June 2006

Sarah Statz

nonfiction

The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot by Herbert Krosney

Readers who avoid religious books like a biblical plague could be forgiven for ignoring Herbert Krosney’s The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot. It’s got “gospel” in the title. Its cover art is a reproduction of Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ, depicting Judas Iscariot handing Jesus over to be crucified. Bart Ehrman, a leading biblical scholar, provides the foreword.
 
Although it would be understandable for readers with zero interest in Christianity or religious history to avoid this book, it would also be a great misfortune. Krosney sets the tone of the book almost immediately: “in the mid- to late 1970s, hidden for more than fifteen hundred years, an ancient text emerged from the sands of Egypt.” This is not a biblical or religious treatise. This is an archaeological and historical treasure hunt (and treasure appraisal, as well as treasure resale) story.
 
The papyrus codex in question, the “Gospel of Judas,” tells the familiar Judeo-Christian story of the ministry of Jesus Christ, as well as his “betrayal” by one of his own disciples, Judas Iscariot, who is described in the four New Testament gospels (those by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) as having handed him over to the Jewish high priests and Roman authorities to be crucified. The gospel of Judas differs in its interpretation of those events. Rather than portraying Judas as the most hated of all turncoats, it describes him as Jesus’s favorite, and the one “called upon by Jesus to ‘sacrifice the man that clothes me,’ in Jesus’s words.”  It is written in an ancient script called Coptic, and has been shown by radiocarbon dating to have been produced sometime between 220 and 340 CE.
 
Although the story of the lost gospel’s creation and speculation as to how such a gospel might have been suppressed by various church officials and writers is addressed throughout, Krosney keeps the focus of the story on the physical journey of the manuscript from its discovery in Egypt in the late 1970s through its unveiling to the scholarly community in 2005. Along the way it was stolen, spirited through various and sometimes less than perfectly legal antiquities channels, and even languished for decades in a safe deposit box in suburban New Jersey, until it was finally and painstakingly acquired, restored, and translated.
 
Krosney spends the majority of his time telling a briskly paced story of discovery, encompassing a variety of characters (many portrayed in various shades of gray), numerous geographic locales, and plot twists. But of course he simultaneously describes an important religious find. Anyone who’s ever listened to the Easter narrative or even simply seen Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ has probably wondered exactly how much choice Judas really had in the matter. I’m no great theologian, but every year around Easter I wonder, if handing Jesus over to the proper crucifying authorities was necessary, how fair is history for branding Judas a betrayer to be subsequently damned for all time?
 
In the end, the book stands on its own merits alongside other historical adventures like Robert Kurson’s popular Shadow Divers or even Jonathan Harr’s The Lost Painting. But what truly makes the story stand out is the quiet but insistent question posed throughout: how much gospel truth is in our gospel truth?
 
The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot by Herbert Krosney
National Geographic Books
ISBN: 1426200412
309 pages