WASHINGTON—An ancient Coptic manuscript dating from the third or fourth century, containing the only known surviving copy of the Gospel of Judas, has been conserved, authenticated and translated after being lost for nearly 1,700 years. Pages of the papyrus manuscript, or codex, will be unveiled publicly for the first time at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, April 6.
The Gospel of Judas gives a different view of the relationship between Jesus and Judas, offering new insights into the disciple who betrayed Jesus. Unlike the accounts in the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, in which Judas is portrayed as a reviled traitor, this newly discovered gospel portrays Judas as acting at Jesus’ request when he hands Jesus over to the authorities.
The National Geographic Society has been part of an international effort to authenticate, conserve and translate the codex, in collaboration with the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art and the Waitt Institute for Historical Discovery. Rodolphe Kasser, of Switzerland, one of the world’s leading Coptic scholars, was recruited to reconstruct the manuscript and to transcribe and translate the text. The 66-page manuscript contains not only the Gospel of Judas but also 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 Book of Allogenes.
“The codex has been authenticated as a genuine work of ancient Christian apocryphal literature on five fronts: radiocarbon dating, ink analysis, multispectral imaging, contextual evidence and paleographic evidence,” said Terry Garcia, executive vice president for Mission Programs for the National Geographic Society. “This dramatic discovery of an ancient, non-biblical text — considered by some to be the most significant of the past 60 years — enhances our knowledge of the history and theological viewpoints of the early Christian period, and is worthy of continued study by historians, scholars and theologians. This process will take time and ongoing dialogue, which has just begun.”
“Supporting important research and discovery that will add valuable new information to our understanding of the world’s culture and history exemplifies the mission of our organization,” said Ted Waitt, founder of the Waitt Institute for Historical Discovery, a nonprofit organization dedicated to using technology to improve mankind’s knowledge through historical and scientific exploration. “We’re very proud to have played a role in bringing this historic document to light.”
The leather-bound papyrus codex, believed to have been copied down in Coptic probably around A.D. 300, was found in the 1970s in the desert near El Minya, Egypt. It then circulated among antiquities traders, moving from Egypt to Europe to the United States. The codex languished in a safe-deposit box on Long Island, N.Y., for 16 years before being bought in 2000 by Zürich-based antiquities dealer Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos.
When attempts to resell the manuscript fell through, Tchacos — alarmed by the codex’s rapidly deteriorating state — transferred it to the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Basel, Switzerland, in February 2001 for conservation and translation. The manuscript, now known as Codex Tchacos, will be delivered to Egypt and housed in Cairo’s Coptic Museum.
“We are pleased that the incredible dedication and hard work of this team has restored the document to a form that scholars and the public will now be able to study for future generations, and that the relic will once again reside in Egypt, the country from which it came. We are working closely with the Egyptian authorities and look forward to the day when the codex is once again ‘home,'” said Mario Roberty, head of the Maecenas Foundation.
Authentication of Codex
Minute samples of papyrus and leather were tested at the University of Arizona’s world-renowned radiocarbon dating Accelerator Mass Spectrometry laboratory in January 2005. The results showed the likely date of the codex to be between A.D. 220 and A.D. 340.
Ink analysis by McCrone Associates Inc., in Westmont, Ill., confirmed the presence of carbon black as one component of the ink samples examined, and gum as a binding medium — consistent with inks from the third and fourth centuries. It was further established that the ink contained an iron component consistent in many ways with other metal-based inks of third-century Egypt.
Selected pages of the codex were submitted to multispectral imaging (MSI) — a process that may be used to assess the nature of, and any modifications to, ancient texts. The MSI analysis was done in Switzerland by Gene A. Ware of the Papyrological Imaging Lab at Brigham Young University. Ware found that the papyrus on which the codex was written responded to MSI in a fashion similar to that of other ancient papyri imaged with MSI technology. Corroborating the findings of McCrone Associates Inc., Ware found the MSI characteristics of the examined ink were consistent with those of metallic, iron-based ink with some carbon content — appropriate to the era from which the codex dates. There was no evidence of multiple rewriting (or multiple inking events) in the text.
Leading scholars who have studied the content and linguistic style of the codex, which is written in the Sahidic dialect of the ancient Egyptian Coptic language, say its theological concepts and linguistic traits mirror concepts and traits found in the Nag Hammadi library, a collection of texts discovered in Egypt in 1945, which also date to the early centuries of Christianity. Marvin Meyer, professor of Bible and Christian Studies at Chapman University, Orange, Calif., and Stephen Emmel, professor of Coptic studies at the University of Münster in Germany, agree the codex reflects a unique gnostic viewpoint prevalent in the second century. That is when the original Greek text known as the Gospel of Judas, and later copied down in Coptic, was first composed.
The paleography, or handwriting, too, reminds Emmel of the kind of script in the Nag Hammadi codices. “I have looked at hundreds of papyri in my career, and this is absolutely typical of ancient Coptic manuscripts. I am completely convinced,” he said.
The findings of the five authentication efforts led experts to conclude the long-buried manuscript was copied down sometime around A.D. 300.
Conserving and Translating the Text
Kasser, the manuscript’s chief translator, said he had never seen a manuscript in worse shape. Pages were missing, some pages had been rearranged, the top half containing the page numbers had broken away, and nearly a thousand fragments lay scattered. “The manuscript was so brittle, it would crumble at the slightest touch,” he said.
Kasser enlisted the help of papyrus conservator Florence Darbre, of Switzerland, and Coptic scholar Gregor Wurst, of the University of Augsburg, Germany, to piece together one of the most complex puzzles ever devised by history. The 26-page Gospel of Judas was written on 13 sheets of papyrus, both front and back. If a fragment fit one side, it had to fit on the other. To put it in perspective: “If you take a nine- to 10-page typed document, rip it into tiny pieces, throw away half the pieces and try to reconstruct the other half, you will get an idea how difficult this process is,” Kasser said.
Darbre placed the fragile pieces between sheets of glass, and photographs were taken of the fragments and the pages. With the help of computer programs that record text, register gaps and try to match gaps to text, and with careful, visual inspection of suggested matches to confirm papyrus fiber continuity, Darbre, Wurst and Kasser have been able to reassemble more than 80 percent of the text in five painstaking years. In February 2006 a missing half-page of the gospel resurfaced in New York City, and this has been photographed and transcribed and included in the English translation.
Kasser has translated the gospel with help from Wurst and Marvin Meyer, in collaboration with Egyptologist and Coptic scholar François Gaudard of the University of Chicago.
The original Greek text of the gospel, of which this is a Coptic translation, is thought to have been written sometime between the canonical (biblical) gospels and A.D. 180 by a group of early gnostic Christians. Gnostics believed that the way to salvation was through secret knowledge — delivered by Jesus to his inner circle — that revealed how people can escape the prisons of their material bodies and return to the spiritual realm from which they came. They also believed that the true God, the Father of Jesus, is a higher being than the vengeful Old Testament God who created the universe. The author of the Gospel of Judas believed that Judas Iscariot alone understood the true significance and meaning of Jesus’ teachings and that he did Jesus’ will in handing him over to the authorities.
The first known reference to a Gospel of Judas is around A.D. 180 in a treatise, “Against Heresies,” by Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, in what was then Roman Gaul. It was a fierce attack against those whose views about Jesus and his message differed from those of the mainstream Christian Church. Among those Irenaeus denounced were a group who “declare that Judas the traitor…alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal… They produce a fictitious story of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.” Irenaeus declared that of the many different gospels circulating at that time, just four should be recognized: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Scholars believe that after the other gospels were declared off-limits, followers hid copies of them.
What the Gospel of Judas Says
The Gospel of Judas text begins: “The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week, three days before he celebrated Passover.” It reflects themes that scholars regard as being consistent with gnostic traditions. In the very first scene Jesus laughs at his disciples for praying to “your God,” meaning the lesser Old Testament God who created the world. He challenges the disciples to look at him and understand what he really is, but they turn away.
The key passage comes when Jesus tells Judas, “… you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” By helping Jesus get rid of his physical flesh, Judas will help liberate the true spiritual self or divine being within.
Judas is singled out several times for special status. “Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal,” Jesus says. He also tells Judas, “Look, you have been told everything. Lift up your eyes and look at the cloud and the light within it and the stars surrounding it. The star that leads the way is your star.”
The gospel also suggests Judas will be despised by the other disciples but will be exalted over them. “…you will be cursed by the other generations — and you will come to rule over them,” Jesus says. Judas also reports a vision where he is harshly opposed by the other disciples: “In the vision I saw myself as the 12 disciples were stoning me and persecuting [me severely].”
A passage in the gospel appears to refer to the transfiguration of Judas. “Judas lifted his eyes and saw the luminous cloud, and he entered it.” People on the ground hear a voice from the cloud, but what it says may remain forever unknown due to a gap in the papyrus.
The gospel ends abruptly. “They [the arresting party] approached Judas and said to him, ‘What are you doing here? You are Jesus’ disciple.’ Judas answered them as they wished. And he received some money and handed him over to them.” No mention is made in this gospel of Jesus’ crucifixion or resurrection.
Leading biblical scholars believe this alternative view of the relationship between Jesus and Judas is an important window into the minds of early Christians and offers new and important evidence of the diversity of the early Christian Church.
Elaine Pagels, Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion at Princeton University and one of the world’s leading authorities on gnostic gospels, said, “The astonishing discovery of the Gospel of Judas — along with the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the many other recently discovered gospels that had remained hidden for nearly 2,000 years — is transforming our understanding of early Christianity. These discoveries are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion, and demonstrating how diverse — and fascinating — the early Christian movement really was.”
“It is a rare occurrence that a previously unknown gospel manuscript is discovered, particularly one that was mentioned in early Christian sources. The Gospel of Judas sheds important light on the character of developing Christianity and reminds us again of the rich diversity of the early Church,” said Marvin Meyer of Chapman University.
Craig Evans, professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College, Acadia University, in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada, applauds the recovery and publication of the Gospel of Judas. “The Gospel of Judas is an important second-century witness to the diversity of Christian perceptions of Jesus and his disciples. This gospel may even help us better understand things hinted at in the New Testament Gospels themselves.”
Conservation, transcription and translation of the manuscript continue, and Kasser hopes that once photographs of the preserved, unplaced fragments are in the public domain, other scholars over time will be able to fill in more of the puzzle pieces and that more of the missing pages will come to light.
National Geographic is sharing information about the Gospel of Judas with the public through an exhibit featuring pages of the codex at National Geographic headquarters, opening Friday, April 7; a feature in the May 2006 issue of National Geographic magazine, on newsstands April 25; a two-hour television special, “The Gospel of Judas,” premiering on the National Geographic Channel worldwide on Sunday, April 9; two National Geographic books, “The Gospel of Judas” and “The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot,” both publishing April 6; a lecture at the Society with Gregor Wurst, Marvin Meyer and “The Lost Gospel” author Herbert Krosney, on Monday, April 10; and a comprehensive Web site at www.nationalgeographic.com/lostgospel. National Geographic Books also will publish a fully illustrated, critical edition of the codex in the coming year.