Was This Villain Really a Hero?
He was reviled for nearly two millenniums for selling out his leader for 30 pieces of silver. But is it possible that Judas was the indispensable and most-favored disciple, ordered by Jesus to betray him so that his mission could be fulfilled?
That, at least, is the claim of the Gospel of Judas, an ancient Egyptian Christian text whose translation into English was announced last week by the National Geographic Society.
"But you will exceed all of them," Jesus says to Judas in one passage from the 26-page Coptic manuscript. "For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me. "And, elsewhere Jesus takes Judas aside to tell him the "mysteries of the kingdom."
The Gospel that some scholars are hailing as the most important religious archaeological find in 60 years comes surrounded by its own mysteries, some related to its passage from a cave in Egypt to its current status as what Geographic Society Vice President Terry Garcia calls a "genuine work of ancient Christian apocryphal literature."
Found near El Minya, Egypt, in the 1970s, the 66-page codex containing the Judas fragment moved through the shadowy world of the antiquities market until a Swiss dealer, unable to sell the rapidly deteriorating papyrus document, entrusted it to the Basel-based Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art for conservation. The National Geographic Society, assisted by a grant from Gateway founder Ted Waitt, soon got involved in translating and authenticating the document.
Many religion specialists are already touting the work, saying that it will heighten public awareness of the diversity within early Christianity. In particular, the document sheds new light on Gnostic Christianity, a movement that orthodox Christians labeled a heresy for its emphasis on esoteric knowledge rather than otherworldly salvation as the core of Jesus's teaching.
It could be argued that what the newly translated Gospel says about Judas is not really all that new. "The Gospel according to John portrays Jesus assigning Judas his role and encouraging him," says Bruce Chilton, a professor of religion at Bard College. But what is at best ambiguous in that Gospel comes through with unmistakable clarity in the new one: Judas was only doing his duty.
This story appears in the April 17, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.