Friday, April 7, 2006

“The Gospel of Judas,” an ancient Egyptian manuscript vilified by the early church as heresy, was released yesterday by National Geographic as one of the greatest archaeological finds of the past century.

“We are confident this is a piece of genuine, Christian apocryphal literature,” said Terry Garcia, National Geographic executive vice president. “This is the most significant discovery in the last 60 years,” comparable to the Dead Sea Scrolls, he added.

Purporting to tell the story of one of history’s most vilified men, the gospel is named after Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus to the Jewish authorities for 30 silver coins.

The Judas gospel, in 1,000 fragments before it was recently assembled and translated, includes conversations between Jesus and his disciples about angelic hierarchies, cosmology, the underworld and Creation. Judas is given star billing in this account as Jesus’ chief confidant among the disciples, contrary to the portrayals in the four canonical Gospels.

“Judas is presented as the one to whom everything is told,” said Gregor Wurst, a German scholar who helped translate the document. “Judas was an anti-hero.”

It claims that Jesus and Judas planned Jesus’ Crucifixion so that the death of Christ’s weak, earthly body could release His spirit to enjoy the glories of heaven.

Near the end of the Judas gospel, Jesus tells Judas he will “exceed” the rest of the disciples “for you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”

This concept comes from gnosticism, a doctrine that believes salvation comes not by Jesus’ death and Resurrection, but through secret knowledge imparted by Him to select individuals.

Gnostic writers produced several gospels named after New Testament figures such as the Apostle Thomas and Mary Magdalene. None have been considered authoritative since the Christian canon was defined in the 4th century.

A lineup of scholars assembled by National Geographic yesterday admitted the book has no proven link to the Judas who, according to the Gospel of Matthew, committed suicide soon after he betrayed Jesus.

“There is no independent historical tradition behind this text,” said the Rev. Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. The writers of the Gospel of Judas, he added, “made its characters to be mouthpieces of their own theology.”

Marvin Meyer, a Bible and Christian studies professor at the Albert Schweitzer Institute at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., called the document a “mystical portrayal” combining Jewish mysticism and Platonism, which sees matter, including the human body, as imperfect, transitory and less than the ideal world of the spirit.

The 26-page codex, or manuscript, had a circuitous route to discovery. Scholars knew of its existence because of its mention in “Against Heresies,” a treatise written in 180 by Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon. Irenaeus called the account “a fictitious story.”

The document remained a legend until a copy — in the ancient Coptic language, native to Egypt — was unearthed sometime in the 1970s near El Minya in upper Egypt.

In 1978, it was sold to an antiquities dealer in Cairo, who spent several years trying to sell it, but his asking price was too high for interested scholars. In 1984, the manuscript was stored in a Hicksville, N.Y., bank safe-deposit box where it stayed until 2000, when Zurich antiquities dealer Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos purchased it.

She then transferred it to the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Basel, Switzerland, to be preserved and translated. Samples sent to the University of Arizona’s radiocarbon-dating lab a year ago showed the manuscript’s date as between 220 and 340. It is not known who wrote the document or when the original, probably written in Greek, was composed.

National Geographic has published a book, set up a museum exhibit, put together a TV special to air Sunday and has devoted the May issue of its magazine to the gospel.

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