A long-lost 2nd century “Gospel” may portray

Jesus’ betrayer as closer to a hero than a heel.

By: David Van Biema

TIME Magazine

IT COULD BE A PASSION STORY AS CO-WRITTEN BY Mick (Sympathy for the Devil) Jagger and The Matrix’s mess-with-your metaphysics Wachowski brothers: Juda Iscariot, vilified in the Gospels as Jesus’ great betrayer; was not merely an Apostle—he was perhaps Christ’s very closest confidant. Technically speaking, he did drop a dime on Jesus. But there were extenuating circumstances, some having to do with the belief that the God of the Old Testament was not the ultimate God, that this world is not what it seems and ....... well, for a full explanation, you’ll just have to see the movie.

Er, rather; see the 31-page papyrus tractate. Provocatively titled The Gospel of Judas, the alleged Coptic Egyptian translation of a 2nd century manuscript promises to be a kind of Da Vinci Code-style everything-you-know-is-wrong thrill ride. According to its holders, the text will be unveiled this spring (2006) for the first time in at least 1,500 years. If your Coptic is rusty, there will be an official translation, and a National Geographic TV special in late April, 2006, they say. (Geographic declines comment.) You’ll have eminent co-viewers: scholarly interest reaches up to the Vatican.

The first mention of a Gospel of Judas was a critical pan. In A.D. 180 the church father Irenaeus ascribed a work of that title to a group of contrarian believers who were called Cainites because they admired the first murderer; whom they saw as cursed by a cruel God. The 4th century bishop Epiphanius also attacked the text—after which it disappeared from record. “Because it was naughty” says James Robinson, an early-Christianity expert writing a book called The Secrets ofJudas, “the orthodox church suppressed it, and it was buried somewhere.”And then, much later; dug up again. Robinson reports that a leather-bound codex containing the alleged 5th century Coptic version was excavated in Egypt and emerged on the antiquities market in 1983 at a price of $3 million. It was badly damaged and apparently at one point had been torn in half. It is now possessed by a group called the Maecenas Foundation, and in 2004 a Coptic expert named Rodolphe Kasser announced that he was reassembling and translating it. “There are huge holes in it, unfortunately,” says Mario Roberty, Maecenas’ director. “But I’m astonished at just how successful scientists have been in putting things together”

Roberty is cagier regarding its content, to which Geographic owns fights. Photos of six pages supposedly from the tractate were sent several years ago to Charles Hedrick, a scholar with Missouri State University who has attempted to translate and analyze them. But Roberty claims Hedrick’s efforts are flawed in that the first four pages actually hail from a different tract bound in the same leather cover. He volunteers that the Gospel’s tone is not pugnacious—”whoever wrote it had no intention of provoking”~—but “it will prove those people right who feel that there is more to the Judas story than is obvious from the texts of the canonical Gospels.” Its very title suggests a positive or even heroic role for the Scriptures’ emblematic heel.

Roberty hints further that it is a “product of its time,” a comment that both titillates and advises caution. A.D. 150 was a heyday for Christians who postulated a higher God above the God of the Old Testament. The prospect of melding the Judas-Jesus story into this scheme is very intriguing. Yet by 150, most experts agree, a “Gospel” said more about the group that produced it than about the facts of Jesus’ life and death or even the understandings of his earliest followers. Beyond marvel-ing at the variety of Christian belief prior to doctrinal housecleaning by the early church, an average believer should not find Judas faith shaking.

Yet the rumor of its publication has stirred intriguing discussion. Queried by the newspaper La Stampa, Vatican historian Monsignor Walter Brandmuller noted that the tractate might shed light on early Christianity even if the text had eventually been found heretical. Vittorio Messori, a layman who has co-written books with Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI (when he was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) is more effusive. “Jesus’ words about Judas [“It would have been good for that man if he had not been born”] are tough:’ he told TIME. But “Judas wasn’t guilty. He was necessary. Somebody had to betray Jesus. Judas was the victim of a design bigger than himself”

Somewhere (assuming his theology allows for it) the author of the Judas Gospel must be smiling . Faith’s sentries may never cede his man a title credit. But when his treatise finally gets its red-carpet moment, the biggest news may be that even orthodoxy’s defenders can have some sympathy for the betrayer.

 —With reporting: by Jeff Israely / Rome


TIME Magazine

February 27, 2006 (pg. 51)

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