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Secrets of Judas, Jesus kept in Egypt for 1700 years

The final words on the last page of the codex read:
Gospel of Judas.

© Kenneth Garrett / National Geographic
afrol News, 7 April
- Among early Christians, several gospels circulated before the Church outlawed those not chosen for the Bible. One of them, the Gospel of Judas, is believed to be among the oldest texts describing Jesus and holds that Judas was not a traitor, but Jesus' closest confident. Condemned by the Church, Judas believers hid the last exemplar in the Egyptian desert 1700 years ago, where it was found in the 1970s. Now, the restored document will be made public and returned to a Cairo museum.

In the first centuries after the death of Jesus, Christian communities rapidly spread around the Mediterranean, including Egypt. Only with time, Christians were united in one official and hierarchical Church and during the 4th century, the church struggled to agree on which texts to include in the Bible. By then, the Gospel of Judas had already been widely condemned by the established church.

The Gospel of Judas gives a different view of the relationship between Jesus and Judas, offering insights into the disciple who according to the official Bible betrayed Jesus. Unlike the accounts in the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, in which Judas is portrayed as a reviled traitor, this gospel portrays Judas as acting at Jesus' request when he hands Jesus over to the authorities.

The text was widely recognised among Gnostics - a popular Christian sect - in the first two centuries after the death of Jesus. In Gnosticism, mysticism and "special knowledge" was celebrated and the secrets of Judas - portrayed as Jesus' most confident disciple who had a special knowledge of his mission - were a particularly popular reading.

Gnosticism was also among the first Christian minority faiths to be branded as heretics by the Church, which fought the popular faith vehemently. The first known reference to a Gospel of Judas is an attack against its "heresy" from around AD 180 by Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon. It was a fierce attack against those whose views about Jesus and his message differed from those of the mainstream Christian Church. Calling the Gospel "a fictitious story", Irenaeus declared it off-limits.

Gnostics believed that the way to salvation was through secret know

Caves in the area north and east of El Minya, Egypt, near where the manuscript containing the Gospel of Judas was found.

© Kenneth Garrett / National Geographic
ledge - delivered by Jesus to his inner circle - that revealed how people can escape the prisons of their material bodies and return to the spiritual realm from which they came. They also believed that the true God, the Father of Jesus, is a higher being than the vengeful Old Testament God who created the universe. The author of the Gospel of Judas believed that Judas Iscariot alone understood the true significance and meaning of Jesus' teachings and that he did Jesus' will in handing him over to the authorities.

The Gospel of Judas is believed to have been written in the first century after the death of Jesus, being among the oldest written descriptions of his life and lectures. It does not claim to have been written by Judas himself, but refers to what Judas had told about his relationship with Jesus. After a few generations of oral transfers of Judas' tales, it was written down. The original is believed to have been in Greek.

Widely distributed among Gnostics, the Gospel of Judas became a dangerous lecture as Church representatives such as Irenaeus condemned it as heresy. In the third century, most copies were therefore destroyed or hidden. Gnosticism was systematically eradicated by the Church in the following centuries.

At least one copy of the gospel however has survived in Egypt. The leather-bound papyrus codex, believed to have been copied down in the extinct Coptic language probably around AD 300, was hidden in a cave in the desert near El Minya, Egypt. There, it remained for around 1700 years, protected by the dry climate.

It was found in the 1970s and then circulated among antiquities traders, moving from Egypt to Europe to the United States. Its authenticy

The codex will be housed in the Coptic Museum in Cairo after it is returned to the Egyptian government.

© Kenneth Garrett / National Geographic
was soon established. Having left Egypt illegally, the Gospel of Judas languished in a safe-deposit box in New York, for 16 years before being bought in 2000 by Zurich-based antiquities dealer Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos.

When attempts to resell the manuscript fell through, Mr Tchacos - alarmed by the codex's rapidly deteriorating state - transferred it to the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Basel, Switzerland, in February 2001 for conservation and translation. The 66-page manuscript, now known as Codex Tchacos, is to be delivered to Egypt and housed in Cairo's Coptic Museum.

It took almost five years of intensive work to reconstruct 80 percent of the historic document from thousands of small pieces. Rodolphe Kasser, the manuscript's chief translator, said he had never seen a manuscript in worse shape. Pages were missing, some pages had been rearranged, the top half containing the page numbers had broken away, and nearly a thousand fragments lay scattered. "The manuscript was so brittle, it would crumble at the slightest touch," he said.

The restored document was unveiled to the public at a press conference held in Washington by the magazine 'National Geographic' yesterday. 'National Geographic' has sponsored the authentication, conservation and translation of the codex. The magazine is now to exhibit featuring pages of the codex at and plans to publish "a fully illustrated, critical edition of the codex" in the coming year.

Some few parts of the Gospel have however already been released by 'National Geographic': The text begins in this way: "The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week, three days before

Illustration of Judas' betrayal of Jesus. National Geographic's exhibition image.

© Kenneth Garrett / National Geographic
he celebrated Passover." It reflects themes that scholars regard as being consistent with Gnostic traditions. In the very first scene Jesus laughs at his disciples for praying to "your God," meaning the lesser Old Testament God who created the world. He challenges the disciples to look at him and understand what he really is, but they turn away.

The key passage comes when Jesus tells Judas, "... you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me." By helping Jesus get rid of his physical flesh, Judas will help liberate the true spiritual self or divine being within.

Judas is singled out several times for special status. "Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal," Jesus says. He also tells Judas, "Look, you have been told everything. Lift up your eyes and look at the cloud and the light within it and the stars surrounding it. The star that leads the way is your star."

The gospel also suggests Judas will be despised by the other disciples but will be exalted over them. " will be cursed by the other generations — and you will come to rule over them," Jesus says. Judas also reports a vision where he is harshly opposed by the other disciples: "In the vision I saw myself as the 12 disciples were stoning me and persecuting [me severely]."

The gospel ends abruptly. "They [the arresting party] approached Judas and said to him, 'What are you doing here? You are Jesus' disciple.' Judas answered them as they wished. And he received some money and handed him over to them." No mention is made in this gospel of Jesus' crucifixion or resurrection.

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