Gospel of Judas opens old wounds

Special guest Pierluigi Piovanelli of the University of Ottawa offers the following discussion on the publishing of the Gospel of Judas:


These days I am completing a collective review of the first publications on the Gospel of Judas, i.e., (1) Herbert Krosney’s The Lost Gospel, (2) The Gospel of Judas from Codex Tchacos translated and explained by Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer and Gregor Wurst, and (3) James Robinson’s The Secret of Judas.  This is probably the case of many other colleagues around the world with one small but significant difference.  In my case, working in a bilingual institution (the University of Ottawa) and writing the review for a bilingual journal (Studies in Religion / Sciences Religieuses), I was lucky enough to have at my disposal both the original American editions (published on April 6 and 7, 2006) and their translations in French (released two months later, in June).  What was my surprise when I realized that there are some substantial differences between the two editions!

This is especially true for the French versions of Kasser’s chapter on “The Story of Codex Tchacos and the Gospel of Judas” and the final chapter of Robinsons’s book.  The polemic between the Swiss scholar and his American colleague, already present in the English texts, reaches peaks of unsuspected intensity in the French publications.  Apparently, old misunderstandings that go back to the controversy about the edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices, in the seventies, were not totally forgiven and/or forgotten.  Thus, in a long endnote totally lacking from the English text Kasser feels compelled to dismiss Robinson’s accusations of having unduly delayed the publication of Nag Hammadi Codex I (the Jung Codex) until 1975.  While in the main body of his chapter he gives a better idea of what he means by “the question of scientific morals, or deontology” and more details about the reasons he has to blame American specialists.

After the sentence, “Instead, scholars had to fly from the United States to Switzerland to buy a treasure that neither Swiss nor other European Coptologists had any idea existed” (on p. 55 of the American edition), the French text goes on as follows:  “It is easy to imagine: after their bold but unfortunate attempt in 1983, it seems that some scholars on the other side of the Ocean [i.e., in North America] judged that it was more appropriate to adopt a strategy of (semi-)confidentiality.  In doing so, they preserved what was of primary importance to them, that is, their chances of successfully achieving a little (or even more) later what they had not accomplished in 1983:  to be the successful ones instead of others.  In doing so, they took the risk of waiting for a longer time, with all the dangers that any significant postponement of the delays could occasion to a manuscript still in a precarious situation and out of any scientific control.  Among these dangers, there are inappropriate storing conditions under the responsibility of antiquities dealers or other owners not prepared to resolve the concrete problems that such an exceptional property requires.  They are neither prepared to manipulate without detectable damages these kind of objects that are extremely fragile and delicate (deciding if potential purchasers are allowed to touch them), nor to move and store them (in safe-deposit boxes? … in simple drawers? … without any control of the temperature and hygrometry conditions? … etc.)” (pp. 72-73 of the French edition, my translation).

The next four pages of the English text (pp. 55-59, devoted to the first contact, in 1982, between the Swiss antiquities dealer Frieda Tchacos Nussberger and Mr. Hanna, the Egyptian “owner” of the codex, and more significantly, to Stephen Emmel’s quick examination of it in Geneva, in 1983) are simply and purely omitted in the French edition.  One should note that in the English text these pages stress the fact that (1) the codex was already badly damaged “between its discovery and 1982” and that (2) Emmel’s report “reveals the respect with which he handled the papyrus text” and “shows his obvious concern to protect to the utmost extent possible the physical structure of the codex.”  On the other hand, in his French text Kasser sandwiches the sentence about the long and detrimental years that the manuscript spent in a safe of the Citibank in Hicksville, New York (p. 60 of the American edition), with the following bonus comments:  “Moreover we were not so surprised to learn that James M. Robinson did not renounce taking hold of the codex and that an appointment arranged with the antiquities dealer had been canceled only because the First Gulf War, in 1990-1991, had rid Hanna of any desire to go away from his family.  […]  ‘Cooptative deontology,’ for sure, but at what price?  Of dangerously protracting the sufferings of the codex” (p. 74 of the French edition, my translation).

If Kasser has a certain propensity, when he writes in French, to attribute the prolongation of “the sufferings of the codex” to Robinson’s obsession for “cooptative deontology,” the latter, not to be outdone, decided to add another chapter, previously unpublished, to the French version of his book on The Secret of Judas.  The title of this highly polemical new conclusion is “The spate of revelations of Easter 2006” (pp. 247-260 of the French edition).  Robinson begins by openly criticizing the National Geographic Society for giving a deliberately wrong image of the Gospel of Judas in order to take full advantage of its investment.  Then he reiterates his charges against Kasser for the old monopoly on the Nag Hammadi Codices and the new cartel (that includes Marvin Meyer) on the Gospel of Judas.  Finally, he frontally attacks Mrs. Tchacos Nussberger for her role in the (aborted) sale of the codex to Bruce Ferrini, the antiquities dealer of Akron, Ohio, whose incompetence and lack of precaution contributed so largely to the deterioration of the manuscript.  In this connection, Robinson’s final section – “Who has the shadiest past, Judas or Frieda Tchacos?” – is especially eloquent.  In his opinion, “There is no doubt that Frieda Tchacos’s hope was to attain glory thanks to the Gospel of Judas, but more infamous than famous, she very badly represents the Gnostic Judas, in spite of her claims that he would have been in touch with her in order to have her acting as his spokeswoman on earth with the mission of proving his innocence.  On the contrary, she calls to mind the biblical Judas, who betrayed his closest friends…” (p. 260 of the French edition, my translation).

Robinson is certainly right about the tendentious and scandalistic way the Gospel of Judas was presented to a popular audience.  At our last workshop on “Christian Apocryphal Texts for the New Millennium: Achievements, Prospects, and Challenges” (University of Ottawa, September 30 – October 1st 2006), Louis Painchaud (Université Laval) was the first to call to our attention a series of Coptic passages that clearly demonstrate that in the Gospel of Judas the character of the protagonist is not so positively depicted.  Actually, things are more complex than the members of the National Geographic editorial team would have us believe.  Nonetheless, the (re)discovery, restoration, and publication of not only the Gospel of Judas, but also the other three Gnostic texts copied in the same codex is going to be a major achievement for every person more or less interested in the history of Second Temple Judaism, the Jesus movement, and early Christianity.  We should be grateful to all the specialists that made it possible, and especially to Gregor Wurst and Florence Darbre, who modestly and patiently restored the dispersed fragments of the papyrus codex.

Last but not least, talking about deontology, I think that we should avoid any further association of this poor, martyred codex with the name of one of those responsible for its recent via crucis.  In the future, it would be preferable that scholars simply refer to this ancient manuscript as the Al Minya Codex, that is, the manuscript found in the Al Minya region.

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