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

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.

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.

Though ancient writing was once a bargain compared to art, Professor Gerstenblith says, prices are climbing as a growing pool of middle-class collectors smells an opportunity to make a profit. In this climate, libraries with potentially valuable pieces have in the past decade experienced what she terms a "rash" of thievery. Example: in August 2005, a map dealer got arrested for trying to sneak a pilfered page out of Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Other fields with similar quandaries are actively raising their ethical standards in the wake of demands by Italy and Peru this past year that pieces held in American institutions be returned. Last week, the American Association of Museum Directors issued guidelines saying museums shouldn't borrow or lend pieces known to have been stolen or unlawfully moved after 1970, when international standards took effect. But the American Institute of Archaeology faulted those directors for not going far enough in their guidelines to defend against future looting.

By contrast, the American Philological Association (APA), whose 3,000 members study ancient Greek and Roman texts, doesn't address acquisitions issues in its ethics policy, last updated in 1989.

If host nations "want no one to read [an ancient manuscript], that's wrong," says APA Executive Director Adam Blistein. "The world's entitled to know. You want to understand cultures as much as you can, and that means disclosure."

But some researchers say emphasis on disclosure is short-sighted. The dissemination of inadequately documented contents makes scholars increasingly vulnerable to forgeries and threatens to undermine archaeology, says Christopher Rollston, a Semitic studies expert at Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City, Tenn. "It is indubitable that collecting precipitates illicit pillaging of archaeological sites," Dr. Rollston says.

Custodians of rare books and epigraphy wonder if the high-profile case might be a sign of a dawning era of new acquisition standards in their field. One example: libraries with books tracing to Soviet or Nazi incursions increasingly must defend the legitimacy of their ownership.

"All of this is a series of attitudes [toward ownership] that are really very, very recent" and still developing in case law, says Daniel Traister, curator of the Annenberg Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Pennsylvania. "In [the art] field, we're used to it. In books and manuscripts, it's still somewhat new."

Collectors and scholars of written material are apt to keep resisting for a while, Gerstenblith says. The reason: their fields have traditionally emphasized the universal value of writings, whereas other archaeological finds are understood to be virtually meaningless when divorced from their place of origin. But as disciplines collaborate, she suggests, those with the most demanding ethical standards will influence the others.

"To say, 'I can study this [written material]. I don't care that it was looted' is an attitude that will become the dinosaur, and it will change," Gerstenblith says. "They're definitely behind where the archaeologists are, and that's going to take time" to close the gap.

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