Monday, February 25, 2008

The Gospel of Judas, Take Two

I had previously blogged (here) about the Gospel of Judas, a circa second century product of a Sethian gnostic Christian community. The very interesting story of the tenuous survival and laborious reconstruction of the crumbling ancient codex containing the Judas text -- along with a first translation and interpretation -- was the subject of a book and television special sponsored by National Geographic. The National Geographic team of scholars (led by Marvin Meyer) presented the sensational finding that Judas was the hero of the text: the only apostle who really understood Jesus’ divinity, and whose betrayal of Jesus -- necessary to fulfill God’s plan – made him favored above all the apostles.

Following the publishing of the Coptic transcription, other scholars have had a crack at translation and interpretation and some differing and contrary opinions are emerging. A very different take has been offered by April DeConick in her recent book, The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says.

DeConick, a biblical studies scholar who also has an active and interesting blog, believes that the National Geographic team made several translation errors which led to an overall erroneous interpretation of the message of the gospel (please note that no scholar believes this text has any historical value regarding the actual events of Jesus’ life; rather the interest is in what the text tells us about the beliefs of one of the many early Christian communities opposed to the “apostolic” or proto-orthodox church in the centuries before the time of Constantine). According to DeConick, while Judas does have greater understanding than the other apostles (who are completely misguided), he is nonetheless a doomed and (literally) demonic figure. So while the text is still very much in opposition to apostolic Christianity (indeed she views it as a parody of sorts), the figure of Judas is still to be seen as a bad guy, not the good guy put forth by the National Geographic team.

It is very interesting to see how a handful of translation choices could lead to such greatly contrasting interpretations of the text (although the fact that the text is missing significant passages contributes to the difficulty of all of these efforts). The most important of these choices relates to the translation of the Greek-imported word “daimon” (referring to Judas) as “spirit” by the National Geographic team, and “demon” by DeConick. According to DeConick, the word had evolved from classical times from the general idea of a spiritual entity to the specifically evil connotation by the time of “Judas”. For online discussions of all this, see DeConick’s New York Times op-ed, Marvin Meyer’s response, her Judas blogging and these online reviews of her book. I found DeConick’s arguments persuasive, but as a non-expert I look forward to reading further discussion of this by other commentators.

The book itself has additional merit for those lay readers who are interested in the subject. DeConick includes a very clear discussion of the various “gnostic” communities in play in early Christianity. She is very good specifically on the Sethian movement, to which the author of the Gospel of Judas belongs. Her exposition of the complex Sethian cosmology was very good – I had previously found this to be pretty confusing. The book also includes her complete translation, which provides the reader the context for the interpretative debate.

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