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The Judas Gospel

APRIL 2006 Follow the discovery and translation of the Gospel of Judas with our books and DVD.

Lost for nearly 1,700 years, a crumbling papyrus manuscript presents the most hated man in history in a new light.


By Andrew Cockburn
Photographs by Kenneth Garrett


Hands trembling slightly from Parkinson’s disease, Professor Rodolphe Kasser picked up the ancient text and began reading in a strong, clear voice: “pe-di-ah-kawn-aus ente plah-nay.” These strange words were Coptic, the language spoken in Egypt at the dawn of Christianity. They had gone unheard ever since the early church declared the document off-limits for Christians.

This copy somehow survived. Hidden over eons in the Egyptian desert, it was finally uncovered late in the 20th century. Then it vanished into the netherworld of antiquities traders, one of whom abandoned it for 16 years in a bank vault in Hicksville, New York. By the time it reached Kasser, the papyrus—a form of paper made of dried water plants—was decaying into fragments, its message on the verge of being lost forever.

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.”

A further confirmation comes from the distant past. Around A.D. 180, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon in what was then Roman Gaul, wrote a massive treatise called Against Heresies. The book was a fierce denunciation of all those whose views about Jesus and his message differed from those of the mainstream church. Among those he attacked was a group who revered Judas, “the traitor,” and had produced a “fictitious history,” which “they style the Gospel of Judas.”

Decades before the fragile manuscript in Kasser’s hands was written, the angry bishop apparently knew of the original Greek text.

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