The world is drawn into debate as the Gospel of Judas has been unveiled publicly for the first time at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.
The leather-bound papyrus codex is believed to have been copied down in Coptic from the original Greek manuscript probably around A.D. 300. Written on both sides of 13 sheets of papyrus, it was hidden in a cavern in the Egyptian desert for the past 1,700 years.
Since its first discovery in the desert near El Minya, Egypt, in the 1970s, the codex has been transferred from Egypt to Europe to the United States by various people. It finally fell into the hands of Zürich-based antiquities dealer Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos in 2000, who was alarmed by the codex's rapidly deteriorating state and delivered it to the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Basel, Switzerland, in February 2001 for conservation and translation.
In collaboration with the National Geographic Society and the Waitt Institute for Historical Discovery, an international effort was launched to authenticate, conserve and translate the codex, the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art. Rodolphe Kasser, of Switzerland, one of the world's leading Coptic scholars, was recruited to reconstruct the manuscript and to transcribe and translate the text.
The 66-page manuscript contains not only the Gospel of Judas but also a text titled James (also known as First Apocalypse of James), a Letter of Peter to Philip, and a fragment of a fourth text scholars are provisionally calling Book of Allogenes.
The manuscript, now known as Codex Tchacos, will be delivered to Egypt and housed in Cairo's Coptic Museum.
Despite strict authentication by radiocarbon dating, ink analysis, multispectral imaging, linguistic style analysis and theological concepts analysis, the ‘Gospel of Judas’ has raised debate among biblical scholars due to its alternative and somewhat controversial insights on traditional Christian teaching.
"The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week, three days before he celebrated Passover," the Judas gospel's introduction says. In contract to the image of Jesus’ betrayer portrayed by the four biblical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the New Testament, in the Gospel of Judas, Judas Iscariot was the only apostle who understood the death of Jesus and helped Jesus get rid of his physical flesh, Judas will help liberate the true spiritual self or divine being within.
The key controversial passage is quoted as Jesus tells Judas, "... you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me."
Bart Ehrman, a religion professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill spoke to Reuters, "The idea in this gospel is that Jesus, like all of us, is a trapped spirit, who is trapped in a material body. And salvation comes when we escape the materiality of our existence, and Judas is the one who makes it possible for him to escape by allowing for his body to be killed."
Jesus says in another scene, showing Judas has a special status compared to other disciples, "Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal."
He also tells Judas, "Look, you have been told everything. Lift up your eyes and look at the cloud and the light within it and the stars surrounding it. The star that leads the way is your star."
The Gospel of Judas even suggests Judas will be despised by the other disciples but will be exalted over them. "...you will be cursed by the other generations — and you will come to rule over them," Jesus says. Judas reports a vision where he is harshly opposed by the other disciples: "In the vision I saw myself as the 12 disciples were stoning me and persecuting [me severely]."
The uniqueness of the theological implication of the Gospel of Judas hinted that it may have written sometime between the canonical (biblical) gospels and A.D. 180 by a group of early Gnostic Christians.
Gnostics believed that the way to salvation was through secret knowledge- delivered by Jesus to his inner circle- that revealed how people can escape the prisons of their material bodies and return to the spiritual realm from which they came. They also believed that the true God, the Father of Jesus, is a higher being than the vengeful Old Testament God who created the universe.
The traditional biblical Gospel of Matthew recounts the story of Judas, who accepted 30 pieces of silver from Roman soldiers and handed Jesus over. Judas quickly regretted his treachery, returned the silver and hanged himself.
Dr. Mark Pruett-Barnett, the Wesley College Chaplain, says to WBOC TV 16 that the discovery comes at an interesting time, just as the theories in the fiction novel "The Da Vinci Code" heighten skepticism of Christian teachings. The Gospel of Judas will certainly raise more questions than it answers for the Christianity's greatest mystery. It is expected to draw strong critics from the conservative evangelicals, just as "The Da Vinci Code".
Two National Geographic books, "The Gospel of Judas" and "The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot," were first published on April 6. On this Sunday, April 9, the National Geographic Channel worldwide will feature a two-hour television special, "The Gospel of Judas." For further introduction about the Gospel of Judas, please visit the website.