A 1,700-year-old papyrus manuscript recasts Judas, the man who, according to the Bible, betrayed Jesus Christ, as a loyal friend who was just following orders.
According to the experts who have restored, translated and authenticated the manuscript, the so-called lost gospel of Judas says that Jesus asked his close friend Judas Iscariot to turn him over to the Romans because he wanted to escape the prison of his earthly body. The 26 pages -- 13 sheets of papyrus with writing on both front and back -- depict Judas as a Christian hero, not a villain.
The document's existence was revealed yesterday in Washington at a news conference held by the National Geographic Society, which was part of an international effort to save the only known surviving copy. It had been badly damaged in a strange journey from a limestone box in an Egyptian tomb to a safety deposit box in Hicksville, N.Y.
"The gospel of Judas turns Judas's act of betrayal into an act of obedience," said Craig Evans, professor of New Testament studies at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, N.S., who helped interpret the document.
"The sacrifice of Jesus's body of flesh in fact becomes saving. And so for that reason, Judas emerges as the champion and he ends up being envied and even cursed and resented by the other disciples."
But the new gospel may not rehabilitate Judas in the eyes of many modern Christians. Experts say its anonymous author was a Gnostic, an early Christian group that believed in more than one god and that the true God, the father of Jesus, is a higher being than the vengeful deity who created the universe.
Radiocarbon dating shows that the manuscript dates back to the third or fourth century. It is written in Coptic script, the language of Egyptian Christians, but is believed to be a translation of an original Greek text.
It was discovered by peasants in the Egyptian desert in the late 1970s buried in a tomb in a limestone box. They sold it to antiquity traders, and it changed hands a number of times. It spent 16 years mouldering in a safety deposit box in Hicksville.
Finally, a dealer in Zurich who had bought it for an undisclosed sum turned it over to the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Switzerland.
It was in terrible shape, and crumbled at the slightest touch. Specialists restored it, assembling more than 1,000 pieces, and tested its authenticity. In addition to radiocarbon dating, scientists analyzed the ink with which it was written. Scholars studied its content, linguistic style and handwriting.
They say the most telling passage of the gospel begins with the words, "The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week, three days before he celebrated Passover."
Jesus tells Judas he will "exceed" the other disciples. "For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me."
Those instructions sound puzzling. To understand their meaning, you need to know a little about the beliefs of the Gnostics, said Bart Ehrman, an expert in early Christianity at the University of North Carolina and a member of the team that has studied the document.
They were early Christians who believed they were spirits that had been imprisoned in their bodies, he said. They would have believed that Jesus, like them, needed to escape the physical part of this existence and return to his heavenly home.
Scholars know the gospel of Judas is a Gnostic text because it lays out the myth of how the world was created by a fool, Dr. Ehrman said. Church leaders viewed Gnostic Christians as heretics, he said. They had difficulty winning converts and eventually died out, although there are modern Gnostic churches in California.
The authors of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that are contained in the New Testament saw Judas in a less heroic light. To them he was a traitor, the man who led an armed band of enemies to Jesus. Those enemies crucified Him.
Dr. Ehrman said the manuscript adds rich detail to our understanding of the diversity of early Christianity, but he doesn't believe that the gospel of Judas will change the beliefs of many Christians, who are preparing for Easter.
"This book was declared heresy, ruled out of bounds," he said. "Traditional Christians today will agree with that judgment."