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Seeing the Gospel of Judas for the First Time

In a couple of posts last week I talked about how I came to learn about the discovery of the Gospel of Judas through a phone call from a representative of National Geographic who wanted me to be on the team that established its authenticity, back in the fall of 2004.  I let her know that I wouldn’t be of any use in authenticating the thing, but I could talk about its historical significance.  I had agreed to find a Coptologist to come along to Switzerland and she was to find a scientist to perform a Carbon-14 dating.

When we hung up, I called Stephen Emmel, and American who teaches in Muenster Germany, one of the world’s leading Coptologists.  I asked him if he had heard that National Geographic thought they had their hands on the Gospel of Judas?  He had indeed heard a rumor and was dying to see it.  I said I was too.  Hey, wanna fly to Geneva?

Before going, I learned a great deal more about the text and its discovery.  I give a fuller account in my book, The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot.  It is all a very interesting story indeed, and reads (not because of my writing but because of the facts of the case) more like a Dan Brown novel than a factual narrative of what actually happened in real time and space.  I won’t give all the ins and outs here, but will make just three points.

The first is that the manuscript had not just been discovered.  It turns out that it was discovered in 1978 in Egypt, by peasants who found it in a limestone box in a burial cave in the Al Minya province of Egypt (about 120 miles south of Cairo), along with several other manuscripts on other things (a Greek mathematical treatise, a Greek copy of Exodus, and a fragmentary Coptic copy of some of Paul’s letters).  The manuscript with the Gospel of Judas in it was 62 pages long and contained three other Gnostic texts as well – so it was a small anthology.   The manuscript had been sold to a middleman and then to an antiquities dealer and then to another and…. it’s a really interesting story.   The manuscript ended up in the United States where the then owner tried to sell it for $3 million.  That didn’t work, and so he put it in a safe deposit box on Long Island (really!) where it sat for sixteen years before ever again seeing the light of day.

Eventually it was sold (for….

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A Very Odd Story about the Baby Jesus
When I Learned the Gospel of Judas Had Been Discovered

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    rwhershey  July 27, 2020

    But how did you *feel* that first moment you laid eyes on it? Was it elation? Awe? Reverence? Giddy? I recall a professor of mine once talking about an accidental discovery he made while examining a medieval book, a secret panel inside the cover that no one had inspected, presumably, since the 16th century. He says that he “squealed with delight” right there in the dense quiet of London’s archives, so loudly that the guards rushed over! I mean, the Gospel of Judas was basically the most significant discovery since the Nag Hammadi texts. I think I would have been absolutely beside myself to see it in such a privileged setting.

  2. Avatar
    tom.hennell  July 27, 2020

    Fascinating Bart;

    I would be very interested to hear your ethical arguments in favour of participating in, and facilitating, the scholarly dissemination of a looted artefact?

    I understand there may have been a commitment to return it to Egypt (where it belongs). Did that make a difference for you; and has this yet been done?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2020

      I’m dead set against dealing with the black market. But yes, Nat.Geo. was committed to, and entered into a legal agreement to, return the artifact to Egypt. That was the right thing to do and a major consideration for most of us. But the reality is that a strict opposition to looted artefacts would mean never visiting a museum. I’m not saying that would not be right, but it has to be born in mind. Is it right to see the Elgin marbles on display?

  3. Avatar
    forthfading  July 27, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Just curious how and why Craig Evans became involved. You are a very humble scholar but I think the members of the blog understand why the National Geographic would want you involved. Your expertise on the manuscript tradition coupled with your knowledge of the historical Jesus in his historical context makes you a “must have” scholar. I am also a fan of Craig Evans so I’m curious about his involvement. Was he the Evangelical to balance your agnosticism? Lol.

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2020

      Not my agnosticism, no. I believe NatGeo wanted to have an evangelical voice present in the discussion given the immense interest about early Christianity among evangelicals, and Craig was the a natural choice.

  4. Avatar
    AstaKask  July 28, 2020

    So did it feel special when you got to see it the first time?

  5. Avatar
    darren  July 28, 2020

    This thread is very familiar to a previous one from 2015, but I always enjoy reading about it.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2020

      And the nice thing is that the vast majority of blog members weren’t on the blog in 2015. And those who were, if they are at all like me, will not remember it!!!

  6. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  July 28, 2020

    Yes, I’m really hooked on this thread Dr Ehrman (although I did read your book on this subject a year or two ago, but it’s always good to revisit accounts this fascinating). I am curious to know whether, when you first saw the manuscript and despite Stephen Kemmel’s assurances, you still felt it could have been a modern hoax (like Piltdown) particularly given its suspect backstory? On a separate point, I’m not sure about returning valuable artefacts to unstable countries. Had we returned antiquities to Iraq, many would have been destroyed or looted by ISIS by now.

  7. Avatar
    cristianp  August 4, 2020

    I read all the posts and comments on this blog (really all of them), but this thread has a very special connotation for me and I can only imagine Dr. Ehrman’s reactions to this great finding. It reminds me when in my city (Osorno, Chile) the oldest human footprint in all of America was discovered (just 5 kilometers from my house), it was like a EUREKA moment!

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