Gospel of Judas, a third-century manuscript unearthed in Egypt three
decades ago, is surrounded by questionable circumstances. A report
published in the New York Times Thursday reveals the particulars that
the National Geographic Society omitted two weeks ago in its
announcement that it had gained access to the 1,700-year-old document.
In its recounting, National Geographic says the gospel was found by farmers in an Egyptian cave in the late 1970s, sold to a dealer and passed through various hands in Europe and the United States.
In 2000, art dealer Frieda Tchacos Nussberger bought it for about $300,000 from another dealer who had placed it in a Long Island safe-deposit box. She tried to sell it to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, but Yale declined, reported the New York Times.
Yale officials did not specify to the New York Times why it did not buy the document, but the newspaper reports that Robert Babcock, curator of early books at the library, said through a spokesperson that "there were unresolved questions about the provenance."
The following year, Tchacos Nussberger sold the document to an antiquities dealer in Ohio for $2.5 million, but that fell through when the dealer did not make the payments, reported the Times.
Aided by her lawyer, Mario Roberty, she regained ownership of the document and, at his suggestion, turned it over to the Maecenas Foundation, which Roberty established years earlier, the Times reported.
The foundation, run exclusively by Roberty, is involved returning antiquities to their countries of origin, the lawyer told the newspaper. He also told the Times that when Tchacos Nussberger gave the document to the foundation in 2001, he quickly contacted officials in Egypt and assured them that the manuscript would be returned.
The Times reported that under the deal with the foundation, Tchacos Nussberger, 65, is entitled to receive about $2 million from gospel-related projects. The sum is equivalent to what she would have received from the Ohio dealer, minus the value of several pages of the manuscript the dealer bought. In addition, she is entitled to recoup about $800,000 she lent to the foundation for legal costs and early restoration efforts.
Roberty told the Times the foundation had already started paying money to Tchacos Nussberger; he declined to say how much she has received so far.
The Times’ report also reveals that Tchacos Nussberger was detained several years ago in an unrelated Italian antiquities smuggling investigation. She and Roberty claim the issue was not very serious and that her dealings in antiquities in Italy and elsewhere had been lawful.
As for the National Geographic Society, it claims it has taken on the project to help save a unique historical document, reported the Times. It claims that a critical aspect of its contract with the Maecenas Foundation was the group's pledge to return the document to Egypt.
National Geographic did not buy the document. Instead, it paid $1 million to the Maecenas Foundation for the rights to use the manuscript's contents and to tell its story. The Times also discovered that part of the revenues generated by the National Geographic’s gospel-related projects will go to the foundation.
National Geographic is running a large campaign for the Gospel of Judas, featuring it in two new books, a television documentary, an exhibition and the May issue of its magazine.
In one book, authored by Herbert Krosney, Tchacos Nussberger says she is motivated by religious conviction to save the document. "I think I was chosen by Judas to rehabilitate him," she is quoted as saying. Krosney is an independent television producer who brought the gospel project to National Geographic.