Back in 2006, it was presented as a break-through document that would change the entire Christianity. Two years later, though, most experts agree that the so-called Gospel of Judas depicts the unfaithful apostle as exactly that: a traitorous, selfish, and fallen human being.
The team of scientists hired by National Geographic, which bought the rights to the gospel in 2004, claimed that the ancient manuscript showed Judas as Jesus’ most beloved disciple. It is true that he betrayed his master but only after Jesus personally instructed him to do it so as God’s will could be fulfilled.
“Judas was Jesus’ closest friend, the one who understood Jesus better than anyone else, who turned Jesus over to the authorities because Jesus wanted him to do so,” read the gospel, made public by National Geographic in 2006. Another passage called the apostle “the most insightful and the most loyal of all disciples.”
But this Judas may exist only in the minds of the experts who worked on the text. Some of their colleagues, who gained access to the manuscript later, say that so many mistakes were made during the translation that the version of the gospel of Judas presented by National Geographic lacks scientific grounds and must be turned down.
“It was a great story. Unfortunately, after re-translating the society’s transcription of the Coptic text, I have found that the actual meaning is vastly different,” April D. DeConick, a professor of Biblical Studies at Rice University, wrote in an op-ed piece published by the New York Times in December of 2007.
DeConick did not particularly like the passage that, according to National Geographic, spoke of Judas being destined for the holy generation. After a close examination of the gospel, the professor proved that the Coptic text unequivocally excluded the apostle from ascending it. Likewise, Jesus never said that Judas would enter the kingdom of heaven.
“He [Judas] does not receive the mysteries of the kingdom because ‘it is possible for him to go there.’ He receives them because Jesus tells him that he can’t go there, and Jesus doesn’t want Judas to betray him out of ignorance. Jesus wants him informed, so that the demonic Judas can suffer all that he deserves,” wrote DeConick.
Not surprisingly, DeConick’s article stirred a controversy among scholars. The majority of her colleagues agreed with the National Geographic team of scientists and their vision of Judas – the vision that was first conceived by St. Irenaeus who commented on the Gospel of Judas as early as the second century.
Marvin Meyer, one of the professors employed by National Geographic, admitted that their translation was not perfect but met all the scientific standards. In his interview given to The Chronicle Review last May, Meyer commented on the accusations: “I see it as an appropriate challenge, to be sure. But for now this is my story, and I’m sticking to it.”
DeConick has an explanation for other scholars’ stubbornness. She says that instead of listening to their scientific knowledge, those who sanctify Judas prefer to be politically correct. From a Jew who betrayed the Son of God, they want to make him an intermediary between the Jews and Christians.
“Judas is a frightening character. For Christians, he is the one who had it all and yet betrayed God to his death for a few coins. For Jews, he is the man whose story was used by Christians to persecute them for centuries. Although we should continue to work toward a reconciliation of this ancient schism, manufacturing a hero Judas is not the answer,” DeConick wrote.
It is not only the manuscript that is so controversial. Also the story behind its finding in the 1970s provides more questions than answers. The documentary made by National Geographic claimed that the gospel had been discovered by an Egyptian peasant, but a more probable version says that it was obtained by a professional treasure hunter, a kind of Indiana Jones without scruple.
“Robbing graves and selling their contents to the highest bidder is, to say the least, frowned upon by Egyptian authorities, so it’s no surprise that the person who rescued the gospel might be reluctant to take credit,” wrote Thomas Bartlett of The Chronicle Review that covered the story in May.
In 2002, National Geographic announced a discovery that was to shed new light on Christianity. Researches found a 2000-year-old burial box – an ossuary – reportedly containing the ashes of James, the brother of Jesus. One professor went as far as to say: “This is probably going to be the biggest New Testament find in my lifetime, as big as the Dead Sea scrolls.”
But one year later, the ossuary turned out to be inauthentic. Finally, National Geographic had to admit that “the dealer who sold it was a man of questionable reputation who had a history of inappropriate dealings with various museums and government agencies.” It did not stop the channel authorities from buying another dubious manuscript three years later.
The Gospel of Judas sold millions of copies around the world. People bought it because some of the highest authorities in the scholarly world insisted it was an authentic and honest description of what had really happened in the time of Jesus. Now, when they were proved wrong, hardly any media outlet has reported on it. It is not inconceivable that soon we will hear of another discovery made by the National Geographic researchers.