Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Reading the Gospel of Judas I: On Authenticity

The recent announcement of a new Coptic fragment mentioning the wife of Jesus (which happens to be a forgery) reminds us that it was only a few years ago when a new spectacular Coptic manuscript was discovered. Although the manuscript contained many texts, the Gospel of Judas grabbed the headlines. As with most fads, the text generated a flurry of discussion, but since that time, interest has died down.

When the text first appeared, I was struck by how contemporary the contents seemed and wondered if the text was a modern forgery. Furthermore, at least one of the individuals involved in the publication seemed to me to have both the abilities and a motive for forging such a text (what follows shows a good reason for caution in jumping to such conclusions). As more details appeared, it became clear that such was not the case.

Codex Tchacos contains four different texts: The Epistle of Peter to Philip, The First Apocryhon of James, the Gospel of Judas, and Allogenes or the Foreigner.

Back when I was a student, one of my professors told the class about how many years previous he had been invited to look at a manuscript and was shown some photographs. (Since I have not been able to confirm this story and am telling it from memory I will leave out his name.) From the photograph and his familiarity with the material about Nag Hammadi texts, my professor was able to identify the photograph as containing another copy of the First Apocryphon of James.

My professor said that he was able to see the manuscript firsthand and was offered the chance to buy the codex. Along with the party was a manuscript conservator. The conservator valued the manuscript at $40,000 but also figured that the conservation costs needed to be subtracted from the value of the manuscript. He figured that it would cost $40,000 to conserve the manuscript and therefore the manuscript had no value. Needless to say, no sale occurred.

Because I had a professor who had told me this story long before Codex Tchacos was unleashed on the public, and because Codex Tchacos contains that text, I think that Codex Tchacos is the same codex and thus certain details were unlikely to have been forged by anyone at the time my professor saw it.