The Lost Gospel
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Introduction & Map

Gospel of Judas Found


In caves similar to these, an Egyptian farmer first discovered the codex which contains the Gospel of Judas in the early 1970s.
In caves similar to these, an Egyptian farmer first discovered the codex which contains the Gospel of Judas in the 1970s.
Photograph by Kenneth Garrett/National Geographic

The Gospel of Judas was lost for nearly 1,700 years before its discovery in the 1970s. But the controversial text revealed itself only briefly before disappearing once again—this time into the secretive world of global antiquities dealing. It is not known who first uncovered the codex, but it is believed to have been hidden in a tomb on the east bank of the Nile River near the Egyptian village of El Minya. In May 1983 scholar Ludwig Koenen of the University of Michigan received an intriguing phone call that led him to Switzerland, where he and a small group of scholars viewed some ancient Coptic documents for sale by an Egyptian owner. Joining him was a Yale doctoral student in Coptic studies, Stephen Emmel.

In Geneva, Emmel and his colleagues were shown shoeboxes of papyruses wrapped in newspaper. A brief examination suggested that the documents were ancient, unknown, and terribly important.

But the mysterious sellers demanded three million U.S. dollars for the documents—a sum vastly exceeding anything the University of Michigan scholars or Emmel could offer.

With the deal unconsummated, the documents vanished for 17 years.

Their owner during this period, an Egyptian antiquities dealer, attempted unsuccessfully to sell the codex in New York to one of America's leading rare book and manuscripts dealers. An additional examination of the documents was made by classicist Professor Roger Bagnall of Columbia University. A sale did not materialize. The owner placed the codex a safe deposit box in Hicksville, Long Island. The trail that had led the documents from their ancient hiding place to New York is full of twists and turns, under constant threat of deterioration of the manuscript.

In 2000 the dealer finally sold the documents to an Egyptian-born Greek dealer named Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos, who turned the documents over to experts at Yale University's Beinecke Library, whom she viewed as possible buyers. At Yale, papyrus expert Robert Babcock and Coptic scholar Bentley Layton discovered the truth—Nussberger-Tchacos possessed the Gospel of Judas.

But "ownership" of such a document is a difficult concept. Its murky history presents problems of provenance—had it been removed from Egypt illegally? Yale passed on purchasing the Gospel because of such concerns. In 2001 Nussberger-Tchacos determined to sell the codex to the Swiss-based Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art. The foundation had clearly stated its goal to restore, preserve, and publish the long-hidden text and then return the original to its country of origin.

To this end the foundation entered into partnership with the National Geographic Society, which now brings the Gospel of Judas to the world after nearly 1,700 years of seclusion.

The restored original will be delivered to Cairo's Coptic Museum.