Text portrays Judas as a hero Gospel authenticated by UA scientists says Jesus asked apostle to hand him to Romans

Mike Cronin The Arizona Republic Apr. 7, 2006 12:00 AM

A new gospel says Judas was no "Judas."

University of Arizona scientists have determined that a 1,700-year-old text known as the Gospel of Judas is authentic. It portrays Judas Iscariot as a hero rather than the greatest traitor in the Christian world. The Coptic-language text depicts him as the most special of Jesus' apostles, chosen by Jesus to hand him over to authorities so he could fulfill his redemptive mission.

The 26-page papyrus text, dated by UA's lab to around A.D. 300, is bound to spur a flurry of debate, church study classes and buzz.

Many scholars doubt that the gospel, authenticated by radiocarbon dating at UA's Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory, will seriously challenge the Gospels of the New Testament. But they say it will contribute significantly to the understanding of the early Christian church, where divisions were sharp before church leaders agreed on texts that would become part of the Bible.

Divisions, in fact, were breaking out over the gospel in the weeks leading up to Thursday's announcement of the radiocarbon-dating result.

Terry Garcia, an executive vice president of the National Geographic Society, which led the research, called it the "most significant biblical find in 60 years."

But a Vatican official last month declared the gospel "a product of religious fantasy."

University of Notre Dame theologian Lawrence Cunningham agreed that the document is a boon for scholars but that "it won't mean much to 99.5 percent of Christians." I think it's kind of interesting," he said. "But I don't think it will radically change anything. It's not a picture from the canonically accepted Gospels. So why should we believe this much later gospel (that was written centuries later)?"

The Gospel of Judas was written by an author belonging to the Gnostics, a group in the early centuries that believed a person can attain spiritual liberation through insight. They were considered heretics by the Orthodox Church. The Gospel of Judas says that Christ told Judas to betray him so Jesus would be crucified and shed his physical self to deliver humanity from original sin.

National Geographic's news conference was timed with the release of two books on the document and a two-hour television special on the document this Sunday.

The gospel has traveled a long and shadowy journey to public disclosure.

National Geographic officials said the text, a copy of earlier writings in the second century, was discovered in Egypt in the 1970s. It circulated among antiquities traders in Egypt, Europe and the United States. It remained in a safe-deposit box on Long Island, N.Y., for 16 years before a Zurich-based antiquities dealer bought it in 2000. The Switzerland-based Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art obtained it in February 2001.

UA's well-known spectrometry lab was asked by Garcia to estimate its age. Garcia flew to Tucson and hand-delivered samples during the winter of 2004-05.

From Oxford, England, where he is attending a conference, lab Director A.J. Tim Jull said he was surprised that samples of the document the lab tested were all the same age.

"I expected the book to have been rebound later," he said. "That was not the case."

He thought the gospel "might give us some insight into the early church, with respect to the current set of documents in New Testament."

There is no disagreement that the document is genuine. But one expert on Christian origins criticized the Maecenas Foundation for promoting the gospel as conveying new information about the time Jesus was alive.

Charles Hedrick, a distinguished professor emeritus at Missouri State University in Springfield, who has read the document, said Thursday's unveiling was all hype.

"They aren't publishing an original (document)," said Hedrick, one of the translators of the Nag Hammadi scriptures, which are Gnostic texts. "Until I can see the papyrus, I'm not going to be convinced that they have done it right. It appears to me that they have been overaggressive in restoring (missing pieces) in the papyrus."

The Gospel of Judas is clearly Gnostic in its depiction of one of the Bible's villains, in this case Judas, as a positive player in fulfilling God's plan, Hedrick said.

For example, Judas delivers Jesus to Roman soldiers for 30 pieces of silver because Judas has been "told everything," Hedrick says. "He is clearly working for Jesus in this text."

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