The 78-year-old scholar, one of the world's leading Coptic experts, finished reading and carefully placed the page back on the table. "It is a beautiful language, is it not? Egyptian written in Greek characters.” He smiled. “This is a passage where Jesus is explaining to the disciples that they are on the wrong track.” The text has entranced him, and no wonder. The opening line of the first page reads, "The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot. . . .”
After nearly 2,000 years, the most hated man in history is back.
Everyone remembers the story of Jesus Christ's close friend, one of the 12 Apostles, who sold him out for 30 pieces of silver, identifying him with a kiss. Later, crazed with guilt, Judas hanged himself. He is the ultimate symbol of treachery. Stockyards call the goat that leads other animals to slaughter the Judas goat. In Germany, officials can forbid new parents from choosing the name Judas. Guides at the historic Coptic Hanging Church in Old Cairo point out one black column in the church’s white colonnades—Judas, of course. Christianity would not be the same without its traitor.
There is a sinister backdrop to traditional depictions of Judas. As Christianity distanced itself from its origins as a Jewish sect, Christian thinkers found it increasingly convenient to blame the Jews as a people for the arrest and execution of Christ, and to cast Judas as the archetypal Jew. The four Gospels, for example, treat Roman governor Pontius Pilate gently while condemning Judas and the Jewish high priests.
The "secret account” gives us a very different Judas. In this version, he is a hero. Unlike the other disciples, he truly understands Christ’s message. In handing Jesus over to the authorities, he is doing his leader's bidding, knowing full well the fate he will bring on himself. Jesus warns him: "You will be cursed.”
This message is startling enough to raise suspicions of fraud, common with alleged biblical artifacts. For example, an empty limestone box said to have held the bones of James, brother of Jesus, attracted massive crowds when it was displayed in 2002—but soon turned out to be an ingenious fake.
A Gospel of Judas is clearly more enticing than an empty box, but so far every test confirms its antiquity. The National Geographic Society, which is helping support the restoration and translation of the manuscript, commissioned a top carbon-dating laboratory at the University of Arizona to analyze the papyrus book, or codex, containing the gospel. Tests on five separate samples from the papyrus and the leather binding date the codex to sometime between A.D. 220 and 340. The ink appears to be an ancient recipe—a mix of iron gall and soot inks. And Coptic scholars say telltale turns of phrase in the gospel indicate that it was translated from Greek, the language in which most Christian texts were originally written in the first and second centuries. “We all feel comfortable putting this copy in the fourth century,” one expert says, "and Kasser is sure enough to devote the end of his life to it.”