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Today the National Geographic Society announced the discovery and translation of a document lost for 1700 years. The papyrus sheets offer new insights into early Christianity and a new perspective on one of history's most notorious characters, Judas Iscariot. It's being called The Gospel of Judas, and NPR's Greg Allen has our story.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

The modern chapter of The Gospel of Judas began in Egypt in 1978 when in a burial chamber near the town of El Minya, villagers discovered a leather-bound codex, a book with 66 pages of papyrus that contained writings in the ancient Coptic language. Terry Garcia of the National Geographic Society says by 2000 when his group, working with Swiss and American foundations, got their hands on the codex, it was in a sorry state.

Mr. TERRY GARCIA (National Geographic Society): Because the manuscript had deteriorated so badly over the past 30 years, piecing it together and translating it was an enormous undertaking. Like pieces of a puzzle, nearly one thousand fragments needed to be reassembled before the translation could even begin.

ALLEN: Church scholars have long known about the Gospel of Judas. It's one of several gospels attributed to some of Jesus' other disciples. These and other early Christian writings were condemned as heretical by church leaders, and in the fourth century were excluded from the New Testament and ordered destroyed. But the discovery and preservation of the codex, an archeological find that ranks with the Dead Sea Scrolls, is only a small part of this fascinating story. Even more intriguing is what the Gospel of Judas contains. It tells a story of Judas Iscariot that's greatly at variance with the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Instead of the greatest traitor of all time, this gospel portrays Judas as one of Jesus' closest friends. One whom Jesus took into his confidence and charged with a special task.

Dr. CRAIG EVANS (Acadia Divinity College, Nova Scotia): According to this new text, Jesus spoke with Judas in private.

ALLEN: Craig Evans of Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia is a member of the team of scholars assembled by National Geographic.

Dr. EVANS: And in private said to him, you will exceed all of them, for you will sacrifice the man that clothes me. The context clearly implies that Judas only did what Jesus earlier had instructed him to do. His actions are not a betrayal at all.

ALLEN: Neither Evans nor anyone on the expert panel suggests that this gospel represents the actual writings of Judas Iscariot. But they're unanimous in the belief that it is the gospel of Judas written in the first or second century after Christ's death. As such, some of the scholars say, it may offer new insight into those important historical events. It's a potentially earth shaking idea that rather than the betrayer of Jesus, Judas was in the end, his closest confidant. One who helped him in his mission to bring salvation to all mankind. But it's an idea that not all scholars such as Catholic Priest and New Testament expert Donald Senior are ready to seriously consider.

Father DONALD SENIOR (Catholic Priest, New Testament Expert): Does the gospel of Judas's positive portrayal of Judas and his relationship with Jesus so different from that of the canonical gospels have any claims to historical reliability with the Jesus of history? I doubt it. Will the portrayal of Jesus and his teaching found in this text be a source of inspiration and teaching for people today seriously rivaling the New Testament writings themselves? I doubt that, too.

ALLEN: While intriguing, the idea of Judas of antihero in Christianity's central story is hardly new. Think Broadway and Jesus Christ Superstar. But this new gospel comes just a month before the film version of The Da Vinci Code is released. And some of that hype has even permeated the once staid offices of National Geographic, which turning a crumbing piece of papyrus into a vehicle for multiple media platforms. It's creating a website, two books, and just in time for the Easter Season, a documentary it's calling a "exclusive two hour global event."

Greg Allen, NPR News.

NORRIS: You can see photos of the gospel and read an interview with the author about how it was found, authenticated, conserved and translated. You'll find it at our website NPR.org.

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