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Adventure tale surrounds ‘Gospel of Judas’

The journey of an ancient document, lost for 1,700 years and offering an alternative version of Christ’s life, reads like an Indiana Jones adventure or a Dan Brown novel.
Experts examine pages from Gospel of Judas manuscript. From left are Tim Jull, who oversaw the radiocarbon dating of the manuscript, and Coptologist Stephen Emmel, conservator Florence Darbre and translator Rodolphe Kasser.Kenneth Garrett / National Geographic
/ Source: The Associated Press

The journey of an ancient document, lost for 1,700 years and offering an alternative version of Christ’s life, reads like an Indiana Jones adventure or a Dan Brown novel. First comes a chance discovery in an Egyptian cave, then thievery and smuggling.

But the tale of the survival and restoration of the document is no work of fiction, says Mario Roberty, whose foundation sold the rights to exhibit and publish the manuscript to the National Geographic Society for $1 million.

The Egyptian Coptic text made public last week portrays Judas not as a sinister betrayer but as Jesus’ confidant, chosen to be told spiritual secrets that the other apostles were not.

In a likely response to the news of the discovery, Pope Benedict XVI used his Holy Thursday homily at the Vatican to recount the traditional Biblical betrayal of Jesus by Judas, calling the apostle a double-crosser for whom “money was more important than communion with Jesus, more important than God and his love.”

Roberty, who first came across the document in 2001, spent years having it translated and restored after the text took a 30-year adventure. He concedes the gospel is a moneymaker for himself and the art dealer who entrusted it to his foundation.

“We’ve succeeded to get our hands on an important historical document that was so close to being lost and destroyed forever,” Roberty told The Associated Press in an interview in the stately living room of his townhouse in Basel.

Found by garlic farmer
The gospel was found sometime in the 1970s when an illiterate garlic farmer stumbled upon a limestone box in a remote burial cave in middle Egypt, Roberty said.

Inside was a leather-bound codex — a volume of papyrus documents whose pages contained what turned out to be “Judas,” according to “The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot,” a book written by journalist Herbert Krosney for National Geographic.

Krosney laid out the journey the document took over the next 20 years as such:

The garlic farmer sold the documents to “Hanna Asabil,” a pseudonym, a fellow Coptic Christian operating in Cairo’s antiquities market. In 1980, Hanna showed his prize to the late Nicolas Koutoulakis, a Swiss dealer, and a woman accompanying him. The following day Hanna’s apartment was robbed, and Hanna suspected the woman.

Hanna pleaded for Koutoulakis’ help, and in 1982 they met in Geneva. Koutoulakis, without explanation, returned the codex, and Hanna stored it in a Swiss safe deposit box.

He tried to find a buyer, but couldn’t — even after slashing his original asking price of $10 million to $3 million.

Document disintegrated
In 1984 he spirited the codex into the United States inside newspapers and put it in a safe deposit bank in Long Island, where — incredibly — it sat disintegrating in the humidity for 16 years.

In 2000 art dealer Frieda Tchacos Nussberger acquired the codex from Hanna for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Nussberger secretly lent the codex to the Yale University library for assessment. There an astute expert first identified it as a likely copy of the “Gospel of Judas” that Bishop Irenaeus denounced in 180. But cautious Yale officials weren’t interested in buying it due to questions about background, ownership and legality.

Nussberger next met Bruce Ferrini, who often acquired antiquities for James Ferrell, the billionaire president of a propane gas firm in Liberty, Mo. Ferrini wrote postdated checks totaling $2.5 million and gained custody of the documents. Incredibly, Ferrini damaged his deteriorating purchase by putting it in a freezer.

“You can’t believe how much I regret having sold it (to Ferrini),” Nussberger told AP by phone from Greece.

Ferrini went bankrupt, rendering the checks worthless. Ferrini returned all materials to Nussberger in 2001, though she later discovered pages and fragments were missing.

Restorers to the rescue
Finally, Nussberger turned the codex over to Roberty’s Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art. She said the codex was in such a bad state she decided it could not be risked again on the open market.

“I gave up,” she said.

By this time the pages crumbled at the merest touch. A Swiss foundation undertook painstaking restoration, and translators set to work with funding from America’s Waitt Institute and National Geographic.

“It’s a miracle that it’s been restored to a state where it can be read and preserved for future generations,” Roberty said while sitting behind his desk, which was graced by an Etruscan bust.

Nussberger “sold” the documents to Roberty, but the lawyer conceded that she actually provided the credit for him to make the purchase. The foundation paid $1.5 million for the gospel and other documents accompanying it.

Profits from publications
The foundation will reap profits from future publications, exhibitions in North America and Europe, and other media rights for the gospel, until it’s eventually donated to Egypt’s Coptic Museum in 2009, Roberty said. Nussberger and Roberty share those profits.

“I told Frieda she was going to make the same money as if the sale with Ferrini had gone through,” Roberty said, referring to the failed $2.5 million deal.

Roberty said he’s known Nussberger for about 15 years. He represented her when she was arrested in Cyprus on an Italian warrant in an antiquities-related investigation. She later made a plea-bargain arrangement, he said.

A final mystery developed in January when two missing “Judas” pages surfaced through a private collector in New York.

Roberty said a number of fragments have been missing since Ferrini returned the text, and the 29 pages to have been recovered only represent about three-quarters of the full text.

Five of the pages are currently on exhibition in Washington at the National Geographic Society. The rest of the gospel is at a Swiss foundation in Geneva, where restoration work continues, Roberty said.

AP Religion Writer Richard Ostling in New York contributed to this report.