Scholars might have been too quick to portray Judas as a hero earlier this year, says a Nova Scotia professor who was part of the controversial project.
Craig Evans, who teaches New Testament studies at Acadia University, said mistakes were made in the interpretation of a 1,700-year-old copy of the Gospel of Judas unveiled by the National Geographic Society last April.
"We had it wrong," Mr. Evans said Monday from his office in Wolfville.
"Judas may not be a hero at all in the world view of the author of this writing, but just simply a fool."
According to the fourth-century Christian text, Judas did as Jesus asked, betraying him so he could shed his earthly body and pave the way for salvation.
The scholars interpreted that as making Judas out to be a hero rather than one of the most villainous characters in Christianity, as he is portrayed in the New Testament Gospels.
"We all just assumed that Judas was a hero in the story," said Mr. Evans, the only Canadian on the Gospel of Judas project. "He was lionized, he was the greatest of the 12 disciples and so forth."
But Mr. Evans said he started having doubts about his team’s interpretation of the document after attending an October conference in Ottawa.
"The question was raised, ‘Is Judas being interpreted correctly?’ It got me thinking that maybe it wasn’t. So I just reread it and rethought it."
Now Mr. Evans is convinced that the text reveals Jesus chose Judas not because he was the strongest disciple but because he was the easiest to manipulate.
"I’m not alone here," Mr. Evans said. "There are several other experts in the field who also think that the original interpretation publicly announced in April is wrong and that Judas is, in fact, understood more as a dupe, as a fool who unwittingly, not with wisdom or intelligence or proper knowledge, complied with Jesus’ wishes in betraying him so that Jesus could get rid of the human body he inhabited and could return to heaven."
The Gospel of Judas — the only known surviving copy of a manuscript likely written in the second century — was discovered in a cave in Egypt in the 1970s, sold twice and stolen once before coming into the hands of a Swiss foundation in 2000.
Experts assembled by National Geographic spent five years reconstructing, conserving, authenticating, analyzing and interpreting the document, written in Coptic script.
Mr. Evans said 15 per cent of the text is missing, which made it difficult for the team to interpret.
"There’s always going to be the possibility of just missing the meaning of the text," he said. "There are crucial places where we have a hole in the page."
Mr. Evans revealed his new take on the Gospel of Judas in a paper he presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 19.
"I stood up and said, ‘Hey guys, I think we’ve got it wrong.’ To my surprise, there were people there who vehemently agreed and it became quite a division.
"I didn’t expect that kind of support at all. I thought I would be crucified."
Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University who worked on the National Geographic project, told the CBC that Mr. Evans is "very wrong."
"The reason is that we’ve never seen a gospel written where the principal figure was turned into a fool," said Ms. Pagels, who is writing a book on the Gospel of Judas.
"It’s quite a hubbub," Mr. Evans said. "I don’t think it’s going to go away quickly.
"The text has only been public not even one year yet. Now that other scholars are getting involved, they’ve having different ideas."