The early Christians known as Gnostics, whose beliefs are reflected in the Judas
gospel, were not a homogeneous group; scholars even debate whether the many
strains of Gnosticism should be lumped together under one banner. The Gnostic idea
that individuals carry a spark of the divine within them may well have existed before
Christianity. ut after the time of Christ a number of Gnostics adopted Jesus as their
savior!as the man who told humankind the truth about God!and thus considered
themselves Christian. "owever, they understood his role and teachings in a very
different way than orthodox Christians.
#o, where did Jesus fit into Christian Gnostic cosmology$
%any Gnostics believed that Jesus was sent to &arth to teach humankind about a kind,
loving, accepting God, who was very different from the tough, vengeful creator God
of the 'ld Testament. ecause Gnostics could not reconcile the two opposing aspects
of the divine in one God, they believed there must be another god in addition to the
creator God.
They came to view that second, greater God as a divine mind, who at the beginning of
time had thoughts that spun off and became divine entities known as (eons. The
(eons lived in the )leroma, or fullness of God, which was a type of celestial ether or
realm of light. 'ne of these ideas made into substance was *isdom, called +#ophia.+
#he started to think and to have a mind of her own, and so she brought forth a new
being without consulting the divine mind, and without its approval. This offspring
was known as ,aldobaoth, and was called the demiurge, or creator.
The Gnostics believed it was ,aldobaoth who scooped up (dam and &ve from dirt
and blew the breath of life into them. The creator spirit, an aberration in the pure
world of the divine mind, brought evil into the world. ut he also carried the essence
of #ophia, and he exhaled some of the divine into (dam and &ve when he brought
them to life. (ll of humankind has inherited that divine spark.
Jesus- role on &arth, according to the Gnostic Christians, was to tell humankind that
they are descended from the divine. y knowing this, and looking inward to discover
the divine spark, a Gnostic can be reunited with the divine and live in the fullness of
&li.abeth #nodgrass
/ost for nearly 0,122 years, a crumbling papyrus manuscript presents the most hated
man in history in a new light.
By Andrew Cockburn
Photographs by Kenneth Garrett
"ands trembling slightly from )arkinson3s disease, )rofessor 4odolphe 5asser picked
up the ancient text and began reading in a strong, clear voice6 “pe-di-ah-kawn-aus
ente plah-nay.” These strange words were Coptic, the language spoken in &gypt at the
dawn of Christianity. They had gone unheard ever since the early church declared the
document off7limits for Christians.
This copy somehow survived. "idden over eons in the &gyptian desert, it was 8nally
uncovered late in the 92th century. Then it vanished into the netherworld of anti:uities
traders, one of whom abandoned it for 0; years in a bank vault in "icksville, <ew
,ork. y the time it reached 5asser, the papyrus!a form of paper made of dried
water plants!was decaying into fragments, its message on the verge of being lost
The 1=7year7old scholar, one of the world3s leading Coptic experts, 8nished reading
and carefully placed the page back on the table. >?t is a beautiful language, is it not$
&gyptian written in Greek characters.@ "e 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 8rst page reads, >The secret account of
the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas ?scariot. . . .@
(fter nearly 9,222 years, the most hated man in history is back.
&veryone remembers the story of Jesus Christ3s close friend, one of the 09 (postles,
who sold him out for A2 pieces of silver, identifying him with a kiss. /ater, cra.ed
with guilt, Judas hanged himself. "e is the ultimate symbol of treachery. #tockyards
call the goat that leads other animals to slaughter the Judas goat. ?n Germany, of8cials
can forbid new parents from choosing the name Judas. Guides at the historic Coptic
"anging Church in 'ld Cairo point out one black column in the church3s white
colonnades!Judas, of course. Christianity would not be the same without its traitor.
There is a sinister backdrop to traditional depictions of Judas. (s 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
4oman governor )ontius )ilate gently while condemning Judas and the Jewish high
The >secret account@ gives us a very different Judas. ?n this version, he is a hero.
Bnlike the other disciples, he truly understands Christ3s message. ?n handing Jesus
over to the authorities, he is doing his leader3s bidding, knowing full well the fate he
will bring on himself. Jesus warns him6 >,ou will be cursed.@
This message is startling enough to raise suspicions of fraud, common with alleged
biblical artifacts. Cor example, an empty limestone box said to have held the bones of
James, brother of Jesus, attracted massive crowds when it was displayed in 9229!but
soon turned out to be an ingenious fake.
( Gospel of Judas is clearly more enticing than an empty box, but so far every test
con8rms its anti:uity. The <ational Geographic #ociety, which is helping support the
restoration and translation of the manuscript, commissioned a top carbon7dating
laboratory at the Bniversity of (ri.ona to analy.e the papyrus book, or codex,
containing the gospel. Tests on 8ve separate samples from the papyrus and the leather
binding date the codex to sometime between (.D. 992 and AE2. The ink appears to be
an ancient recipe!a mix of iron gall and soot inks. (nd 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 8rst and second centuries.
>*e all feel comfortable putting this copy in the fourth century,@ one expert says,
>and 5asser is sure enough to devote the end of his life to it.@
( further con8rmation comes from the distant past. (round (.D. 0=2, ?renaeus,
ishop of /yon in what was then 4oman Gaul, wrote a massive treatise called
Against Heresies. The book was a 8erce denunciation of all those whose views about
Jesus and his message differed from those of the mainstream church. (mong those he
attacked was a group who revered Judas, >the traitor,@ and had produced a >8ctitious
history,@ which >they style the Gospel of Judas.@
Decades before the fragile manuscript in 5asser3s hands was written, the angry bishop
apparently knew of the original Greek text.
?renaeus had plenty of heresies to contend with. ?n the early centuries of Christianity,
what we call the church, operating through a top7down hierarchy of priests and
bishops, was only one of many groups inspired by Jesus. iblical scholar %arvin
%eyer of Chapman Bniversity, who worked with 5asser to translate the gospel, sums
up the situation as >Christianity trying to 8nd its style.@
Cor example, a group called the &bionites maintained that Christians should obey all
Jewish religious laws, while another, the %arcionites, reFected any connection
between the God of the <ew Testament and the Jewish God. #ome said that Jesus had
been wholly divine, contradicting those who insisted he was completely human. ,et
another sect, the Carpocratians, allegedly indulged in rituali.ed spouse swapping.
%any of these groups were Gnostics, followers of the same strain of early Christianity
reflected in the Judas gospel.
>Gnosis means Gknowledge3 in Greek,@ %eyer explains. The Gnostics >believed that
there is an ultimate source of goodness, which they thought of as the divine mind,
outside the physical universe. "umans 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.
*hile Christians like ?renaeus stressed that only Jesus, the son of God, was
simultaneously human and divine, the Gnostics proposed that ordinary people could
be connected to God. #alvation lay in awakening that divine spark within the human
spirit and reconnecting with the divine mind. Doing so re:uired the guidance of a
teacher, and that, according to the Gnostics, was Christ3s role. Those who grasped his
message could become as divine as Christ himself.
"ence ?renaeus3s hostility. >These people were mystics,@ says %eyer. >%ystics have
always drawn the ire of institutionali.ed religion. %ystics, after all, hear the voice of
God from within and don3t need a priest to intercede for them.@ ?renaeus began his
book after he returned from a trip and found his flock in /yon being subverted by a
Gnostic preacher named %arcus, who was encouraging his initiates to demonstrate
direct contact with the divine by prophesying. "ardly less outrageous was %arcus3s
evident success with women in the flock. The preacher3s >deluded victim,@ wrote
?renaeus indignantly, >impudently utters some nonsense@ and >henceforth considers
herself to be a prophetH@
Bntil recent decades, such doctrines were glimpsed mainly through the denunciations
of antagonists like ?renaeus, but in 0IEJ &gyptian peasants found a set of long7lost
Gnostic texts buried in an earthenware Far near the town of <ag "ammadi. (mong
them were over a do.en entirely new versions of Christ3s teachings, including Gospels
of Thomas and )hilip and a Gospel of Truth. <ow we have the Gospel of Judas.
?n ancient times, some of these alternative versions may have circulated more widely
than the familiar four Gospels. >%ost of the manuscripts, or at least fragments, from
the second century that we have found are copies of other Christian books,@ says art
&hrman, professor of religious studies at the Bniversity of <orth Carolina. ( long7
buried side of early Christianity is re7emerging.
The notion of >gospels@ that contradict the canonical four in the <ew Testament is
deeply unsettling to some, as ? was reminded at lunch with %eyer at a *ashington,
D.C., restaurant. rimming 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 didn3t get it.@
The lunchtime crowd had emptied out, and we were alone in the restaurant, deep in
the second century (.D., when the maKtre d3 hesitantly handed %eyer a note. ?t 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. #omeone seated nearby had apparently thought %eyer was casting
doubt on the ible as the word of God.
?n fact it is unclear whether the authors of any of the gospels!even the familiar four
! actually witnessed the events they described. &vangelical biblical scholar Craig
&vans of (cadia Divinity College says the canonical Gospels ultimately eclipsed the
others because their version of Christ3s teachings and passion had the ring of truth.
>Those early Christian groups were generally poor; they couldn3t afford to have more
than a few books copied, so the members would say, G? want the (postle John3s
gospel, and so on,3@ he argues. >The canonical Gospels are the ones that they
themselves considered the most authentic.@ 'r 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. ?n the very 8rst scene Jesus laughs at the disciples for
praying to >your god,@ meaning the disastrous god who created the world. "e
compares the disciples to a priest in the temple Lalmost certainly a reference to the
mainstream churchM, whom he calls >a minister of error@ planting >trees without fruit,
in my name, in a shameful manner.@ "e challenges the disciples to look at him and
understand what he really is, but they turn away.
The key passage comes when Jesus tells Judas6 >,ou will sacri8ce the man that
clothes me.@ ?n plain &nglish, or Coptic, Judas is going to kill Jesus!and thus do him
a favor. >That really isn3t Jesus at all,@ says %eyer. >"e 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. >/ift 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.@ Bltimately, Judas has a
revelation in which he enters a >luminous cloud.@ )eople on the ground hear a voice
from the cloud, though what it says may be forever unknown due to a tear in the
The gospel ends abruptly with a brief note reporting that Judas >received some
money@ and handed Jesus over to the arresting party.
To Craig &vans, this tale is a meaningless 8ction, written long ago in support of a
dead7end belief system. >There is nothing in the Gospel of Judas,@ he says, >that tells
us anything we could consider historically reliable.@
ut other scholars believe it is an important new window into the minds of early
Christians. >This changes the history of early Christianity,@ says &laine )agels,
professor of religion at )rinceton Bniversity. >*e don3t look to the gospels for
historical information, but for the fundamentals of the Christian faith.@
>This is big,@ agrees art &hrman. >( lot of people are going to be upset.@
Cather 4uwais (ntony is one. Cor the past 91 years, the venerable white7bearded
monk has lived at #t. (nthony3s %onastery, an outpost in &gypt3s &astern Desert. 'n
a visit there ? asked the kindly monk what he thought of the notion that Judas was
merely acting at Jesus3 re:uest in handing him over, and that Judas was therefore a
good man. 4uwais 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,
><ot recommended.@
"is fervor echoed the outrage of ishop ?renaeus!a reminder that here, in the
shadow of the stark 4ed #ea %ountains, the early Christian world is close at hand.
&arlier, Cather 4uwais took me into the Church of the (postles. eneath our feet,
recently unearthed, were the long7buried cells, complete with kitchen and bakery,
built by #t. (nthony himself when he founded his community early in the fourth
*ithin 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 E2 miles L;2
kilometersM due west. "e may even have been a monk, for monks are known to have
revered Gnostic texts and kept them in their libraries.
y the end of the fourth century, though, it was unwise to possess such books. ?n A0A
the 4oman &mperor Constantine had legali.ed Christianity. ut his tolerance
extended only to the organi.ed church, which he showered with riches and privileges,
not to mention tax breaks. "eretics, Christians who disagreed with the of8cial
doctrines, got no support, were hit with penalties, and were eventually ordered to stop
?renaeus had already nominated the familiar four Gospels as the only ones that
Christians should read. "is list ultimately became church policy. ?n A;1 (thanasius,
the powerful ishop of (lexandria and a keen admirer of ?renaeus, issued an order to
every Christian in &gypt listing 91 texts, including today3s Gospels, as the only <ew
Testament books that could be regarded as sacred. That list endures to this day.
*e cannot know how many books were lost as the ible took shape, but we do know
that some were hidden away. The <ag "ammadi trove was buried in a heavy, waist7
high Far, perhaps by monks from the nearby monasteries of #t. )achomius. ?t 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 %ay 0I=A, when #tephen &mmel, a graduate student
working in 4ome, got a call from a fellow scholar, who wanted him to travel to
#wit.erland and check on some Coptic documents on offer from a mysterious source.
?n Geneva, &mmel and two colleagues were directed to a hotel room where they were
met by two men!an &gyptian who spoke no &nglish and a Greek who translated.
>*e were given about half an hour to look into what were effectively three shoe
boxes. ?nside were papyri wrapped in newspaper,@ says &mmel. >*e weren3t allowed
to take photographs or make any notes.@ The papyrus was already beginning to
crumble, so he did not dare touch it by hand. 5neeling beside the bed, he gingerly
lifted some of the leaves with twee.ers and spotted the name Judas. "e mistakenly
assumed the name referred to Judas Thomas, another disciple, but he did understand
that this was a totally unknown work of great signi8cance.
'ne of &mmel3s colleagues disappeared into the bathroom to negotiate a deal. &mmel
was authori.ed to offer no more than NJ2,222; the sellers demanded three million
dollars and not a penny less. ><o way was anyone going to pay that money,@ says
&mmel, now a professor at the Bniversity of %Onster in Germany, who sadly recalls
the papyrus as >beautiful@ and laments its deterioration since the meeting. *hile 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 01 years.
(ccording to the present owners of the Judas gospel, the &gyptian in that Geneva
hotel room was a Cairo anti:uities dealer named "anna. "e had bought the
manuscript from a village trader who made his living scouting such material. &xactly
where or how the trader had come across the collection is unclear. "e is dead now,
and his relatives in the %aghagha district, a hundred miles L0;2 kilometersM south of
Cairo, become strangely reticent when challenged to reveal the site of the 8nd.
#oon after "anna ac:uired the manuscript and before he could take it overseas, his
entire stock disappeared in a robbery. ?n "anna3s telling, the stolen goods were
spirited out of the country and ended up in the hands of another dealer. /ater "anna
succeeded in retrieving part of the hoard, including the gospel.
'nce upon a time, few would :uestion how a priceless anti:uity left its host country.
(ny visitor could simply pick up artifacts and send them abroad. That is how great
museums like the ritish %useum and the /ouvre ac:uired many of their treasures.
Today, anti:uities7rich nations take a more proprietary attitude, banning private
ownership and strictly controlling the export of their heritage. 4espectable 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.
?n early 0I=2, when the theft took place, &gypt had already made it illegal to possess
unregistered anti:uities or export them without a government license. ?t is not clear
precisely how this law applies to the codex. ut :uestions about its provenance have
shadowed it ever since.
"anna, however, was determined to get top dollar for it. The academics in Geneva
con8rmed through their excitement that it was indeed valuable, so he headed for <ew
,ork to 8nd a buyer with real money. The foray came to nothing, whereupon "anna
apparently lost heart and retired back to Cairo. efore he left <ew ,ork, he rented a
safe deposit box in a Citibank branch in "icksville, /ong ?sland, where he parked the
codex and some other ancient papyri. There they remained, untouched and moldering,
while "anna intermittently tried to interest other buyers. "is price, reportedly, was
always too high.
Cinally, in (pril 9222, he made a sale. The buyer was Crieda <ussberger7Tchacos, an
&gyptian7born Greek who had made her way to the top of the cutthroat anti:uities
business after studying &gyptology in )aris. #he will not divulge what she paid,
conceding only that a rumored 8gure of NA22,222 is >wrong, but in the
neighborhood.@ ?t occurred to her that the einecke 4are ook and %anuscript
/ibrary at ,ale Bniversity might be a possible buyer, so she deposited her wares with
one of the library3s manuscript experts, )rofessor 4obert abcock.
( few days later, as she was heading out of %anhattan to catch a flight to her home in
POrich, the professor phoned. "is news was explosive, but it was his excitement,
audible even on a cell phone in the din of %anhattan rush7hour traf8c, that Crieda
Tchacos remembers best. >"e was saying, GThis is unbelievable material; ? think it is
the Gospel of Judas ?scariot,3 but ? really only heard the emotion vibrating in his
voice.@ 'nly later, in the long hours over the dark (tlantic, 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 einecke held on to the document for 8ve months but then refused to bite, despite
the vibrating abcock, largely because of doubts about its provenance. #o Tchacos
turned from the ?vy /eague to (kron, 'hio, and an opera singer turned dealer in old
manuscripts named ruce Cerrini.
"er reFection by ,ale had been disheartening, and the trip to (kron was a nightmare.
>%y flight from 5ennedy was cancelled, so ? had to fly from /aGuardia on a little
plane. ? had the material carefully packed in black boxes, but they wouldn3t let me
carry them into the cabin.@ Judas flew to 'hio in the hold. ?n return for Judas and
other manuscripts, Cerrini gave Tchacos a sales contract with a Cerrini company called
<emo and two postdated checks for 0.9J million dollars each.
Cerrini did not return numerous phone calls seeking his version of the story. ut
people who saw the Judas manuscript while it was in his possession say that he
shuffled the pages. >"e wanted to make it look more complete,@ suggests Coptic
expert Gregor *urst, who is helping to restore it. %ore fragments were coming off.
Tchacos had begun having :ualms about the deal within days of returning home. "er
doubts increased when a friend named %ario 4oberty pointed out that nemo is /atin
for >no one.@
4oberty, a :uick7witted and engaging #wiss lawyer, knows the world of anti:uities
dealers and runs a foundation dedicated to ancient art. "e was, he says, >fascinated@
by Tchacos3s story and happily agreed to help her reclaim Judas.
Cerrini3s huge checks were due at the beginning of 9220. To help keep pressure on the
(kron dealer, 4oberty enlisted the anti:uities trade3s own weapon of mass
destruction, a former dealer named %ichel van 4iFn. The /ondon7based van 4iFn runs
a wide7ranging website that is totally uninhibited in flaying his many enemies in the
anti:uities world.
riefed by 4oberty, van 4iFn broke the news of the gospel, adding that it was >in the
claws of the Gmulti7talented3 manuscript dealer, ruce ). Cerrini,@ who was in >deep
8nancial troubles.@ ?n stark terms, he warned potential buyers6 >,ou buy$ ,ou touch$
,ou will be prosecutedH@
(s 4oberty cheerfully recounts, deploying van 4iFn >worked, :uite decisively.@ L%ore
recently, van 4iFn changed tack and began 8ercely attacking 4oberty and Tchacos on
his site. >? think he3s used up all his ammunition,@ says 4oberty serenely.M ?n Cebruary
9220, Tchacos reclaimed the Judas codex and brought it to #wit.erland, where, 8ve
months later, she met 5asser.
(t that moment, she says, Judas turned from curse to blessing. (s 5asser began
painstakingly teasing the meaning of the codex from the fragments, 4oberty
embarked on an imaginative solution to the provenance problem6 selling the
translation and media rights while promising to return the original material to &gypt.
4oberty3s foundation, which now controls the manuscript, has signed an agreement
with the <ational Geographic #ociety.
4elieved of her marketing concerns, Tchacos has herself begun to sound a little
mystical. >&verything is predestined,@ she murmurs. >? was myself predestined by
Judas to rehabilitate him.@
'n the edge of /ake 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.