Fri 23 Nov 2007
The Gospel of Judas has been quite controversial, primarily in connection with the question of how Judas Iscariot is portrayed in the document. (Scholars did not see this as reflecting the actual historical Judas back in the first century, I should clarify, simply second or third century understandings of the figure). The original work of transcription and translation of this “gnostic” work by a National Geographic team resulted in an inverted picture of Judas. According to the translators and according to interpreters such as Bart Ehrman, Judas was the hero of this writing and was seen as the ultimate student of Christ in his role in having Jesus killed, thus freeing Christ’s spirit from the prison of Jesus’ body (see my earlier post on Judas Iscariot as the “good guy”?, now apparently very wrong on the overall portrait of Judas, which was based solely on my reading and trust in that translation, the only one available at that time).
Quite clearly, this picture of a heroic Judas was quite different from traditional understandings of Judas as betrayer doing the work of Satan. I had since expressed my doubts about the National Geographic picture and my own first post upon hearing about Louis Painchaud’s (a Nag Hammadi expert) major doubts. Painchaud saw major problems in the National Geographic transcription of the Coptic and in their translation: Judas Iscariot may be evil after all.
I just finished reading April DeConick’s new book on the Gospel of Judas which I picked up at the SBL meeting (you may also want to visit her Forbidden Gospels blog):
April D. DeConick, The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says (London: Continuum, 2007). Buy at Amazon
The book’s main contribution is in pointing to the problems in the National Geographic (NG) work on the manuscript in terms of errors in transcription of the Coptic and errors in the translation by Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst. She presents her own translation. Here DeConick is clear and convincing. She points to a number of major problems which change entirely interpretations of this document.
Some of the main, major changes that DeConick presents (pp. 45-61) are as follows:
- The Coptic term daimon (borrowed from the Greek) should not be translated “spirit” as in NG but rather “demon”. Judas is called a “demon”.
- The NG translation “For you (Jesus) have set me (Judas) apart for that generation (the generation that will see salvation)” should read quite the opposite: “you have separated me from that generation”. Judas is condemned by Jesus, not saved in this document.
- Jesus does not, as in NG, say that others “will curse your (Judas) ascent to the holy [generation]“. Rather it says the opposite: “you will not ascend to the holy [generation]“.
- Jesus does not simply say that Judas “will exceed” all of the other disciples, but rather that Judas “will do worse than all of them” (exceed them in doing evil).
These are major errors, indeed, on the part of the National Geographic Society’s work. DeConick’s careful presentation of how these errors were introduced and how the Coptic should actually be read are convincing.
April DeConick’s book then argues that the Gospel of Judas presents a demonic Judas, perhaps even harsher than portraits in the canonical gospels, who is seen as the ultimate, terrible representative of the disciples. For the author of the Gospel of Judas, the disciples, with Judas at their head, are the equivalent of the types of Christians that the “gnostic” author has most problems with and he even charges them with the equivalent of murdering children (see my post on The Gospel of Judas and ethnographic stereotypes: The priests “sacrifice their own children”). The overall effect, as DeConick argues, is that the Gospel of Judas is a parody aimed at critiquing what DeConick calls “apostolic Christianity” (the equivalent of what some others label “the proto-orthodox”).
DeConick’s introductory chapters and her chapters assessing the content of this gospel are well-written and useful as an introduction not only to the Gospel of Judas but also to “gnostic” thought and its place within a variety of forms of Christianity in the early centuries. So the book would serve well within a course on the variety of early Christianity.
However, there are two terminological choices that I find problematic, one minor but notable and the other quite significant. Since these chapters are clearly aimed at beginners and carefully presenting ideas in an non-anachronistic way on the whole, it is strange that DeConick speaks of “Lucifer” (e.g. pp. 31ff) when explaining notions of personified evil and “gnostic” notions of the world-creator as the evil one. The term “Lucifer” came to be applied to a fallen angel or to “Satan” only after the fifth century Latin translation of the passage in Isaiah 14:12 and after a conflation of this passage about a Babylonian king with developing notions of personified evil figures. The way that DeConick speaks of this seems as though she is unaware of this, though it is perhaps simply an anachronistic slip.
The second, more significant terminological problem is DeConick’s use of the phrase “apostolic Christians” throughout her book as a convenient catch-all category. Like the problems with Ehrman’s “proto-orthodox” category, such categories might serve to confuse rather than clarify the variegated nature of early Christianity when teaching students. There is some anachronistic thinking involved in the use of such categories. First we might (should) be telling students that orthodoxy and apostolic Christianity did not exist as some clearly defined monoliths in earliest Christianity, and that the formation of “orthodoxy” was a long and complicated process involving the exclusion of certain forms of Christianity (I think that both Ehrman and DeConick would agree with this). But then some scholars nonetheless continue to use terms that presume the future arrival of orthodoxy, as though it had precursors in a specific group that can be identified and that various Christians can be categorized together. Who is to decide which specific Christians are to be fit into either the category of “apostolic Christianity” or “proto-orthodoxy” and would such figures agree to being grouped together in this way?
These are some more general theoretical problems that I have with a work that is in other respects a fine new translation and a very useful introduction for students.