April 7, 2006 by Joseph Krohn
One of the greatest villains in history was in truth a hero for the ages, according to an ancient gospel unveiled yesterday in Washington. Judas Iscariot, a man whose name became synonymous with betrayal for selling information about Jesus to the Romans for 30 pieces of silver — an act that led to the arrest and crucifixion of the man Christians regard as the son of God — was acting on orders from Jesus himself. “He’s the good guy. He’s the only apostle who understands Jesus,” said Bart Ehrman, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an expert in the New Testament. “In this gospel it turns out that Judas does turn Jesus over to the authorities, but according to this gospel, this is what Jesus wanted.”
In fact, Jesus entrusted Judas with a secret he did not reveal to any of his other disciples: That this world was not created by the one true God, but by a lesser, evil divinity as a place to entrap divine spirits. “The idea of this gospel is that humans have a divine spirit trapped within them that needed to escape their bodies and Jesus was just here temporarily and he also needed to escape and Judas provided him the way of doing it,” said Ehrman. Jesus even told Judas that he would come to be reviled through the ages for his actions, according to the gospel. “Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom,” Jesus says. “It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal … you will be cursed by the other generations … and you will come to rule over them … you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” The “man that clothes me” is believed to be a reference to the human body occupied by Jesus. The leather-bound papyrus text was found in the desert near El Minya, Egypt, in the 1970s.
It had been lost for nearly 1,700 years and some biblical scholars are calling the Gospel of Judas the most significant archaeological find in 60 years. The gospel was found in a codex, or ancient book, that dates back to the third or fourth century A.D. It then circulated among antiquities traders, moving from Egypt to Europe to the U.S., according to information from the National Geographic Society, which held a news conference in Washington yesterday to announce the find. The society owns the publishing rights to the gospel and it is featured on a TV special on the society’s digital channel on Sunday night, one week before the holiest day of the Christian calendar, Easter. The text languished in a safe-deposit box on Long Island, N.Y., for 16 years before being bought by a Zurich-based antiquities dealer. During that time, as much as 20 per cent of the manuscript, believed to have been copied down in Coptic — the language of the Christian church in Egypt — around 300 A.D., crumbled beyond salvation. When attempts to resell the manuscript fell through, it was transferred to the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Basel, Switzerland, in February 2001 for conservation and translation.
The papyrus manuscript — a form of paper made of dried water plants — has been authenticated by radiocarbon dating, ink analysis and multispectral imaging. Leading scholars who have studied the content and linguistic style of the manuscript have verified its authenticity. There is no doubt it is genuine, said Ehrman. Putting it back together was like assembling a jigsaw puzzle with 1,500 pieces, no picture to work with and many of the pieces missing. The manuscript was so brittle it crumbled at the slightest touch. The view of Judas as Jesus’ favourite apostle was espoused by the Gnostics, members of a second century A.D. Christian sect. The Gnostics believed that the way to salvation was through secret knowledge given by Jesus to his inner circle, and that Judas was the most enlightened apostle. Mention has been made several times throughout history of the existence of a Gospel of Judas — the first known reference was made in 180 A.D. by Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, who denounced it as heresy. The gospel was suppressed by the early Church because it conflicted with the teaching that the world was created by the one true God and that Jesus was his son, said Ehrman. The Gospel of Judas teaches that Jesus was the son, not of the creator, but of the true God, completely spiritual, beyond the world and our imagination. It conflicts with the Nicene Creed, recited in church services, which states: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” Canadian Bill Klassen, a biblical scholar and author of a book called Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus, was one of the experts consulted in the lead-up to the release of the documents. He spent a week in Jerusalem in consultations, and says he’s not 100 per cent persuaded it’s the real thing. “There have been so many fraudulent things.”
He says there are many clues in the New Testament that point to the possibility that Judas was not a traitor, but in fact the most beloved of Jesus. According to the New Testament, Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss to identify him to his persecutors. Crazed with guilt, Judas later hanged himself. His name has become synonymous with treachery. But he has been reclaimed in pop culture. Judas was sympathetically portrayed in the hit musical Jesus Christ Superstar, the controversial movie The Last Temptation of Christ, and in songs throughout the ages.
Klassen said he hopes the discussion surrounding the gospel will lead people into a deeper consideration of “the other,” to decrease their suspicion of those who are different, to question motives. If Judas, the most notorious turncoat of all times, was actually the good guy, what does that say about others we believe to be bad? Ehrman said he doubts the newly revealed gospel will change anyone’s beliefs. “I think what this gospel does is show us that Christians in the early centuries believed an extremely wide range of things.”