When National Geographic unveiled the Gospel of Judas this month, the narrator in the accompanying television documentary solemnly announced: “It tells a different story. One that could challenge our deepest beliefs.”
The Gospel portrayed a Judas who simply carried out his master’s orders -- and did not betray him.
But for Gnostics, a small branch of Christianity, that so-called revelation was just a confirmation of a long-held belief that there was more to Judas and the crucifixion story than the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John suggest.
“Gnostics were inclined in this direction for a long, long time,” said Bishop Stephan Hoeller, of the Gnostic Society, who also leads a congregation in Los Angeles. The society was founded in 1923, he said, and the church, Ecclesia Gnostica, was started in 1956.
“The notion that Judas was this terrible villain ... that has never really been accepted in Gnosticism,” Hoeller said.
The Gnostics were declared a heretical sect in the early days of Christianity. They believe that Jesus entered the world to help people recognize the divine within themselves, that salvation comes from spiritual knowledge, not faith or works.
“It’s a stream of Christianity that didn’t win the day,” said Andrew Jacobs, a religious studies professor at UC Riverside.
Craig Hill, a New Testament professor at the Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., explained a key way in which Gnosticism differs from mainstream Christianity.
For Gnostics, Hill said, the physical realm -- including the body -- is imperfect, created by an inferior god. Therefore, the challenge facing human beings isn’t sin, but overcoming that physical realm.
Thus a more positive portrayal of Judas -- the one who helped free Jesus from his body and release the divine spark within -- makes sense.
The concept relates to quotes attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Judas, which imply that Jesus asked the disciple to help orchestrate his death. “You will be cursed by the other generations,” Jesus tells him. “But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”
In Gnosticism, some oral histories have portrayed Judas in a positive light, said Tau Malachi, a Gnostic bishop in Northern California. Malachi said he practices within the Sophian tradition, which dates from the mid-18th century and is rooted in Jewish mysticism.
According to Sophians, Mary Magdalene was present when Jesus had secret conversations with Judas and heard Christ ask the disciple to help him explain the true nature of humanity -- that everyone has Christ in them, Malachi said.
“In the oral tradition, [Judas] agrees with his master’s instructions,” Malachi said.
The Gospel supports this Gnostic view of the relationship between Jesus and Judas: “Step away from the others, and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom.”
While the manuscript may align with Gnostic beliefs, it doesn’t shake up mainstream Christian doctrine.
Religious scholars and representatives from different denominations had reactions ranging from indifference to fascination.
The Gospel of Judas, dated to around the year 300, is a Coptic-language translation of a Greek document that scholars believe was written about 130 years earlier.
But will it change modern interpretations of Scripture? Some experts say no.
The text doesn’t really teach anything about Judas and Jesus, said Gerhard Pfandl, associate director of the Biblical Research Institute, a branch of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. “It tells us what the people in the 2nd century ... thought about Judas and Jesus,” he said.
The problem is one of chronology and context, Hill said. To use a 3rd century text to analyze events of 200 years earlier is “rather like studying the Watergate tapes to understand the Republicanism of Abraham Lincoln,” he said.
The Gospel of Judas paints a troubling portrait of Jesus for some scholars, a bizarre contrast to the selfless man the New Testament depicts.
“What kind of Jesus is it that actually is conniving and strategizing and plotting for his own death?” said Father John Coleman, a theology professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “He didn’t set out to say, ‘You know what? I’d love to be crucified.’ ”
If anything, Jacobs said, the manuscript sheds light on a very human desire to discover something new, such as a 1st century text penned by Peter that turns the main Gospels on their heads.
The fascination with that kind of discovery echoes the spirit of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,” which suggests that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had children.
The novel’s controversial version of church history was partly based on Gnostic texts, Pfandl said.
But the Gospel of Judas’ age doesn’t make it true or reliable, said Kenyn Cureton, spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee, in a statement.
“Fiction has been around for a long, long time,” Cureton said. For him, the document smacks of New Testament warnings of false prophecies.
Jewish scholars, however, said the gospel exposes an interesting path that Christianity could have taken -- and could even clarify perceived contradictions in Christ’s character.
During the period the text emerged, a pagan critic questioned Jesus’ lack of insight into Judas’ real character and his inability to reform the disciple, said Rabbi Michael J. Cook, a New Testament professor at Hebrew Union College in Ohio. The manuscript could represent an attempt to show that Jesus was in control of his own fate, Cook said.
It also could reconstruct the historical image of Jews, said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, vice president of the University of Judaism.
Driven by the negative Gospel accounts of Judas, medieval Christians tended to connect the betrayer of Jesus with all Jews, he said.
But in the Gospel of Judas, the disciple is “the man who willingly allowed his own reputation to be tarnished in the world in service of God’s people,” he said. “That’s an interesting way for Christians to reunderstand their relationship to the Jewish people.”
Whatever their doubts about its contents, Christian scholars said the text shouldn’t be dismissed outright. The beliefs it expresses might not have won the day, but it’s important to ask why, said Larry Richards, a New Testament professor emeritus at Andrews University in Michigan.
“The Gnostic movement didn’t occur in a vacuum,” Richards said. “If you really want to understand the history of Christianity, I think it’s crucial that these documents be examined.”