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Judas, Jesus and the Shifting Sands of History

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Is it possible that for all of these years, all of these centuries, Judas has gotten a bad rap? This week, the National Geographic Society presented the Gospel of Judas to the world, about 60 pages of a 17 hundred year old manuscript translated from Coptic and authenticated by a reputable and high impressed assembly of scientists and biblical scholars. The manuscript was discovered by looters in the 1970s. They didn't quite know what they'd stolen. It looked like just a pile of papyrus and languished in vaults and even a safe deposit box in Long Island until it was sold in 2000, began to be restored and then translated.

Scholars have always known there was a Gospel of Judas written about 140 years after Jesus and Judas died. But most of the copies had probably been destroyed by early Christians. What message could the man who betrayed Jesus have for the world?

Now this Judas conflicts with the one in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In their histories, Judas was a greedy traducer who turns in Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. The very name Judas has entered several languages as a synonym for traitor. Indeed, some scholars traced the beginning of anti-Semitism to that betrayal. But as Judas tells his story, he was a tender friend who undertakes a profound sacrifice. Jesus aches to be freed from his body to join his father in heaven. He asks Judas to help him and promises him a reward beyond earth's. 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 cautions Judas. You will be cursed by other generations but you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.

Now scholars will analyze these new pages probably for centuries. Does this newly discovered text seek to restore humanity and understanding to Judas or merely justify a great betrayal?

This week's unveiling of the pages presents an immediate and practical question. How do we tell the Easter story this year? Was Jesus betrayed or have we in a sense betrayed the faith of Judas? In the Gospel of Matthew Judas saw Jesus crucified, felt guilty and hanged himself from a tree. Now we might wonder: did he simply miss the man he loved and wanted to join him in everlasting life? Did he wonder whether what he'd done was right? Did Judas despair over living out his life in such infamy and anxiety?

As the scholars analyze and debate, the new pages might remind us how great are the multitudes of belief even among believers. And that history never stops changing. What we are absolutely certain is true in one time may look altogether different in another. One day there may be another story to tell this time of year about the sacrifice of Judas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.