The Bible's New Testament Gospels say that Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, betrayed his spiritual leader for a bag of silver coins, and then hanged himself in shame. But an early Christian text -- newly-restored, translated, and authenticated -- indicates the New Testament didn't tell the whole story of Judas' relationship with Jesus.
"The Gospel of Judas gives an intriguing alternative view of the relationship between Jesus and Judas, offering new insights into the disciple known for his betrayal of Jesus," Terry Garcia, executive vice president of the National Geographic Society, told reporters at a press conference at the society's headquarters. "Unlike the accounts in the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, this newly-discovered gospel depicts Judas as a favored disciple, and a close friend, and acting at Jesus' request when he hands Jesus over to the Roman authorities."
The Gospel of Judas is actually a translation of an original gospel written in the second century by one of a number of dissident Greek Christians. Officials in the early Church rejected the original as heretical and excluded it from the so-called canonical Gospels -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John -- that formed the officially sanctioned New Testament.
The translation that's now in the hands of the National Geographic Society -- which co-sponsored the document's recovery with two other international groups -- was written around 300 A.D. Translation or not, Terry Garcia says it's an amazing discovery.
"We've been privileged to work on this project with some of the world's foremost biblical scholars," he says, "and they agree it may be the most significant, ancient non-canonical discovery in the past 60 years. And many believe that it may be one of the three most important finds of the last century, along with the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library."
The Nag Hammadi library site in Egypt was the discovery site of similar, dissident -- so-called Gnostic Christian gospels -- in 1945.
The Gospel of Judas was discovered in Egypt in 1978, shipped back and forth to art dealers - and finally to historical conservationists several years ago. Terry Garcia says the document had shredded into a thousand pieces and had to be put back together like pieces of a puzzle.
Religious historians say the Gospel of Judas may now solve a puzzle -- by helping answer questions like: who was Judas, what was his relationship to Jesus, and why did he direct Roman authorities to arrest him?
According to the Gospel of Judas, Jesus asked Judas to turn him into the authorities, to hasten his eventual death by crucifixion and the departure of his spirit from his body.
Bart Ehrman, a religion professor at the University of North Carolina, says the gospel strongly suggests that Judas had no intention of hurting Jesus.
"He is the good guy in this portrayal. He is, in fact, not only the good guy. He is the only disciple who understands Jesus," Ehrman says. "At one point in this gospel, Jesus challenges the other disciples to 'stand in his [Jesus'] presence.' None has the strength to do so except Judas Iscariot. Judas can stand in Jesus presence, and he is, in fact, later indicated to be superior to the other eleven."
Marvin Meyer, a Bible studies professor at Chapman University in Orange, California, says the Gospel of Judas may help correct any anti-semitic strains within Christianity.
"The figure of Judas has often been portrayed as the 'evil, Jewish person who turned Jesus in to be arrested and killed,'" Meyer says. "Thereby, the traditional view of Judas the betrayer has fanned the flames of anti Semitism. Judas in the Gospel of Judas may counteract this anti-semitic tendency.
Elaine Pagels, a professor of religious studies at Princeton University, believes the newly-restored text will broaden Christians' understanding of the life of Jesus, as told by a variety of gospel writers.
"For nearly 200 years, most people assumed that the only sources of tradition about Jesus and his disciples are the four gospels contained in the New Testament," Pagels says. "But as you know in 1945, the discovery of over 50 ancient Christian texts, and now the Gospel of Judas, proved what Church fathers told us a long time ago, that the New Testament gospels -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John -- are actually only a small selection of dozens more that circulated among Christian groups in the early decades of the movement."
The National Geographic Society has also published a book and produced a television documentary about the Gospel of Judas -- helping to stir a spirited international debate on the life and death of Jesus just in time for Holy Week services (ending with Easter Sunday April 16), when Christians worldwide remember Christ's final days nearly 2000 years ago.