After 1,700 years, the Gospel of Judas is lost no more. And the twisting tale of the document itself is nearly as surprising as the story it tells.
"We can consider it a real miracle that [such an ancient literary work]—especially one threatened by the hatred of the great majority of its contemporary readers, who saw it as a shame and a scandal, destined to be lost … would suddenly appear and be brought to light," said scholar Rodolphe Kasser.
Kasser is an expert in Coptic, or Egyptian Christian, history and literature. He led the effort to piece together and translate the Gospel of Judas.
The surviving copy of the gospel was written in the third or fourth century A.D., but the text was known prior to A.D. 180.
In that year St. Irenaeus—then the bishop of what is now Lyon, France—published Against Heresies, a volume intended to help unify the Christian church.
St. Irenaeus's method was to savage alternative theological views and interpretations—including the Gospel of Judas—which he referred to as "fictitious histories."
In this gospel, the Apostle Judas Iscariot is not a traitor but a hero, the chosen disciple. Jesus Christ asks Judas to betray him to the authorities.
Diverse beliefs circulated during Christianity's early years. Many were suppressed in the early centuries A.D. as the religion coalesced into a more structured faith based on the New Testament Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Nonsanctioned texts, such as the Gospel of Judas, fell from favor. Scribes no longer copied them, and existing manuscripts were often destroyed. Those that survived were hidden for safekeeping.
The protectors of the newly revealed documents did their job well, stashing the ancient handwritten Coptic manuscripts so that it remained hidden for nearly 1,700 years.
Modern Journeys of an Ancient Book
Exactly how the manuscripts were found in the late 1970s remains somewhat unclear.
It is believed that a now dead Egyptian antiquities prospector discovered the codex, or ancient book, containing the Gospel of Judas near El Minya, Egypt.
In 1978 he sold his find to a Cairo antiquities dealer named Hanna.
Around 1980 the manuscripts and most of Hanna's other artifacts were stolen in a robbery and taken out of Egypt. Hanna later recovered the codex by coordinating with an antiquities trader in Geneva, Switzerland.
Hanna was the first to show the codex to experts who recognized its possible significance. Yet he would search for over two decades for a buyer willing to meet his steep price.
In 1983 Stephen Emmel, then a graduate student living in Rome, Italy, received a phone call.
Unknown antiquities dealers selling ancient manuscripts had approached one of Emmel's colleagues. Emmel and two other scholars agreed to meet the sellers in a Geneva hotel room.
For half an hour the trio examined a collection of papyruses that were wrapped in newspaper and stored in shoe boxes. The scholars were forbidden to take photos or notes.
Though Emmel and his colleagues quickly realized that the documents were both ancient and important, they did not know at that time that the codex contained the Gospel of Judas.
Emmel immediately noticed the damage that the fragile papyruses and leather binding had sustained—likely during the few years since their discovery.
"When I saw the codex in 1983 it was fragile, but the 30 or so surviving leaves were still in pretty good condition," said Emmel, now a professor of Coptic studies at the University of Münster in Germany.
"If a papyrus conservator could have gone to work on it immediately, we would have had about 30 complete, or nearly complete, leaves, which would make some 60 pages of text," he said.
"As it is, every one of those leaves broke into pieces, and many fragments are now missing—most probably lost forever."
Hanna demanded three million U.S. dollars—far more than what Emmel and the other scholars could pay—and the meeting ended. The manuscripts once again vanished from scholarly view.
In 1984 the manuscripts' Egyptian owner again offered them for sale, this time in New York City. Finding no takers, Hanna deposited them in a bank safe-deposit box in Hicksville, New York.
The codex languished there for some 16 years.
Gospel Emerges From Modern Seclusion
Finally, Zürich, Switzerland-based antiquities dealer Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos bought the codex in April 2000—though its full contents remained a mystery.
Tchacos turned the documents over to experts at Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library for examination and possible sale.
Yale papyrus expert Robert Babcock discovered the startling truth—Tchacos held the Gospel of Judas, previously known only from mentions in texts like those by St. Irenaeus.
But Yale passed on purchasing the gospel because of concerns about its provenance.
Tchacos endured another failed sale attempt later that year, this time to U.S. dealer Bruce Ferrini.
Ferrini took possession of the gospel in return for two postdated checks.
In the following months Tchacos became increasingly convinced that Ferrini did not have sufficient funds and engaged several prominent antiquities dealers to pressure Ferrini to return the codex to her.
Finally, Tchacos transferred the codex to the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art, based in Basel, Switzerland.
The foundation later teamed with the Washington, D.C.-based National Geographic Society and the La Jolla, California-based Waitt Institute for Historical Discovery to restore, translate and publish the gospel.
Pages of the gospel were unveiled at National Geographic headquarters today and will go on public view tomorrow at the National Geographic Museum.
All pages will eventually be returned to Egypt and housed permanently in Cairo's Coptic Museum.
The Real Deal?
The Gospel of Judas represents one of the great textual finds of the modern age—so it was crucial for all concerned to ensure that it was authentic.
The University of Arizona's radiocarbon dating lab in Tucson—the same lab that tested the Dead Sea Scrolls—dated five tiny samples of papyrus and leather binding from the codex to between A.D. 220 and 340.
Extensive forensic ink analysis and multispectral imaging tests provided further physical evidence that placed the documents in the same time period.
Meanwhile, scholars examined contextual evidence such as content, linguistic style, and the distinctive handwriting used by ancient scribes.
Experts who have examined these aspects of the Gospel of Judas agree that the codex's theological concepts and linguistic structure are similar to manuscripts found in Nag ‘Hammâdi, Egypt, which contain Gnostic writings of a similar time period.
"Gnosticism" refers to several pre-Christian and early-Christian belief systems that hold that the physical world is corrupt and that humans can transcend it through the acquisition of esoteric spiritual knowledge.
The University of Münster's Emmel stressed that the Judas manuscript, like the Nag ‘Hammâdi texts, contains a second-century Gnostic thought process that would present a terrible challenge for forgers.
Would-be fakers would have also needed to acquire ancient papyrus and ink to duplicate period Coptic handwriting, and to master an ancient grammar known to only a small group of scholars.
Leap of Faith
Though authentic, the codex's condition is alarmingly poor, having deteriorated badly since Emmel's 1983 inspection.
By the time the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art called in Kasser and other experts to examine the codex, its leather binding had come undone. The ancient papyrus pages had been scattered into nearly a thousand fragments that crumbled at even the slightest touch. In places the pages were so blackened that the handwritten Coptic script was illegible.
The sheets had also been reorganized in a random pattern—possibly to boost buyer appeal by putting better pages on top. The original page order was lost.
"Our codex—clearly in such a fragile state that no researcher in his right mind would dare touch it in order to consult it—looked as if it were to ready to crumble, squeezed at the bottom of a box whose dimensions were barely larger that those of the manuscript itself," Kasser recalled.
Yet a team of expert preservationists became detectives to reconstruct the Gospel of Judas and the codex's other writings: a text titled James (also known as First Apocalypse of James), a Letter of Peter to Philip, and a fragment of a fourth text scholars are provisionally calling the Book of Allogenes.
"It took a leap of faith, sustained by hope, with no guarantee of success, yet there was a probability of success. … It was worth trying," Kasser said.
Aided by a computer program, restoration expert Florence Darbre and Coptic scholar Gregor Wurst, were able to painstakingly reconstruct most of the manuscript, fragment by fragment, over a period of five years.
"We soon realized that the decision had been a good one," Kasser said.
"Restored and put under glass, the folios could be gingerly handled, and it was possible to photograph all the pages," he said. "Those pages could be photographed, studied, read, transcribed, and translated."
Incredibly, the team was able to recreate some 90 to 95 percent of the manuscript and produce a nearly complete translation. Some sections may be forever lost, due to holes in the original papyruses, but scholars hope to fill them in as they finish their herculean task—an additional half page recently surfaced in New York City.
Yet even the meager surviving fragments are enough to portray one of history's most notorious villains in an entirely new light—and spur debate among scholars and theologians around the globe.