Times of Malta, Malta
April 15 2006

The Judas manuscript: Is it Gospel?
Mark Micallef


Judas betraying Christ as depicted in a Good Friday statue in Naxxar.
Photo: Gino Galea


Lost for 1,700 years, the National Geographic Society recently
released a translation of what is believed to be the gospel of Judas,
an anonymous account of early Christian history, which recasts Judas
Iscariot, the symbol of treachery personified, in a new, positive
light. Mark Micallef looks into the claims of "the gospel" in a bid
to establish what effect it will have on established Christian
doctrine.

Not only did Judas not betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver,
according to this manuscript, but he was actually following his
master's orders in handing him over to his executioners. In doing so,
Judas helped Christ fulfil the biblical prophecies of saving mankind.

The first Coptic to English translation and interpretation of the
script was presented by the National Geographic Society last week
during a highly publicised press conference in Washington, where a
few pages of the restored text were also put on display.

The leather-bound codex - as the collection of texts is known - was
found containing the fragile 26-page manuscript along with other
non-biblical texts in middle Egypt near Armenia in the 1970s. The
entire 66-page codex includes a letter by Peter and a text of what
scholars are provisionally calling the Book of Allogenes, along with
a text titled James.

The relic, however, disappeared in the world of antiquities traders
shortly after being found, moving first to Europe and then to the US.
Once in the US it was abandoned in a safe deposit box at a bank in
Long Island, New York, for 16 years by a trader who could not find a
buyer.

Frida Naspurichakos, a Zurich-based arts dealer, rescued the codex in
2000, but the manuscript was quickly deteriorating and the document
was transferred to the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Basel,
Switzerland, for conservation and translation.

Five years later the National Geographic struck a publication deal
with the foundation and last week, after some 1,700 years of silence,
the purported version of the most reviled man in history was made
available for public consumption.

Along with a feature article in its flagship magazine, the society
published two books on the gospel of Judas, while the National
Geographic TV channel ran a special two-hour documentary on the
manuscript last Sunday.

Despite what the name may lead some to believe, the gospel was not
written by Judas himself - unlike that of Luke, Mark, Mathew and
John. In fact, the author has not been established.

Experts believe the script may be a Coptic copy of a still earlier
gospel of Judas, written in Greek about 150 years after Jesus's
death. In fact, the first known reference to a Judas gospel was
around 180 AD, in the influential work of the early Christian Bishop
St Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses (Against the Heresies).

By this time there were many accounts of the life of Christ, written
by various early Christians in several gospels. Bishop Irenaeus
helped streamline the Christian message by arguing that there should
be just four approved gospels: by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. All
others, including the gospel of Judas, are known as apocrypha - not
inspired by God and, therefore, not part of the canonical Gospels -
and were labelled at the time by early Church as heretical.

In fact, the gospel of Judas is only the latest of many texts
discovered recently, which include the gospels of Thomas, Mary
Magdalene and Philip, believed to be written by an early Christian
sect, the Gnostics. Gnostics were seen by early Church leaders as
unorthodox, and were denounced as heretics.

Catholic theology still stands
The discovery of the Judas gospel may shed more light on the
"diversity and vibrancy of early Christianity", in the words of Rev.
Donald Senior from the Chicago Catholic Theological Union, who was on
the panel during last week's presentation.

But does it really shake Catholic dogma?

Fr Thomas Williams, dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum
University in Rome, thinks it does not. Of a similar opinion are the
Bishop Emeritus of Gozo, Nikol Cauchi, and Fr Martin Micallef,
lecturer at the department of Sacred Scriptures at the University of
Malta.

In an interview with Zenit, a Catholic newswire, Fr Williams says
Gnostic gospels, of which there are many, are not Christian documents
per se because they proceed from what is known as a syncretistic sect
that incorporated elements from different religions, including
Christianity.

"From the moment of the Gnostic gospels' appearance, the Christian
community rejected these documents because of their incompatibility
with the Christian faith. The gospel of Judas would be a document of
this sort."

Fr Micallef concurs: "The history of how the New Testament document
was given canonical status illustrates the fact that the choice of
texts was not coincidental". During the council of Trent, which took
place towards the mid-1500, the Church closed the list of books
deemed to be divinely inspired. "Seventy-two books: 45 in the Old
Testament and 27 in the new. No more, no less", Fr Micallef insists.

The council also secured the chasm between the Catholic and the
Protestant Church. In fact, Protestants do not accept the Catholic
canonical books.

Both Mgr Cauchi and Fr Micallef agree that while the find is very
interesting from a historic standpoint, it changes nothing for the
Church theologically.

Unlike the accounts in the New Testament, the author of the gospel of
Judas believed that Judas Iscariot alone among the 12 disciples
understood the meaning of Jesus's teachings. The Gnostics believed in
a secret, mystical knowledge of how people could escape the prisons
of their material bodies and return to the spiritual realm from which
they came.

But this emphasis on mystical knowledge rivals the mainstream
position of the Church. Fr Micallef said: "These Gnostic documents
originate from a heretical sect contemporary of early Christianity,
which based its faith on the concept of 'knowledge'. Gnosis, in fact,
means knowledge in Greek. In contrast, the Church always taught that
salvation comes from faith in Christ, and not 'knowledge'".

"Therefore, Gnostic documents do not add or take away anything from
the Catholic theological perspective."

The document is officially deemed a Gnostic text even by the scholars
who translated it. Actually, the team that analysed the manuscript,
led by historian Rodolphe Kasser, formerly of the University of
Geneva, commented that the theological concepts and linguistic
structure of the Judas codex are very similar to those of the Nag
Hammadi manuscripts - a large group of Gnostic texts named after the
place where they were found.

Thirteen leather-bound papyrus codices were found in the
middle-Egyptian region, buried in a sealed jar. The writings included
52, mostly Gnostic, texts, believed to be a library hidden by monks
from the nearby monastery of St Pachomius when the material was
considered heretical. It was even an offence to own one.

The Church believes the material of such early Christian sects was
often an attempt to "fill in the historical blanks" left by the
established gospel on the life of Christ.

Mgr Cauchi explains that some early Christian communities believed
that not enough was written about the Christ's childhood, for
example, and they attempted to fill the gap in this way.

To this effect, Fr Micallef points out that the primary goal of the
four gospels was not to serve as a biography of Christ but as a
catechism of the message and person of Jesus as the Son of God.
"Therefore, the apocryphal gospels were written to fill this void,"
he said.

Elaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton University,
however, thinks that such discoveries are exploding the myth of a
monolithic religion, and demonstrating how diverse and fascinating
the early Christian movement really was.

The true role of Judas
There is, however, a crucial aspect to consider: the key revelation
in the Judas text to many is probably that he was no traitor at all.
This is all the more significant since the figure of Judas is often
thought of as the quintessential, somewhat racist portrayal of the
Jewish traitor who sold his master for money.

Mgr Cauchi says the gospel itself does not use the words sold or
betrayed as such, but rather that Judas handed Jesus over to the
Romans.

The ultimate executioners of the Golgotha tragedy, he points out,
were the Romans. "There are various interpretations of why Judas
betrayed Jesus... for money... to instigate a revolution. But does
this mean we can reconcile what the gospel says with the thesis that
emerges from this text? I don't think so.

"Christ said that the human being can be deceived into handing over
the Son of God to the enemy. So I think that the thesis that Judas
was acting on his orders is a bit far fetched, if I may say so."

Nonetheless, Mgr Cauchi continued, no theologian says that Judas went
to hell. "In fact, it is said that Judas's mistake was that he hung
himself on a tree. He should have asked for forgiveness and God would
have rehabilitated him as he did with Peter."

"Overall", Mgr Cauchi concludes, "I don't think there needs to be a
lot of fuss. I'm giving my personal opinion here but actually I think
that if this text and others like it help generate interest in
Christian history and literature, this find could be a blessing in
disguise."