He is one of the most reviled men in history.
But was Judas only obeying his master's wishes when he betrayed Jesus with a kiss?
That's what a newly revealed ancient Christian text says.
After being lost for nearly 1,700 years, the Gospel of Judas was recently restored, authenticated, and translated. The Coptic, or Egyptian Christian, manuscripts were unveiled today at National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C.
What Does It Mean?
Some biblical scholars are calling the Gospel of Judas the most significant archaeological discovery in 60 years.
The only known surviving copy of the gospel was found in a codex, or ancient book, that dates back to the third or fourth century A.D.
The newly revealed gospel document, written in Coptic script, is believed to be a translation of the original, a Greek text written by an early Christian sect sometime before A.D. 180.
The Bible's New Testament Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—depict Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus, as a traitor. In biblical accounts Judas gives up Jesus Christ to his opponents, who later crucify the founder of Christianity. (Here's what we know from historical evidence about the Twelve Apostles.)
The Gospel of Judas, however, portrays him as acting at Jesus' request.
"This lost gospel, providing information on Judas Iscariot—considered for 20 centuries and by hundreds of millions of believers as an antichrist of the worst kind—bears witness to something completely different from what was said [about Judas] in the Bible," said Rodolphe Kasser, a clergyman and former professor in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Geneva in Switzerland.
Kasser, who is regarded as one of the world's preeminent Coptic scholars, led the effort to piece together and translate the Gospel of Judas. The National Geographic Society and the Waitt Institute for Historical Discovery funded the project, and it will be profiled in the May 2006 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Scholars say the text not only offers an alternative view of the relationship between Jesus and Judas but also illustrates the diversity of opinion in the early Christian church.
"I expect this gospel to be important mainly for the deeper insight it will give scholars into the thoughts and beliefs of certain Christians in the second century of the Christian era, namely the Gnostics," said Stephen Emmel, a Coptic studies professor at the University of Münster in Germany.
In 1983 Emmel was among the first three known scholars to view the Gospel of Judas, which had been discovered hidden in Egypt in the late 1970s.
Gnostics belonged to pre-Christian and early Christian sects that believed that elusive spiritual knowledge could help them rise above what they saw as the corrupt physical world.
Biblical accounts suggest that Jesus foresaw and allowed Judas's betrayal.
As told in the New Testament Gospels, Judas betrayed Jesus for "30 pieces of silver," identifying him with a kiss in front of Roman soldiers. Later the guilt-ridden Judas returns the bribe and commits suicide, according to the Bible.
The Gospel of Judas, however, gives a very different account.
The text begins by announcing that it is the "secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week, three days before he celebrated Passover."
It goes on to describe Judas as Jesus' closest friend, someone who understands Christ's true message and is singled out for special status among Jesus' disciples.
In the key passage Jesus tells Judas, "'you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.'"
Kasser, the translation-project leader, offers an interpretation: "Jesus says it is necessary for someone to free him finally from his human body, and he prefers that this liberation be done by a friend rather than by an enemy.
"So he asks Judas, who is his friend, to sell him out, to betray him. It's treason to the general public, but between Jesus and Judas it's not treachery."
The newfound account challenges one of the most firmly rooted beliefs in Christian tradition.
Bart Ehrman is chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"This gospel," he said, "has a completely different understanding of God, the world, Christ, salvation, human existence—not to mention of Judas himself—than came to be embodied in the Christian creeds and canon."
The author of the 26-page Gospel of Judas remains anonymous. But the text reflects themes that scholars regard as being consistent with Gnostic traditions.
Christian Gnostics believed that the way to salvation was through secret knowledge delivered by Jesus to his inner circle. This knowledge, they believed, revealed how people could escape the prisons of their material bodies and return to the spiritual realm from which they came.
Gnostic sects looked to their gospels—among them the Gospel of Mary, newly famous for its role in the best-seller The Da Vinci Code—to authenticate their distinctive beliefs and practices.
Contradicting the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, these texts were later denounced by orthodox Christian leaders and refused entry into the Bible. Scholars believe that followers of the texts hid copies of them for preservation.
Scholars knew of the existence of the Gospel of Judas because of references to it in other ancient texts as early as A.D. 180.
To today's biblical scholars, the Gospel of Judas illustrates the multitude of opinions and beliefs in the early Christian church.
"This ancient text helps the modern world rediscover something that the early Christians knew firsthand," said Reverend Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois.
"In the early centuries of the Christian era there were multiple sacred texts resulting from communities in various parts of the Mediterranean world trying to come to grips with the meaning of Jesus Christ for their lives."
Brian Handwerk contributed to this report.