Judas Iscariot, long reviled as history's quintessential betrayer, was actually the best friend of Jesus and turned him over to authorities only because Jesus asked him to, according to the Gospel of Judas, a long-lost document revealed Thursday.
The manuscript, which scientists date to the year 300, is an account of conversations between Jesus and Judas in the last week of their lives -- conversations in which Jesus is said to have shared religious secrets not known by the other disciples.
The document is a copy of the Gospel of Judas, written in Greek about 140 years after Jesus and Judas died. It was thought that all copies were destroyed, though references to it survived. It had been declared heretical by early church leaders because it conflicted with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The manuscript lay hidden in the Egyptian desert for nearly 1,700 years. It was discovered by looters in the 1970s and taken out of the country. An antiquities dealer locked it away in a safe-deposit box in New York, where it rapidly deteriorated. It was sold in 2000, and restoration efforts began soon after.
The National Geographic Society, which helped with efforts to save the manuscript, made its contents public Thursday in Washington. Many consider it the most important archeological find since the Dead Sea Scrolls were unearthed in the 1940s.
The authentication and translation of the document will produce "a short-term sensation," said Father Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, but its "impact on the lives of ordinary believers is going to be somewhat minimal."
Many biblical scholars, however, hailed the newly revealed text because of the insight it would provide into the exceptionally turbulent period when competing ideologies sought to stake their own claims to the story of Jesus, battling with oral stories and written texts until a single faction won out.
The document's publication "makes available a significant text in our cultural heritage," said biblical scholar Marvin Meyer, director of the Albert Schweitzer Institute at Chapman University in Orange. "It has been saved from destruction and is now offered to the world for further examination and study."
The current manuscript is a copy of the original Greek text translated into the Coptic language by a professional scribe in a group known as the Gnostics.
Extensive analysis of the paper, ink, writing style and text indicates that the copy was made around AD 300, according to Terry Garcia of the National Geographic Society. "We are confident that this is a genuine piece of ancient Christian apocryphal literature," he said.
The Gnostics were a sect "that emphasized knowledge [gnosis], but not the kind we think of today," said biblical scholar Gregor Wurst of the University of Augsburg in Germany. They were interested in the spiritual knowledge of God and "the essential oneness of the inner self with God."
They considered the world a creation of lesser, inferior gods who imprisoned the inner self in a material body, a prison from which they hoped to escape. The Gospel of Judas clearly reflects this belief, which is in stark contrast to the version of Judas presented in the Bible.
"He's the good guy in this portrayal," said Bart Ehrman, a religion professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "He's the only apostle who understands Jesus."
In a key passage, Jesus compares Judas with the other disciples, saying, "You will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me." By helping Jesus get rid of his flesh, it suggests, Judas will help liberate the divine being within.
Several times in the text, Jesus indicates the special status of Judas: "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 also indicates that Judas will be despised by the other disciples. "You will be cursed by the other generations -- and you will come to rule over them."
The document 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 of the Crucifixion or Resurrection.
The text discovery comes after scholars and even popular culture -- such as the musical "Jesus Christ Superstar" and the movie "The Last Temptation of Christ" -- have reevaluated the role of the supposed betrayer.
"Already, in the New Testament, there are more than a few hints that Judas was an esteemed and important part of the disciples -- a member of the inner circle," Meyer said.
Some scholars argue that the Greek word paradidomi in the original texts of the Gospels, normally translated as "betray," actually means "to hand over," suggesting that Judas was simply doing God's will.