Barabe and his colleagues specialize in thorough investigations of old — or supposedly old — documents and artwork. The chemical composition of inks used can reveal the difference between something authentically ancient and a forgery. In 2009, Barabe helped expose a gospel called the "Archaic Mark," which some claimed was a 14th-century manuscript, as a modern forgery. He's also worked with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to detect forged paintings.
A call from National Geographic, however, was a "big deal," Barabe said. "It was both thrilling and an honor," he added.
The Society wanted to find out if the Gospel of Judas, discovered in the 1970s, really dated back to early days of Christianity or whether it was, like Archaic Mark, a fake. Barabe brought together a team of scientists with a variety of specialties, and they ran the Gospel through an intensive analysis of microscopy and spectroscopy. [See Images of the Ancient 'Gospel' Documents]
At first, their findings offered little hope that the Gospel of Judas was real. The document was written in two inks — black and brown — mixed together. The black was an ink called "lamp black," which was consistent with the inks used in Egyptian writings from ancient times and into the third century, Barabe said.
But the brown ink was more mysterious. It was an iron-rich ink called iron gall, but it lacked the sulfur usually found in inks of this sort. The pressure was on to explain the difference.
"One thing that made this a little bit more dramatic than we would have liked is, we did the sampling in the third week of January of 2006, and the press conference was already scheduled for the third week in April of that same year," Barabe said. "So we had three months to turn this critter around with a conclusion, and it really put an enormous amount of pressure on us, because we were faced with what was essentially a three-month rush project."