Ancient text gives Judas heroic glow

A 1,700-year-old manuscript that has been conserved, authenticated, and translated by an international team of scholars describes Judas Iscariot, portrayed in the New Testament as a traitor, instead as a hero who handed Jesus over to authorities for crucifixion because Jesus asked him to do so.

PAGING JUDAS. The missing half-page of the Gospel of Judas. K. Garrett ©2006 National Geographic Society

The 26-page Gospel of Judas, a translation from Greek into the Coptic language of ancient Egypt, represents the thinking of early gnostic Christians, researchers announced April 6 at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. A bishop in Roman Gaul made the first known reference to the Gospel of Judas in an A.D. 180 treatise attacking its idiosyncratic take on Christianity.

The document, part of a deteriorating, leather-bound, papyrus manuscript found in an Egyptian cave more than 30 years ago, reached researchers in 2001 via an antiquities dealer. Investigators pieced together nearly 1,000 fragments of the text and performed radiocarbon dating of leather and papyrus samples. The writing’s content and linguistic style revealed its gnostic origins.

Gnostics believed that salvation derived from secret knowledge, delivered by Christ to his disciples, about how people can escape their bodily prisons and return to a spiritual realm. The newfound manuscript says that Judas will be despised by the other disciples but will also be exalted over them for helping Jesus shed his bodily self and liberate his spiritual self.

The Gospel of Judas and other recently discovered gospels demonstrate “how diverse and fascinating the early Christian movement really was,” remarks religion professor Elaine Pagels of Princeton University.

Still, the historical accuracy of the Gospel of Judas can’t be confirmed, and the text is unlikely to replace New Testament accounts among Christians today, says the Reverend Donald Senior of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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