for National Geographic News
After 1,700 years, the Gospel of Judas is lost no more. And the twisting tale of the document itself is nearly as surprising as the story it tells.
"We can consider it a real miracle that [such an ancient literary work]especially one threatened by the hatred of the great majority of its contemporary readers, who saw it as a shame and a scandal, destined to be lost would suddenly appear and be brought to light," said scholar Rodolphe Kasser.
Kasser is an expert in Coptic, or Egyptian Christian, history and literature. He led the effort to piece together and translate the Gospel of Judas.
The surviving copy of the gospel was written in the third or fourth century A.D., but the text was known prior to A.D. 180.
In that year St. Irenaeusthen the bishop of what is now Lyon, Francepublished Against Heresies, a volume intended to help unify the Christian church.
St. Irenaeus's method was to savage alternative theological views and interpretationsincluding the Gospel of Judaswhich he referred to as "fictitious histories."
In this gospel, the Apostle Judas Iscariot is not a traitor but a hero, the chosen disciple. Jesus Christ asks Judas to betray him to the authorities. (For more on the meaning of the gospel, see "Lost Gospel Revealed; Says Jesus Asked Judas to Betray Him.")
Diverse beliefs circulated during Christianity's early years. Many were suppressed in the early centuries A.D. as the religion coalesced into a more structured faith based on the New Testament GospelsMatthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Nonsanctioned texts, such as the Gospel of Judas, fell from favor. Scribes no longer copied them, and existing manuscripts were often destroyed. Those that survived were hidden for safekeeping.
The protectors of the newly revealed documents did their job well, stashing the ancient handwritten Coptic manuscripts so that it remained hidden for nearly 1,700 years.
Modern Journeys of an Ancient Book
Exactly how the manuscripts were found in the late 1970s remains somewhat unclear.
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