The Gospel of Judas and Ownership of Cultural Objects

The National Geographic Society is in possession of a long-lost biblical manuscript, the Gospel of Judas and is promoting books and other materials about the book and the process by which it was recovered. According to an extensive story by Barry Meier and John Noble Wilford, however, scholars are in a snit because people are profiting from the antiquity.

This, it seems clear to me even as a non-believer, is the Big News: “No one questions the authenticity of the Judas gospel, which depicts Judas Iscariot not as a betrayer of Jesus but as his favored disciple.” Given the importance of Christianity to world civilization, this is a fantastic discovery.

What are people instead focused on?

“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.”

Looted. How so, since nobody owned it?

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.


Ms. Tchacos Nussberger said that she, like other dealers, had run into problems because laws governing the antiquities trade had sharply changed in recent years. 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.

Now, it would have been great had the manuscript simply been handed over for free to a world class museum and open to all scholars for study. Yet, Nussberger spent a small fortune and , in her words, “I went through hell and back, and I saved something for humanity.” Why shouldn’t she be compensated? Certainly, National Geographic and others stand to make a lot of money spooning out materials to the masses. Why shouldn’t those who played Indiana Jones to make that possible make some money?

I could understand the fuss if the manuscript had been rightfully owned by someone and was stolen. But that was not the case here. The Judas Gospel would not be available to us without someone’s efforts. Letting them make some money is hardly a crime.

And where does this public entitlement to antiquities end? Do museums have a right to keep things from expeditions they finance? What if a private archeologist finds an object after spending years of work? Can they sell the object to a museum? If so, at what price? How about private ownership of great works of art? And why are museums allowed to horde objects and then charge the public to see them?

Update: Commenter yetanotherjohn suggests that Egypt might have a claim to the documents.

I don’t know what the law is on such matters. My own sense is that, since modern Egypt has nothing in common with ancient Egypt other than geography—it’s not the same race, culture, language, religion, etc.—that such claims are idiotic. If the Egyptian government finances and expedition that discovers an antiquity, it has a claim to ownership. But otherwise, I don’t see it.

While I am generally no fan of the concept of “international law,” this sort of matter is in the category where I strongly support it. It would not be all that difficult to create a set of rules for this sort of thing that would be more or less enforcable. The countries that have the wealth to bid for priceless antiquities tend to be pretty good at following norms on issues that do not conflict with their national security interests.

The 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict provides some backdrop as a starting point. Its enforcement, or lack thereof, during the immediate aftermath of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime has been controversial, to be sure, but it does provide some basic premises from which to begin.

Elsewhere, Dave Shuler suggests, “In my view this complaint is just a turf battle: the complainants aren’t upset that somebody is making money from the Gospel of Judas. They’re upset because they’re not making money from the work.” Could be.

Update 2: Steven Taylor notes that, while there is no dispute over the document’s authenticity, there is substantial doubt about its place in the Christian canon. He explains that, “the significance of this document vis-a-vis the Christian faith is about the same as unearthing a piece of Star Trek fan fiction from 1971 would be in terms of the ‘official’ history of Trek.”

Wikipedia has an interesting article on the subject. Among the things it notes is:

Due to textual analysis for linguistic quirks, such as arcane language features, and features that become lost in translation, most academics who have analysed the Gospel of Judas believe that it is probably a translation from an older Greek work dating to 130—170 AD. For a comparison, the generally accepted dating for the canonical Gospel of John is only a few decades earlier in 95-110 AD, and as well as the earlier estimates coming from a number of Christian scholars, several other academics have proposed later dates for the Gospel of John that overlap with those for the Gospel of Judas.

It is known that the early Christian writer (and Catholic Saint) Irenaeus of Lyons referred to the Gospel of Judas, presumably the same text, as early as 180, and so presenting a terminus ante-quem for the Gospel. Co-incidentally, Irenaeus is also one of the first people to quote from the canonical Gospel of John (and he did so extensively), and hence the ancient witnesses to the existance of the Gospel of Judas are no weaker than that of the canonical Gospel of John. While it is clear that the author of the Gospel of Judas was almost certainly not Judas Iscariot, the authorship of the Gospel of John has been questioned by a large number of scholars as well.


Update 3 (4/15): Donald Sensing provides an excellent backgrounder on what makessome Gospels canonical and others mere works of fiction.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. From my limited knowledge of the document, the biggest question on provenance comes from it’s origin in Egypt. I believe Egypt has a law that essentially says “anything old belongs to the state of Egypt”. The intent of the law is to prevent the looting of the country (take a look through the British museum to see how much stuff can be taken out of various countries).

    I have no problem with her profiting on the book per se. But I foresee a law suit by the Egyptian government to recover the books and the profits generated from the books. I suspect that is why Yale didn’t buy.

  2. Steven Plunk says:

    Our own government claims ownership of artifacts found here. Why shouldn’t the Egyptians have that claim? I think you will find governments worldwide make the same claims. It’s not only to keep the artifacts in country but also the money and prestige that surrounds the business.

    The writings themselves have been discredited in terms of importance to Christians. Written centuries after the other gospels by an offshoot branch of Christianity it seems more a case of sour grapes or creating something to entice new members.

    Notice how these things come out right before important Christian holidays? It’s all about money. Even the National Geographic people should be ashamed of promoting the project in this fashion with this timing. It’s cheap.

  3. John Burgess says:

    James, this is an area of law in which you’re not well-versed. All countries claim exclusive ownership of antiquities discovered within their borders–including their territorial sea limits. Some draw distinctions between antiquities and “abandoned property”; some draw lines about human remains (see the issues surrounding “Kennewick Man”). Salvage and treasure law pertain in matters beneath the sea.

    Egypt can exert a strongly defensible claim to ownership as the book was taken from Egypt in direct contravention to existing law at the time of its export. Whether or not it choses to do so is another matter.

    The Gospel of Judas holds no threat to mainstream Christianity: its contents were examined and rejected as heresy over a thousand years ago. This gospel is directly in line with Gnostic belief, however Gnostics don’t represent much of a group within Christianity these days. The Gnostics I know are basically pleased that their religion is getting some PR these days, but the contents of this book have been known pretty well for a very long time.

    The media hype is exactly that: hype. Nice marketing on the part of National Geo., perhaps, but that’s about it.