Gospel deal stirs ethical controversy

Six years after Yale turned down the opportunity to purchase the Gospel of Judas, and more than 30 years after the gospel’s discovery by a group of Egyptian farmers, the manuscript has sparked renewed national debate.

The University decided not to purchase the document because it was believed to be on the market illegally, Yale Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge said. And now that the National Geographic Society — which bought exclusive publication rights to the document about two years ago — has unveiled the gospel, some Yale experts say the renowned organization has made ethical compromises with regards to their involvement with the document. But representatives for National Geographic said no evidence of wrongdoing ever surfaced during the extensive investigations the organization conducted before becoming involved with the Maecenas Foundation, which is currently in possession of the document.

“We went through a diligent investigation of both the background of the Maecenas foundation and its principles, and nothing came to our attention that either the foundation or Mario Roberty, the head of the foundation, has engaged in any illegal transactions,” National Geographic Vice President for Missions Programs Terry Garcia said. “We hired a law firm in Switzerland to look into Mr. Roberty’s reputation, and nothing came up that indicated that he had behaved in any manner that was improper.”

The Judas gospel, an early Christian manuscript, bucks the common portrayal of the relationship between Jesus and Judas, the disciple who betrayed him. In this gospel, Jesus asks his disciple to betray him to authorities, whereas Jesus is sold out to authorities against his will in long-accepted Christian orthodoxy.

The ethics of National Geographic’s acquisition has been questioned by those who allege that Swiss antiquities dealer Frieda Nussberger Tchacos, who sold the artifact to the Maecenas Foundation, is involved in illegal artifact trafficking.

But Garcia said the history of the gospel indicated no such illegality — the document was found about 30 years ago by a group of Egyptian farmers, and somehow the codex was taken out of Egypt and sold in fragments to various European and U.S. parties, he said. The document then spent about 16 years in a safety deposit box in Long Island, where it was purchased and reassembled by Tchacos, Garcia said.

Marvin Meyer, a professor of Bible studies at Chapman University and one of the three translators of the gospel, said any rumors calling into question the legality of the document were stories from 20 to 30 years ago. He was assured by the National Geographic Society that all events that transpired since Tchacos became involved have been entirely legal, he said.

“I would hope that everybody that is fair of spirit would agree with all of us that trafficking in an illicit way is deplorable, but this particular case should be looked at in itself,” Meyer said. “The given career of a collector or trader in antiquities should be looked at in its own right and in its own time.”

Although Attridge said he was sympathetic to the precarious position National Geographic is in, he said he does think the organization made ethical compromises.

“It is a difficult position that institutions are in when confronted with a situation like this one — that the material was probably not on the market legally,” Attridge said. “The ethical dilemma people are faced with is that they don’t want the material to be in danger of being lost or damaged, but at the same time they also don’t want to support looting. We need to vigorously prosecute those who break the law, but it is also important to preserve these documents for scholarship purposes.”

Attridge said this particular case is further complicated because there is an ongoing deal between Tchacos, the Maecenas Foundation and National Geographic. He said this was not a single act of purchasing, but that there is an ongoing arrangement stipulating that proceeds from the document will be split between the two parties.

But Garcia said Yale has its facts wrong.

“There has been no exchange of artifacts, there never has been, and there never will be,” he said. “National Geographic is not in the business of buying or holding artifacts. All we’ve done is provide the Maecenas Foundation with the necessary resources to restore and translate the documents, and in exchange for this funding, we’ve acquired the intellectual property rights to the document. And any time such property rights are acquired, there will be some ongoing monetary revenues.”

In addition to providing the resources for the Gospel’s translation and restoration — which Garcia said was extensive given that the document was “bouncing” around Europe in fragments for about 30 years — Garcia said National Geographic has also insisted that the Maecenas Foundation return the codex to its country of origin. He said National Geographic had the codex carbon dated, ink analyzed and appraised by historians and religious scholars, and that all of these tests and appraisals confirmed that the document was from Egypt.

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