Sunday, June 1, 2008

Debunking the Gospel of Judas

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a must-read story of how bibicla scholar April DeConick debunked a view of the Gospel of Judas announced with great fanfair by National Geographic at a press conference attended by Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels:

When the Gospel of Judas was unveiled at a news conference in April 2006, it made headlines around the world — with nearly all of those articles touting the new and improved Judas. "In Ancient Document, Judas, Minus the Betrayal," read the headline in The New York Times. The British paper The Guardian called it "a radical makeover for one of the worst reputations in history." A documentary that aired a few days later on National Geographic's cable channel also pushed the Judas-as-hero theme. The premiere attracted four million viewers, making it the second-highest-rated program in the channel's history, behind only a documentary on September 11.

. . .

One of the seven million people who watched the National Geographic documentary was April D. DeConick. Admittedly, DeConick, a professor of biblical studies at Rice University, was not your average viewer. As a Coptologist, she had long been aware of the existence of the Gospel of Judas and was friends with several of those who had worked on the so-called dream team. It's fair to say she watched the documentary with special interest.

As soon as the show ended, she went to her computer and downloaded the English translation from the National Geographic Web site. Almost immediately she began to have concerns. From her reading, even in translation, it seemed obvious that Judas was not turning in Jesus as a friendly gesture, but rather sacrificing him to a demon god named Saklas. This alone would suggest, strongly, that Judas was not acting with Jesus' best interests in mind — which would undercut the thesis of the National Geographic team. She turned to her husband, Wade, and said: "Oh no. Something is really wrong."

She started the next day on her own translation of the Coptic transcription, also posted on the National Geographic Web site. That's when she came across what she considered a major, almost unbelievable error. It had to do with the translation of the word "daimon," which Jesus uses to address Judas. The National Geographic team translates this as "spirit," an unusual choice and inconsistent with translations of other early Christian texts, where it is usually rendered as "demon." In this passage, however, Jesus' calling Judas a demon would completely alter the meaning. "O 13th spirit, why do you try so hard?" becomes "O 13th demon, why do you try so hard?" A gentle inquiry turns into a vicious rebuke.

Then there's the number 13. The Gospel of Judas is thought to have been written by a sect of Gnostics known as Sethians, for whom the number 13 would indicate a realm ruled by the demon Ialdabaoth. Calling someone a demon from the 13th realm would not be a compliment. In another passage, the National Geographic translation says that Judas "would ascend to the holy generation." But DeConick says it's clear from the transcription that a negative has been left out and that Judas will not ascend to the holy generation (this error has been corrected in the second edition). DeConick also objected to a phrase that says Judas has been "set apart for the holy generation." She argues it should be translated "set apart from the holy generation" — again, the opposite meaning. In the later critical edition, the National Geographic translators offer both as legitimate possibilities.

These discoveries filled her with dread. "I was like, this is bad, and these are my friends," she says. It's worth noting that it didn't take DeConick months of painstaking research to reach her conclusions. Within minutes, she thought something was wrong. Within a day, she was convinced that significant mistakes had been made. Why, if it was so obvious to her, had these other scholars missed it? Why had they seen a good Judas where, according to DeConick, none exists?

Maybe because they were looking for him. The first reference to the Gospel of Judas was made by St. Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, in Against Heresies, written around 180. Irenaeus was not a fan of the Gospel of Judas, which he deemed a heretical text (though it's not known whether he actually read the gospel or had only heard rumors about it). Until the Coptic manuscript surfaced in the 1970s, Irenaeus' mention of the gospel was the only known reference. Irenaeus wrote that the gospel portrayed Judas as "knowing the truth as no others did." It was an intriguing statement and suggestive of a more positive Judas.

DeConick thinks the translators were overly influenced by Irenaeus and read the gospel with his interpretation in mind. If you come to the gospel free of preconceptions, she argues, then it's clear that Judas is evil and cursed, not holy and chosen. DeConick lays out this argument at length in The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says (Continuum, 2007). The book was written for a general audience, but it has driven the conversation among biblical scholars in recent months.



Read it all here.

April DeConick, by the way, has a very interesting blog.

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