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Some 28 years ago, in a burial cave by the Nile River, an Egyptian farmer found an ancient manuscript wrapped in skins. The document, dating from the second or third century CE, contained among other things the only extant copy of the so-called gospel of Judas.

The document has passed through many hands since its discovery in 1978 - from Egypt to Europe, and to the United States; it was sold twice and stolen once. Finally, five years ago, it was transfered to a museum in Basel, Switzerland, where it was studied, conserved and translated. The document, apparently written in Greece, in the Coptic language, by Gnostic Christians a few centuries after the death of Jesus, tells a different story of Jesus' life. The greatest difference in the Judas document is in the attitude toward Judas Iscariot himself: Instead of the scheming traitor described in the New Testament, Judas is described as Jesus' confidant and close friend.

On Sunday, the archaeological find will be presented to the public for the first time ever in a National Geographic special entitled "The Gospel of Judas."

Meanwhile, the ancient document can be seen on the National Geographic Web site.

At a press conference yesterday in Washington, scientists, historians, archaeologists and clergy weighed in on the significance of the discovery. The experts said the text raised questions regarding the spiritual rather than physical nature of humanity, and would engender debate on the character of Judas Iscariot. Father Donald Senior said after reading the text that he understood why the versions of the Gospels in the Canon had been chosen. He added that the discovery neither changed nor undermined the way the relationship between Judas and Jesus was perceived historically.

The National Geographic documentary tells the story of the document's long journey. After it arrived in the United States, antiquities dealer Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos purchased it, and had it authenticated by experts from Yale. From that time on, it became known as the Tchacos Codex.

Two years later, after unsuccessful attempts to sell it, Nussberger-Tchacos transfered it to veteran conservator Florence Darbre. Alarmed at the document's poor state of preservation, Darbre quickly enlisted an expert in the Coptic language, Rodolfe Kasser, so it could be translated and conserved simultaneously, and contacted the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Basel. As the work proceeded, the Maecenas Foundation sought the assistance of National Geographic.

Papyrus test

The first step in researching the document was to determine that the papyrus on which the text was written was identical to other documents of the period. Subsequently, 85 percent of the writing was studied, and finally, it was determined that this was a version of the gospel that Bishop Irenaeus, who oversaw the canonizing of the gospels, had rejected as heretical in around 180 CE. The document will eventually be housed in the Coptic Museum in Cairo.

The dream-team of experts studying the document was well versed in techniques of falsification that resulted in forgeries like the supposed Hitler's diaries and the so-called ossuary of James, the brother of Jesus. The team, according to the film, proved that the document was authentic.

Numerous versions of the gospel of Judas were apparently written over the centuries following Jesus' death. The version in question was probably written in Greek and later translated to Coptic in around 280 CE.

Following the canonization by Irenaeus of the four Gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - out of some 30 versions of the story of Jesus, the gospel of Judas was forgotten by history.

According to the New Testament, following The Last Supper, Judas betrayed Jesus to the soldiers of the High Priest, an act that eventually led to Jesus' transfer to the Romans who sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion. Judas Iscariot is depicted as the only one of the 12 Apostles from Judea rather than Galilee.

No more than 18 verses in the canonized Gospels are devoted to Judas. In earlier versions of the Gospels, Judas does not have the treacherous character that he would evolve in later versions.

Some scholars believe Judas' demonization throughout the years was an early act of religious anti-Semitism that served to nudge Christianity further from Judaism, with which Judas, by name and origin, was closely identified.