Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Gospel of Judas

Do you remember late last year when there was a big hullaballoo about the English translation of the Gospel of Judas? This gnostic gospel, translated into English for the first time under the direction of the National Geographic Society, was hailed by many because it (allegedly) shed a new light on Judas. According to this translation of the document, Judas was not such a bad fact, Jesus Himself claimed that Judas really did him a big favor.

Well, it turns out that the whole thing was a set-up. Not long after all the excitement (which was confined to liberal Christians, non-Christians, and anti-Christians) died down, an article, written by a scholar at Rice University (who is no fundamentalist, much less an adherent of traditional Christianity) appeared in the Houston Barnacle. The writer showed definitively that the proverbial emperor had no clothes. I should have shared this with you months ago when it first came out, but I was still working on my book. I was recently reminded of the article when WORLD magazine printed a summary of the article. Here is the complete text of the article, which originally appeared in the New York Times (copyright 2007). Enjoy.

Amid much publicity last year, the National Geographic Society announced that a lost 3rd-century religious text had been found, the Gospel of Judas Iscariot. The shocker: Judas didn’t betray Jesus. Instead, Jesus asked Judas, his most trusted and beloved disciple, to hand him over to be killed. Judas’s reward? Ascent to heaven and exaltation above the other disciples.

It was a great story. Unfortunately, after re-translating the society’s transcription of the Coptic text, I have found that the actual meaning is vastly different. While National Geographic’s translation supported the provocative interpretation of Judas as a hero, a more careful reading makes clear that Judas is not only no hero, he is a demon.

Several of the translation choices made by the society’s scholars fall well outside the commonly accepted practices in the field. For example, in one instance the National Geographic transcription refers to Judas as a “daimon,” which the society’s experts have translated as “spirit.” Actually, the universally accepted word for “spirit” is “pneuma ” — in Gnostic literature “daimon” is always taken to mean “demon.”

Likewise, Judas is not set apart “for” the holy generation, as the National Geographic translation says, he is separated “from” it. He does not receive the mysteries of the kingdom because “it is possible for him to go there.” He receives them because Jesus tells him that he can’t go there, and Jesus doesn’t want Judas to betray him out of ignorance. Jesus wants him informed, so that the demonic Judas can suffer all that he deserves.

Perhaps the most egregious mistake I found was a single alteration made to the original Coptic. According to the National Geographic translation, Judas’s ascent to the holy generation would be cursed. But it’s clear from the transcription that the scholars altered the Coptic original, which eliminated a negative from the original sentence. In fact, the original states that Judas will “not ascend to the holy generation.” To its credit, National Geographic has acknowledged this mistake, albeit far too late to change the public misconception.

So what does the Gospel of Judas really say? It says that Judas is a specific demon called the “Thirteenth.” In certain Gnostic traditions, this is the given name of the king of demons — an entity known as Ialdabaoth who lives in the 13th realm above the earth. Judas is his human alter ego, his undercover agent in the world. These Gnostics equated Ialdabaoth with the Hebrew Yahweh, whom they saw as a jealous and wrathful deity and an opponent of the supreme God whom Jesus came to earth to reveal.

Whoever wrote the Gospel of Judas was a harsh critic of mainstream Christianity and its rituals. Because Judas is a demon working for Ialdabaoth, the author believed, when Judas sacrifices Jesus he does so to the demons, not to the supreme God. This mocks mainstream Christians’ belief in the atoning value of Jesus’ death and in the effectiveness of the Eucharist.

How could these serious mistakes have been made? Were they genuine errors or was something more deliberate going on? This is the question of the hour, and I do not have a satisfactory answer.

Admittedly, the society had a tough task: restoring an old gospel that was lying in a box of its own crumbs. It had been looted from an Egyptian tomb in the 1970s and languished on the underground antiquities market for decades, even spending time in someone’s freezer. So it is truly incredible that the society could resurrect any part of it, let alone piece together about 85 percent of it.

That said, I think the big problem is that National Geographic wanted an exclusive. So it required its scholars to sign nondisclosure statements, to not discuss the text with other experts before publication. The best scholarship is done when life-sized photos of each page of a new manuscript are published before a translation, allowing experts worldwide to share information as they independently work through the text.

Another difficulty is that when National Geographic published its transcription, the facsimiles of the original manuscript it made public were reduced by 56 percent, making them fairly useless for academic work. Without life-size copies, we are the blind leading the blind. The situation reminds me of the deadlock that held scholarship back on the Dead Sea Scrolls decades ago. When manuscripts are hoarded by a few, it results in errors and monopoly interpretations that are very hard to overturn even after they are proved wrong.

To avoid this, the Society of Biblical Literature passed a resolution in 1991 holding that, if the condition of the written manuscript requires that access be restricted, a facsimile reproduction should be the first order of business. It’s a shame that National Geographic, and its group of scholars, did not follow this sensible injunction.

I have wondered why so many scholars and writers have been inspired by the National Geographic version of the Gospel of Judas. I think it may stem from an understandable desire to reform the relationship between Jews and Christians. Judas is a frightening character. For Christians, he is the one who had it all and yet betrayed God to his death for a few coins. For Jews, he is the man whose story was used by Christians to persecute them for centuries. Although we should continue to work toward a reconciliation of this ancient schism, manufacturing a hero Judas is not the answer.

The author, April D. DeConick, a professor of Biblical studies at Rice University, is the author of The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says.

In the end, of course, it matters not a whit to true Christians what this fanciful "Gospel" says. What this story illustrates is the lengths to which some people will go to try to discredit traditional Christianity.


Clint said...

I remember reading that when it came out. It always amazes me the lengths that people who don't believe in God go to to try to validate their faulty choice.

It would be humorous to watch their shenanigans, if it weren't so sad.

Mike said...

It really is a sad and unfortunate thing. And the horrible part of the matter is that I have met people who take this as gospel (pun intended), while believing the canonical Gospels in the Bible to be fabricated. They don't realize they are taking up serpents instead of fish.

I went to the library today to pick up a few books that I had waitlisted, and decided to peruse the Christian section at our local Houston Library branch while there. Their Patristics and Ancient Christianity section isn't that very big. In fact, my own little library of the St. Vladimir's Popular Patristics Series is bigger than what they have to offer. Pretty much anything on the subject of Christianity that wasn't written within the last thirty years isn't there. Well, other than the Bible, of course.

But guess what I happened to stumble on? Spong's "The Resurrection of Christ: Fact or Fable?".

I whispered a little "Panagia Mou," and just shook my head on my way out.

William said...

The hullabaloo over the "Gospel of Judas" always seemed a bit ridiculous to me, in the sense that those in the media who were so very excited about its revelation seemed to imagine that this would so shake the foundations of the Christian world (as if Christianity never had detractors in its early centuries ... as if the New Testament never made mention of false teachers).

Most of all, what seemed ridiculous to me is that just about everything that is considered unique and revelatory about the Gospel of Judas was already summed up in two sentences written by Irenaeus (who wrote in the second century): "They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things [the happenings in the heavens], and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas."

So much for the National Geographic Society's big scoop. If anything, the discovery of the manuscripts lends support to someone like Irenaeus more than it does to contemporary scholars trying to tell us how this piece fits into the puzzle.