WASHINGTON—From the sands of the Egyptian desert to the Alpine air of Switzerland to a Hicksville, N.Y., bank vault to a freezer in Akron, Ohio — the improbable 1,700-year journey of a precious papyrus manuscript, or codex, containing the only known surviving copy of the Gospel of Judas, is traced in a new book from National Geographic.
THE LOST GOSPEL: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot (National Geographic Books, ISBN 1-4262-0041-2, April 6, 2006, $27), by award-winning documentary filmmaker and writer Herbert Krosney, is a compelling and exhaustively researched account of how the codex — which contains an alternative view of the relationship between Jesus and Judas — was found three decades ago, its peculiar pilgrimage in the intervening years, and how its meaning has been painstakingly drawn from its ancient Coptic script.
After crumbling into nearly a thousand pieces, the leather-bound papyrus codex, now conserved, authenticated and translated from the ancient Egyptian Coptic language, is being unveiled to the public for the first time in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, April 6.
In THE LOST GOSPEL, Krosney traces the forgotten gospel’s journey across three continents, a cloak-and-dagger trek that took it through the secretive world of the international antiquities trade, its contents glimpsed only a few times between long periods of inactivity in less-than-ideal storage conditions.
“With the tenacity of a top-flight investigative reporter, [Krosney] pursued every facet of the discovery and reclamation of the text. With an uncanny knack for piecing together isolated data, Herb has provided us with scores of details that, were it not for his efforts, would have been lost for ever. This book provides far more information about the discovery, fate, and ultimate publication of the Gospel of Judas than we have for any other archaeological discovery of modern times — including such significant finds as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library,” writes Bart D. Ehrman in his foreword. Ehrman is professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of the national best-selling book, “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.”
The leather-bound codex containing the gospel was discovered in the 1970s after being hidden for nearly 1,700 years. The exact location is not known, but is believed to have been in a cavern near El Minya, between Cairo and Luxor. The villagers who discovered it “had no idea that what they were holding was one of the greatest prizes of biblical archaeology,” writes Krosney.
This version of Judas’s story — that Judas didn’t actually betray Jesus, but did what Jesus wanted him to do — was too controversial for early church leaders. They condemned it as heresy and hoped to erase it from history. At least one copy of the gospel survived, however, lying in its chamber in the arid Egyptian desert before being discovered by villagers and eventually finding its way, decades later, into the hands of the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Switzerland, which would begin the conservation and translation process.
Krosney painstakingly traces every twist and turn in the codex’s journey. The villagers sold it to a dealer in Cairo, who knew it was extremely valuable, if only he could find the right buyer. While he was trying to sell it for several million dollars, the codex was stolen, then recovered. It was taken to Switzerland and left to molder for several months in a bank vault while a suitable buyer was sought. A select team including some of the world’s best biblical and Coptic scholars examined it in a hotel room in Geneva, but did not have the time to make a full identification, nor the $3 million requested for the purchase.
The next step in the codex’s journey was the United States, where the Cairo dealer offered it to a manuscript dealer in New York. A renowned Columbia University classicist helped in the examination. The New York dealer was uncomfortable with the price and the cost of conservation and decided against buying it. In despair, the Cairo dealer put the codex in a bank vault in Hicksville, N.Y., where it lay, deteriorating, for the next 16 years.
It was eventually bought in New York in 2000 by a Zürich-based antiquities dealer, Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos. She offered to sell the codex to Yale University, where for the first time it was accurately identified. Yale, although excited by the fact it contained what was apparently the fabled Gospel of Judas, was concerned about possible legal problems and declined to buy. Instead, the codex was sold to an antiquities dealer in Ohio and disintegrated further when it was briefly stored in the freezer compartment of a refrigerator.
A botched sale led to the manuscript’s return to Tchacos and its eventual home with the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art. By this time the fragile papyrus had deteriorated dramatically, with fragments crumbling at a touch. In addition, scholars found that pages of the priceless text were missing, ripped out, possibly to be sold separately. The Maecenas Foundation initiated the process to piece together, conserve and translate the codex. The National Geographic Society then led an international effort to authenticate the codex, in collaboration with the Maecenas Foundation and the Waitt Institute for Historical Discovery.
THE LOST GOSPEL: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot is also available as a 9.5-hour audio book on eight CDs (National Geographic Books, ISBN 1-4262-0057-9, April 2006, $44.95).
A fully annotated English translation of the Gospel of Judas, based on the collaborative work of leading Coptic and religious scholars, is also being published by National Geographic Books on April 6. THE GOSPEL OF JUDAS (ISBN 1-4262-0042-0, April 6, 2006, $22) includes extensive footnotes and some subtitles not included in the original gospel to enhance understanding of the text, as well as commentary and essays by top scholars who explain the Gospel of Judas’s fascinating history in the context of the early Christian Church.
Additionally, National Geographic Books will release a fully illustrated critical edition of the codex containing the Gospel of Judas in the coming year. The Gospel of Judas is one of four texts included in the codex. The others are a text called James, the Letter of Peter to Philip, and a fragment of a text scholars are provisionally calling Book of Allogenes.