Emergence of the Gospel of Judas Offers a Tangled Tale of Its Own
By BARRY MEIER and JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
Published: April 13, 2006
When the National Geographic Society announced to great fanfare last week
that it had gained access to a 1,700-year-old document known as the Gospel
of Judas, it described how a deteriorating manuscript, unearthed in Egypt
three decades ago, had made its way through the shady alleys of the
antiquities market to a safe-deposit box on Long Island and eventually to a
Swiss art dealer who "rescued" it from obscurity.
But there is even more to the story.
The art dealer was detained several years ago in an unrelated Italian
antiquities smuggling investigation. And after she failed to profit from the
sale of the gospel in the private market, she struck a deal with a
foundation run by her lawyer that would let her make about as much as she
would have made on that sale, or more.
Later, the National Geographic Society paid the foundation to restore the
manuscript and bought the rights to the text and the story about the
discovery. As part of her arrangement with the foundation, the dealer,
Frieda Tchacos Nussberger, stands to gain $1 million to $2 million from
those National Geographic projects, her lawyer said. There may even be more.
Details of how the manuscript was found are clouded. According to National
Geographic, it was found by farmers in an Egyptian cave in the 1970's, sold
to a dealer and passed through various hands in Europe and the United
States. Legal issues in its transit are equally vague.
No one questions the authenticity of the Judas gospel, which depicts Judas
Iscariot not as a betrayer of Jesus but as his favored disciple.
But the emerging details are raising concerns among some archaeologists and
other scholars at a time of growing scrutiny of the dealers who sell
antiquities and of the museums and collectors who buy them. The information
also calls into question the completeness of National Geographic's depiction
of some individuals like Ms. Tchacos Nussberger and its disclosure of all
the financial relationships involved.
Terry Garcia, the vice president for mission programs at National
Geographic, which is based in Washington, said that the organization had
"heard some rumors" about possible legal problems involving Ms. Tchacos
Nussberger but could not confirm them. He also noted that the organization
had disclosed its relationship with the foundation, the Maecenas Foundation
for Ancient Art.
Mr. Garcia emphasized that he believed that issues like Ms. Tchacos
Nussberger's financial relationship with the foundation or questions about
other antiquities she sold were not relevant to the story of the Gospel of
Judas. He added that National Geographic had taken on the project because it
saw an opportunity to help save a unique document.
"It is not every day that you find a lost gospel," Mr. Garcia said.
But scholars who have campaigned against the trade in artifacts of
questionable provenance said they were troubled by the whole episode.
"We are dealing with a looted object," said Jane C. Waldbaum, president of
the Archaeological Institute of America, a professional society. "The
artifact was poorly handled for years because the people holding it were
more concerned with making money than protecting it."
For her part, Ms. Tchacos Nussberger rejected any suggestion that she was
trying to profit from the Gospel of Judas. She described her run-in with
Italian officials as inconsequential.
"I went through hell and back, and I saved something for humanity," Ms.
Tchacos Nussberger said in a telephone interview. "I would have given it for
nothing to someone who would have saved it."
Last week, National Geographic began a large campaign for the Gospel of
Judas, featuring it in two new books, a television documentary, an
exhibition and the May issue of National Geographic magazine.
The organization did not buy the document. Instead, it paid $1 million to
the Maecenas Foundation, effectively for the manuscript's contents. Part of
the revenues generated by the National Geographic projects go to the
The foundation was set up some years ago by Ms. Tchacos Nussberger's lawyer,
Mario Roberty, well before it became involved with the Gospel of Judas. Mr.
Roberty is the only official of the foundation, which he said was involved
in projects like returning antiquities to their countries of origin. He said
that when Ms. Tchacos Nussberger turned over the document to the foundation
in 2001, he quickly contacted officials in Egypt and assured them that the
manuscript would be returned there. He said the foundation had clear legal
title to the document.
In National Geographic's narratives, the manuscript takes a long journey
through the antiquities trade. Those stories describe Ms. Tchacos Nussberger
efforts to sell the Gospel of Judas privately soon after buying it and her
subsequent role in its restoration. She is portrayed as driven by religious
conviction to save the document.
"I think I was chosen by Judas to rehabilitate him," Ms. Tchacos Nussberger,
65, is quoted as saying in one of the society's books, "The Lost Gospel," by
Herbert Krosney. Mr. Krosney is also an independent television producer who
brought the gospel project to National Geographic.
Missing from the book is any mention of an incident in 2001 when Ms. Tchacos
Nussberger was detained in Cyprus at the request of Italian officials, who
wanted to question her as part of a broader investigation into antiquities
that had been illegally taken out of Italy and sold elsewhere. Paolo Ferri,
the Rome-based prosecutor in the case, said she was charged with several
violations involving antiquities but was given a reduced sentence that was
suspended because she had, among other things, previously agreed to return
an artifact claimed by Italy.
Both the dealer and her lawyer said the issues involved were far less
serious than those described by Mr. Ferri, the prosecutor. They also said
that all of Ms. Tchacos Nussberger's dealings in antiquities in Italy and
elsewhere had been lawful. Her record will be erased in 2007 if she is not
charged by Italian authorities with another antiquities violation.
Ms. Tchacos Nussberger said that she, like other dealers, had run into
problems because laws governing the antiquities trade had sharply changed in
According to National Geographic, she bought the Judas document for about
$300,000 in 2000 from another dealer who had placed it in a safe-deposit box
in Hicksville, N.Y., on Long Island. She tried to sell it to the Beinecke
Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.
Yale officials have not specified why they did not buy the document. But
Robert Babcock, curator of early books at the library, said through a
spokeswoman that "there were unresolved questions about the provenance."
Then in 2001, Ms. Tchacos Nussberger sold it to an antiquities dealer in
Ohio for $2.5 million, but the deal fell apart when the dealer did not make
good on the payments.
Aided by her lawyer, Mr. Roberty, she regained ownership of the document and
at his suggestion turned it over to the Maecenas Foundation. Under the deal,
she is entitled to receive a sum from revenues generated by the Gospel of
Judas essentially equivalent to what she would have received from the Ohio
dealer, minus the value of several pages of the manuscript that dealer
bought. In addition, she is entitled to get back about $800,000 she lent to
the foundation for expenses like legal costs and early restoration efforts,
Mr. Roberty said.
Mr. Roberty said the foundation had already started paying money to the
dealer, but he declined to say how much she had received to date.
Mr. Garcia, the National Geographic executive, said that a critical aspect
of the society's contract with the Maecenas Foundation was the group's
pledge to return the document to Egypt. Mr. Krosney, the writer, said he was
convinced from his discussions with Ms. Tchacos Nussberger that she had
acted out of the best of motives.
He said he had raised with Mr. Roberty the rumors he had heard about Ms.
Tchacho Nussberger and Italy, and added that the lawyer was "dismissive"of
them. He said he never asked the dealer about it.
Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, said there was
inherent tension between the need to conserve ancient objects and deter
trade in looted artifacts.
"If you want to learn from the material, you have got to deal," Mr. Shanks
said. "I am in favor of rescuing these unprovenanced things because they
have important information to impart."
But other scholars remain disturbed. "The owners are trying to take monetary
value out of something they don't really own," said Patty Gerstenblith, a
law professor at DePaul University in Chicago who specializes in the
antiquities trade. "The people with control over the manuscript don't appear
to be the rightful owners."