GJudas: Obligatory Gospel of Judas Nod...

The "Unveiling"

One would be hard pressed to put together anything much better than Mark Goodacre's characteristically comprehensive rundown of the Gospel of Judas from academic bloggers seriously "in the know." As I was not able to see the National Geographic documentary, his summary is rather helpful. He certainly hasn't missed much on this one.

I have little other to add that hasn't already been said: "publicity stunt," "we have known about the text ever since Irenaeus" (A.H. I.31), "this particular manuscript has been discussed since Rudolph Kasser delivered a paper on the manuscript in 2004," "Michael van Rijn has followed this story for ages," and "a guy named Roger Pearse has had a site on the manuscript (with images and transcriptions!) for quite some time." All right, a few of those may be new to you. I had actually poked through the images on that last site a week or two before the National Geographic site was launched.

The Skullduggery

The Christian Century even had an article on it in the Dec. 27, 2005 issue. In this article there is an interesting anecdote about James Robinson's first experience with the text and its publication strategy:

"But in 2004, Rodolphe Kasser of the University of Geneva announced in Paris that by the end of 2005 he would be publishing translations of the Coptic-language version of the Gospel of Judas. As it turned out, the owner was a Swiss foundation, and the torn and tattered papyrus text had been hawked to potential buyers in North America and Europe for decades after it was found at Muhazafat Al Minya in Middle Egypt.

The "Judas" saga was confirmed in detail last month at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Philadelphia. Retired Claremont Graduate University professor James Robinson, general editor of the English edition of the Nag Hammadi Library, said he was first contacted in 1983 about negotiations to buy certain texts, including the Gospel of Judas. Many years later, he saw blurry photographs of part of the text.

Robinson said that early in November he learned that Kasser and several European, Canadian and U.S. scholars had signed agreements with the National Geographic Society to assist with a documentary film and a National Geographic article for an Easter 2006 release and a succession of three books.

Robinson was critical of the secrecy and inaccessibility surrounding the document—a recurring academic problem that delayed for decades the publishing of translations of some Dead Sea Scrolls and many Nag Hammadi codices. In his talk, Robinson called the practice "skullduggery"—with a glance at fellow panelist Marvin Meyer of Chapman University, a longtime colleague in the field and one of the contracted authors."

And apparently, the plot thickened quite some time ago. In a paper delivered at the 2005 SBL Congress (in particular the "Al-Minya discovery"), James M. Robinson works through some of the material that has become his book on the subject:

The first information about the existence of this text, which is in a papyrus codex along with a version of 1 Apoc. Jas. and a dialogue of Jesus with his disciples not identical with NCH III 5, was given by J. M. Robinson and S. Emmel at the Third International Congress of Coptic Studies in Warsaw in August 1984.

Koenen later sent me some almost completely illegible photographs he had obtained of some of the Coptic material. I made copies of them available to Wolf-Peter Funk. Ultimately, I turned over my copies, for safekeeping, to Stephen Emmel, at the quadrennial congress of the International Association for Coptic Studies meeting in Paris, on June 27, 2004. For he was the person involved from the very beginning, and has subsequently become the Editor of the Newsletter of the International Association for Coptic Studies. Hence, the Institut für Ägyptologie und Koptologie that he directs at the University of Münster, Germany is in effect the Secretariat of the International Association for Coptic Studies.

I had long since forwarded in March 1991 what I could read to Marvin W. Meyer, who was preparing the critical edition of The Letter of Peter to Philip:

According to the reports of James M. Robinson and Stephen Emmel, a somewhat divergent Coptic text of the Letter of Peter to Philip is to be found in a papyrus codex which at the present time is neither published nor available for study.


On July 1, 2004, at the quadrennial congress of the International Association for Coptic Studies held this time in Paris, Rodolphe Kasser announced that he was publishing The Gospel of Judas late in 2005. Given his slow track record in publishing the Tripartite Tractate of the Jung Codex (Nag Hammadi Codex I), no one has expected him to meet that deadline. It has already been rescheduled for early in 2006. He has added a co-editor, Gregor Wurst, which gives some hope that his edition will ultimately appear and make the text available to the rest of us.

Kasser’s report has led to all-too-sensational German articles in journals for a larger non-scholarly public, first by Ralph Pöhner in FACTS, then by Roger Thiede in Focus.

Thiede included an interview with Stephen Emmel. Although Emmel displays in exemplary form the necessary academic caution concerning a text that is not yet available, Pöhner and Thiede do the very reverse, with disastrous results. And of course Gilles Quispel got into the act, in another sensational essay by the Dutch journalist Hank Schutten.

Pöhner had interviewed me by phone from Zürich, and yet what he reports about my involvement is so littered with errors that one must be very tentative in using what he reports anywhere in his article. Of course one would hope that he might be in better control of the facts insofar as they have to do with his own Switzerland.

There is a lot more there. Robinson goes on to tell the twisted tale of how this text surfaced in the recent antiquities market. The long and the short of it is that this set of manuscripts has been so badly handled, unless we can chart "who sold what when" a full codicological description of the "find" in its entirety will never be possible. They need to shelve The Da Vinci Code, I want to see this movie. Donald Sutherland would probably make a good James Robinson.

The Fallout

It is unfortunate that the terrifically shady publication strategy of this otherwise interesting manuscript has perverted public (read: non-specialist) perception of what the Gospel of Judas actually is. If only this kind of cash and publicity could get thrown at any number of far more important early Christian manuscripts, things like The Da Vinci Code would be more immediately recognized by the non-specialist public for what they are: Foucault's Pendulum rip-offs featuring far less invigorating hermeneutical acrobatics. Imagine having such an accessible dedicated manuscript site for the Freer holdings, for example. Is it wrong to sense irony in the fact that the greatest early Christian manuscript publicity scam involves The Gospel of Judas? I think not.

I don't want to downplay the significance of actually having this text. It was one thing to have Irenaeus' mention of it, as we have always understood the theological nature of the text. But now that the manuscript is available to the same critical methodologies that have opened up the relationship between things like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, or the Odes of Solomon and the canonical Jesus traditions, we may actually have some interesting scholarship emerge. It may also shed further light on a project I am currently engaged in, namely assessing the characterization of apostle figures in late gospel writing.

And perhaps what may be most important about this find is the light that it has shed on the means by which such texts finally make it into the hands of scholars. Who is to say what NT fragments have never surfaced due to the vicissitudes of grey market antiquities dealings? Any excitment about this particular find should be tempered by the fact that we don't have as much of it as we should.