Kissing Judas

"The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week three days before he celebrated Passover."

Thus the gnostic Gospel of Judas begins, in a complete translation made public only several hours ago; it is the first complete new gospel "released" since the Gospel of Thomas in 1959. The National Geographic, which sponsored the translation, offers an interactive experience of the 1700-year-old manuscript.  (Here in the Philippines, National Geographic’s "Gospel of Judas" premieres on Palm Sunday, at 10 pm.)

The New York Times gives the lost gospel generous front-page treatment: two stories, plus excerpts in pdf format.

One story talks about the discovery and the translation.

An early Christian manuscript, including the only known text of the Gospel of Judas, has surfaced after 1,700 years, and it portrays Judas Iscariot not as a betrayer of Jesus but as his favored disciple and willing collaborator.

In this text, scholars reported yesterday, the account of events leading to the Crucifixion differs sharply from the four gospels in the New Testament. Here Jesus is said to entrust Judas with special knowledge and ask him to betray him to the Roman authorities. By doing so, he tells Judas, "you will exceed" the other disciples.

"You will be cursed by the other generations, and you will come to rule over them," Jesus confides to Judas in the document, which was made public at a news conference at the National Geographic Society in Washington.

Though some theologians have hypothesized the "good Judas" before, scholars who have translated and studied the text said this was the first time an ancient document lent specific support to a revised image of the man whose name in history has been synonymous with treachery.

Scholars say the release of the document will set off years of study and debate. The debate is not over whether the manuscript is genuine — on this the scholars agree. Instead, the controversy is over its relevance.

Another piece discusses the manuscript’s meaning.

"The manuscript tells us nothing about the historical Jesus or the historical Judas," said Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. "It tells us a lot about a group that were labeled heretics in their own day."

Scholars on all sides agree that the text was probably produced by a scribe in a Gnostic community of Cainites — early Christians who regarded the traditional villains of the Bible, including Cain, Esau and Judas, as heroes.

"There is no evidence that any of these documents ever represented mainstream Christianity," Professor Witherington said. "The Cainites were always on the fringes of their own movement."

He said that unlike Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which were written in Christianity’s first century, Gnostic works were produced in the second century and afterward. To say that the Gospel of Judas reveals anything factual about Judas, Dr. Witherington said, "is like saying a document written 150 years after George Washington died tells us the inside truth about George Washington."

Another member of the National Geographic panel of scholars, the Rev. Donald Senior, said the Gnostic gospels could undermine Christianity only if many Christians were to adopt the kind of conspiracy thinking that undergirds "The Da Vinci Code": that an "orthodox elite" of early church authorities suppressed the free-thinking, spiritual Gnostics "for the sake of uniformity and conformity."

Father Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, which advises the pope, said that the Vatican is not likely to regard the Gospel of Judas as a threat. He said that the Roman Catholic Church’s likely response would be to "affirm the canonical texts" in the New Testament, rather than seeking to refute each new discovery.

"If the Gospel of Judas suddenly became something that hundreds of thousands of Christians were claiming as their revelation and scripture, perhaps the church would come out with some kind of statement," Father Senior said in an interview. "But mostly I think it’s just not even on the radar screen."

He added, "I’m just glad it wasn’t found in a bank vault in the Vatican."

You hear that sound? That’s the sound of collective teeth-gnashing by thousands of conspiracy theorists.

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