Religion scholars say the recent release of the "Gospel of Judas", an early Christian text favourable to the disciple reputed to have betrayed Jesus, can contribute to understanding about the world of early Christianity.
But some have also expressed scepticism about what they see as media hyperbole surrounding the manuscript’s release.
"I think the massive media interest in the ‘Gospel of Judas’ is related to the whole ‘Dan Brown phenomenon’," Graham Stanton, Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, referring to the US author of the international bestseller, "The Da Vinci Code".
The document was released in April by the Washington-based National Geographic Society, which plans to exhibit the manuscript and make it the centrepiece for a magazine article and a television documentary.
"’The Da Vinci Code has stirred up fresh interest in Christian origins: it will undoubtedly encourage fresh conspiracy theories," Stanton told Ecumenical News International.
Still, say religion scholars, that does not take away from the importance or the significance of the document, which upbraids the portrayal of Judas the betrayer and replaces it with a view that he was, in fact, Jesus’ most loyal and steadfast disciple.
The 26-page manuscript, also known as a codex, was found in an Egyptian cave in 1978, and circulated among antiquities collectors before being handed over to Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Basel in 2001, The Guardian newspaper reported.
"The translation of this codex is clearly a significant development," said David Thompson, the director of Cambridge’s Centre for Advanced Religious and Theological Studies.
The "Gospel of Judas" is known to have existed before A.D.180 at the time it was denounced as heretical by Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon. But it was thought to have been lost in the ensuing years.
Still, Thompson cautioned that the hyperbole surrounding the Judas text which the National Geographic Society said "threatens to change religious history", was not fully merited.
"Apart from the particularly melodramatic flavour given to the codex by the fact that Judas almost appears as a hero, there is nothing particularly new in the essentially Gnostic understanding of Christ which lies at the heart of the text," Thompson said in reference to the early Christian sect which became viewed by the established church as heretical.
The reactions to the Judas text "illustrate the consequences of the almost total ignorance of the history of the early Church among both Christians and non-Christians", Thompson said.
"It is as though, whatever people profess to believe with their heads, in their hearts they believe that the Bible descended from heaven in a virtually complete state, rather than being a painstaking compilation over years and even centuries," he asserted.
"This, of course, is the breeding ground for fundamentalism of any type."
(c) Ecumenical News International