by Bart Ehrman
I had the chance of a lifetime in December 2004. I had been asked by the National Geographic Society to fly to Geneva to help them authenticate a Gospel that had been lost for 1600 years, but had now been discovered. This was no ordinary ancient text. It was a Gospel allegedly written by Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus, an account that reputedly told the story of the betrayal from Judas’s own perspective.
When I first laid eyes on the manuscript I knew that this text was something very special. This could be one of the great discoveries of modern times, one that mattered not only to scholars, but also to the world at large. If the contents of this Gospel were as good as we were led to believe, this would be very big news, and I would want to write about it.
Before writing The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot, I contributed to both of the books, published six months ago, by the National Geographic Society — writing one of the four essays of their first volume and writing the Foreward to the other.
But I knew that there was much, much more to say. These National Geographic books were superb discussions, to be sure; the other contributing authors included leading scholars in the world, who analyzed important aspects of the Gospel of Judas. But some of the most important and intriguing questions raised by the newly discovered Gospel could not be dealt with in that context. I wanted to deal with them, and this new book, The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot, is the result.
In this book I do, of course, summarize what we now know about the Gospel of Judas – when and where it was discovered, how it circulated among antiquities dealers for years before falling into the hands of scholars, how it was restored and translated, and above all, what it contains, what its message is, and how this message differs from the traditional understanding of Christianity that has been handed down through the ages After all, Judas Iscariot is the hero of this text, not the villain! Moreover, this Gospel is rooted in a Gnostic view of the world, which maintained that the Creator is not the one true God, but a lesser, inferior deity, and that Jesus is not related to him.
But in my book I have wanted to go beyond the Gospel of Judas, to look at other equally intriguing questions about the real Judas Iscariot himself, and about how the early Christians portrayed him. Why is Judas Iscariot depicted differently in the different early Gospels that we have? Why are his motives for betraying Jesus expressed differently in Matthew, Luke, and John, for example? What other early legends do we have about Judas? How was he portrayed in later traditions? Can any of these be trusted? And, most interesting of all, what can we say about the historical Judas himself? Who was he, really? What did he stand for? Why did he become a follower of Jesus? Why did he turn on Jesus and become his betrayer? And what exactly was it that he betrayed?
These are some of the issues dealt with in The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot, issues not dealt with in any of the other books written about the newly discovered Gospel. In my opinion they are burning and compelling questions, for Judas’s betrayal was not only one of the most infamous acts of history, it is also one of the great mysteries of the Christian tradition. Moreover, as I did my research for the book, I discovered that the traditional answers to these questions are probably wrong. There are surprises in store for anyone who wants to know what Judas betrayed and why he did it.