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Was Judas Iscariot a traitor or a hero?

Was Judas Iscariot a traitor or a hero? Did he betray his teacher or did he sacrifice himself so Jesus Christ could accomplish his ultimate mission? The newly discovered Gospel of Judas has stirred renewed interest in views of the reviled apostle. Long before the discovery of the gospel, considered one of the most important finds of modern times, Judas was fodder for Biblical historians and writers. In the gospels of the Apostles, Judas presents himself in the form of Satan: «Satan in the soul of Judas,» wrote Luke, and «Judas is a devil,» wrote John. Dante Alighieri also saw Judas as an evil man, placing him in the heart of Hell, where the Devil, Brutus and Cassius tortured him in «The Inferno.» But more modern writers and artists explored alternative interpretations of Judas – and not always as the dark apostle who betrayed his teacher with a kiss. The Russian playwright Leonid Andreyev, the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges and Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov all examined the inner workings of Judas. The songwriting team of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber made him the central character in the Broadway hit «Jesus Christ, Superstar.» And in Greece, the Cretan writer Nikos Kazantzakis envisioned Judas as Jesus’ closest ally in the controversial novel «The Last Temptation of Christ.» The codex, or ancient book, containing the Gospel of Judas was likely discovered near El Minya, Egypt, in the 1970s by an Egyptian antiquities prospector, according to National Geographic, the magazine which publicized the discovery of the gospel early last month. This 26-page copy of the gospel is at least 1,700 years old. It was written in the third or fourth century but references to it had been made by Saint Irenaeus in 180. The Coptic, or Egyptian Christian, manuscript was written in Coptic script and thought to be translated from the Greek original, which was thought to be written by an early Christian sect sometime before 180. This manuscript offers an entirely different image of Judas and of Christ. For example, Judas is presented as the only one of Christ’s apostles who completely understands who Jesus really is. Jesus himself is presented as less austere, laughing often and when he shares his secrets with Judas, he speaks of many gods instead of just one. But theological scholar Ioannis Karavidopoulos says the hoopla over the discovery is «more a product of journalistic fuss rather than essence.» «Not only this manuscript but all the other apocryphal gospels have been known now for years,» said Karavidopoulos, an emeritus professor at the Theological School at Aristotle University and the author of the two-tome work «Apocryphal Christian Manuscripts,» published by Pournaras Editions. «Of course, the specific manuscript got the world’s attention because it gives an entirely different image of Judas,» he continues. «Also, it is a document that was discovered very recently, in the 1970s. So we simply had information proving its existence. It comes from the Gnostic circles, for whom the most important thing is to free the human spirit from its body. This was, for the Gnostics, the struggle for Jesus. In the Gospel of Judas, we do not have a revelation related to Jesus but a heretical description of Jesus, which is not historically acceptable.» Marios Begzos, a professor of comparative philosophy of religion at the University of Athens, said the Gospel of Judas is just one of the many apocryphal manuscripts that have been discovered lately. «They are dated to the first years of Christianity and are attributed to various groups of the Gnostics, who gave weight to faith but also to knowledge, to self-knowledge,» Begzos said. «[The manuscripts’] approach reminds one of today’s average people who don’t treat Christ as God but rather as a charismatic personality who was seeking self-knowledge. For the specialists, the interest in the Gospel of Judas is basically philological. It is also a document which talks about that long era, written by people who lived it firsthand.» The group magnetized by the Gospel of Judas were apparently the Cainites, as they were called. The Cainites were a Gnostic and antinomian sect known to worship Cain. The Gospel of Judas was purportedly one of their apocryphal texts. «Their name comes from the fact that they adored Cain,» Begzos says. «Generally, they worshipped the negative figures in the Old and New Testaments. Cain was the first murderer who committed the first fratricide, whereas what Judas did was considered patricide, since he betrayed and led to the death his spiritual father, Jesus. The specific gospel, therefore, results in an apology to Judas.»