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Near East

The Gospel of Judas

Edited from BBC News, 7 April 2006

Judas Iscariot's reputation as one of the most notorious villains in history was thrown into doubt in 2006 thanks to a fresh translation of an ancient text.

The Gospel of Judas, a papyrus document from the third or fourth century AD, served to cast the fallen disciple as a benevolent figure, someone who had actually been helping Jesus to save mankind.

The early Christian Church denounced such teachings as heretical, especially during the Papal councils of the fourth century AD, when the 'official' content of the Bible was decided.

The fragile thirty-one page document, which was alleged to be a copy of an even older text, was discovered in Egypt in the 1970s.

The National Geographic Society in the US published the first translation of the text from Coptic to English in April 2006, and showed off some of the papyrus pages for the first time.

Breakaway sect

For two thousand years, official Christianity has portrayed Judas as the treacherous apostle who betrayed his divine master with a kiss, leading to his capture and crucifixion. According to the Bible, Judas received thirty pieces of silver for the act, but died soon afterwards.

However, the Gospel of Judas identifies him as Christ's favourite disciple and depicts his betrayal as the fulfilment of a divine mission to enable the crucifixion - and therefore the foundation of Christianity - 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 National Geographic Society said that this indicated that Judas, by helping Jesus get rid of his physical flesh, would help liberate the true spiritual self or divine being within. This view is similar to that held by Christian Gnostics - second century AD Christians who became rivals to the early established church organisation.

They thought that Judas was the most enlightened of the apostles, acting in order that mankind might be redeemed by the death of Christ. As such they regarded him as deserving gratitude and reverence.

'Vigorous debate'

Gnostic writers are believed to have set down their contrasting account of Judas' role in Greek, around AD 150, and some believe that this manuscript may be a copy of that.

Records show that the leaders of the early Christian Church denounced that version as heretical around AD 180.

Rev Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union of Chicago, told the Associated Press news agency that he thought it was unlikely that the text would rival the New Testament. But 'let a vigorous debate on the significance of this fascinating ancient text begin', he added.

The Gospel of Judas was found near Beni Masar in Egypt. In 2000, the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art, which is headquartered in Basel in Switzerland, took possession of the document and translation work began soon afterwards.

National Geographic struck a publication deal with the foundation last year, thought to have cost $1m (570,000). Along with a magazine article, the society published two books on the Gospel of Judas, and the National Geographic TV channel ran a special two-hour documentary on the manuscript.



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