Copyrighting the Bible
by Geoffrey Clarfield (May 2010)
Once upon a time in the land of Egypt there was a poor Coptic Christian peasant who could neither read nor write. Wandering in the desert wilderness one afternoon outside his village he found ancient manuscripts in codex (book) form. Although the poor farmer was unable to decipher the contents of the manuscripts, he knew that he might sell them for a tidy sum on the regional illegal antiquities market.
A local Coptic broker named Am Samia bought the manuscript and sold it to another co-religionist, a Cairo based Coptic antiquities dealer named Hannah. In Cairo a self-interested Italian ancient manuscript expert named Manfredi, explained to Hannah that the manuscript might be worth millions of dollars.
Hannah suspected that Koutolakis was the man behind the robbery. Through a self-interested Greek middleman named John Perdios, he opened negotiations with Koutolakis to get back his manuscripts and artifacts. Koutolakis eventually returned the manuscripts but kept some of the stolen artifacts in a deal that suggests that there is some honor among some thieves. However, it appears that Hannah had threatened Koutalakis with violence if he ever set foot again in Cairo. By then Hannah realized that to sell the manuscripts to Europeans or North Americans he needed scholars to authenticate his find.
Perdios took some photographs of parts of the manuscripts, which were sent to academics that specialize in the decipherment, translation of, and interpretation of early Coptic writings. The pictures resembled early Christian manuscripts discovered in Egypt after WWII at the site of Nag Hammadi, and which have included Christian texts banned or ignored by the early Church fathers and that did not become part of the New Testament.
In 1984 Hannah brought the manuscripts to the United States. With help from his coreligionists in the Coptic community of New Jersey he put the manuscript in a safety deposit box in a Long Island bank. In that humid drawer the manuscript further deteriorated as he patiently awaited a buyer who would hopefully give him his millions.
Frieda then contacts Hannah. By this time Hannah has begun to despair of ever selling the manuscript and agrees to sell it to Frieda for far less than the millions he once wanted. He flies to New York. She meets him there. He retrieves the now disintegrated manuscript from the vault. Frieda gets the manuscript, wires him the money and he flies home to Cairo. She takes it to Yale University where bona fide colleagues of Professor Robinson finally get a good look at it. They explain to her that one of the codexes has the name Judas all over it and that it may be a unique early Christian manuscript or Gospel. Frieda offers the manuscript for sale to Yale University for more than half a million dollars. Despite its authenticity they refuse to buy it.
If she was so desperate to save the Gospel of Judas for posterity why did she not act earlier? As a world-renowned antiquities dealer why did she sell it to a shady antiquities dealer from Ohio who double-crossed her for a quick 2.5 million dollars, which did not exist? As someone who was dedicated to saving the manuscripts and with her wide connections in Egypt, Switzerland and America why did she not put together a secret consortium of buyers to save the text? As the text had been smuggled into the U.S. from Egypt why did she take it on the plane back to Switzerland with Roberty and apparently smuggle it back into Switzerland?
Throughout this whole ordeal why did the National Geographic not inform the US government that it believed that the document was stolen property smuggled into the country? What sort of deal has Roberty and Tchakos worked out with National Geographic and is she going to make any substantial sums from the partnership? Why was a muzzle put on the scholars who are working on it? Has the ostensibly not for profit National Geographic gone into the business of cutting out other bona fide scholars from a major find? By doing so, do they also stand to make millions of dollars? If an American based scholar wanted to now make his own translation would they allow him to do so and publish it or would they sue him, claiming that they now have copyrighted an early Christian text? In order to begin to answer these questions just like Sam Spade, I made a phone call.
Watson writes that for many years Walter Guarani was a tombarolo, an Italian word for tomb robber. He made his living selling illegally excavated artifacts up the chain of command and which often ended in the hands of Swiss antiquities dealers, or to put it more politely, antiquities dealers based in Switzerland. In March 1999 the Public Prosecutor of Italy in an ongoing inquiry called Operation Geryon interrogated him. He gave the prosecutor a list of names of tomb robbers, especially from Naples and Rome and explained that much of their material ended up in the hands of Frieda Tchacos.
Tchacos was later interviewed by the Italian authorities who promised to deal leniently with her if she gave them a detailed memoir of the social organization of the illegal trade in antiquities out of Italy and into Switzerland. She did not and thinking that the authorities would not act against her, she flew to Cyprus to visit her brother. However, the Cypriot authorities arrested her and asked for the Italian prosecutor (Signor Ferri) to come and interview her. He found her quite forthcoming about the illegal antiquities deals that she had been involved with. They cut a deal with one another, the illegal antiquities dealer and the prosecutor.
Robinson quotes Watson:
In a Los Angeles Times article of April 13, 2006 Signor Ferri spoke to the press candidly about Tchakos:
The Swedish market in archaeological objects is dominated by recently looted objects. Often the dealers and collectors are personally involved in the sleazy activities through which the objects reach the market.
In the body of the report he tells us that:
When I shared this with Dr. Robinson he laughed on the phone and gently remarked:
If by now you are thinking that all antiquities dealers are crooked you are wrong. Many of them are highly educated, erudite people who recognize that the market and the Museum must accommodate each other according to changing conditions. There is even discussion from the Museum side of putting some of the multiple copies of artifacts on sale given that they spend most of their time in Museum basements, inaccessible to the public. When some galleries discover that they have artifacts that deserve repatriation they do so, as has been the recent case of Royal Athena Galleries in New York.
This then is the story so far, the official version of National Geographic plus the alternative versions of Professor Robinson, augmented by a growing number of writers, researchers and journalists who are appalled by the ravages of the illegal antiquities trade. A number of points just seem to jump out of the whole mess.
Frieda then split the ownership of the document with her Swiss lawyer. Some say that she sold it to him for a million dollars. They cut a deal for exclusive publication of the manuscript with National Geographic, they apparently took it back to Switzerland by plane. They soon after hired a number of internationally renowned Coptic scholars including a former student of Professor Robinson, Martin Meyer. Any scholar working on it had to sign a non-disclosure agreement (a major self-inflicted violation of academic freedom).
Tchakos has always claimed that she wanted to save the document but with each transaction there seemed to be less and less of it left. As the manuscript was mistreated by her (she took it by plane to Akron Ohio where it was taken from her by the flight attendant and put in the luggage compartment where it was handled like any other baggage) her profit margins have increased as indeed, has the value of the manuscript increased with almost every added illegal action.
To top it all off, National Geographic has politely threatened Professor Robinson and prevented him from giving the general public an alternative translation of the Gospel of Judas. All this time the Society has been convinced that Tchakos has been on a religious quest. Excuse me, but is it now time for the readers to cancel their subscriptions to that all American institution?
Even with the coming of the Muslims, Greeks continued to live in Egypt until 1956 when in a fit of Arab Nationalism and socialism President Nasser called for the nationalization of the economy tens of thousands of Alexandrian Greeks quit Egypt. Until then they had felt as Egyptian as anyone else despite their Orthodox Christianity, their Greek language and their French education.
Geoffrey Clarfield is an Anthropologist at large.
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