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Studies and Research
The Gospel of Judas is a non-canonical gospel that purportedly documents conversations between the Apostle Judas Iscariot and Jesus Christ.
The Gospel of Judas is a Gnostic gospel (various collections of writings about the teachings of Jesus, written around the second century AD. These gospels are not accepted by the Church as part of the standard biblical canon. Rather, they are part of the so-called New Testament apocrypha).
The document is not claimed to have been written by apostle Judas Iscariot himself, but rather by Gnostic followers of Jesus Christ. It exists in an early fourth century Coptic text, though it has been proposed, but not proven, that the text is a translation of an earlier Greek version. The Gospel of Judas is probably from no earlier than the second century, since it contains theology that is not represented before the second half of the second century, and since its introduction and epilogue assume the reader is familiar with the canonical Gospels.
According to the canonical Gospels of the New Testament, (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), Judas betrayed Jesus to Jerusalem's Great Sanhedrin, which officiated over the crucifixion of Jesus with the endorsement of representatives of the occupying power, the Roman Empire. The Gospel of Judas, on the other hand, portrays Judas in a very different perspective than do the Gospels of the New Testament, according to a preliminary translation made in early 2006 by the National Geographic Society: the Gospel of Judas appears to interpret Judas's act not as betrayal, but rather as an act of obedience to the instructions of Jesus. This portrayal seems to conform to a notion, current in some forms of Gnosticism, that the human form is a spiritual prison, and that Judas thus served Christ by helping to release Christ's spirit from its physical constraints. The Gospel of Judas does not claim that the other disciples knew gnostic teachings. On the contrary, it asserts that the disciples had not learned the true Gospel, which Jesus taught only to Judas Iscariot.
During the second and third centuries AD, various Christian sects composed texts which are loosely labeled New Testament Apocrypha; these texts are usually but not always “pseudo-anonymous”, i.e. falsely attributed to a notable figure, such as an apostle, of an earlier era.
The text of the Gospel of Judas is extant in only one manuscript, a fourth century Coptic manuscript known as the Codex Tchacos, which surfaced in the 1970s, after about sixteen centuries in the desert of Egypt as a leather-bound papyrus manuscript. The existing manuscript was radiocarbon dated "between the third and fourth century", according to Timothy Jull, a carbon-dating expert at the University of Arizona's physics centre. Only sections of papyrus with no text were carbon dated.
The papyri on which the Gospel is written is now in over a thousand pieces, possibly due to poor handling and storage, with many sections missing. In some cases, there are only scattered words; in others, many lines. According to Rodolphe Kasser, the codex originally contained 31 pages, with writing on front and back; but when it came to the market in 1999, only 13 pages, with writing on front and back, remained. It is speculated that individual pages had been removed and sold.
It has been speculated, on the basis of textual analysis concerning features of dialect and Greek loan words, that the current Coptic fourth century text may be a translation from an older Greek manuscript dating to approximately AD 130–180. Cited in support is the reference to a “Gospel of Judas” by the early Christian writer Irenaeus of Lyons, who, in arguing against Gnosticism, called the text a "fictitious history". However, it is uncertain whether this text mentioned by Irenaeus is in fact the same text as the Coptic “Gospel of Judas” of the extant fourth century text, and there remains no solid evidence for an early Greek version.
A. J. Levine, who was on the team of scholars responsible for unveiling the work, emphatically stated that the Gospel of Judas tells nothing historical concerning Jesus or Judas. However, the text is helpful in reconstructing the history of Gnosticism, especially in Coptic-speaking areas.
The Gospel of Judas belongs to a school of Gnosticism called Sethianism, a group who looked to Adam's son Seth as their spiritual ancestor. As in other Sethian documents, Jesus is equated with Seth: "The first is Seth, who is called Christ".
For metaphysical reasons, the Sethian Gnostics authors of this text maintained that Judas acted as he did in order that mankind might be redeemed by the death of Jesus' mortal body. For this reason, they regarded Judas as worthy of gratitude and veneration. The Gospel of Judas does not describe any events after the arrest of Jesus.
By contrast, the canonical Gospel of John, unlike the synoptic gospels, asserts that Jesus said to Judas, as the latter left the Last Supper to set in motion the betrayal process, "Do quickly what you have to do." (John 13:27). Interpretations include: this was a direct command to Judas to do what he did; Jesus was speaking to Satan rather than to Judas (thus "Satan entered into Judas"); or Jesus knew what Judas was secretly plotting.
The content of the gospel had been unknown until a Coptic Gospel of Judas turned up on the antiquities "grey market," in Geneva in May 1983, when it was found among a mixed group of Greek and Coptic manuscripts offered to Stephen Emmel, a Yale Ph.D. candidate commissioned by Southern Methodist University to inspect the manuscripts. How this manuscript, Codex Tchacos, was found in the late 1970s has not been clearly documented. However, it is believed that a now-deceased Egyptian "treasure-hunter" or prospector discovered the codex near El Minya, Egypt, in the neighbourhood of the village Beni Masar, and sold it to one Hanna, a dealer in antiquities resident in Cairo.
Around 1980, the manuscript and most of the dealer's other artifacts were stolen by a Greek trader named Nikolas Koutoulakis, and smuggled into Geneva. Hanna, in collusion with Swiss antiquity traders, recovered the manuscript and introduced it to experts who recognized its significance.
During the following two decades the manuscript was quietly offered to prospective buyers, but no major library felt ready to purchase a manuscript that had such questionable provenance. In 2003 Michel van Rijn started to publish material about these dubious negotiations, and eventually the 62-page leather bound codex was purchased by the Maecenas Foundation in Basel, a private foundation directed by lawyer Mario Jean Roberty.
The existence of the text was made public by Rodolphe Kasser at a conference of Coptic specialists in Paris, July 2004. In a statement issued March 30, 2005, a spokesman for the Maecenas Foundation announced plans for edited translations into English, French and German, once the fragile papyrus has undergone conservation by a team of specialists in Coptic history to be led by a former professor at the University of Geneva, Rodolphe Kasser, and that their work would be published in about a year.
In January 2005, A. J. Tim Jull, director of the National Science Foundation Arizona AMS laboratory, and Gregory Hodgins, assistant research scientist, announced that a radiocarbon dating procedure, at the University of Arizona, had dated five samples from the papyrus manuscript from 220 to 340 AD. This puts the Coptic manuscript in the third or fourth centuries, a century earlier than had originally been thought from analysis of the script. In January 2006, Gene A. Ware of the Papyrological Imaging Lab of Brigham Young University conducted a multi-spectral imaging process on the texts in Switzerland, and confirmed their authenticity.
A scientific paper was to be published in 2005 by Rodolphe Kasser, but was delayed. The completion of the restoration and translation was announced by the National Geographic Society at a news conference in Washington, D.C. on April 6, 2006, and the manuscript itself was unveiled then at the National Geographic Society headquarters, accompanied by a television special entitled The Gospel of Judas on April 9, 2006, which was aired on the National Geographic Channel.