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Last Updated: Friday, 7 April 2006, 09:42 GMT 10:42 UK
Judas 'helped Jesus save mankind'
The Gospel of Judas exhibit at the National Geographic Society in the US
The text suggests Judas did Jesus' bidding
Judas Iscariot's reputation as one of the most notorious villains in history has been thrown into doubt with the translation of an ancient text.

The Gospel of Judas, a papyrus document from the 3rd or 4th Century AD, casts the fallen disciple as a benevolent figure, helping Jesus to save mankind.

The early Christian Church denounced such teachings as heretical.

The 31-page fragile document, alleged to be a copy of an even older text, was discovered in Egypt in the 1970s.

The National Geographic Society in the US published the first translation of the text from Coptic to English on Thursday, and showed some of the papyrus pages for the first time.

Breakaway sect

For 2,000 years, Christianity has portrayed Judas as the treacherous apostle who betrayed his divine master with a kiss, leading to his capture and crucifixion.

According to the Bible, Judas received 30 pieces of silver for the act, but died soon afterwards.

Engraving of Judas betraying Jesus
Should Christians be respecting Judas?

However, the Gospel of Judas identifies him as Christ's favourite disciple and depicts his betrayal as the fulfilment of a divine mission to enable the crucifixion - and thus the foundation of Christianity - to take place.

The text quotes Jesus as saying to Judas: "You will exceed all of them [the other disciples] for you will sacrifice the man who clothes me."

In a statement, the National Geographic Society said that this indicated that Judas, by helping Jesus get rid of his physical flesh, would help liberate the true spiritual self or divine being within.

This view is similar to that held by Christian Gnostics - 2nd Century AD Christians who became rivals to the early Church.

They thought that Judas was the most enlightened of the apostles, acting in order that mankind might be redeemed by the death of Christ.

As such they regarded him as deserving gratitude and reverence.

'Vigorous debate'

Gnostic writers are believed to have set down their contrasting account of Judas' role in Greek in about 150AD, and some believe that this manuscript may be a copy of that.

Records show that the leaders of the early Christian Church denounced that version as heretical in about 180AD.

The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca
Gnostics believe Judas helped Jesus save mankind

Rev Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union of Chicago told the Associated Press news agency that he thought it was unlikely that the text would rival the New Testament.

But "let a vigorous debate on the significance of this fascinating ancient text begin," he added.

The Gospel of Judas was found near Beni Masar in Egypt.

In 2000, the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Basel Switzerland took possession of the document and translation began soon afterwards.

National Geographic struck a publication deal with the foundation last year, thought to have cost $1m (570,000).

Along with a magazine article, the society is publishing two books on the Gospel of Judas, and the National Geographic TV channel will be running a special two-hour documentary on the manuscript on Sunday 9 April.


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