Professor Rodolphe Kasser, 79, one of the world's pre-eminent
translators and scholars of the ancient Coptic language, led the
effort to piece together and translate the document known as the
Gospel of Judas. Kasser is a clergyman and former professor in the
Faculty of Arts at the University of Geneva. Since 1965 he also has
been head of archaeological excavations of the Swiss Mission of Coptic
Archaeology in Lower Egypt. He lives in Yverdon-les-Bains,
Kasser discusses his work on the Gospel project:
Q: When did you first realize that you had received a codex that
contained the Gospel of Judas?
A: I was told first of an ancient manuscript, on papyrus, and when I
saw it for the first time, I didn't see the final page that carried
that peculiar title. The codex was so brittle that it would be too
dangerous to turn it over before putting it under glass. It was only
many months later that I had the opportunity to see the page that
allowed me to know that this codex really contained, among others, the
Gospel of Judas.
Q: How did you feel when you realized what you had?
A: I felt even more interested than before because it concerned a
text lost since antiquity. It was known to have existed and it was
thought that all copies had been destroyed by persecutions.
Q: Are you certain that this gospel is authentic?
A: I have dealt with so many ancient papyri that, to me, it seems
absolutely impossible to create a document that would have this
appearance of antiquity =97 by its weakness, by its sorry state....And
now we have the analysis that gives us a date for the document
(between A.D. 220 and A.D. 340). But even without that, we were able
to know that it couldn't have been a fake.
Q: What is the main significance of this codex?
A: For the first time we have Judas's testimony from ancient times in
a dialogue between Jesus and Judas. Jesus explains to Judas that he
must pull away from the community of the 12 disciples that doesn't
understand issues of a higher level, and then tells him what his role
Jesus says it is necessary for someone to free him finally from his
human body, and he prefers that this liberation be done by a friend
rather than by an enemy. So he asks Judas, who is his friend, to sell
him out, to betray him. So it's treason for the general public, but
between Jesus and Judas it's not treachery.
Although theologians have hypothesized this, this is the first time
an ancient document defends this idea.
Q: As a clergyman, were you bothered or frightened by this text?
A: Absolutely not. We are used to working willingly with all texts as
long as they are authentic. We have no special repulsion or
attraction. We seek to know.
Q: What condition was the codex in the first time you saw it?
A: The first time I saw the codex, it was in a box and in an advanced
state of disrepair. It was practically impossible to see anything
except what was on the first page. You couldn't touch it without
breaking it up more. So, my first reaction was that if we want to know
if this codex holds the Gospel of Judas, and possibly more, it's first
necessary to restore and conserve it.
Q: Describe your work on piecing together and conserving the document.
A: We would take one fragment of text after another and put them in
order, which was not easy because the pages were all broken just about
halfway up. The upper fragments (about one-third or one-fourth of the
page) had the page numbers of the manuscript, which made it possible
to put them in order, but the bottom pieces (about two-thirds or
three-fourths of the page) evidently couldn't be matched up, and we
realized they had been mixed together by someone before they came into
the hands of the foundation that owns them now.
Many pieces have been put in place, thanks especially to the work of
my collaborator, Professor (Gregor) Wurst. He uses a computer to
record the text that has already been identified and preserved, and
then to register the gaps in the text. When he sees an unfinished
word, he commands the computer to search among pieces not yet
identified for anything that corresponds to what is missing.
The biggest troubles come from the fact that no one has seen the
complete text before, and that there is a front and back of each page,
so what seems right for one side must also be right on the other. You
can get a good idea of this if you take a letter that is printed in
both sides, tear it into 300 pieces, mix them, throw out 75 pieces and
try to put the remainder back together.
Q: Are there gaps in the text that remain?
A: Yes, we haven't succeeded in finding where all of the pieces go
yet. For example, on the next-to-last page we see Jesus explain to
Judas that his star will shine more brightly than all others because
he will have completed his mission. On that page Judas enters a cloud
of light where a voice comes up...and then we have a gap in the
manuscript, so we don't know what the voice says. After that we see
Judas walking, being accosted by scribes and priests who ask what he
is doing there. He answers and accepts the money, selling out Jesus.
So there is a very important part of text missing there, which we hope
someday to find.
Q: Who likely would have been the translator of this codex in ancient time=
A: The codex would have been written first in Greek, which was the
main language of the whole eastern Mediterranean region at that time.
But if one wanted the ideas to penetrate among the country folk, one
translated them into different languages. Not only Coptic for Egypt,
but also Syrian for Syria, Aramaic and other languages. Because of
Egypt's climate, the Coptic documents placed in the cavern were
preserved in significant quantity.
Q: Do you have any worries about the document's future preservation?
A: Now that the document is restored and in good condition, I
sincerely hope it will be well preserved in the future because it has
suffered much in the past. If it has to travel, to be returned to
Egypt, someone will need to watch over it because it needs a lot of
care. Not too humid, not too warm, not too cold, no sun....it's an
extremely fragile document.
Q: How will it feel to share this extremely important document with
A: A feeling of great curiosity, because even if we have thought much
about this text =97 my collaborators and myself =97 we are sure that other
specialists will have ideas that we have not had. We also will give,
in photographs, all the fragments that have not been placed yet in
hopes that in perhaps 20 or even 50 years, a reader could say, "Oh,
that piece goes there."