Textual healing: ethics, conservation and the Gospel of Judas

By Gretchen Allen

They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal … They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.

Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, ca. 180 CE

Figure 1: The Arrest of Christ (Kiss of Judas) by Giotto di Bondone, image sourced from: <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Giotto_-Scrovegni-31--_Kiss_of_Judas.jpg>

Looting is one of the most harmful practices associated with the antiquities market, which is teeming with artefacts of little to no provenance as a result. The spread of looting is connected to the high prices garnered by antiquities with an academic pedigree, or that have been conserved for the antiquities market. One of the prevailing attitudes in archaeology and archaeological conservation is that looted and illicit antiquities should be ignored by heritage and conservation experts and left out of the scholarship. This would supposedly prevent looted objects from benefiting from the high sale prices that come with authentication and conservation, and avoid perpetuating the looting cycle.

However, the suggested prohibition of all study, conservation, and publication of looted material–especially textual material–leaves no space for the ethical conservation treatment of illicit objects in dire need, and would cause irreparable damage and loss in the name of preventing looting. This article will examine the issue through a manuscript conservation perspective in the case of the theft, exploitation, and conservation of the Gospel of Judas.

Conservators and the antiquities market

It is no secret that the antiquities market is fueled by illegal looting (Brodie, 2006, 2011, 2017; Elia, 1995; O’Keefe, 1995; Sease, 1995, 1997). Conservators and other market-adjacent professionals often downplay their role in the process, but other scholars–often from archaeological backgrounds–point to them as legitimising agents for dubious antiquities. Looted, unprovenanced, or stolen items can be granted respectability through academic scholarship and conservation work, often directly resulting in an increase in an object’s monetary value, which perpetuates the cycle of illegal acquisition (Brodie, 2011).

In his article on conservators and unprovenanced objects, Ricardo J. Elia explains, ‘By conserving, cleaning, and restoring unprovenanced objects the conservator enhances their market value and in some cases authenticates them. These activities facilitate the buying and selling of looted and smuggled objects and promote an increase in market demand, which in turn leads to more looting’ (Tubb, 1995, p. 244). Elia continues, ‘Conservation is, in fact, the final stage in the laundering process which transforms looted antiquities into art commodities: objects go in dirty, corroded, and broken, and come out clean, shiny, and whole’ (Tubb, 1995, p. 249).

Academic work has been shown to inflate the price of specific items through identification and study. This conforms to Bourdieu’s concept of objectified social capital, wherein economic capital is created through the monetization of cultural capital, in this case the expert’s prior education and research (Bourdieu, 1986). Multiple scholars have conducted research on the correlation between the two and have raised concerns. Neil Brodie is one such voice, and his point throughout multiple case studies is that ‘Scholarly experts create cultural value, and by creating cultural value they also unintentionally establish economic value’ (Brodie, 2014, p. 1).

Conservators especially have a hand in value creation, as they can make an object “market-ready” by reconstructing broken artefacts and removing the remnants of archaeological digs. Brodie elaborates, ‘Conservators clean and restore objects in such a way as to improve their appearance, longevity and ultimately desirability … Such work has the unintended consequence (for the conservator at least) of establishing the identity, condition, authenticity and quality of a piece, all important factors for price formation’ (Brodie, 2017, p. 3).

Conservation work on grey market objects can be legally fraught, as treatments can eliminate evidence that could trace back to the findspot and prove theft–evidence necessary for potential legal action against the thieves, people the conservator could be accused of abetting by removing evidence (Tubb, 1995). Given this context, conservators confronted with unprovenanced artefacts risk their professional reputations and legal standing if they choose to treat them.

However, the literature has a significant blind spot regarding texts. The focus tends towards aesthetic and cultural objects–the Kanakariá mosaics, the Euphronios krater, Cycladic figurines, Apulian vases–with relatively minimal scholarship devoted to manuscripts (Sease, 1995, 1997; Brodie, 2011, 2014). Manuscripts and inscribed objects are a special case among looted artefacts. The main archaeological concern regarding looting is that it strips away an object’s context, which is true; however, with a written manuscript there are two types of context: archaeological and textual. Even if a manuscript is looted, the textual information is still available even if the archaeological is not; obviously the loss of archaeological context is devastating for future scholarship, but a manuscript is able, to a certain extent, to speak for itself.

Brodie acknowledges that this argument exists and examines several cases of looted inscribed and manuscript material in his article Congenial Bedfellows? The Academy and the Antiquities Trade but points out that many who hold this view use it to trivialise the criminal implications of publication in the name of knowledge for its own sake (Brodie, 2011). This blog post is meant to do exactly the opposite; to examine, in full view of the harm done by looting, if there is still value to the ethically informed conservation, investigation, and publication of looted manuscripts.

Figure 2: Euphronios krater on display at L’Arte Di Salvare L’Arte in Rome, 5 June 2019.

The prevailing argument regarding looted material is to ignore them, and to neither publish nor publicise content from looted antiquities. ‘One promising strategy is to characterise and discourage the active involvement of professional experts in facilitating illegal trade’ states Brodie (2017, p. 2), ‘their expertise is crucial for identifying, authenticating and valuing objects offered for sale on the market, thereby helping to create a coherent pricing structure and maintain market confidence.’ In theory, preventing the scholarship and publication of looted and illicit objects would affect market’s demands and decrease looting, and Brodie’s sentiments are echoed across the literature (Sease, 1997; Tubb & Sease, 1996; Tubb, 1995; Brodie, 2006, 2011, 2014, 2017). However, this view is complicated by antiquities with written content.

Archaeological conservator Catherine Sease makes the argument that conservators should avoid working with looted material, even if working with it keeps that content in the public eye and out of private collections (Sease & Thimme, 1995; Tubb & Sease, 1996; Sease, 1997). She wonders, ‘…does having a looted artefact in the public domain negate the fact that it is plundered or make up for loss of context?’ (Sease, 1997, p. 8). Her conclusion is that it does not, but in the case of manuscripts, “public domain” means something very different than “available to view in a museum”; it can mean “widely disseminated for anyone to read”, which would not “negate” damage done by looting but could still benefit scholars and readers everywhere. She also does not address the fact that in the case of delicate papyrus manuscripts the worry is not just that the item will disappear into a private collection, but that it will disappear entirely.

Ethical conservators and looted manuscripts

The manuscript conservator is therefore left with a dilemma: when confronted with a looted manuscript, what is the ethical course of action? Conservators in the UK are bound to protect the interests of the objects in their care, and are held to stringent guidelines of practice set by the Institute of Conservation or ICON (2014 a., 2014 b., 2017). Like archaeologists, good conservation practice mandates meticulous documentation of any work so that any changes become part of the object’s history (ICON, 2014, 2014, 2017). Private conservators can decline ethically ambiguous or illegal work. However, refusing could mean an illicit object is treated by someone who has no ethical standards of documentation or practice, causing even more data to be lost. Catherine Sease experienced this exact problem when she assessed the looted and subsequently “restored” Kanakariá mosaics:


The disregard of the quality of the restoration certainly indicated a superficial and uninformed attitude towards the treatment suitable for the preservation of the mosaics … This presupposes that the concept of the integrity of a work of art was either considered to be of no relevance or that it was an unfamiliar concept.

Tubb, 1995, p. 128


The would-be ethical conservator sits between two unsavoury choices: either take the work and perpetuate the looting cycle, or refuse it and potentially see any remaining context disappear under sloppy “restoration” or neglect (Sease, 1997; Tubb, 1995). Kathryn Tubb (1995), a second archaeological conservator, suggests sidestepping the problem entirely by avoiding private work, which comes across as disingenuous and unhelpful, especially when museums are hardly immune to looted material (Brodie & Proulx, 2014). The urgency of the choice is exacerbated in the case of a disintegrating text.

The materials often associated with ancient manuscripts, such as papyrus or parchment, are particularly susceptible to disintegration, warping, and cracking; the ink with which they are written can become friable and flake off entirely (Quandt, 1996). Conservators are experts in materials, not necessarily content. However, if a manuscript has fragmented, a scholar needs a conservator to re-align the pieces in order to read it. Many archaeological manuscripts would be unstudiable without a conservator stabilising, reassembling, housing, and/or collating its ancient fragments, as is the case with other large fragmentary collections such as the Lewis-Gibson Genizah collection at the Cambridge University Library (French, Goldie, & Nichols, 2015). This adds another layer to the dilemma: declining to conserve a looted manuscript means refusing to help access its remaining textual context.

Conservators are usually in the bottom two categories of Braithwaite’s Responsive Regulation pyramid, relying largely on self-regulation and self-policing (Braithwaite, 2011 & 2016). Codified ethical standards are established by professional bodies like ICON, and members can be investigated and sanctioned for not abiding, but conservators are not required to be members to practice. ICON’s Professional Standards vaguely address the looting dilemma by charging conservators to ‘understand the wider contexts in which conservation is carried out’, ‘the implications of context for practice’ and to ‘understand the ethical basis of the profession and the responsibilities of the conservation professional to cultural heritage and to wider society’ (ICON, 2017, p. 45).

These standards are an integral part of the the ICON Professional Accreditation of Conservator-Restorers (PACR) handbook as requirements for accredited conservators (ICON, 2017). On their own they would seem to indicate that a conservator should side with Brodie, Sease, Tubb, Elia, and company and place the wider consequences of looting and the antiquities market over the needs of one object. However, in the ICON Code of Conduct, a second set of professional guidelines written alongside the Professional Standards, there is a telling loophole (emphasis added): ‘You must establish to the best of your ability that you are not agreeing to work on stolen or illicitly traded cultural objects, unprovenanced archaeological material or any items wrongfully taken, unless to establish wrongdoing or exceptionally to save the object from rapid ongoing deterioration’ (ICON, 2014, p. 2). When read alongside a fourth standard, ‘Be able to handle value-conflicts and ethical dilemmas in a manner which maintains the interests of cultural heritage’ (ICON, 2017, p. 45), the standards sidestep any definitive stance, placing the choice entirely on the conservator and her judgment.

Conservators are trained to see an object’s well-being as paramount, a view summarized by Kathryn Tubb and Catherine Sease: ‘… clearly the choice in favour of treatment reinforces the conservator’s unfailing sense of duty to the object. After all, conservation training still conditions its practitioners to regard the safety and integrity of the artefact as the main priority’ (Tubb & Sease, 1996, p. 3). Tubb and Sease also draw parallels to a doctor/patient relationship to explain how conservators view their historical charges (Tubb & Sease, 1996). In her article, The Antiquities Trade: an archaeological conservator’s perspective, Tubb (1995, p. 256) points out conservation’s use of medical terminology, of “diagnosing” and “treatments”, “bronze disease” and “warts”. Sease (1997) reiterates this observation, ‘Like physicians, most conservators find the idea of turning away a patient, especially one in dire need, not only difficult to accept but difficult to do. We have set ourselves up as being advocates for objects … to think in terms of ‘this object needs me’ ’.

This attitude is reflected in the ICON Code of Conduct “to save the object from rapid ongoing deterioration” clause (ICON, 2014). Even ICON could not bring itself to disavow an illicit object in need. Tubb and Sease, both in their individual work and as co-authors, advocate for conservators to look beyond the object to the consequences of the perpetuation of looting, and they are right to do so (Tubb & Sease, 1996). But while it would be myopic to focus on one object to the exclusion of all consequences, ICON’s attitude reveals that some consider it equally myopic to define an object’s entire value and future by its licit or illicit status.

In view of these considerations, how should conservators reconcile their duty of care to an artefact and their duty to uphold ethical market practices? There are two possible courses of action that a conservator can ethically take given the ICON guidelines. As outlined by Tubb & Sease, the first is treat and document the artefact to conservation standards so that any remaining information about the artefact can be preserved, but perpetuate the cycle of looting, legitimization, and value creation. The second, refuse the work and know that no contribution was made to the legitimization of the grey market, without the guarantee of professional conservation work for the object (Tubb & Sease, 1996). Based on the ICON ethical guidelines, there is room on a case by case basis to go either way.

In 2017 Brodie (2017) made the case to eliminate the wiggle room in ICON’s standards (his article discusses the related standards on due diligence and reporting) but for conservators practicing under ICON (2004, a.; 2004 b.) ethics in the UK today these guidelines stand. Shutting down that loophole entirely would force the conservator’s choice, allowing no room for ethical intervention that could prevent irreparable loss.

Case Study: The Gospel of Judas

The Gospel of Judas is a textbook case of a looted manuscript that, once identified by experts, caused profits to skyrocket and provided a constant stream of ill-gotten gains for its shareholders. It is also a perfect example of why the view within conservation that birthed ICON’s (2014 a.) “rapid ongoing deterioration” loophole has merit.

Figure 3: First page of the Gospel of Judas, image sourced from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Judas

The manuscript was looted from the al Minya province of Egypt, after which it followed a decades-long path to the US (Brodie, 2006). In 1984 the Codex was abandoned in a safe deposit box in Hicksville, NY, where it remained undisturbed for 16 years (Brodie, 2006). In 2000, the manuscript was purchased for $300,000 by antiquities dealer Frieda Tchacos, then Frieda Tchacos-Nussberger, who took it to academics and experts for identification (Brodie, 2006). The manuscript, now known as the Codex Tchacos, was formally identified by the Beinecke Library as containing four early Christian works, two of which–the Letter of Peter to Philip and the First Revelation of James–were shortened or variant versions of works previously discovered in the Nag Hammadi library (Brown, 2006; Robinson, 2011). The remaining two, the Book of Allogenes (Greek for “The Stranger”) and The Gospel of Judas, had never previously been discovered (Brown, 2006; Brodie, 2006; Robinson, 2011).

Scholars had long been searching for the Gospel of Judas. It was denounced as a heretical text alongside other contemporaneous Gnostic gospels by Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons and influential figure in the codification of early Christian doctrine (Robinson, 2011). In his book Adversus Haereses [Against Heresies] published circa 180 AD, Irenaeus condemns the authors of the text: ‘They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal … They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas’ (Irenaeus., ca. 180/1994, p. 423). Though copies of the other “heretical” texts have since been found–many in the Nag Hammadi library, also known as the “Gnostic Gospels”–the Gospel of Judas was a one-of-a-kind landmark find that was thought to be lost to the ages before the Beinecke’s discovery in the Codex Tchacos (Robinson, 2011).

What followed the Gospel’s identification was what Neil Brodie called ‘A graphic, if extreme, example of the economic worth of scholarly work, in this case conducted at the Beinecke’ (Brodie, 2014, p. 10). Brodie describes how Tchacos, after failing to sell the newly identified manuscript to the Beinecke (they declined to buy due to its glaring lack of provenance) established the Maecenas Foundation in 2001. This was ostensibly for the guardianship of the Codex which she then “donated” to the foundation—‘It is reported that Tchacos was paid $1.5 million and half of any proceeds that might accrue from commercial exploitation’, clarifies Brodie (2014, p. 11). This was done with the express stipulation that it be returned to Egypt after conservation and translation work. Tchacos had made back her money many times over in the space of a year due to the academic experts she had consulted: Brodie (2006, 2011, 2014) points to this in multiple articles as evidence that the legitimization of looted objects through expert analysis is exploited for profit by criminal dealers who perpetuate the cycle of looted items entering the grey market, and he is absolutely right. Tchacos herself was convicted in Italy for handling stolen artefacts in 2002 (Brodie, 2006).

National Geographic purchased the rights to the publication and text of the Codex Tchacos for a further $1 million, nicely setting up both Tchacos’ bank account and Neil Brodie’s point (2006, 2011, 2014). Once the rights were secured, National Geographic appointed Coptic scholar Rudolph Kasser to reconstruct and translate the ancient text (Brodie, 2006; Robinson, 2011). This proved to be a herculean task. As previously mentioned, the manuscript was left in a non-climate-controlled safety deposit box for 16 years, causing the fragile papyrus pages to rapidly disintegrate (Ancient Text, 2006; Brodie, 2006).

The National Geographic press release described Kasser’s reaction to the condition of the text: ‘Kasser … said he had never seen a manuscript in worse shape. Pages were missing, some pages had been rearranged, the top half containing the page numbers had broken away, and nearly a thousand fragments lay scattered. “The manuscript was so brittle, it would crumble at the slightest touch,” he said’ (National Geographic, 2006). This is corroborated in other contemporaneous articles and in the National Geographic documentary (Bredar & Barrat, 2006; Brown, 2006). The Codex was unreadable and literally untouchable in that state; a conservator’s intervention was essential for translation to proceed. Kasser called in Coptic scholar Gregor Wurst and Swiss papyrus conservator Florence Darbre, and the team began reviving the text of the Gospel of Judas. The National Geographic press release describes their process:


The 26-page Gospel of Judas was written on 13 sheets of papyrus, both front and back. If a fragment fit one side, it had to fit on the other … If you take a nine- to 10-page typed document, rip it into tiny pieces, throw away half the pieces and try to “reconstruct the other half, you will get an idea how difficult this process is,” Kasser said. Darbre placed the fragile pieces between sheets of glass, and photographs were taken of the fragments and the pages. With the help of computer programs that record text, register gaps and try to match gaps to text, and with careful, visual inspection of suggested matches to confirm papyrus fiber continuity, Darbre, Wurst and Kasser have been able to reassemble more than 80 percent of the text in five painstaking years.

National Geographic (2006)


Even after the Gospel was fully conserved and published, the work continued as missing fragments of the Codex resurfaced over the next decade (Ancient Text, 2006; Brodie, 2006; Robinson, 2011; Mazza, 2015). The National Geographic translation of the Gospel of Judas is available to download for free, and the original pages have been digitized for the benefit of other scholars (National Geographic, 2006). The translation of the Gospel, wherein Jesus asked Judas, his most enlightened disciple, to betray him and free him from his earthly body, became an instant sensation (National Geographic, 2006). A National Geographic cover story, documentary, and book touting the now-contested “Judas was a good guy all along” narrative were released to widespread public interest and acclaim (National Geographic, 2006; Bredar & Barrat, 2006; Lovgren 2006).

Mitigating a harmful past with an ethical future

It is possible to accept the harm done by the looting of the manuscript and acknowledge that its conservation and publication was still important and beneficial. The Codex Tchacos has an extensive history of harm and exploitation. Harm was done through the act of looting; the findspot has been approximated, but the in situ context is irretrievable (Bredar & Barrat, 2006). Egypt lost valuable heritage that has still not been returned (Mazza, 2015). The manuscript suffered greatly through years of neglect and deteriorated so much that post-conservation scholarship is still stymied by its fragmentary nature (Cahana, 2017; Robinson, 2011). It passed through a chain of criminal antiquities dealers, each of whom profited more than the last. A sanitized and friendly image of convicted criminal Frieda Tchacos appeared on TV, spouting maudlin soundbites about being “chosen by Judas to rehabilitate him” (Bredar & Barrat, 2006; Brodie, 2006). The Gospel’s message was sensationalized and exploited for publicity and monetary gain.

However, the Gospel of Judas is one of the most textually significant manuscript discoveries in recent memory. It re-interprets one of the foundational narratives of Christianity, and therefore of Western culture. It was a missing manuscript for which scholars of Gnosticism had been searching for generations and is crucial to the understanding of Gnostic Christianity’s relationship to the figure of Judas and the ‘mystery of the betrayal’ (Iraenaus, c.180/1994; Cahana, 2017). It made the original and translated contents of the Gospel of Judas available to the world, and even if scholars disagree with the interpretation they would not be able to study the manuscript at all without National Geographic sponsoring its conservation and publication. It is true that, as Coptic scholar Gesine S. Robinson points out, ‘the National Geographic Society’s interest in the manuscript may not have been completely altruistic. [It] probably was made easier by the assurance that this new find, if marketed the right way, would drop like a bomb … And so it did!” (Robinson, 2011, p. 3). However, Robinson and other scholars have also directly benefited from the text being available and the translation discussion continues to this day (Brown, 2006; Cahana, 2017; Robinson, 2011).

Conservators can also benefit from the techniques used to realign the fragments, and the publicization of the conservation  and reconstruction process can assist future conservators treating similar manuscripts. In addition to scholarly gain, the National Geographic coverage ignited the public interest in the Gospel with accessible and educational material, and the money from subsequent merchandising can fund future projects. The documentary also explored the sordid history of the Gospel, bringing looting to public attention (Bredar & Barrat, 2006). It would indisputably have been a great loss if it had been left to rot in a safety deposit box.

Conclusion

While a prohibition on the conservation and publishing of looted manuscript material seems like a logical step to prevent looting, any black and white approach to the grey market can also cause damage. Transparency and open discussion of provenance, not an outright publication ban, may be a more helpful step forward, as suggested in a recent open letter to Brill published by papyrus conservator Roberta Mazza and co-signatories (Mazza, 2018). In the case of the Codex Tchacos, a refusal to conserve would have doomed the object to disintegrate entirely, and a great treasure and unique resource would have been lost. While the Codex’s past is full of exploitation and harm, its future does not have to be. The manuscript should be returned to Egypt, as was originally planned by the Maecenas foundation (Brodie, 2006; Mazza, 2015), so that it may be kept with the contemporaneous Nag Hammadi collection in Cairo’s Coptic Museum. This would both return the looted object to its rightful owner, and grant the orphaned manuscript a place in the larger context of similar items. Its text should continue to be widely shared for free.

Figure 4: Gretchen Allen is a Library Conservator in Ireland, seen here working with the Cambridge University Library’s Lewis-Gibson fragments.

Heritage professionals of all stripes should educate themselves and each other on working with unprovenanced items, the looting cycle, and how their actions inform and perpetuate illegal dealings in the antiquities market without a wholesale condemnation of dubious objects and manuscripts that will lead to great loss. Conservators and archaeologists have the same goal: to ethically preserve and study the past to inform the present and future. To suggest that an illicit object is better left unconserved and unstudied, especially in the case of ancient texts, accomplishes neither.


About the author: Gretchen Allen is a Book and Paper Conservator living and working in Ireland. She earned her BA in Art Conservation from Scripps College (Claremont, CA, USA), her MA in Conservation from Camberwell College of Arts (London, UK), and her PGCert in Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime from the University of Glasgow (Glasgow, UK). Aside from the criminological aspects of the art market, Gretchen’s academic interests include conservation of items damaged during historical conflicts and the conservation and creation of illuminated manuscripts. Gretchen is trained in traditional Celtic illumination techniques and enjoys drawing, painting, and printmaking.

Disclaimer: this article is intended for educational purposes, and does not purport to provide legal advice. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.

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