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?
A Great Betrayal
"[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."
Searching for Answers
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.
Verification was an enormous challenge. The 13 pages of papyrus, with writing on the back and front, were in a thousand pieces. The box with what might be the lost Gospel was shipped to Swiss restorer Florence Darbre.
"Your heart is beating a little bit faster the first time you take it in your hand ever," she said, "in your hand, yes, because you can see it but you don't know how he is, how brittle he is, how delicate it is."
Painstakingly, Darbre and her partner fit the tiny pieces together. But just because it looked authentic, it still had to be proved whether it was written 1,800 years ago. For that, Emmel, the scholar, and Rodolphe Kasser, another expert, were brought in.
"I've looked at hundreds of papyri, Coptic papyri, in my career, and this is absolutely typical of ancient Coptic manuscripts," Emmel said. "I'm completely convinced. The number of people who could create such a text is very small," he said, perhaps just 25. Kasser estimated there were just four or five people who could create a convincing imitation of an ancient Coptic document.
"We're two of them," Emmel said. "Now, who would create such a thing? Someone would have to know Coptic better than we do. And there isn't anybody who knows Coptic better than we do. I'm sorry."
But the final test of authenticity meant taking a radical step -- destroying tiny pieces of the document to carbon date it.
"I will have to burn the Gospel of Judas in order to be able to date it," said Timothy Jull, a carbon-dating expert at the University of Arizona's physics center.
Fifteen hours later, he had a final answer. The text was real. The Gospel according to Judas, written between the third and fourth century, was believed to be a copy of a much older document written in Greek in the second century.
"Radio carbon dating of the papyrus from the Gospel of Judas confirms that it's from the third to the fourth century A.D.," Jull said, "and this supports the authenticity of the Gospel of Judas."
Did Jesus Ask to Be Betrayed?
"You can't fake a codex like this," said Elaine Pagels, a professor at Princeton University and one of the world's foremost experts on ancient religious texts, especially the so-called Gnostic or secret Gospels, which include the Gospel of Judas, all written in the first and second centuries and banned by the early church.
"It's crumbling; it's a particular kind of papyrus; it's a particular kind of script," Pagels said. "It would be absolutely not worth anyone's while, and far too difficult, to try to fake this kind of text. This is a genuine ancient text."
So what is in the Gospel of Judas? It is a dialogue that claims to be a conversation between Jesus and Judas in which Jesus asks Judas to betray him.
"Judas has the terrible task of taking it upon himself to turn him over to the authorities for this reason," Pagels said. "Now, the Gospel of Judas also has Judas say to Jesus in fear and terror that he has a dream that the other disciples will hate him and will stone him to death, will attack him.
"And Jesus says, 'Yes, in fact, they will think that you are a terrible person because of what you did. This is part of the burden that you bear. But they will be wrong about that.' So it is an extraordinary transformation of the ordinary understanding of Judas Iscariot."
Pagels said the text shows that Christ, in fact, asked Judas to betray him for an undisclosed reason. "The Gospel of Judas does suggest that the betrayal of Jesus is not a reprehensible act, not the act of a traitor, you know, the worst villain in the history of the world, but that it's a secret mystery between him and Jesus," she said.
Herbert Krosney, author of "The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot," one of two new books and a National Geographic Channel documentary about the Gospel of Judas, said the finding is significant.
"Judas is not the betrayer," Krosney said. "Judas is, rather, the favored disciple of Jesus. He is the one whose star shines in the heavens and in the skies, and Judas, therefore, becomes unique. He is Jesus' best friend rather than his betrayer."
A New Perspective
Today the Gospel of Judas got its first public outing at a news conference, and it is on display at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. It will eventually return to Egypt to be housed in Cairo's Coptic Museum. It is also available online, in Coptic and English, and is the cover story of the new National Geographic magazine.
But while the document is a real one, is what it claims also true? Did the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John get it wrong? Did Jesus askJudas to betray him?
"I don't think that we have in this Gospel what I would call historical proof," Pagels said. "We also don't have that in the other Gospels."
She said there may never be an answer. "I don't see how we would, although you see we could always find next week or in 50 years other evidence that we don't have now."
In the end, science may have its answers, but questions of spirit and soul cannot be analyzed like a piece of papyrus. If Judas did not betray Jesus and was part of a grand plan, does that change anything for Christian theology?
The discovery does not alter the belief of evangelical scholar Ben Witherington that Judas did indeed betray Jesus. "Well, it would mean among other things that Jesus had some kind of death wish, for a start," Witherington said. "And it would raise some questions about his character.
"I would think there are some questions of integrity that would be raised about that, for him to sort of script it in such a way that he's using his disciples to go and set this up would suggest a sort of level of hands-on intention to it, where he's not just submitting to the will of God in his life," Witherington said. "He's actually got his hands on the wheel, and he's driving the wheel of history in a particular direction. And some would find that troubling."
The scholars interviewed by "Primetime" agreed that the real importance of the Gospel of Judas is the window it provides into what some early Christians were thinking. But they acknowledged that some in the organized church will not like the discovery of this Gospel.
"Absolutely, they won't," Pagels said. "Some will be very offended, and they'll say this proves that all of those texts are rubbish, because it's an utterly preposterous idea that Judas could have been involved in a secret mystery with Jesus."
But that would miss the point, she added. "The Christian message is a message about faith and hope and, you know, the relationship between God and human beings. It's not a matter of historical fact."
Pagels said she hoped the find will have a big impact.
"I would hope that people appreciate the excitement of this discovery and recognize that it's all right to ask the kinds of questions that sometimes they're afraid to ask, and say, 'What else didn't we know about the early Christian movement? Could, for example, Judas be forgiven?'" she said.
"And when people start asking that question, they'll realize that it doesn't destroy faith, it actually can strengthen it. But it's a different kind of faith; it's informed by what we understand about our past."