History of Christianity: The Gospel according to Judas

Yesterday, a 62-page codex, written from the point of view of the man who betrayed Christ and said to date from the 3rd or 4th century, was unveiled in Washington. A seismic moment for the Christian church? Paul Vallely and Andrew Buncombe report

It will "shake Christianity to its foundations". Or so the pre-publicity suggested. A 3rd or 4th-century document called "The Gospel of Judas" was launched upon an unsuspecting world yesterday by no less a biblical authority than the National Geographic magazine in Washington. Its contents were "explosive", according to Mario Roberty, president of the Swiss foundation which now owns the ancient papyrus manuscript.

So as the heat faded from the television lights at the press conference, has 2000 years of orthodox Christianity been overturned? Well, not quite. But it was all jolly interesting, for those who love that sort of thing.

Half of the 62-page codex, written in Coptic script, is devoted to an account of the final days of Jesus Christ written from the viewpoint of the man who has for two millennia been excoriated as Christ's deadly betrayer. The text begins: "The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot three days before he celebrated Passover..."

Secret, hang on to that. That's the important bit.

And though the manuscript has been carbon-dated to around 300AD, it is likely to be a copy of an earlier Greek manuscript written around the year 150AD, in the same period when the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were also written down. So, the new discovery is serious competition, the National Geographic people implied, for the official version.

What The Gospel of Judas says is that, far from being Jesus's enemy, Judas was his chief apostle - who "betrayed" him to the authorities at the actual request of his master in order to fulfil a divine ordinance for the salvation of the world. Judas, alone of the disciples, understood the true significance of Jesus' teachings - because Jesus told him. "You will exceed all of them," Jesus tells the main man in the key passage in the text, "for you will sacrifice the man that clothed me".

Thus the individual whose name has entered the language as a synonym for traitor - selling his master for 30 pieces of silver, the amount for which the law of Moses specified an Israelite could buy or sell a slave - was, instead of being the big villain, the secret hero.

"The Pharisees ... went to Judas and told him ... although you are evil in this place, you are Jesus' true disciple. And he answered them as they wanted him to. And Judas received the money. And he surrendered him. This is the end of the Gospel of Judas." Without Judas's help, Jesus would not have been crucified and God's plan to redeem mankind, the Gospel suggests, would not have been fulfilled.

What makes all this rather dubious is not just the provenance of the new document, though as a dossier it is dodgy enough. The National Geographic yesterday said the manuscript had been found in Egypt in El Minya on the Nile in 1978 - though when it was offered to potential buyers previously it was variously said to have been found elsewhere in Egypt in 1947, during the 1960s, in the mid-70s, and in 1980.

It was first shown to academics in a seedy hotel room in Geneva in 1983. They turned down the $3m asking price for the smuggled book. There was at least one other known attempt to sell it in the 1990s after which it languished in a safe deposit box in New York where the condition of the papyrus deteriorated.

But then in 2004 Professor Rudolf Kasser caused a stir at a conference of Coptic specialists in Paris by announcing that he was working on translating the text from the same Sahidic dialect of Coptic used in the 46 different apocryphal texts discovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi in Egypt - books such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Truth which had prompted a major re-evaluation of early Christian history. The rumour was that the National Geographic had bought the Gospel of Judas manuscript, which also contained several other works.

There was no doubt that a Gospel of Judas had once existed. That much was clear from the writings of a second-century bishop, St Irenaeus of Lyons, who condemned it in his work Adversus Haereses (Against the Heresies) written around 180AD. He even set out what it said. Its authors "believe that Judas the Betrayer was fully informed of these things and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, fulfilled the secret of betrayal that confused all things, both in heaven and on earth". The text was the work of a sect called the Cainites who were so determined to accentuate the positive that they saw Cain (the Old Testament's first murderer) as a hero too. Some academics suggest that Irenaeus took as his source Justin Martyr which would date the Gospel of Judas 120AD.

The Cainites were part of a movement known as the Gnostics, a sect often described as Christian heresy but which was a syncretistic tendency that picked-and-mixed elements from many different religions. What was common to their magpie pickings was the notion that salvation was to be achieved by the acquisition of secret or arcane knowledge (gnosis in Greek). The Gospel of Judas suits their purposes admirably. It contains a radically different creation story, with the world created by angels, and in several places in the text Judas is singled out for special treatment by Jesus:

"Step away from the others and I shall tell you the secret of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it but you will grieve a great deal.

"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."

If only these Gnostics could acquire the same secret knowledge given by Jesus to his inner circle, they would be saved too.

The modern world is not big on salvation - though our obsession with "personal fulfilment" is an attenuated version of the notion - but we are still terribly keen on secrets. The persistence of Gnosticism through the centuries is testimony to that, surfacing in everything from medieval heresies to modern romanticism - it is there in William Blake, in theosophy, Aleister Crowley, Jung and most recently in the work of Philip Pullman.

And it plays into the contemporary proclivity for conspiracy. Mario Roberty, the Judas manuscript's owner, is wont to drop dark hints about there being another copy of the unauthorised gospel - in the Vatican Library which the Church of Rome has for centuries refused to publish.

"It is highly logical that the Catholic Church would have kept a copy of the forbidden gospels," he has said. The Vatican only makes life easier for such searchers after the arcane by refusing to deny such claims, though to be fair, as the plethora of books like The Da Vinci Code and Holy Blood, Holy Grail show, Rome could spend all its time denying all manner of hair-brained claims that secularists find more plausible than the central Christian notion that God became man in Jesus Christ.

All that, and the post-Freudian urge to uncover psychological motivation, explains the attraction of Judas to our time. For the past 100 years the figure who has for two millennia been the archetype of treachery has been far more likely to be accorded sympathetic treatment than in the days when he was seen as the personification of betrayal.

Edward Elgar in his oratorio, The Apostles, depicted Judas's betrayal as an attempt to force Jesus to declare his divinity and establish the kingdom on earth. One of Jorge Luis Borges' short stories in Three Versions of Judas concluded that Judas is the true saviour of humanity.

The film The Last Temptation Of Christ drew on the notion that the crucifixion of Christ was a conscious re-enactment of biblical prophecy in which Judas acted with Jesus's full knowledge. The musical Jesus Christ Superstar shows Judas as a man who believes in and loves Jesus, but wants a lasting charity organisation rather than a new religion.

Judas is even to get an empathetic portrayal in next week's BBC extravaganza, The Manchester Passion, which dramatises the final hours of the life of Christ with songs from local rock groups, including Oasis, Joy Division, New Order and M People - Judas will sing The Smiths' "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now". And after that one of the Holy Blood, Holy Grail authors is to produce a new book alleging that it was Judas rather than Jesus who died on the Cross. (Not that there is anything new in that either, by the way; a similar claim is to be found in the medieval Gospel of Barnabas whose author won't at least sue in the High Court for plagiarism).

All of which seems to have left the foundations of Christianity - currently with 1.6 billion believers worldwide, and growing - looking decidedly unshaken. One of the scholars wheeled out for yesterday's launch Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton University, the author of The Gnostic Gospels, was enthusiastic about the addition of the Gospel of Judas to the Gnostic canon. "[This] is transforming our understanding of early Christianity," she said. "These discoveries are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion."

But most experts remain underwhelmed. "In a way we have been through these things before, with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library," said Father Donald Senior, president of the American Catholic Theological Union, another of the prominent theologians at the launch.

"I think the most important thing will be to highlight the diversity of the early Christian community. But will it be a source of inspiration and teaching today? I doubt it."

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