Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Here Comes Judas!

This is a story I received as part of the Biblical Archaeology Society's weekly e-newsletter, the BAR Companion. I'll be interested to see future developments on this front in the coming months...

Another Take on Gospel Truth About Judas
Manuscript Could Add to Understanding of Gnostic Sect
By Stacy Meichtry
Religion News Service
Saturday, February 25, 2006; Page B09

The first translation of an ancient, self-proclaimed "Gospel of Judas" will be published in late April, bringing to light what some scholars believe are the writings of an early Christian sect suppressed for supporting Jesus's infamous betrayer.

If authentic, the manuscript could add to the understanding of Gnosticism, an unorthodox Christian theology denounced by the early church. The Roman Catholic Church is aware of the manuscript, which a Vatican historian called "religious fantasy."

According to scholars who have seen photographs of the brittle manuscript, it argues that Judas Iscariot was carrying out God's will when he handed Jesus over to his executioners. The manuscript could bring momentum to a broader academic movement that argues Judas has gotten a bum rap among historians and theologians as well as in popular culture.

The manuscript's owner said he has cut a deal with the National Geographic Society to release the English translation with a multimedia splash after Easter.

Monsignor Walter Brandmuller, president of the Vatican's Committee for Historical Science, called it "a product of religious fantasy."

In an interview, he said the manuscript would not have any impact on church teaching.

"We welcome the [manuscript] like we welcome the critical study of any text of ancient literature," Brandmuller said.

He said that despite some reports to the contrary, the drive to improve Judas's reputation does not have the support of the Vatican.

"There is no campaign, no movement for the rehabilitation of the traitor of Jesus," Brandmuller said.

Brushed onto 31 pages of papyrus in Coptic, an Egyptian script, the manuscript has become tattered after spending centuries buried beneath the sands of Egypt and decades on the gray market.

According to Mario Roberty, a Swiss lawyer who owns the manuscript, the document, known as a codex, has undergone restoration and translation by researchers led by the Swiss Coptic scholar Rodolphe Kasser.

"They've put each page under glass. It's incredibly brittle and in bad shape," Roberty said in a phone interview from Geneva.

Results of the research, Roberty said, will be released after Easter, when Christians around the world traditionally mark the official version of Jesus's death as told by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Roberty would not discuss the contents of the codex, and a National Geographic spokeswoman in Washington, Mary Jeanne Jacobsen, would not comment at all. But scholars independently following the project have begun to anticipate some of its findings.

Working from photographs of the codex, Charles Hedrick, a retired professor of Coptic studies at Missouri State University, has translated six pages into English, including the codex's title, "The Gospel of Judas."

Some of the manuscript's passages echo descriptions in the New Testament of Jesus's arrest, recalling how Roman authorities aimed to "seize [Jesus] in the act of prayer" and how Judas "took some money and he delivered [Jesus] over to them," Hedrick said, quoting from his translation.

Although Judas cooperates in the arrest of Jesus, Hedrick said, the codex does not depict him as a villain.

"Judas is not a bad guy in this text," Hedrick said in an interview. "He is the good guy, and he is serving God."

Hedrick and other scholars said the codex was produced in the 4th or 5th century and reflects the theological traditions of a 2nd-century sect of Gnostics, a community that believed true spirituality derived from a self-knowledge, or "gnosis." Figures depicted as sinful in the Old Testament, such as Cain and Esau, were typically extolled under Gnostic theology.

As early as the year 178, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, a heresy watchdog of the early church, targeted the community for declaring that "Judas the traitor . . . alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal."

"They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas," Irenaeus wrote in "Against Heresies." Scholars say it's possible Irenaeus was reading an earlier version of the soon-to-be-published transcript, but that point is speculation.

William Klassen, author of "Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus?," considers the forthcoming manuscript an asset to scholarly efforts to rehabilitate Judas's historical image.

Many scholars believe that Judas -- whose name literally means "Jewish man" -- was a victim of anti-Jewish slander that pervaded early Christianity in its struggle to break away from Judaism.

"It's important to look at this Gospel of Judas very carefully, because this is evidence that in the late 2nd century, in the time of Irenaeus, there was a group who held up the banner for Judas," Klassen said.

Other scholars are withholding judgment until the codex is publicly authenticated.

Michael White, director of the Institute for the Study of Antiquity and Christian Origins at the University of Texas at Austin, said researchers will be hard pressed to authenticate the codex if the history of its discovery is not clearly documented.

"They have to file artifacts of that sort with the government's archaeological oversight board," White said.

According to Roberty, such documentation is unavailable because the codex was smuggled out of Egypt before he purchased it in 2001.

"The manuscript itself was illegally exported because it had been stolen in Egypt," said Roberty, adding that he planned to eventually return the manuscript to Egypt.

James Robinson, a retired professor of Coptic studies at Claremont Graduate University and general editor of the English edition of the Nag Hammadi Library, vouched for the document's authenticity based on his experience in trying to purchase the codex as early as 1983.

"I don't know of any scholar who thinks this is fake," said Robinson, who is not involved in the National Geographic project.