What happens when a media company with visions of books and TV specials brokers conditional access of an ancient manuscript? Well, if the saga of “The Gospel of Judas” is any indication, it doesn’t end well. And why should it? National Geographic required a ridiculous level of secrecy, which has fueled tension and division in the small academic community since the company announced in 2006 it had acquired the Judas manuscript and handed it over to a few prominent scholars for interpretation.
“The Gospel of Judas” recast Judas as a good guy, Jesus’ favorite disciple. Not a betrayer but close confidant who followed Christ’s order to hand him over to the Romans. The Judas codex was written after Judas’ death and is considered pure fiction, but at least a window into how a Christian sect saw the most notorious turncoat in history. It was good TV and created a cottage industry of for book publishers, but it was based on limited research and, many biblical scholars claimed, sloppy scholarship. The Chronicle of Higher Education digs deep into this story to see what went wrong in “The Betrayal of Judas”:
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.
Indeed, many members of the “dream team” who had their hands on the manuscript have backed away from their initial translation and interpretation of the text. The rest of the article can be read here.