RAY SUAREZ,: For more than 2,000 years, Judas Iscariot has been reviled as Jesus' betrayer. But a newly authenticated and newly translated ancient document known as the Gospel of Judas tells a different story, one of Judas as the Christ's favored disciple. It was made public by the National Geographic Society yesterday.
BART EHRMAN, UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA, CHAPEL HILL: He, in fact, is not only the good guy, he's the only apostle who understands Jesus.
RAY SUAREZ: Bart Ehrman, a New Testament expert, explained that this gospel -- which means good news -- is one of dozens of sacred manuscripts from an early Christian movement called the Gnostics.
BART EHRMAN: We had almost no idea what was actually in the gospel. Now we do. For this contrarian, Gnostic Gospel of Judas has been discovered in its Coptic translation. And it is even more fascinating than we imagined.
RAY SUAREZ: The 26-page document was written on 13 papyrus sheets and bound in a book known as a codex. It was unearthed in Egypt in the 1970s in a cave near El Minya, and was circulated for many years among antiquities dealers around the globe.
The National Geographic Society will air a documentary on its own channel on Palm Sunday. The society has been part of an international effort to conserve, translate and authenticate the codex.
Dated to around the year 300 through radiocarbon dating and other methods, the manuscript is an anonymous translation of a 2nd century Greek original. The early church considered the Gnostic teachings blasphemous, and they were banned.
Most experts agree the document is authentic. Craig Evans, a divinity professor, explained the new text gave new meaning to Judas' relationship with Jesus.
CRAIG EVANS, ACADIA DIVINITY SCHOOL: Jesus spoke with Judas in private, and in private said to him, you will exceed all of them, for you will sacrifice the man that clothes me. Later, when approached and interrogated by ruling priests, we are told Judas answered them as they wished. And Judas received some money, and he handed him over to them.
The context clearly implies that Judas only did what Jesus earlier had instructed him to do. His actions are not a betrayal at all.
RAY SUAREZ: But some Christian scholars don't see it that way, and even before yesterday's announcement, a Vatican historian denounced the document as a, quote, "product of religious fantasy."
RAY SUAREZ: For more, I'm joined by two members of an advisory panel that oversaw the National Geographic project. Elaine Pagels teaches early Christianity at Princeton University and is the author of a book about the Gnostic gospels. And the Reverend Donald Senior is the president of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, where he's also a professor of New Testament studies.
Professor Pagels, is this new document, called the Gospel of Judas, very different from what people might be familiar with, the four gospels that are included in today's Bibles?
ELAINE PAGELS, PRINCETON UNIVERSITY: This gospel is somewhat a surprise, but as you know, there are other gospels like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, that also claim to give secret teaching of Jesus, and often it's somewhat different. Sometimes it tends in a mystical direction. And the question is whether these are genuine revelations or not.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, is this one, the Gospel of Judas, a storybook the way the Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of Mark are?
ELAINE PAGELS: This one is a narrative story about the arrest and the handing over of Jesus to the authorities. I mean, this completely agrees with the gospels of the New Testament on the basic historical fact, which is that Jesus was identified to the authorities by Judas Iscariot, who was one of his disciples. It also agrees with the other gospels that this was a spiritual mystery that involved the salvation of the world.
Where it disagrees is the motive, because Mark's gospel gives no motive. The other New Testament gospels either say Judas did it out of greed for money, or he did it because he was inspired by Satan. The surprise here is that the Gospel of Judas claims that he did it in order to enact a sacred mystery that Jesus told him to do.
RAY SUAREZ: And Father Senior, in that disagreement, what's important about where the Gospel of Judas differs from the four conventional narratives?
REV. DONALD SENIOR, CATHOLIC THEOLOGICAL UNION: Well, I suppose what's important is what kind of credibility we would give to the Gospel of Judas and its way of understanding what happened, as compared to the synoptic gospels. Although there are connections between the stories, as Elaine was pointing out, it's really a very different scenario altogether about the figure of Judas.
And in some ways, I think the regular gospels, if you like, the New Testament gospels, present a more challenging story. They present a story where someone who was one of Jesus' chosen apostles, who was apparently, according to the Gospel of John anyway, entrusted with the finances of the community, that this disciple betrays Jesus.
And I think the mystery of betrayal is in some ways more challenging to understand why that's part of the early Jesus story than the fact that Jesus in a sense would be in total control and actually have sent Judas to set in motion the events that lead to his death.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Father, does it shed new light on the early Christian church that's still kind of jelling in the 2nd century?
DONALD SENIOR: Well, I think that's another important aspect that virtually all of the scholars who have examined this agree, that a text like this shows us the remarkable diversity among Christians in the early centuries of the church, just like today there is quite a bit of diversity of understanding of the gospel message and diversity of styles of living that out. That was also true in the early church.
I think you have very divergent perspectives, and that's what led someone like Bishop Irenaeus back in 180 AD to feel the Gospel of Judas, that he at least was familiar with, whether or not he had read it, that he felt this was not ultimately an authentic portrait of what was mainstream Christianity.
SUAREZ: Well, Professor Pagels, the term has been used a couple of times now. What is a Gnostic?
ELAINE PAGELS: Well, that's a very important question, because in the lead-up to our discussion, it was said that the early church regarded these as Gnostic writings.
You see, the serious argument here, the real question is about the names, is about who names what. And the real name that is being contested is the name Christian. The people who wrote gospels like the Gospel of Judas or the Gospel of Thomas, they differed from one another in many ways, and certainly there was a lot of diversity in that movement, as Father Senior says rightly.
The question is, are they Christians or not? And the group that called itself Orthodox called people who wrote those texts, who revered them heretics. They called themselves Christians. So this is a battle about the name Christian, and it continues even among scholars and among historians using the terms. Are you going to use the term Christian gospel or Gnostic gospel? Gnostic is a term that had to do with knowing, but it was often used as a term for heretics.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, when you say it was a battle, is this one that the writers of the Gospel of Judas lost, or does this kind of thinking about that time in history influence what we know of today?
ELAINE PAGELS: Exactly both. I mean, I would say it certainly influences it, because the leaders of the church who articulated the earliest lists of the canon declared that Jesus did not teach secretly anything that should be known, and that secret teaching would be excluded. And they said that people who use that kind of teaching would be called heretics.
I think those arguments do continue in the way that people describe them even today in our scholarship.
RAY SUAREZ: Father Senior, do you agree with that analysis?
DONALD SENIOR: Well, I do agree with it. I think this is a point where a lot of scholarly debate goes on, not just about a text like this, but about the broader significance of them.
One of the things I feel that could be a kind of mistaken or not accurate scenario would be to see that a text like the Gospel of Judas, which is condemned by Irenaeus is really the victim of a kind of repressive orthodoxy, that a few elite leaders sort of decide which books are official and which are not, sort of a "Da Vinci Code" type of scenario, if I can say that.
But I think what was important, in addition to the instructions of early Christian teachers and leaders, was how the early Christians received these texts. And I think there's -- there's evidence to say that the four gospels that we have, the writings of Paul and other New Testament texts were widely received and circulated. And people, the Christians in their communities, in their worship, in their teaching, found that these resonated with what they believed about Jesus and what they felt was really important.
RAY SUAREZ: Let me get a very quick response from you both. Around the Christian world in the next nine days, people will be climbing into pulpits, preaching and teaching. Sunday school classes will meet across the Christian world. Should the new text from the Gospel of Judas shed any light, affect anything that's being taught or preached in the next very key week and a half? Professor Pagels?
ELAINE PAGELS: Well, that's an interesting question. I mean, it seems to me that it certainly affects the way we understand what we know about Jesus. If there are other perspectives that are offered in these texts, I think they can be of great use and enormous interest to Christians. I think this has to be open to the people who read them to make evaluations of how they may figure in devotional worship. There are some texts, I would say, like the Gospel of Thomas, that would deserve that kind of consideration, and others perhaps less so.
RAY SUAREZ: And Professor Senior, quickly, before we go?
DONALD SENIOR: I think the Gospel of Judas is really going to be one that's sort of less so, as Elaine said. Some of these texts have different levels of appeal. The Gospel of Judas, except for the fascinating reversal of roles for Judas, a lot of the text I think is sort of the kind of astral speculation and discourse of Jesus that many modern readers anyway would find rather perplexing rather than inspiring. So I think the proof will be in the reading of this text, how much impact it might have on the experience of Christians today.
RAY SUAREZ: Father Senior, Professor Pagels, thank you both.
DONALD SENIOR: Thank you.
ELAINE PAGELS: Thank you.