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A gospel's rocky path from Egypt's desert to print

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 7, 2006

When the Gospel of Judas first surfaced in Geneva in 1983, scholars wondered if the mysterious text could trigger a reappraisal of history's most infamous traitor.

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They never found out, however, because they couldn't afford the $3 million price tag on this second-century gnostic tale. Instead, the fragile pages vanished into private hands and set off on a 23-year, intercontinental journey through fist-pounding negotiations and even periods, reportedly, stuffed inside a Greek beauty's purse.

Now, at long last, the world is about to see the contents. The National Geographic Society last week reported it will publish a translation this spring, when "The Da Vinci Code" film is sure to rekindle interest in gnostic artifacts.

But the saga may be just beginning. That's because thieves apparently lifted the manuscript from the Egyptian desert, kicking off decades of illicit trafficking - and an ethical dilemma: Is it right to pay for and publish stolen documents for the purpose of spreading knowledge?

"The present owners can't sell it because they don't have, in international law, a legal title to something that was stolen," says James Robinson, one of the world's foremost experts on gnostic texts and author of a forthcoming book about the gospel, "The Secrets of Judas: The Story of the Misunderstood Disciple and His Lost Gospel." "They're trying to sell the sensationalism of the Gospel of Judas to get as much back as they can from whatever they paid for it."

National Geographic doesn't deny Dr. Robinson's allegation that the text left Egypt without that country's required authorization. Still, the organization stands by its decision.

"Everyone involved believes the materials should be given to Egypt" after scholars finish translating them, says spokeswoman Mary Jeanne Jacobsen. "National Geographic has done its due diligence, and is working with an international team of experts on this artifact to save the manuscript before it turns to dust and is lost forever."

But others worry that those who publish "hot" manuscripts create a tragic incentive. "When you publish material that's the result of recent looting ... you're adding to the value of other pieces similar to it," says Patty Gerstenblith, an expert in culture heritage law at DePaul University Law School in Chicago. That entices others to hunt for treasure, she says, with hopes that even something later branded contraband could still yield a nice windfall.

When an Arabic-speaking Egyptian and his Greek agent first offered the Gospel of Judas to buyers, they sold it as a package with other ancient texts for $3 million - well above the budget of Robinson and other scholars who tried to buy it.

So far, only a handful of inner-circle scholars are familiar with the contents of the Gospel of Judas. Despite the enticing name, experts say it was written at least a century after Judas Iscariot died, so it's apt to be most interesting to academics who concentrate on second-century gnosticism, Robinson says. Gnosticism is a belief system, deemed heretical by early Christian leaders, that preaches salvation via self-knowledge. Some of its followers lionized biblical figures of disrepute.