The third or fourth century ancient Coptic manuscript, authenticated, translated and now on display at the National Geographic headquarters in Washington, paints a different picture of Judas and Jesus.
The only known surviving copy of the Gospel of Judas, contained in a papyrus manuscript known as a codex, maintains that Jesus requested that Judas “betray” him by handing him to authorities for execution, something it says that pained Judas greatly.
National Geographic said the key passage in the Gospel of Judas text comes when Jesus tells Judas “… you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”
The text indicates that Judas, by helping Jesus get rid of his physical flesh, would help liberate the true spiritual self or divine being within, National Geographic said in a statement.
“The codex has been authenticated as a genuine work of ancient Christian apocryphal literature on five fronts: radiocarbon dating, ink analysis, multispectral imaging, contextual evidence and paleographic evidence,” said Terry Garcia, executive vice president for Mission Programs for the National Geographic Society.
“This dramatic discovery of an ancient non-biblical text, considered by some to be the most significant in the past 60 years, enhances our knowledge of the history and theological viewpoints of the early Christian period, and is worthy of study by historians, scholars and theologians,” Mr Garcia said.
The first known reference to a Gospel of Judas is found in a treatise by Saint Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, then part of Roman Gaul. The treatise, in around 180 AD, denounces the text as a heresy.
Elaine Pagels, a religion professor at Princeton University and one of the world’s leading authorities on gnostic gospels, said: “The astonishing discovery of the Gospel of Judas, along with the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the many other recently discovered gospels that had remained hidden for nearly 2,000 years, 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,” she said.
The 66-page leather-bound papyrus text is believed to have been copied down in Coptic from an original Greek text around 300 AD.
It was found in the 1970s in the desert near El Minya, Egypt, then moved among antiquities traders from Egypt to Europe and the United States.
The codex remained in a safe-deposit box in a Long Island, New York bank for 16 years before it was bought by Zurich-based antiquities dealer Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos in 2000.
Concerned about the rapidly deteriorating condition of the manuscript, she transferred it to the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Basel, Switzerland, in February 2001 for preservation and translation.
Piecing together the fragile 26-page Gospel of Judas, written on both sides of 13 sheets of papyrus, was “one of the most complex puzzles ever devised by history,” the National Geographic said.
Analysis and translation was conducted by a team of Coptic scholars directed by Rudolf Kasser, a retired University of Geneva professor, who said he had never seen a manuscript in worse shape.
The manuscript, now known as Codex Tchacos, will be returned to Egypt and housed at Cairo’s Coptic Museum.
National Geographic has a dedicated website on the Gospel of Judas, at www.nationalgeographic.com/lostgospel.