A leather-bound Coptic language papyrus document that surfaced during the 1970s, near Beni Masar, Egypt, was named the Codex Tchacos after an antiquities dealer, Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos, who became concerned about the deteriorating condition of the manuscript. First translated in the early 2000s, the codex contains text that appears to be from the late 2nd century, and includes the self-titled "Gospel of Judas." (Euangelion Ioudas) which relates the story of Jesus's death from the viewpoint of Judas.
The manuscript was radiocarbon dated "between the third and fourth centuries", according to Timothy Jull, a carbon-dating expert at the University of Arizona's physics center, and described by the National Geographic as being from AD 280, plus or minus 60 years.
Today the manuscript is in over a thousand pieces, with many sections missing due to poor handling and storage. Some passages are only scattered words; others contain many lines. According to Rodolphe Kasser, the codex originally contained 31 pages, with writing on both sides; however, when it came to the market in 1999, only 13 pages remained. It is speculated that individual pages had been removed and sold.
It has also been speculated, on the basis of textual analysis concerning features of dialect and Greek loan words, that the Coptic text contained in the codex may be a translation from an older Greek manuscript dating, at the earliest, to approximately AD 130–170. Cited in support is the reference to a “Gospel of Judas” by the early Christian writer Irenaeus of Lyons, who, in arguing against Gnosticism, called the text a "fictitious history". However, it is uncertain whether the text mentioned by Irenaeus is in fact the same text as the Coptic “Gospel of Judas” found in the Codex Tchachos.
A. J. Levine, who was on the team of scholars responsible for unveiling the work, said that the Gospel of Judas contains no new historical information concerning Jesus or Judas, but that the text is helpful in reconstructing the history of Gnosticism, especially in the Coptic-speaking areas.
The Gospel of Judas consists of 16 chapters which document Jesus's teaching about spiritual matters and cosmology. Judas is the only one of Jesus's disciples who accurately understands the words of his master. This Gospel contains few narrative elements; essentially, the Gospel records how Judas was taught by Jesus the true meaning of his message.
The Gospel contains ideas which contradicted those circulating in the early Christian church. The author argues that God is essentially a "luminous cloud of light" who exists in an imperishable realm. Adamas, the spiritual father of all humanity, was created in God's image and dwelled in the imperishable realm.
At the beginning of time, God created a group of angels and lower gods. Twelve angels were willed to "come into being [to] rule over chaos and the [underworld]."
The angels of creation were tasked with creating a physical body for Adamas, which became known as the first man Adam. Gradually, humanity began to forget its divine origins and some of Adam's descendants (Cain and Abel) became embroiled in the world's first murder. Many humans came to think that the imperfect physical universe was the totality of creation, losing their knowledge of God and the imperishable realm.
Jesus was sent as the Son of the true God, not of one of the lesser gods. His mission was to show that salvation lies in connecting with the God within the man. Through embracing the internal God, the man can then return to the imperishable realm.
Eleven of the disciples Jesus chose to spread his message misunderstood the central tenets of His teaching. They were obsessed with the physical world of the senses. They continued to practise religious animal sacrifice, which pleased the lower gods but did not help to foster a connection with the true God. They wrongly taught that those martyred in the name of Christ would be bodily resurrected.
In contrast, Jesus is able to teach Judas the true meaning of his life, ministry and death. Mankind can be divided into two races, or groups. Those who are furnished with the immortal soul, like Judas, can come to know the God within and enter the imperishable realm when they die. Those who belong to the same generation of the other eleven disciples cannot enter the realm of God and will die both spiritually and physically at the end of their lives. As practices that are intertwined with the physical world, animal sacrifice and a communion ceremony centered around cannibalism (the symbolic consumption of Jesus' flesh and blood) are condemned as abhorrent. Death is seen not as a glorious event but simply as a way to escape the perishable realm of the flesh.
Of crucial importance is the author's understanding of Jesus' death. The other Gospels argue that Jesus had to die in order to atone for the sins of humanity. The author of Judas expresses the view that this sort of substitutionary justice pleases the lower gods and angels. The true God is gracious and thus does not demand any sacrifice.
Pagels and King argue that a more nuanced, contextualized understanding of alternative interpretations of the Christian tradition should inform discussions of Gnosticism. In the centuries following Jesus's death, many differing views of the meaning of his life and death existed. Nicene Christianity (i.e. the views which came to be summarized in the doctrines contained in the Nicene Creed) existed alongside various cults (one of which was labelled 'Gnosticism') for centuries, until the Nicenian interpretation became accepted as "mainstream" Christianity.
Before the discovery of so-called Gnostic texts (such as the Nag Hammadi library), scholars had to rely solely on the reports of proto-Nicene church fathers for their understanding of alternative approaches to understanding Christianity. These reports were necessarily biased since they were written by people opposed to non-Nicene churches. Furthermore, study and analysis of original non-Nicene texts has shown that the church fathers sometimes oversimplified when writing about their doctrinal opponents.
Access to texts such as the Gospel of Judas has allowed scholars to develop a much richer, more comprehensive understanding of non-Nicene movements. To blandly assert that the Gospel of Judas is a Gnostic text without qualifying this statement in some way does not make allowance for the variety and complexity of the 'heretical' movements.
The Gospel of Judas was condemned by Irenaeus in his anti-Gnostic work Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies), written in about 180. Despite this, The Gospel of Judas differs from other non-Nicene Gospels in several ways. Far from arguing that the physical body is a prison which needs to be escaped from, the Gospel of Judas portrays Jesus as able to leave his body at will and take on other forms, appearing to be a child. In the text, Jesus is shown leaving his body, journeying to the imperishable realm and returning to his body. Unlike other non-Nicene Gospels, the Gospel of Judas is Sethian in orientation in that Adam's son Seth is seen as a spiritual ancestor. As in other Sethian documents, Jesus is equated with Seth: "The first is Seth, who is called Christ".
The initial translation of the Gospel of Judas was widely publicized but simply confirmed the account that was written in Irenaeus and known Gnostic beliefs, leading some scholars to simply summarize the discovery as nothing new. However, it is argued that a closer reading of the existent text, as presented in October 2006, shows Christianity in a new light. According to Elaine Pagels, for instance, Judas is portrayed as having a mission to hand Jesus over to the soldiers. She says that Bible translators have mistranslated the Greek word for "handing over" to "betrayal".
Like many Gnostic works, the Gospel of Judas refers to itself as a secret account, specifically "The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot...."
Over the ages many philosophers have contemplated the idea that Judas was required to have carried out his actions in order for Jesus to have died on the cross and hence fulfill theological obligations.
The Gospel of Judas states that Jesus told Judas "You shall be cursed for generations" and then added, "You will come to rule over them" and "You will exceed all of them, for you will sacrifice the man that clothes me."
Unlike the four canonical gospels, which employ narrative accounts of the last year of Jesus's life (in the case of John, three years) and of his birth (in the case of Luke and Matthew), the Judas gospel takes the form of dialogues between Jesus and Judas, and Jesus and the twelve disciples, without being embedded in any narrative or worked into any overt philosophical or rhetorical context. Such "dialogue gospels" were popular during the early decades of Christianity, and indeed the four canonical gospels are distinguished from the others as the only surviving gospels in narrative form. The New Testament apocrypha contains several examples of the dialogue form, an example being the Gospel of Mary.
Like the canonical gospels, the Gospel of Judas portrays the scribes as approaching Judas with the intention of arresting him, and Judas receiving money from them after handing Jesus over to them. But unlike Judas in the canonical gospels, who is portrayed as a villain, and excoriated by Jesus ("Alas for that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It would be better for that man if he had never been born," trans. The New English Bible) Mark 14:21; Matthew 26:24, the Judas gospel portrays Judas as a divinely appointed instrument of a grand and predetermined purpose. "In the last days they will curse your ascent to the holy (generation)."
Elsewhere in the manuscript, Jesus favours Judas above other disciples by saying, "Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom," and "Look, you have been told everything. Lift up your eyes and look at the cloud and the light within it and the stars surrounding it. The star that leads the way is your star."
The content of the gospel had been unknown until a Coptic Gospel of Judas turned up on the antiquities "grey market," in Geneva in May 1983, when it was found among a mixed group of Greek and Coptic manuscripts offered to Stephen Emmel, a Yale Ph.D. candidate commissioned by Southern Methodist University to inspect the manuscripts. How this manuscript, Codex Tchacos, was found, maybe in the late 1970s, has not been clearly documented. However, it is believed that a now-deceased Egyptian "treasure-hunter" or prospector discovered the codex near El Minya, Egypt, in the neighbourhood of the village Beni Masar, and sold it to one Hanna, a dealer in antiquities resident in Cairo.
In the 1970s, the manuscript and most of the dealer's other artifacts were stolen by a Greek trader named Nikolas Koutoulakis, and smuggled into Geneva. Hanna, along with Swiss antiquity traders, paid Koutoulakis a sum rumoured to be between $3 million to $10 million, recovered the manuscript and introduced it to experts who recognized its significance.
During the following two decades the manuscript was quietly offered to prospective buyers, but no major library or Egypt felt ready to purchase a manuscript that had such questionable provenance. In 2003 Michel van Rijn started to publish material about these dubious negotiations, and eventually the 62-page leather-bound codex was donated to the Maecenas Foundation in Basel. The previous owners now reported that it had been uncovered at Muhafazat al Minya in Egypt during the 1950s or 1960s, and that its significance had not been appreciated until recently. It is worth noting that various other locations had been alleged during previous negotiations.
The existence of the text was made public by Rodolphe Kasser at a conference of Coptic specialists in Paris, July 2004. In a statement issued March 30, 2005, a spokesman for the Maecenas Foundation announced plans for edited translations into English, French, German, and Polish once the fragile papyrus had undergone conservation by a team of specialists in Coptic history to be led by a former professor at the University of Geneva, Rodolphe Kasser, and that their work would be published in about a year. A. J. Tim Jull, director of the National Science Foundation Arizona AMS laboratory, and Gregory Hodgins, assistant research scientist, announced that a radiocarbon dating procedure had dated five samples from the papyrus manuscript from 220 to 340 in January 2005 at the University of Arizona. This puts the Coptic manuscript in the 3rd or 4th centuries, a century earlier than had originally been thought from analysis of the script. In January 2006, Gene A. Ware of the Papyrological Imaging Lab of Brigham Young University conducted a multi-spectral imaging process on the texts in Switzerland, and confirmed their authenticity.
Over the decades, the manuscript had been handled with less than sympathetic care: some single pages may be loose on the antiquities market (one half page turned up in Feb. 2006, in New York City); the text is now in over a thousand pieces and fragments, and is believed to be less than three-quarters complete. "After concluding the research, everything will be returned to Egypt. The work belongs there and they will be conserved in the best way," Roberty has stated.
In April 2006, an Ohio bankruptcy lawyer said that he possesses several small, brown bits of papyrus from the Gospel of Judas, but he refuses to have the fragments authenticated and his report is being viewed with skepticism by experts.
Kasser revealed a few details about the text in 2004, the Dutch paper Het Parool reported. Its language is the same Sahidic dialect of Coptic in which Coptic texts of the Nag Hammadi Library are written. The codex has four parts:The Letter of Peter to Philip, already known from the Nag Hammadi Library.
The First Apocalypse of James, also known from the Nag Hammadi Library.
The first few pages of a work related to, but not the same as, the Nag Hammadi work Allogenes.
The Gospel of Judas.
Up to a third of the codex is currently illegible.
A scientific paper was to be published in 2005, but was delayed. The completion of the restoration and translation was announced by the National Geographic Society at a news conference in Washington, D.C. on April 6, 2006, and the manuscript itself was unveiled then at the National Geographic Society headquarters, accompanied by a television special entitled The Gospel of Judas on April 9, 2006, which was aired on the National Geographic Channel. Terry Garcia, an executive vice president for Mission Programs of the National Geographic Society, asserted that the codex is considered by scholars and scientists to be the most significant ancient, non-biblical text to be found since the 1940s. However, James M. Robinson, general editor of the Nag Hammadi Library, predicted that the new book would offer no historical insights into the disciple who betrayed Jesus, since the 2nd-century manuscript seems to derive from an older document. Robinson suggested that the text will provide insights into the religious situation during the 2nd century rather than into the biblical narrative itself.
One scholar on the National Geographic project believes the document shows that Judas was "fooled" into believing he was helping Jesus.
Another scholar, April D. DeConick, a professor of Biblical studies at Rice University, opines in an op-ed in The New York Times that the National Geographic translation was critically faulty in many substantial respects, and that based on a corrected translation, Judas was actually a demon, truly betraying Jesus, rather than following his orders. DeConick, after re-translating the text, published The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says to assert that Judas was not a daimon in the Greek sense, but that "the universally accepted word for 'spirit' is 'pneuma' — in Gnostic literature 'daimon' is always taken to mean 'demon'". She further stated that "Judas is not set apart 'for' the holy generation, as the National Geographic translation says, he is separated 'from' it." DeConick went on to ask, "Were they genuine errors or was something more deliberate going on?" The National Geographic Society responded that "virtually all issues April D. DeConick raises about translation choices are addressed in footnotes in both the popular and critical editions".
André Gagné, Professor at Concordia University in Montreal, also questioned how the experts of the National Geographic Society understood the role of Judas Iscariot in the Gospel of Judas. His argument rests on the translation of the Greco-Coptic term apophasis as "denial". According to Gagné, the opening lines of the Judas Gospel should not be translated as "the secret word of declaration by which Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot" but rather as "the secret word of the denial by which Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot" (Gospel of Judas 33:1). Gagné's conclusion is that this gospel is the story of the denial of true salvation for Judas.
In 2006 Géza Vermes commented the gospel was "a typical product of Greek (Platonic)-Christian speculation" representing Judas "assisting the Jewish authorities’ arrest of Jesus and bringing about his liberation from the prison of his body.". This view is exemplified by a passage where Jesus says to Judas, “For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” (Gospel of Judas 56.18-20)
Scholars are divided on the interpretation of the text. The first modern publication of the gospel contended that the text portrays Judas in a positive light, while other scholars have asserted that Judas is presented negatively. There is no consensus on how Judas is characterized in this gospel
There may be additional fragments of the gospel yet to be released.
CNN TV series entitled "Finding Jesus - Faith, Fact, Forgery" featured The Gospel of Judas in its 3rd episode which was aired on March 15, 2015.
In his 2006 Easter address, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, strongly denied the historical credibility of the gospel, saying,
This is a demonstrably late text which simply parallels a large number of quite well-known works from the more eccentric fringes of the early century Church.
He went on to suggest that the book's publicity derives from an insatiable desire for conspiracy theories:
We are instantly fascinated by the suggestion of conspiracies and cover-ups; this has become so much the stuff of our imagination these days that it is only natural, it seems, to expect it when we turn to ancient texts, especially biblical texts. We treat them as if they were unconvincing press releases from some official source, whose intention is to conceal the real story; and that real story waits for the intrepid investigator to uncover it and share it with the waiting world. Anything that looks like the official version is automatically suspect.
The president of the Maecenas Foundation, Mario Roberty, suggested the possibility that the Maecenas Foundation had acquired not the only extant copy of the Gospel, but rather the only known copy. Roberty went on to suggest that the Vatican probably had another copy locked away, saying:
In those days the Church decided for political reasons to include the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in the Bible. The other gospels were banned. It is highly logical that the Catholic Church would have kept a copy of the forbidden gospels. Sadly, the Vatican does not want to clarify further. Their policy has been the same for years – "No further comment".
Roberty provided no evidence to suggest that the Vatican does, in fact, possess any additional copy. While the contents of one part of the Vatican library have been catalogued and have long been available to researchers and scholars, the remainder of the library is, however, without a public catalogue, and though researchers may view any work within, they must first name the text they require, a serious problem for those who do not know what is contained by the library. The Pope responded on April 13, 2006:
The Vatican, by word of Pope Benedict XVI, grants the recently surfaced Judas' Gospel no credit with regards to its apocryphal claims that Judas betrayed Jesus in compliance with the latter's own requests. According to the Pope, Judas freely chose to betray Jesus: "an open rejection of God's love." Judas, according to Pope Benedict XVI "viewed Jesus in terms of power and success: his only real interests lay in his power and success, there was no love involved. He was a greedy man: money was more important than communing with Jesus; money came before God and his love." According to the Pope it was due to these traits that led Judas to "turn liar, two-faced, indifferent to the truth", "losing any sense of God", "turning hard, incapable of converting, of being the prodigal son, hence throwing away a spent existence".
Spokespersons say the Vatican does not wish to suppress the Gospel of Judas; rather, according to Monsignor Walter Brandmüller, president of the Vatican's Committee for Historical Science, "We welcome the [manuscript] like we welcome the critical study of any text of ancient literature."
Even more explicitly, Father Thomas D. Williams, Dean of Theology at the Regina Apostolorum university in Rome, when asked:
Is it true that the Catholic Church has tried to cover up this text [Gospel of Judas] and other apocryphal texts?
answered as follows:
These are myths circulated by Dan Brown and numerous conspiracy theorists.
You can go to any Catholic bookstore and pick up a copy of the Gnostic gospels. Christians may not believe them to be true, but there is no attempt to hide them.
In AD 367, bishop Athanasius of Alexandria did urge Christians to reject "books called apocryphal".