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'Gospel of Judas' gives new view of Jesus' betrayer

Written by: Staff

WASHINGTON, Apr 7 (Reuters) Judas Iscariot, vilified as Christ's betrayer, acted at Jesus' request in turning him over to the authorities who crucified him, according to a 1,700-year-old copy of the ''Gospel of Judas''.

In an alternative view to traditional Christian teaching, the Judas gospel, unveiled yesterday shows the reviled disciple as the only one in Jesus' inner circle who understood his desire to shed his earthly body.

''He's the good guy in this portrayal,'' said Bart Ehrman, a religion professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. ''He's the only apostle who understands Jesus.'' The Judas gospel's introduction says it is ''the secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot.'' Later, it quotes Jesus as saying to Judas, ''You will exceed all of them (the other disciples) for you will sacrifice the man who clothes me.'' ''The idea in this gospel is that Jesus, like all of us, is a trapped spirit, who is trapped in a material body,'' Ehrman said. ''And salvation comes when we escape the materiality of our existence, and Judas is the one who makes it possible for him to escape by allowing for his body to be killed.'' Rev Donald Senior, president of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said the document revealed the diversity and vitality in early Christianity.

''The question becomes ... does this tradition, this alternative story, if you like, in the gospel of Judas have a claim that in some sense is equal to the rival claim of the gospel tradition?'' Senior said.

It is not known who wrote the Judas gospel. The copy unveiled yesterday is of a document mentioned critically in the year 180 in a treatise called ''Against Heresies,'' written by Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon in what was then Roman Gaul. It spoke out against those whose views about Jesus differed from those of the mainstream Christian Church.

In the Bible's New Testament, Judas is portrayed as the quintessential traitor, accepting 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus by identifying him to Roman soldiers. The biblical Gospel of St. Matthew says Judas quickly regretted his treachery, returned the silver and hanged himself.

The New Testament contains four Gospels -- of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John -- but many more so-called apocryphal gospels were written in the first centuries after Christ's death, attributed to such disciples as Thomas and Philip and to his female follower Mary Magdalene.

HIDDEN IN EGYPTIAN DESERT Ehrman, Senior and other experts on Christianity spoke at a briefing at the National Geographic Society, which unveiled a translation of the Judas gospel and which helped authenticate, preserve and translate the document.

The leather-bound copy of the gospel was written in Coptic script on both sides of 13 sheets of papyrus, and spent most of the past 1,700 years hidden in a cavern in the Egyptian desert, said Terry Garcia of the National Geographic Society.

This document was probably copied from the original Greek manuscript around the year 300, Garcia said. Discovered in the 1970s near Minya, Egypt, the volume -- including the gospel and other documents -- was sold to an Egyptian antiquities dealer in 1978.

The dealer offered it for sale without success, and eventually locked it in a bank safe deposit box in Hicksville, New York, for 16 years, which hastened its decay. In images displayed at the briefing, the papyrus looked like brown, dry autumn leaves.

Garcia said it had crumbled into more than 1,000 pieces.

In 2001, the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Switzerland began an effort to transcribe and translate the volume from the Coptic. In the next years, scientific tests -- including radiocarbon dating, ink analysis and multispectral imaging -- showed the document was copied down around 300.

The Judas gospel is being published in book form by National Geographic and pages from the papyrus manuscript will be on display at the society's museum in Washington starting today. The manuscript will ultimately be housed at the Coptic Museum in Cairo.

Reuters PG VP0505

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