Published: May 2006
The Judas Gospel
An ancient text lost for 1,700 years says Christ's betrayer was his truest disciple
By Andrew Cockburn

Hands trembling slightly from Parkinson’s disease, Professor Rodolphe Kasser picked up the ancient text and began reading in a strong, clear voice: "pe-di-ah-kawn-aus ente plah-nay.” These strange words were Coptic, the language spoken in Egypt at the dawn of Christianity. They had gone unheard ever since the early church declared the document off-limits for Christians.

This copy somehow survived. Hidden over eons in the Egyptian desert, it was finally uncovered late in the 20th century. Then it vanished into the netherworld of antiquities traders, one of whom abandoned it for 16 years in a bank vault in Hicksville, New York. By the time it reached Kasser, the papyrus—a form of paper made of dried water plants—was decaying into fragments, its message on the verge of being lost forever.

The 78-year-old scholar, one of the world's leading Coptic experts, finished reading and carefully placed the page back on the table. "It is a beautiful language, is it not? Egyptian written in Greek characters.” He smiled. “This is a passage where Jesus is explaining to the disciples that they are on the wrong track.” The text has entranced him, and no wonder. The opening line of the first page reads, "The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot. . . .”

After nearly 2,000 years, the most hated man in history is back.

Everyone remembers the story of Jesus Christ's close friend, one of the 12 Apostles, who sold him out for 30 pieces of silver, identifying him with a kiss. Later, crazed with guilt, Judas hanged himself. He is the ultimate symbol of treachery. Stockyards call the goat that leads other animals to slaughter the Judas goat. In Germany, officials can forbid new parents from choosing the name Judas. Guides at the historic Coptic Hanging Church in Old Cairo point out one black column in the church’s white colonnades—Judas, of course. Christianity would not be the same without its traitor.

There is a sinister backdrop to traditional depictions of Judas. As Christianity distanced itself from its origins as a Jewish sect, Christian thinkers found it increasingly convenient to blame the Jews as a people for the arrest and execution of Christ, and to cast Judas as the archetypal Jew. The four Gospels, for example, treat Roman governor Pontius Pilate gently while condemning Judas and the Jewish high priests.

The "secret account” gives us a very different Judas. In this version, he is a hero. Unlike the other disciples, he truly understands Christ’s message. In handing Jesus over to the authorities, he is doing his leader's bidding, knowing full well the fate he will bring on himself. Jesus warns him: "You will be cursed.”

This message is startling enough to raise suspicions of fraud, common with alleged biblical artifacts. For example, an empty limestone box said to have held the bones of James, brother of Jesus, attracted massive crowds when it was displayed in 2002—but soon turned out to be an ingenious fake.

A Gospel of Judas is clearly more enticing than an empty box, but so far every test confirms its antiquity. The National Geographic Society, which is helping support the restoration and translation of the manuscript, commissioned a top carbon-dating laboratory at the University of Arizona to analyze the papyrus book, or codex, containing the gospel. Tests on five separate samples from the papyrus and the leather binding date the codex to sometime between A.D. 220 and 340. The ink appears to be an ancient recipe—a mix of iron gall and soot inks. And Coptic scholars say telltale turns of phrase in the gospel indicate that it was translated from Greek, the language in which most Christian texts were originally written in the first and second centuries. “We all feel comfortable putting this copy in the fourth century,” one expert says, "and Kasser is sure enough to devote the end of his life to it.”

A further confirmation comes from the distant past. Around A.D. 180, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon in what was then Roman Gaul, wrote a massive treatise called Against Heresies. The book was a fierce denunciation of all those whose views about Jesus and his message differed from those of the mainstream church. Among those he attacked was a group who revered Judas, "the traitor,” and had produced a “fictitious history,” which "they style the Gospel of Judas.”

Decades before the fragile manuscript in Kasser's hands was written, the angry bishop apparently knew of the original Greek text.

Irenaeus had plenty of heresies to contend with. In the early centuries of Christianity, what we call the church, operating through a top-down hierarchy of priests and bishops, was only one of many groups inspired by Jesus. Biblical scholar Marvin Meyer of Chapman University, who worked with Kasser to translate the gospel, sums up the situation as “Christianity trying to find its style.”

For example, a group called the Ebionites maintained that Christians should obey all Jewish religious laws, while another, the Marcionites, rejected any connection between the God of the New Testament and the Jewish God. Some said that Jesus had been wholly divine, contradicting those who insisted he was completely human. Yet another sect, the Carpocratians, allegedly indulged in ritualized spouse swapping. Many of these groups were Gnostics, followers of the same strain of early Christianity reflected in the Judas gospel.

"Gnosis means 'knowledge' in Greek,” Meyer explains. The Gnostics "believed that there is an ultimate source of goodness, which they thought of as the divine mind, outside the physical universe. Humans carry a spark of that divine power, but they are cut off by the material world all around them”—a flawed world, as the Gnostics saw it, the work of an inferior creator rather than the ultimate God.

While Christians like Irenaeus stressed that only Jesus, the son of God, was simultaneously human and divine, the Gnostics proposed that ordinary people could be connected to God. Salvation lay in awakening that divine spark within the human spirit and reconnecting with the divine mind. Doing so required the guidance of a teacher, and that, according to the Gnostics, was Christ’s role. Those who grasped his message could become as divine as Christ himself.

Hence Irenaeus’s hostility. "These people were mystics,” says Meyer. "Mystics have always drawn the ire of institutionalized religion. Mystics, after all, hear the voice of God from within and don't need a priest to intercede for them.” Irenaeus began his book after he returned from a trip and found his flock in Lyon being subverted by a Gnostic preacher named Marcus, who was encouraging his initiates to demonstrate direct contact with the divine by prophesying. Hardly less outrageous was Marcus’s evident success with women in the flock. The preacher’s "deluded victim,” wrote Irenaeus indignantly, "impudently utters some nonsense” and “henceforth considers herself to be a prophet!”

Until recent decades, such doctrines were glimpsed mainly through the denunciations of antagonists like Irenaeus, but in 1945 Egyptian peasants found a set of long-lost Gnostic texts buried in an earthenware jar near the town of Nag Hammadi. Among them were over a dozen entirely new versions of Christ’s teachings, including Gospels of Thomas and Philip and a Gospel of Truth. Now we have the Gospel of Judas.

In ancient times, some of these alternative versions may have circulated more widely than the familiar four Gospels. "Most of the manuscripts, or at least fragments, from the second century that we have found are copies of other Christian books,” says Bart Ehrman, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina. A long-buried side of early Christianity is re-emerging.

The notion of "gospels” that contradict the canonical four in the New Testament is deeply unsettling to some, as I was reminded at lunch with Meyer at a Washington, D.C., restaurant. Brimming with enthusiasm, the ebullient academic polished off a plate of chicken salad while discoursing nonstop on the beliefs in the Judas gospel. "This is really exciting,” he exclaimed. "This explains why Judas is singled out by Jesus as the best of the disciples. The others didn’t get it.”

The lunchtime crowd had emptied out, and we were alone in the restaurant, deep in the second century A.D., when the maître d’ hesitantly handed Meyer a note. It read simply, "God spoke a book.” The cryptic message had been called in anonymously, with instructions that it be delivered immediately to the diner who had ordered chicken salad. Someone seated nearby had apparently thought Meyer was casting doubt on the Bible as the word of God.

In fact it is unclear whether the authors of any of the gospels—even the familiar four— actually witnessed the events they described. Evangelical biblical scholar Craig Evans of Acadia Divinity College says the canonical Gospels ultimately eclipsed the others because their version of Christ’s teachings and passion had the ring of truth. “Those early Christian groups were generally poor; they couldn’t afford to have more than a few books copied, so the members would say, 'I want the Apostle John’s gospel, and so on,'" he argues. "The canonical Gospels are the ones that they themselves considered the most authentic.” Or perhaps the alternatives were simply outmaneuvered in the battle for the Christian mind.

The Judas gospel vividly reflects the struggle waged long ago between the Gnostics and the hierarchical church. In the very first scene Jesus laughs at the disciples for praying to "your god,” meaning the disastrous god who created the world. He compares the disciples to a priest in the temple (almost certainly a reference to the mainstream church), whom he calls "a minister of error” planting "trees without fruit, in my name, in a shameful manner.” 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 sacrifice the man that clothes me.” In plain English, or Coptic, Judas is going to kill Jesus—and thus do him a favor. “That really isn’t Jesus at all,” says Meyer. "He will at last get rid of his material, physical flesh, thereby liberating the real Christ, the divine being inside.”

That Judas is entrusted with this task is a sign of his special status. "Lift up your eyes and look at the cloud and the light within it and the stars surrounding it,” Jesus tells him encouragingly. "The star that leads the way is your star." Ultimately, Judas has a revelation in which he enters a "luminous cloud." People on the ground hear a voice from the cloud, though what it says may be forever unknown due to a tear in the papyrus.

The gospel ends abruptly with a brief note reporting that Judas "received some money" and handed Jesus over to the arresting party.

To Craig Evans, this tale is a meaningless fiction, written long ago in support of a dead-end belief system. "There is nothing in the Gospel of Judas,” he says, "that tells us anything we could consider historically reliable.”

But other scholars believe it is an important new window into the minds of early Christians. "This changes the history of early Christianity," says Elaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton University. "We don't look to the gospels for historical information, but for the fundamentals of the Christian faith.”

"This is big,” agrees Bart Ehrman. "A lot of people are going to be upset.”

Father Ruwais Antony is one. For the past 27 years, the venerable white-bearded monk has lived at St. Anthony's Monastery, an outpost in Egypt's Eastern Desert. On a visit there I asked the kindly monk what he thought of the notion that Judas was merely acting at Jesus' request in handing him over, and that Judas was therefore a good man. Ruwais was so shocked at the idea that he staggered against the door he was in the act of closing. Then he shook his head in disgusted wonderment, muttering, "Not recommended.”

His fervor echoed the outrage of Bishop Irenaeus—a reminder that here, in the shadow of the stark Red Sea Mountains, the early Christian world is close at hand. Earlier, Father Ruwais took me into the Church of the Apostles. Beneath our feet, recently unearthed, were the long-buried cells, complete with kitchen and bakery, built by St. Anthony himself when he founded his community early in the fourth century.

Within a few years of that event, famous in church history as the beginning of desert monasticism, an anonymous scribe had picked up a reed pen and a fresh sheet of papyrus and begun copying out "The secret account. . . ." The writer cannot have been far away; the area where the codex reportedly was found is only 40 miles (60 kilometers) due west. He may even have been a monk, for monks are known to have revered Gnostic texts and kept them in their libraries.

By the end of the fourth century, though, it was unwise to possess such books. In 313 the Roman Emperor Constantine had legalized Christianity. But his tolerance extended only to the organized church, which he showered with riches and privileges, not to mention tax breaks. Heretics, Christians who disagreed with the official doctrines, got no support, were hit with penalties, and were eventually ordered to stop meeting.

Irenaeus had already nominated the familiar four Gospels as the only ones that Christians should read. His list ultimately became church policy. In 367 Athanasius, the powerful Bishop of Alexandria and a keen admirer of Irenaeus, issued an order to every Christian in Egypt listing 27 texts, including today's Gospels, as the only New Testament books that could be regarded as sacred. That list endures to this day.

We cannot know how many books were lost as the Bible took shape, but we do know that some were hidden away. The Nag Hammadi trove was buried in a heavy, waist-high jar, perhaps by monks from the nearby monasteries of St. Pachomius. It would have taken only one man to hide the Judas gospel, which was bound together with three other Gnostic texts.

The documents survived unmolested through centuries of war and upheaval. They remained unread until early May 1983, when Stephen Emmel, a graduate student working in Rome, got a call from a fellow scholar, who wanted him to travel to Switzerland and check on some Coptic documents on offer from a mysterious source. In Geneva, Emmel and two colleagues were directed to a hotel room where they were met by two men—an Egyptian who spoke no English and a Greek who translated.

"We were given about half an hour to look into what were effectively three shoe boxes. Inside were papyri wrapped in newspaper," says Emmel. "We weren’t allowed to take photographs or make any notes." The papyrus was already beginning to crumble, so he did not dare touch it by hand. Kneeling beside the bed, he gingerly lifted some of the leaves with tweezers and spotted the name Judas. He mistakenly assumed the name referred to Judas Thomas, another disciple, but he did understand that this was a totally unknown work of great significance.

One of Emmel’s colleagues disappeared into the bathroom to negotiate a deal. Emmel was authorized to offer no more than $50,000; the sellers demanded three million dollars and not a penny less. "No way was anyone going to pay that money," says Emmel, now a professor at the University of Münster in Germany, who sadly recalls the papyrus as “beautiful” and laments its deterioration since the meeting. While the two sides lunched, he slipped away and frantically noted down everything he could remember. That was the last any scholar saw of the documents for the next 17 years.

According to the present owners of the Judas gospel, the Egyptian in that Geneva hotel room was a Cairo antiquities dealer named Hanna. He had bought the manuscript from a village trader who made his living scouting such material. Exactly where or how the trader had come across the collection is unclear. He is dead now, and his relatives in the Maghagha district, a hundred miles (160 kilometers) south of Cairo, become strangely reticent when challenged to reveal the site of the find.

Soon after Hanna acquired the manuscript and before he could take it overseas, his entire stock disappeared in a robbery. In Hanna's telling, the stolen goods were spirited out of the country and ended up in the hands of another dealer. Later Hanna succeeded in retrieving part of the hoard, including the gospel.

Once upon a time, few would question how a priceless antiquity left its host country. Any visitor could simply pick up artifacts and send them abroad. That is how great museums like the British Museum and the Louvre acquired many of their treasures. Today, antiquities-rich nations take a more proprietary attitude, banning private ownership and strictly controlling the export of their heritage. Respectable buyers such as museums try to ensure a legitimate provenance, or origin, for an artifact by establishing that it has not been stolen or illegally exported.

In early 1980, when the theft took place, Egypt had already made it illegal to possess unregistered antiquities or export them without a government license. It is not clear precisely how this law applies to the codex. But questions about its provenance have shadowed it ever since.

Hanna, however, was determined to get top dollar for it. The academics in Geneva confirmed through their excitement that it was indeed valuable, so he headed for New York to find a buyer with real money. The foray came to nothing, whereupon Hanna apparently lost heart and retired back to Cairo. Before he left New York, he rented a safe deposit box in a Citibank branch in Hicksville, Long Island, where he parked the codex and some other ancient papyri. There they remained, untouched and moldering, while Hanna intermittently tried to interest other buyers. His price, reportedly, was always too high.

Finally, in April 2000, he made a sale. The buyer was Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos, an Egyptian-born Greek who had made her way to the top of the cutthroat antiquities business after studying Egyptology in Paris. She will not divulge what she paid, conceding only that a rumored figure of $300,000 is "wrong, but in the neighborhood." It occurred to her that the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University might be a possible buyer, so she deposited her wares with one of the library’s manuscript experts, Professor Robert Babcock.

A few days later, as she was heading out of Manhattan to catch a flight to her home in Zürich, the professor phoned. His news was explosive, but it was his excitement, audible even on a cell phone in the din of Manhattan rush-hour traffic, that Frieda Tchacos remembers best. "He was saying, 'This is unbelievable material; I think it is the Gospel of Judas Iscariot,' but I really only heard the emotion vibrating in his voice.” Only later, in the long hours over the dark Atlantic, did Tchacos begin to appreciate that she actually owned the fabled Gospel of Judas.

Greeks talk about moira—fate—and in the months that followed, Tchacos began to feel that her moira had become entangled in a terrible way with Judas, "like a curse.” The Beinecke held on to the document for five months but then refused to bite, despite the vibrating Babcock, largely because of doubts about its provenance. So Tchacos turned from the Ivy League to Akron, Ohio, and an opera singer turned dealer in old manuscripts named Bruce Ferrini.

Her rejection by Yale had been disheartening, and the trip to Akron was a nightmare. "My flight from Kennedy was cancelled, so I had to fly from LaGuardia on a little plane. I had the material carefully packed in black boxes, but they wouldn't let me carry them into the cabin.” Judas flew to Ohio in the hold. In return for Judas and other manuscripts, Ferrini gave Tchacos a sales contract with a Ferrini company called Nemo and two postdated checks for 1.25 million dollars each.

Ferrini did not return numerous phone calls seeking his version of the story. But people who saw the Judas manuscript while it was in his possession say that he shuffled the pages. "He wanted to make it look more complete," suggests Coptic expert Gregor Wurst, who is helping to restore it. More fragments were coming off.

Tchacos had begun having qualms about the deal within days of returning home. Her doubts increased when a friend named Mario Roberty pointed out that nemo is Latin for "no one.”

Roberty, a quick-witted and engaging Swiss lawyer, knows the world of antiquities dealers and runs a foundation dedicated to ancient art. He was, he says, "fascinated” by Tchacos’s story and happily agreed to help her reclaim Judas.

Ferrini's huge checks were due at the beginning of 2001. To help keep pressure on the Akron dealer, Roberty enlisted the antiquities trade's own weapon of mass destruction, a former dealer named Michel van Rijn. The London-based van Rijn runs a wide-ranging website that is totally uninhibited in flaying his many enemies in the antiquities world.

Briefed by Roberty, van Rijn broke the news of the gospel, adding that it was "in the claws of the 'multi-talented’ manuscript dealer, Bruce P. Ferrini," who was in “deep financial troubles.” In stark terms, he warned potential buyers: “You buy? You touch? You will be prosecuted!”

As Roberty cheerfully recounts, deploying van Rijn "worked, quite decisively.” (More recently, van Rijn changed tack and began fiercely attacking Roberty and Tchacos on his site. "I think he's used up all his ammunition,” says Roberty serenely.) In February 2001, Tchacos reclaimed the Judas codex and brought it to Switzerland, where, five months later, she met Kasser.

At that moment, she says, Judas turned from curse to blessing. As Kasser began painstakingly teasing the meaning of the codex from the fragments, Roberty embarked on an imaginative solution to the provenance problem: selling the translation and media rights while promising to return the original material to Egypt. Roberty’s foundation, which now controls the manuscript, has signed an agreement with the National Geographic Society.

Relieved of her marketing concerns, Tchacos has herself begun to sound a little mystical. "Everything is predestined,” she murmurs. "I was myself predestined by Judas to rehabilitate him.”

On the edge of Lake Geneva, upstairs in an anonymous building, a specialist carefully manipulates a tiny scrap of papyrus into its proper place, and part of an ancient sentence is restored.

Judas, reborn, is about to face the world.