Expert damns Church response to Judas gospel

Kasser spent several years translating the manuscript from Coptic into English Keystone

Rodolphe Kasser, who translated the 1,700-year-old Gospel of Judas, tells swissinfo that the Church's rejection of the manuscript smacks of "intellectual laziness".

This content was published on April 22, 2006

Both the Catholic and Anglican Churches have been quick to dismiss the text, which depicts Judas as one of Jesus's favoured disciples and not the reviled figure of the New Testament.

In his Easter Day sermon, the Archbishop of Canterbury belittled the Gospel of Judas as similar to other works from the "more eccentric fringes" of early Christianity.

But Kasser, who believes there are other gospels out there waiting to be discovered, says the Gnostic text removes the dark stain on Judas's name that has fuelled anti-Semitism throughout the centuries.

swissinfo: When you received the manuscript it was in a dreadful state. How difficult was the task you faced?

Rodolphe Kasser: First of all we had to restore it. This was something that no one had done before. With other papyruses I had worked on you could delicately move around fragments using tweezers but as soon as you touched this one it just broke into more pieces.

As for the size of the task, imagine taking a catalogue and tearing it into 2,000 pieces, throwing away a third of them and then trying to piece it together.

swissinfo: You managed to reassemble three-quarters of the Gospel of Judas. Could the missing sections have held an important message that might have changed the meaning of the text?

R.K.: Perhaps, but probably not. All the same we are missing around five or six lines that could have contained a lot of information.

swissinfo: The text shows Judas in a very different light to the New Testament - as a favoured disciple and not simply the one who betrayed Jesus. How important is this?

R.K.: It's certainly completely different, but there aren't any major theological changes. I also asked myself the question several years ago: does this alter something for your faith and belief? The answer is no, it doesn't change a great deal because the Christian faith is centred on Jesus Christ – Judas is a follower. But it lifts the scandal surrounding the name of Judas.

swissinfo: In his Easter address the head of the Anglican Church attacked Christian conspiracy theories like the Da Vinci Code and the Gospel of Judas. Was this response to be expected?

R.K.: He was right to say that there is a tendency to criticise and have conspiracy theories everywhere. I give absolutely no credence to conspiracy theories that say there are very, very important manuscripts for our faith hidden away in the Vatican.

swissinfo: Pope Benedict XVI also insisted last week that Judas was a traitor...

R.K.: It was a rather stupid response to say that this new text confirms the idea that Judas betrayed Jesus through love of power and money. That's not the case at all.

Judas is presented as someone who wants to know more. That's what Gnosticism is about: it is knowledge that brings salvation, and false beliefs that prevent man from developing. The Bible itself is not opposed to this.

swissinfo: Is the Church's reaction motivated by fear?

R.K.: It is motivated by intellectual laziness. People don't want to change what they have always believed. I noticed this reaction among people in the town of Yverdon where I live. Someone I know well told me they were against this new discovery because they didn't like the idea of Jesus and Judas plotting together.

swissinfo: Do you believe the Church should one day re-examine the New Testament?

R.K.: The Church never stops studying the New Testament! But saying that, it should be re-examined a little each time a new text appears. One cannot simply say, "it is pointless examining that, we already know everything."

As an archaeologist, the one thing I find really regrettable is when archaeological objects, which are always a source of information, are destroyed without being examined. It's like having a witness that no one wants to listen to. Even if there is a strong possibility that the witness is a liar you have to give them the chance to speak. And now Judas has been given that opportunity.

swissinfo-interview: Adam Beaumont in Geneva

Key facts

The leather-bound copy of the gospel was written in Coptic script on both sides of 13 sheets of papyrus.
It spent most of the past 1,700 years hidden in a cavern in the Egyptian desert.
The document was probably copied from the original Greek manuscript around the year 300.
It was discovered in the 1970s near Minya, Egypt, but spent 16 years in a safe deposit box in the United States.

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In brief

The Gospel of Judas was translated from Coptic into English by Rodolphe Kasser, one of the world's leading Coptic scholars.

Work on the document started in Switzerland in 2001, after the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Basel acquired it from an antiquities dealer.

Several years of scientific tests followed, including radiocarbon dating, ink analysis and multi-spectral imaging, which showed the document was copied down around the year 300.

The document describes itself as "the secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot". It later quotes Jesus telling Judas: "You will exceed all of [the other disciples] for you will sacrifice the man who clothes me."

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