This Easter season saw the publication of The Gospel of Judas, a third-century Coptic copy of a second-century Gnostic text. The papyrus manuscript was initially discovered in Egypt in the 1970s, but for want of a wealthy-enough buyer it ended up neglected and deteriorating in a safe deposit box in Hicksville, Long Island, for sixteen years.
The National Geographic Society finally forked over enough money to purchase the rights to the text, and also paid for its restoration and translation. A headline-grabbing publicity campaign followed, featuring a news conference, an April 9 television documentary, two books, and an article in the May issue of National Geographic.
Ancient Gnosticism represented a bewildering assortment of beliefs and practices, but is perhaps best characterized as a mystical faith based on the promulgation of secret teachings known only to adepts. The secret revealed by The Gospel of Judas was that Jesus had in fact asked Judas to betray him—“for you will sacrifice the man that clothes me”—and that in doing so Judas was elevated above all the other disciples. In other words, Judas has gotten a bad rap.
Princeton scholar Elaine Pagels, who tirelessly deplores the suppression of Gnosticism by early church authorities, welcomed The Gospel of Judas for “exploding the myth of a monolithic Christianity and...