THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JUDAS ; Yesterday, a 62-Page Codex, Written from the Point of View of the Man Who Betrayed Christ and Said to Date from the 3rd or 4th Century, Was Unveiled in Washington. A Seismic Moment for the Christian Church? Paul Vallely and Andrew Buncombe Report - History of Christianity
Paul Vallely and Andrew Buncombe, The Independent (London, England)
It will "shake Christianity to its foundations". Or so the pre- publicity suggested. A 3rd or 4th-century document called "The Gospel of Judas" was launched upon an unsuspecting world yesterday by no less a biblical authority than the National Geographic magazine in Washington. Its contents were "explosive", according to Mario Roberty, president of the Swiss foundation which now owns the ancient papyrus manuscript.
So as the heat faded from the television lights at the press conference, has 2000 years of orthodox Christianity been overturned? Well, not quite. But it was all jolly interesting, for those who love that sort of thing.
Half of the 62-page codex, written in Coptic script, is devoted to an account of the final days of Jesus Christ written from the viewpoint of the man who has for two millennia been excoriated as Christ's deadly betrayer. The text begins: "The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot three days before he celebrated Passover..."
Secret, hang on to that. That's the important bit.
And though the manuscript has been carbon-dated to around 300 AD, it is likely to be a copy of an earlier Greek manuscript written around the year 150AD, in the same period when the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were also written down. So, the new discovery is serious competition, the National Geographic people implied, for the official version.
What The Gospel of Judas says is that, far from being Jesus's enemy, Judas was his chief apostle - who "betrayed" him to the authorities at the actual request of his master in order to fulfil a divine ordinance for the salvation of the world. Judas, alone of the disciples, understood the true significance of Jesus' teachings - because Jesus told him. "You will exceed all of them," Jesus tells the main man in the key passage in the text, "for you will sacrifice the man that clothed me".
Thus the individual whose name has entered the language as a synonym for traitor - selling his master for 30 pieces of silver, the amount for which the law of Moses specified an Israelite could buy or sell a slave - was, instead of being the big villain, the secret hero.
"The Pharisees ... went to Judas and told him ... although you are evil in this place, you are Jesus' true disciple. And he answered them as they wanted him to. And Judas received the money. And he surrendered him. This is the end of the Gospel of Judas." Without Judas's help, Jesus would not have been crucified and God's plan to redeem mankind, the Gospel suggests, would not have been fulfilled.
What makes all this rather dubious is not just the provenance of the new document, though as a dossier it is dodgy enough. The National Geographic yesterday said the manuscript had been found in Egypt in El Minya on the Nile in 1978 - though when it was offered to potential buyers previously it was variously said to have been found elsewhere in Egypt in 1947, during the 1960s, in the mid-70s, and in 1980.
It was first shown to academics in a seedy hotel room in Geneva in 1983. They turned down the $3m asking price for the smuggled book. There was at least one other known attempt to sell it in the 1990s after which it languished in a safe deposit box in New York where the condition of the papyrus deteriorated.
But then in 2004 Professor Rudolf Kasser caused a stir at a conference of Coptic specialists in Paris by announcing that he was working on translating the text from the same Sahidic dialect of Coptic used in the 46 different apocryphal texts discovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi in Egypt - books such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Truth which had prompted a major re-evaluation of early Christian history. The rumour was that the National Geographic had bought the Gospel of Judas manuscript, which also contained several other works. …