It is a mystery 2,000 years in the making, buried in the desert and fueled by centuries of debate and doubt, theft and deceit. The question: Was there ever a Gospel according to Judas? And if there was, what did it reveal?
The mystery began to unravel almost 30 years ago, according to a new National Geographic Channel documentary.
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A farmer looking for treasure in a cave in Egypt instead found a decaying leather-bound book, a codex.
Because the text was written in ancient Coptic, the farmer did not know what it was, but he figured he could sell it. He did, to an antiquities dealer, but still no one knew its secret text -- and no one ever would if it continued to disintegrate before it could be translated.
Five years after it was found, the first glimpse of the book's meaning was gleaned when scholar Stephen Emmel was asked to look at the document.
"We were told we were not allowed to make any photographs, we were not allowed to make any notes," Emmel told "Primetime." "I leafed through and by chance spotted a dialogue between Jesus and Judas and his disciples and in particular the name Judas came up again and again. Judas said ... the Lord said, blah, blah, blah."
Could it be a Gospel according to Judas? Scholars had long believed such a Gospel existed but that it had been banned by the early church, called blasphemous and ordered destroyed. Had a copy somehow survived, telling the story of the most reviled man in history?
"[Judas is] the one who handed over his friend," said Marvin Meyer, co-chair of the religious studies department at Chapman University. "He's the one who brought about the crucifixion, and he's the one who is damned for all time."
The Bible says Judas betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. The Bible also tells how the other disciples let Jesus down: Peter denied him three times but is nevertheless honored with the basilica in Rome. It is Judas alone who is not forgiven, condemned to the seventh level of hell in Dante's "Inferno," eaten head-first by Lucifer.
"Often they think of him as somebody who was greedy, avaricious, who was more interested in making money than in being faithful to his master," said Bart Ehrman, chair of the religious studies department at the University of North Carolina.
And Judas over the centuries also became a symbol of anti-Semitism.
"Traditionally in Christian circles, Judas in fact has been associated with Jews," Ehrman said. "Of being traitors, avaricious, who in fact, betray Jesus, who are Christ-killers. And this portrayal of Judas of course also leads then to horrendous acts of anti-Semitism through the centuries."
But what if there were more to the story? The first task was to see if the document was genuine. For 16 years, the Codex sat crumbling in the most unlikely of places -- a safe-deposit vault in a Citibank on Long Island, N.Y., until the year 2000, when it was purchased by a former antiquities dealer, Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos.
"I think the circumstances of this manuscript coming to me were predestined," she said. "Judas was asking me to do something for him."
Finally, with the funding of the National Geographic Society and two foundations, a dream team of scientists and scholars was assembled to determine if the document was really an ancient text.