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Judas' deal, 2,000 years later

April 13, 2006

THERE WAS ANTIQUITIES DEALER Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos, coming off like an angel on the National Geographic Channel's special TV program on the Gospel of Judas. "I think I was chosen by Judas to rehabilitate him," says Tchacos, who bought the 1,700-year-old papyrus. "Judas was asking me to do something for him."

Tchacos was doing something for herself as well. She had paid $300,000 for the papyrus and -- despite concerns that it might have been looted and thus had illegally entered the shadowy world of private antiquities dealing -- resold it to her lawyer for $1.5 million plus half the proceeds from any future use. National Geographic didn't tell that part of Tchacos' story.

Nor did National Geographic inform viewers that it paid $1 million for the right to publicize the papyrus, and that a portion of the proceeds from the show and two related books would go to the lawyer and, through him, to Tchacos, whose past includes a suspended sentence for possession of looted antiquities.

The Gospel of Judas tells a riveting story that many people find new. It says that Jesus asked Judas to betray him, thus setting the Passion into motion. But the gospel's provenance shows that some things don't change in a couple of millenniums -- except for inflation. Thirty pieces of silver then, or $1.5 million now: It's still about money.

There are laws against trafficking in antiquities whose legal ownership cannot be documented. So Tchacos' lawyer, Mario Jean Roberty, could not sell the actual papyrus. Instead, he came up with the thoroughly modern concept of selling the content instead, and he found a taker in National Geographic.

Ordinarily, the discovery of something like the Judas gospel would be announced in a scholarly publication as a probable addition to the Gnostic Gospels -- early Christian writings that were rejected by the church hierarchy. Instead, National Geographic gave it a public splash that rang more of commercial zing than scholarly thoughtfulness, with a glitzy TV special, two books and an exhibit timed for the week before Easter.

The papyrus was breathlessly described as possibly turning Christianity on its head. And the codex is an exciting archeological find. But the concept of Judas playing out a role that he perceives as Jesus' desire isn't particularly new, as anyone who ever watched "Jesus Christ Superstar" can attest.

The National Geographic Society's involvement did help restore the papyrus and bring it to public light -- and back to Egypt. But the society's willingness to cut deals over a find whose legality is unclear, without being forthright about its role, its associates or the money involved, adds a legitimate sheen to the shady world of illegal antiquities dealing and helps sustain that unsavory market.

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