WASHINGTON – The National Geographic Society on Thursday released the first modern translation of the ancient “Gospel of Judas,” which depicts the most reviled villain in Christian history as a devoted follower who was simply doing Jesus’ bidding when he betrayed him.
The text’s existence has been known since it was denounced as heresy by the bishop of Lyon in A.D. 180, but its contents had remained an almost total mystery. Unlike the four gospels of the New Testament, it describes conversations between Jesus and Judas Iscariot during the week before Passover in which Jesus tells Judas “secrets no other person has ever seen.”
The other apostles pray to a lesser God, Jesus says, and reveals to Judas the “mysteries of the kingdom” of the true God. He asks Judas to help him return to the kingdom, but to do so, Judas must help him abandon his mortal flesh: “You will sacrifice the man that clothes me,” Jesus tells Judas, and acknowledges that Judas “will be cursed by the other generations.”
Scholars said the 26-page document was written on 13 sheets of papyrus leaf in ancient Egyptian, or Coptic, and was bound as a book, known as a codex. It is one of dozens of sacred texts from the Christian Gnostics, who believed that salvation came through secret knowledge conveyed by Jesus.
Its anonymous author was “obviously a Christian person very sympathetic to a Gnostic point of view,” said Coptic scholar Marvin Meyer, of Orange, Calif.’s Chapman University. The codex was written in the second century when various groups of Christians circulated what they called gospels – “good news” – purportedly written by most of the disciples and several other followers of Jesus, among them Mary Magdalene.
Most were outlawed during a centuries-long battle to determine which sacred texts would comprise the canon of Christian orthodoxy known today as the New Testament.
National Geographic, which funded much of the research, said it authenticated the codex through radiocarbon dating, ink analysis and study of the script. And despite a murky history, no scholar has suggested the document is a forgery, a problem that has dogged several recent finds, most notably the bone box, or ossuary, purported to have contained the remains of Jesus’ brother James.
As an authentic ancient Gnostic text, the Gospel of Judas is certain to spark a surge of interest by both theologians and the faithful, but scholars said it is unclear whether it also will prompt a re-evaluation of the traitor denounced by Matthew for betraying Jesus for “30 pieces of silver.”
“At one level the (New Testament) gospels already see the betrayal as a mysterious part of God’s plan,” said the Rev. Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He predicted the new text would produce “a short-term sensation” but that after Christians read it, “the impact on the lives of ordinary believers will be minimal.”
The ancient manuscript, a third- or fourth-century translation of a second-century original probably written in Greek, was unearthed by looters near El Minya, Egypt, in the 1970s. It came to the attention of scholars in 1983 when an Egyptian antiquities dealer tried to sell it to American researchers for $3 million.
After the document passed through several hands and venues, including 16 years deteriorating in a safe deposit box in Hicksville, N.Y., National Geographic reached an agreement in 2004 to help finance its authentication and translation in return for publication rights.
Terry Garcia, National Geographic’s executive vice president for mission programs, said at a news conference that the society had contributed “more than $1 million” to the project so far. The organization released two books Thursday: an annotated translation and the story of how the text came to light. The gospel will also generate a magazine cover article, a television documentary, an exhibit and its own Web site.
The arrangement between National Geographic and the Swiss-based Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art, the manuscript’s current owner, raised long-standing questions about how such transactions may effectively legitimize illegal traffic in antiquities.
“The Swiss who bought it couldn’t sell it for a profit, because of laws that say you can’t sell illegal antiquities,” said Claremont Graduate University theologian James Robinson, the Coptic scholar first approached to purchase the gospel 26 years ago. “Instead of selling the papyrus, they decided to market the contents.” The Foundation said it intends to donate the codex to the Coptic Museum in Cairo once it is fully restored.
Ted Wiatt, founder of computer-maker Gateway Inc., donated approximately $1 million to underwrite National Geographic’s efforts. National Geographic, in turn, passed this money on to Mario Jean Roberty, a Swiss lawyer who heads the Maecenas Foundation.
Roberty said in an interview that he purchased the codex in February 2001 from a Swiss antiquities dealer, Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos, for $1.5 million plus half of all future proceeds from the document.
He said he also put more than $1 million into the initial restoration of the manuscript, underwriting the efforts of Coptic scholar Rodolphe Kasser and others for five years to piece together more than 1,000 papyrus fragments before the National Geographic got involved. “I’m still on the nervous side economically,” Roberty said. “I have to take in another $2.3 million before I break even.”
So far, the biggest financial beneficiary appears to be Nussberger-Tchacos, who paid about $300,000 for the codex, according to National Geographic, which is poised to generate substantial revenues from its publications. Garcia said Maecenas would receive “some compensation” from book sales.
“They have to earn back their money, and they’re trying to sell their books on all sides,” Robinson said of National Geographic. “That’s why they’re publishing it around Easter and before release of ‘The DaVinci Code,’ ” he added, referring to the film version of the popular book.
But Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, said that because of National Geographic “at least the text seems to be becoming available, and that’s good. The price is that they’ve had to be part of a scheme to increase its value.”
Besides the Gospel of Judas, the codex also includes three other texts. Two were already known to scholars from the Nag Hammadi Library, a trove of Gnostic manuscripts found in Egypt in 1945. The third, provisionally titled the Book of Allogenes, or the “stranger,” is badly fragmented, members of the translation team said.
Biblical scholars said the Gospel of Judas differs from the four New Testament gospels in at least two important ways. First, it portrays Judas not as the betrayer of Jesus but as the most favored of his disciples, the only one who truly understood Jesus.
Some scholars suggested that view – if it had been accepted – might have lessened anti-Semitism over the centuries. “The story of the betrayal of Jesus by Judas gave a moral and religious rationale to anti-Jewish sentiment, and that’s what made it persistent and vicious,” said Princeton University professor Elaine Pagels.
Second, the Gospel of Judas offers a new creation story, depicting the evil world as the product of a bloodthirsty, foolish lower deity, rather than the higher, true God. This duality “is why this gospel could never be accepted by orthodox Christianity,” said Bart Ehrman, chairman of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Scholars disagreed on whether the Gospel sheds any new light on the historical Jesus and Judas Iscariot. Senior, the Catholic priest, said he saw “no evidence that it has a legitimate historical basis” and thought it probably was written by Gnostics who retrospectively attributed their own beliefs to Judas.
But Craig Evans, a professor at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, said the New Testament also may hint at the new text’s central theme – that Jesus instructed Judas in private to betray him.
In the Book of John, Evans noted, Jesus tells Judas at the Last Supper, “Do quickly what you are going to do,” and none of the other disciples knows what he means. “Maybe (the Gospel of Judas) points us in a direction where we can understand Judas’ relationship to Jesus a little better,” he said.
The Gospel of Judas, however, ends abruptly, drawing no conclusions about the consequences of betrayal: 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.”