That such a gospel was written has been known for a long time – it was summarised by an early (pre-Nicene) Church Father, St Irenaeus the 2nd Bishop of Lyons, in his anti-Gnostic tract Against Heresies or On the Detection And Overthrow Of So-Called Gnosticism, around 180 AD. (“Others … declare that Judas the traitor … alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas."[Bk III, s.8]
Since 1978, the leather-bound codex has been mouldering away, wrapped in newspaper and packed in shoe boxes, held in safe-deposit boxes as a series of antiquities dealers tried to get an estimated $3 million for it. Its acquisition by an ad hoc Swiss foundation called Maecenas 7 years ago meant the start of a long battle to restore the crumbling pages before translation could begin of the crumbling, damaged papyrus codex.
Exact translation of what is known to dealers as the ‘Codex Tchacos’ (after the surname of the modern donor) was the main issue here. The surviving codex of 220-340 AD is taken to be an ancient Coptic (Egyptian) translation from the Greek original of circa 150 which Irenaeus denounced around AD 180. Nevertheless, the scholarly hope was that a modern computer-aided translation of a 2nd-C text of a long-lost – as opposed to church-edited - gospel will throw light on the oddities behind the official NT versions. The main oddity is of course why did the Romans need Judas to identify (with the famous ‘Judas kiss’) a public figure like Jesus? The canonical gospels make little sense here - was the betrayal perhaps something other?
While the deciphering of the codex was proceeding apace, Dan Brown was working on The Da Vinci Code. By the time an official annotated translation, The Gospel Of Judas appeared in 2006, along with a tie-in feature-length National Geographic documentary (now on DVD ), TDVC was a runaway bestseller and there was widespread public interest in what would have been normally just a scholarly work. For unlike the ‘Jesus family tomb’ enterprise, this project is being run by Bible scholars - so antagonistic church reps needed to make a more considered response than the personal attacks prompted by James Cameron’s recent ‘we’ve found Jesus’s family tomb’ claim. (Cameron was at once accused of being an anti-Christian Freemason etc.)
In the event, the response was not much of an intellectual advance on the arguments of Irenaeus. His view was summed up as “there are four corners of the universe and there are four principal winds, and therefore there can be only four gospels that are authentic.” ) The press reported that the Pope ‘poured scorn on the Judas text by insisting on the traditional view that the apostle was a greedy traitor” for whom "money was more important than communion with Jesus." And Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams in his Easter 2006 sermon criticised the public's interest. He blamed books like The Da Vinci Code for encouraging disbelief, so that people were “walking out into an unmapped territory, away from the safe places of political and religious influence." (This echoes his earlier pronouncement the internet was dangerous as an “unpoliced conversation” which allowed “paranoid fantasy, self-indulgent nonsense and dangerous bigotry.”) He reflected a more general church view that as the manuscript is younger than the canonical (Church-edited) gospels, nothing it might say can ever be credited. (The papyrus was carbon-dated to the 4th Century by the National Geographic Society, for their own "Gospel of Judas" documentary, and it is over a century old than the 2nd C. original Greek version Irenaeus read.)
The gospel portrays Iscariot as Jesus’s close confidant, which makes his betrayal harder to understand, at least in terms of the Western church. (In the Eastern Orthodox church, Judas is not treated as a traitor.) The Coptic text implies he was acting on Jesus’s orders when he identified him to the Roman soldiers, so that he might fulfil his mission of martyrdom. Apparently in it Jesus also denounces the Old Testament god as a different, false one to the true god, who he calls “Barbelo” – a term otherwise unknown.
Irenaeus condemned it as the product of the Gnostic school of heresy. It apparently takes the Gnostic view that there are actual secrets to be learned, beyond the example of supreme self-sacrifice. Jesus tells Iscariot: ‘Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom.’ Judas is told to free Jesus from “the man who clothes me”- his earthly form, the implication being that Judas was a loyal accomplice in a deliberate martyrdom.
The project was inevitably accompanied by intrigues. The chief editor of the Nag Hammadi documents Prof. James M. Robinson, described in the press as ‘America's leading expert on such ancient religious texts from Egypt,’ only discovered by chance the NGS had this codex, and that this was being kept secret until the book and documentary came out at Easter 2006. He quickly produced a rival work, The Secrets Of Judas: The Story Of The Misunderstood Disciple And His Lost Gospel.
Here, he described the behind-the-scenes machinations by dealers since its discovery in Egypt in the 1970s to obtain a multi-million dollar price tag for the only surviving copy, a tale of "smugglers, black-market antiquities dealers, religious scholars, backstabbing partners and greedy entrepreneurs." The National Geographic replied his view was “ironic” as for years "he tried unsuccessfully to acquire this codex himself, and is publishing his own book in April, despite having no direct access to the materials." Robinson accused the NGS of sensationalizing its contents "in order to make as large a profit as possible." (Its book and documentary were announced, coincidentally, just before the TDVC film premiered.) He said he had for decades opposed the close secrecy a small clique of scholars had maintained over the deciphering of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi papyri. The dispute then developed into arguments over the exact translation of words like ‘betrayal’.
The background to the matter is described in The Lost Gospel: The Quest For The Gospel of Judas Iscariot by H. Krosney. Some of the surrounding intrigues were also described in The Jesus Papers: Exposing The Greatest Cover-up In History by HBHG co-author Michael Baignent, who seems to have been the outsider on this one. A separate translation-with-commentary, The Lost Gospel Of Judas Iscariot: A New Look At Betrayer And Betrayed (Oxford University Press), was also published by Dr. Bart Ehrman, a Professor of Religious Studies and author of Misquoting Jesus and Truth And Fiction In The Da Vinci Code. He had helped the National Geographic Society authenticate the manuscript, calling it ‘the most important discovery of a Christian text in the last 60 years.’
This is by no means the end of books based around this lost-and-found Gospel. At New Year’s, there was a somewhat surprising announcement. The novelist Jeffrey Archer has written a novelised account of the Gospel, with the help of Professor Frank Moloney, ‘eminent Australian biblical scholar.’ (For American readers who don’t know who Archer is, he is a high-flying Conservative politician who began as a young Thatcherite protégé before becoming a popular novelist to avoid bankruptcy in 1974. When running as Mayor of London, he was jailed in 2001 for two years for perjury in a libel case he brought, and gave up politics for novel-writing fulltime.) Archer and Moloney’s The Gospel According To Judas: By Benjamin Iscariot is being published in March by Macmillan, the hardback including a video CD showing Archbishop Desmond Tutu reading passages from the book. Archer says the book ‘will attempt to rehabilitate the life of Christ’s betrayer.’ (You can see the appeal this would have for the disgraced Archer.)
This is not in fact the first such novel from Judas’s viewpoint. Archer has been accused of plagiarism before, but in fairness there is a small subgenre of novels speculating about Biblical events from the viewpoint of one gospel figure or another, and offering as radical an interpretation as anything in TDVC. Nikos Kazantzakis's Last Temptation Of Christ is perhaps the best-known, though Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According To The Son is most recent. Even the English comedian Les Dawson of all people wrote one some years ago, now a sought-after cult item, about Jesus escaping crucifixion via a substitute, his 1988 A Time Before Genesis (where "at the last moment Judas had a change of heart and picked out one of the other apostles and not Jesus.") Now the ex-politician Archer is adding his own spin to the story, depicting Jesus as “an ineffectual leader who is not up to the task of throwing the Romans out of the Jewish homeland,” and Judas “as a seasoned politician who hands over his master as part of a plan to throw the Romans out.” Told by Iscariot’s son, it will have Judas’s son setting down his father’s story in a gospel to counter the “libels . . . repeated by followers of Jesus”. Archer’s modern political-CoE take on it might seem like the end of the line in terms of exploitation, but this still may not be the end of the matter.
There has been speculation there are more pages extant than in the now-published version of the codex. Roughly a dozen pages of the original manuscript, now missing but seen briefly by scholars in the 1970s, are believed to have been sold off separately to dealers. And the lawyer who heads the Maecenas Foundation which arranged the translation has speculated there may be another copy - perhaps more complete - held in the Vatican archives which they won’t admit to having … So, now we’re back in the territory of Dan Brown and “Vatican conspiracy” thrillerdom again. If Brown is still looking for a plot hook of his next-but-one bestseller (after 2008’s The Solomon Key), he need look no further ….