Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy, Fiction, and the Vulnerable Bible

The Gospel of Judas

The enormous splash and ensuing controversies surrounding a Gospel of Judas in the early 2000s show that it is not just a fear of forgery that excited the public imagination when it comes to fraught new biblical "discoveries." There has never been any question that the Coptic text labeled the "Gospel of Judas" is an authentically ancient text; nonetheless disputes over its discovery, ownership, and meaning roiled the academy and made front-page news for several years.

The Gospel of Judas (as it is called in the surviving manuscript) comes from a Coptic codex that has come to be known as Codex Tchacos, after its owner, art dealer Frieda Tchacos Nussberger. How Nussberger came to be in possession of this fourth-century Coptic codex in the United States in the late 1990s/early 2000s is not exactly straightforward. The "official" version of the story, as recounted by Hebert Krosney in The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot, goes like this: some time in the 1970s, some number of Egyptian laborers searching for antiquities stumbled upon an ancient codex, somewhere near Minya, Egypt. It was acquired by an antiquities dealer in Cairo (given a pseudonym, "Hanna," by Krosney) who made some initial attempts to sell it in Egypt. The codex was stolen in the early 1980s by a Swiss dealer (along with other artifacts) and when "Hanna" was able to recover it in Europe he began to try to sell it to scholars abroad.

In the early 1980s, "Hanna" took the codex to the U.S. (again, in an attempt to sell it) and, when he was unsuccessful, left it in a safe deposit box in Long Island, New York. There it remained for close to two decades.

Another dealer, Nussberger, knew "Hanna" and had heard of his attempts to sell the codex; she convinced him to sell it to her (and brought him back from Egypt to the U.S. to unlock the safe deposit box). By now the codex was in highly damaged condition; Nussberger attempted to sell it to several institutions of higher education, all of whom declined. She entered into a brief partnership with a U.S. restorer before retrieving the codex from him and returning with it to Europe. There her attorney, Mario Roberty, convinced her to donate (or sell) it to his charitable foundation, Maecenas; they began to consult with European scholars about restoring the codex. Krosney, who had heard rumors of the codex, got his employers, the National Geographic Society, involved; they provided funding for the restoration of the highly damaged codex, including paying for its translation and publication. The most exciting piece of Codex Tchacos, the Gospel of Judas, was unveiled by one of the European scholars, Rodolphe Kasser, in a paper delivered to the International Association of Coptic Studies in 2004 in Paris.

Two years later National Geographic unveiled the Gospel of Judas with tremendous fanfare: a cover story in the magazine, a website, a television special, and several book publications. (More on those publicity efforts below.)

How much of this narrative is true? For much of the story Krosney relies almost entirely on Nussberger, who is hardly a disinterested party. A few moments in the life of the codex can be verified independently, however.

It is true that, in 1983, an Egyptian dealer attempted to broker a sale of the codex, along with some Greek manuscripts, to U.S. scholars. These scholars met a group of dealers, including an Egyptian, at a hotel in Geneva. The U.S. scholars were willing to pay for the artifacts, but could not meet the asking price. They were able to examine the manuscripts but not allowed take any photos or notes at the hotel. Afterward, they all had lunch together.

The incident has been described in detail by one of the U.S. participants, Stephen Emmel, now a senior professor of Coptic but then a graduate student in the U.S.: you can read his account here, including transcriptions of notes he made on some photographs of the manuscripts up for offer and notes he made clandestinely in the café bathroom after the meeting. (The images below are not actually of Emmel, but taken from a reconstruction of events included in the National Geographic special which is, alas, no longer online.) As Emmel also notes, we know independently that the codex was also up for sale in the U.S. the following year.

The next time the codex was seen was by experts at Yale University, to whom Nussberger attempted to sell the codex in 1999 (Yale's lawyers, apprehensive about legally establishing provenance, recommended they pass on the sale, which they did.)

The rest of the story—discovery by local Egyptians in the 1970s, theft and recovery in the 1980s, transport to the U.S. and then reappearance in the 1990s—cannot be independently verified and very handily explain how an Egyptian codex discovered in the modern era could be legally sold outside of Egypt in defiance of antiquities laws. The narrative reproduces in various ways the Nag Hammadi find with additional characters (especially the tangled world of Arab and European antiquities dealers) filling out a more updated dramatis personae.

The narrative also enabled a hefty investment by the National Geographic Society and a splashy roll-out, as I noted above. The Gospel of Judas was the cover story on the May 2006 issue of National Geographic Magazine, which would have come out before the massive April rollout, timed to appear during Easter season.

The Coptic text and an initial translation were made freely available on the website, along with photographs and details about the text and its restoration.That website is no longer active (but you can access most of its content through the Wayback Machine); nor can you watch the elaborate television special that aired on the National Geographic Channel in April 2006, featuring reenactments of both of the contents of the Gospel of Judas and of its modern history, as published that same month in Krosney's book-length account (the images of Emmel in a Geneva bathroom come from one of those reenacted scenes, which the real Emmel narrated in the special). You can still buy the books that National Geographic published—the text and translation; the commentary and essays; and the account by Krosney—but not from National Geographic.

It is a bit surprising that National Geographic has distanced itself from this project: no one has accused them of acting improperly (as far as I know) and no one has launched accusations against the text as a forgery or a hoax, as with Smith's Secret Gospel of Mark. But it is possible that National Geographic, and its funders, weren't quite ready for the roiling debates that would explode into front-page headlines over the next year.

Discoveries of new ancient texts, particularly those starring characters from the New Testament, are rare. While no one was arguing that this Gospel of Judas was from the first century, the assumption was made that—like the similar Coptic Nag Hammadi texts—this fourth-century version was a translation of an earlier (third century? second century?) Greek original that might give us insight into the twists and turns of the early centuries of Christianity. The major headline, supplied by the Gospel's early translators working in concert with National Geographic, was that Judas was the hero of this story: the only one of the apostles to understand Jesus's enigmatic (indeed, gnostic) preaching and a divinely appointed coworker who turned Jesus into the Roman officials with the messiah's full knowledge and cooperation. This shocking reversal was the headline promoted by National Geographic; within a year it was falling apart.

In fall 2007, the Society of Biblical Literature hosted a special panel session featuring all of the scholars who had written books on this new Gospel of Judas since the previous spring, when it was first made public.

Some of these books were written under the auspices and with the cooperation of National Geographic; others were written to counter its appeal; others placed it in the broader context of "diverse" Christian origins and development.

One of the authors present, April DeConick, was about to publish a book arguing forcefully against the received translation and interpretation of the Gospel of Judas: she posited that Judas was not a sympathetic character, but rather a typical gnostic "bad guy" who is going to be punished for his role in betraying Christ. 

The week after the SBL meeting, DeConick published an op-ed piece in the New York Times that not only made this (admittedly somewhat arcane) academic argument, but also speculated on why the numerous scholars involved in the work of reconstructing, translating, and interpreting the text had gotten it (in her opinion) so wrong. Part of her lament was about the secrecy of the project: once National Geographic became involved, no one outside of the project would have any access to the codex or its text until its grand unveiling in April 2006. (Shades of the conspiratorial secrecy people associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls still lingered.)

But DeConick also speculated that the scholars may have let personal motives interfere with their academic work. "Were they genuine errors," she asked, "or was something more deliberate going on?" DeConick does not answer this question, but merely posing it (in the pages of the New York Times) was serious enough in itself. Her accusation, whether she intended it or not, raised specters of scholarly malfeasance acting in bad faith to alter the public perception of the truth about Christian origins. The object of their malfeasance didn't have to be a forgery: they had only to misuse their expertise to transform a text into evidence for their own desired historical "truth."

Needless to say, the scholars involved in the translation efforts did not agree with DeConick's assessment and, a week later, published their own reply expressing dismay at DeConick's insinuations.It is entirely possible that this unexpected fracas led National Geographic to quietly withdraw its promotion of the Gospel of Judas, even if only passively (retiring links, ceasing to update content, removing content from the online store). 

Controversy over the Gospel of Judas has mostly subsided since this initial burst of public scholarly activity. It has receded, like other surviving Coptic Gnostic texts, into the safe and relatively calm recesses of academic contemplation. Discussion remains, primarily in online sources, about the shaky provenance of the text and the weakness of the story Nussberger spun out for Krosney and National Geographic (see, for instance, this blogpost by papyrologist Brent Nongbri). The codex itself, which Nussberger and Roberty promised to return to Egypt once study of it was completed, remains on "temporary" loan to the Fondation Bodmer in Geneva. Meanwhile various other leaves of the codex and fragments remain otherwise unaccounted for in private collections.

This page has paths:

Contents of this tag:

This page references: