or 4th Century manuscript, written in Coptic on sheets of papyrus, was discovered in Egypt in the 1970s only to vanish again into an underworld of smugglers and shadowy antiquities dealers. On Thursday it was unveiled by the National Geographic Society, which is publishing the text and other materials.

The text describes itself as "The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week three days before he celebrated Passover."

The announcement of an alternative account to those of Mark, Matthew, John and Luke is bound to stir the passions of believers--especially coming shortly before the annual commemoration of Jesus' final days.

"It raises the question: What does the Sunday school teacher tell her students?" said Hershel Shanks, publisher of Biblical Archeology Review, a longtime forum for scholars and others interested in biblical times.

Princeton University professor Elaine Pagels said she thinks the Judas gospel will alert contemporary believers to the fact that in earlier times there was not one but several kinds of Christianity. Some would seem strange, even alien, to present-day churchgoers, being more mystical and mysterious than they are used to.

"In the ancient world, Christianity was even more diverse than now," Ehrman said. "Some thought there were two Gods, a good and a bad one; some thought there were even more."

James Robinson, who has edited other alternative gospels recovered in modern times, thinks the newly announced one is being oversold. Such discoveries, however initially exciting, usually wind up as footnotes rather than radically revising religious tradition, he said.

"The ring is more classy than the thing," Robinson said. "It's going to be a dud."

There could be a hint of sour grapes in that forecast. Robinson was the first scholar offered a chance to publish the text but couldn't redeem the opportunity.

"In 1983, I was told that the manuscript could be examined by a student of mine in Geneva, Switzerland, but only for 30 minutes," he said. "It was obvious the stuff had been smuggled out. I tried by hook or crook over the next decade to raise the money they wanted for it."

The asking price was $3 million, and negotiations led Robinson to furtive meetings in an Athens hotel to set up still other meetings in New York that, in the end, never came off. Eventually, the manuscript was transferred to a bank vault on Long Island, where the delicate leaves deteriorated over 16 years. Before it could be published, the National Geographic Society noted, fragments had to be put back together like pieces of a priceless jigsaw puzzle.

In 2000, the gospel was acquired by a Zurich dealer who couldn't find a buyer, presumably because of increasing sensitivity by collectors and museums to the issue of art and antiquities with questionable provenances. So the National Geographic Society partnered with a Swiss foundation to publish the text, while the manuscript is to be returned to Egypt.

The financial arrangements were not disclosed, but Shanks was told National Geographic put up more than $1 million, which it will seemingly try to recoup through book sales and a film version of the manuscript's scholarly detective story.

Shanks noted that although the twisted history of the manuscript's modern travels raises ethical questions, he thinks they are outweighed by the potential gain to scholarship.

"If we insist on a high road to morality that forbids us to have anything to do with dirty fingers, we won't get the stuff scholars need to understand the background of the Bible," Shanks said.

Carbon-dating of the Judas gospel shows that the manuscript, 13 sheets with writing on both sides, dates to between 220 and 340 A.D. The text itself probably goes back to an earlier version written in Greek, the common language of educated classes in the Eastern Mediterranean world at that time.

Scholars reason the work had to have been composed before about 180 A.D., when a Christian bishop, Irenaeus of Lyon, denounced those he considered heretics for honoring Judas' memory: "And they bring forth a fabricated work to this effect, which they entitle the Gospel of Judas."
Robinson notes that Irenaeus wrote in an era when different Christian communities still had different scriptures, through which they justified their beliefs by tracing them back to the disciples and apostles. That, he thinks, tells us something about whoever wrote and read the newly available Judas gospel.

"They used Judas to vindicate their gnosticism," he said. "The gnostics believed that there was a bad God who made the world and a good God who sends an emissary so they can ascend to heaven."

Gnosticism--the word comes from the Greek for "knowing"--was an approach to religion that stressed mystical knowledge as the way to salvation. Eventually, it was driven out of orthodox Christianity, which held that belief was the route to heaven, Robinson said, and the accepted canon of the New Testament was fixed.

Even if the text is authentic, the Vatican and many other Christian traditions would not consider it part of the Bible. Pope Benedict XVI used a recent weekly audience to defend the traditional view of Judas, labeling him the "traitor apostle."

Scholars hope one thing may prove true: The new version of the story could help mend fences between Christians and Jews. For centuries, Judas has symbolized Jews' rejection of Jesus.

"That has been the elephant in the room," said Shanks. "The Judas story has been the basis for an enormous amount of anti-Semitism."

But what about the possibility that the new story may change the common view of Judas? Rev. Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, was skeptical.

"I could be proven wrong," said Senior. "If so, I hope Judas will forgive me when my time comes."

- - -

`The Gospel of Judas'

The manuscript consists mostly of conversations between Jesus and Judas Iscariot. Some of Jesus' remarks, as published by National Geographic:

On Judas' special status: "Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal. For someone else will replace you, in order that the twelve [disciples] may again come to completion with their god."

On the consequences of Judas' role in the crucifixion: "You will become the thirteenth, and you will be cursed by the other generations--and you will come to rule over them. In the last days they will curse your ascent to the holy [generation]."

On Jesus' need to be freed from his physical body: " ... you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me."

- - -

A new revelation

An ancient manuscript may shed new light on the relationship between Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot, the disciple who purportedly betrayed him.

180 A.D.: The original Greek text is first referenced by St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon. It was thought to have been written by a group of Gnostic Christians, although it's unknown who wrote the manuscript.

Circa 300 A.D.: Scholars believe the 13 double-sided papyrus sheets, which were written in ancient Egyptian Coptic script, were translated from the Greek version.

1970s: The document remained hidden in the desert near El Minya, Egypt, for nearly 1,700 years. It was intact when discovered, but deteriorated extensively after it was put in a safe-deposit box in Long Island. It remained there for 16 years until it was purchased by a Zurich-based antiquities dealer, Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos.

2000: The dealer who bought the manuscript unsuccessfully tried to sell it twice. Eventually it was transferred to the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art, in Basel, Switzerland, to be restored and translated.

2001: A team led by Coptic scholar Rudolf Kasser commenced work on the document, painstakingly piecing together almost 1,000 fragments of the papyrus manuscript.

April 6, 2006: The assembled document is showcased by National Geographic at a press conference and will ultimately be placed in the Coptic Museum in Cairo.
sources:Bell Globe Media, Chicago Tribune, Associated Press

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related internet links

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