The story of Judas Iscariot—long reviled by orthodox Christians as the betrayer of Jesus—is getting some serious re­telling of late. A newly translated Gospel of Judas copied down some 1700 years ago has suddenly reappeared, caus­ing considerable excitement in scholarly circles, and perhaps a little consternation in others. Even though the histor­ical authenticity of the document is unquestioned, the actual truth of its assertions remains a matter of hot dispute.

Unveiled in April by the National Geographic Society, the new gnostic text casts a different and decidedly more fa­vorable light on Judas. Though first unearthed by an Egyptian farmer in 1978, the leather bound codex languished unnoticed until 1983 when scholars took on the challenge of translating it from the original coptic. Now reported to be 95% complete, the new translation reveals a different Judas, in fact, one who was closer to Jesus than any of the other disciples and who had been initiated in mysteries deeper than were any of his peers. According to this version, when Judas turned Jesus over to the Romans it was only because he had been ordered to do so by his master, who warned him that he was destined to be hated for doing so.

Alternative scholars have long claimed that the role of Judas was misstated in the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). Even mainstream authorities like Josephus, the first-century historian, indicated that Judas was a member of the anti-Roman underground movement known as the zealots and was carrying out a hidden agen­da. Others have claimed that Judas was the twin brother of Jesus. Certainly many aspects of community life around Jesus—including the notion that he was married—have become the subject of much speculation, fueled in part by re­cent discoveries of many texts rejected by the early church authorities. Most of the Gnostic Gospels written about in the best seller by Elaine Pagels are taken from documents recently found buried near Nag Hammadi in Egypt.

Writer Jeff Nisbet in Atlantis Rising #57 (“Beyond the Lost Caravaggio”) explained how the famous painting “The Taking of the Christ” in which Judas fingers Jesus for the Romans reveals an unexpectedly cooperative spirit between the two (i.e., Jesus’ hands are crossed, but not his arms, implying a casual, not traumatic, event). Nisbet argues that Caravaggio wanted to suggest that “this pivotal biblical event may have been meticulously planned by the main par­ticipant.”

Caravaggio’s painting, by the way, is now featured on the cover of the National Geographic’s new book—The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot.

The ancient pattern of secrecy and intrigue, if not outright treachery, suggested by the new discoveries may not be over yet. Some complained in April that the newly released translation did not include the complete text available. They argued that the cover-up continues, pointing out that only 4 of the gospel’s 13 double-sided pages were dis­played, even though all had been translated.

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