The gospel according to Judas
The only known copy of the Gospel of Judas, which casts an unorthodox light on events leading up to the Crucifixion, is returning to Egypt. Nevine El-Aref
relates the story of the codex and its conflicting perspective
The gospel of Jesus's favourite disciple, Judas, was on show yesterday in Washington's National Geographic Museum before its return to Egypt where it was found 30 years ago. The fragile codex -- made up of 13 papyrus leaves -- has been restored with a two-million-dollar fund from the National Geographic Society (NGS) and the Waitt Institute for Historical Discovery. Its most recent owners, the Basel-based Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art (MFAA), will now hand the codex over to the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo.
The gospel, written in Coptic in the third or fourth century, is believed to be a translation of an original Greek text belonging to an early Christian sect sometime before AD180. The document offers new insights into the relation between Jesus and Judas, whose betrayal led to his capture and crucifixion. Unlike the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, in which Judas is portrayed as a reviled traitor, the new gospel depicts him as acting on a request by Jesus to hand him over to the Romans.
The codex also contains a text entitled "James", otherwise known as "The First Apocalypse of James", the "Letter of Peter to Philip" and a fragment of a text that scholars are provisionally calling "The Book of Allogenes".
The codex was found in the late 1970s by a farmer near the village of Beni Mazar, near Minya in Upper Egypt. A year later this man sold it to a Cairo antiquities dealer, but after two years it was stolen along with other objects and smuggled abroad. The Egyptian dealer managed to recover his collection in Geneva and offered the codex for sale, but his price attracted no buyers so he deposited it in a bank in Hicksville, New York. There it languished for another 16 years, deteriorating until it resembled dry autumn leaves.
In April 2000 the Zurich-based antiquities dealer Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos bought the codex and presented it to Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library for examination and possible sale. It was there that Yale papyrus expert Robert Babcock discovered that Tchacos held the Gospel of Judas.
This gospel was known previously only from references such as those by St Irenaeus of Lyons about AD180, and may have been suppressed by early Christian leaders. According to the Gospel, Judas received 30 pieces of silver for the act of betraying Jesus to Roman soldiers by identifying him with a kiss. Later the guilt-ridden Judas committed suicide. However, the Gospel of Judas identifies him as Christ's favourite disciple and depicts his betrayal as the fulfilment of his mission to enable the crucifixion -- and thus the Christian movement -- to take place. The text quotes Jesus as saying to Judas: "You will exceed all of them [the other disciples] for you will sacrifice the man who clothes me."
In a statement, the NGS said the text indicated that Judas, by helping Jesus to be rid of his physical flesh, would help liberate the true spiritual self or divine being within. This view is similar to that held by the Gnostics -- members of a second-century breakaway Christian sect that challenged the early Church. They believed Judas was the most enlightened of the apostles, and that he alone understood Christ's mission.
Having made its initial discovery Yale, concerned about its provenance, did not purchase the codex. In 2001, following another failed sale, Tchacos sent it to the MFAA which teamed with the NGS and the California-based Waitt Institute for Historical Discovery to restore, authenticate and translate it. The codex was in a deplorable condition, and the MFAA turned to Coptic scholar Rodolphe Kasser, formerly of the University of Geneva, and other experts and conservators. Nearly 1,000 small and blackened fragments were reassembled, but closer examination revealed a further problem. The sheets had been reorganised in a random pattern -- probably to increase the codex's appeal to buyers by shifting pages in better physical condition to the forefront. The original pagination was lost, complicating the task. Five years later, 90 per cent of the text has been put together -- including an additional half page that recently surfaced in New York.
Handwriting experts studied and compared the text. "The kind of writing reminds me very much of the Nag Hammadi codices," Stephen Emmel, professor of Coptic studies at Germany's University of Munster, said, referring to a cache of manuscripts also found in Egypt. "It's not identical script with any of them. But it's a similar type of script, and since we date the Nag Hammadi codices to roughly the second half of the fourth century or the first part of the fifth century, my immediate inclination would be to say that the Gospel of Judas was written by a scribe in that same period, let's say around the year 400."
The Nag Hammadi texts also contain Gnostic writings similar to those found in the Judas codex.
Meanwhile, the University of Arizona's radiocarbon dating lab in Tucson -- the same lab that tested the Dead Sea Scrolls -- dated five tiny samples of papyrus and leather binding from the codex to between AD220 and 340.
McCrone Associates, a firm specialising in forensic ink analysis, found the components were consistent with ingredients in known inks from the third and fourth centuries AD. They reported that the Gospel of Judas might have been penned with an early form of iron-gall ink that included a small amount of soot. If so, it could be a previously unknown link between the ancient world's carbon-based inks and the iron-gall alternatives popular in mediaeval times.
The Gospel of Judas is only one of many texts discovered in the last 65 years, including the gospels of Thomas, Mary Magdalene and Philip, believed to be written by Gnostics. Gnostic beliefs were often viewed by early church leaders as unorthodox. The discoveries of Gnostic texts have shaken up Biblical scholarship by revealing the diversity of beliefs and practices among early followers of Jesus.
Elaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton and a specialist in Gnosticism, said in a statement: "These discoveries are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion, and demonstrating how diverse -- and fascinating -- the early Christian movement really was."
However, Bishop Basanti of the Helwan and Massara Coptic Orthodox Church told Al-Ahram Weekly that the New Testament gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John were the only gospels accepted at the council of Nicaea in AD 325 and recognised by Eastern and Western churches. "Any other gospel... are not authenticated or accepted," Basanti said.
Father Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, which advises the pope, told the New York Times that the Vatican was unlikely to regard the Gospel of Judas as a threat. He said that the Roman Catholic Church's response would probably be to "affirm the canonical texts" in the New Testament rather than seeking to refute each new discovery.
"If the Gospel of Judas suddenly became something that hundreds of thousands of Christians were claiming as their revelation and scripture, perhaps the church would come out with some kind of statement. But mostly I think it's just not even on the radar screen," Fr Senior said, adding: "I'm just glad it wasn't found in a bank vault in the Vatican."