"What is remarkable is the extent to which what was presented early on still has carried the day with us and most people."
The Gospel of Judas was found in a codex, or ancient book, that dates back to the third or fourth century A.D.
(Related news: "Medieval Christian Book Discovered in Ireland Bog" [July 26, 2006].)
Written in Coptic, or Egyptian Christian, script, the text is believed to be a translation of the original—a Greek text written sometime before A.D. 180.
The document remained hidden for more than 1,700 years before it was discovered in Egypt in the 1970s.
About 85 percent of the fragile text has been restored, but major gaps remain.
The author of the text is unknown. But scholars say it originated with a group of early Christians known as Sethian Gnostics.
These "heretics" believed that truth could be known only through revelation from Jesus and a personal experience with God—hence the Gospel of Judas's subtitle: "the secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot."
"Demon" vs. "Spirit"
DeConick said she was excited to see the Gospel of Judas translated, and began analyzing the text immediately after it was published last year.
"But I soon noticed that my translation wasn't matching [National Geographic's] in significant spots," she said.
At the center of the debate is one passage in which Jesus calls Judas "daimon."
According to the National Geographic translation, "daimon" means "spirit."
DeConick, however, maintains that "daimon" should be translated to mean "demon," and that Jesus literally calls Judas a demon.
"What we find in all the Gnostic materials—and I've found about 50 references to the word 'daimon' in these texts—[is that] they're always indicating demons, malicious figures that possess and torment people, trying to get people to do things they're not supposed to do against God," she said.
But Meyer, who worked on National Geographic's translation, said Sethian Gnostics were also heavily influenced by earlier, Greek writings. In those texts "daimon" is used to mean "spirit" or to describe the spiritual side of a person.
The Gospel of Judas was written at an early stage and in an almost entirely Greek-influenced form, he said. For that reason "daimon" should read "spirit," he added.
"It is only in the developing Judeo-Christian heritage that eventually 'daimon' becomes exclusively negative," Meyer said.
New Testament scholar Simon Gathercole—who was not involved in the National Geographic translation project—said that either "demon" or "spirit" could be correct.
"'Demon' is the meaning in the New Testament, though it only appears a few times. And 'spirit' is the meaning in Plato. And the Gospel of Judas is influenced by both the New Testament and Plato," said Gathercole, of the University of Cambridge in England.
Antti Marjanen, a biblical scholar at the University of Helsinki in Finland, warned against reading too much into the use of that one word.
"Since the word 'daimon' appears only once in the entire text, some caution should be exercised in its interpretation," said Marjanen, who also was not part of the National Geographic Society effort.
"Even if it is taken as a negative reference, it does not necessarily mean that it is the final characterization of Judas in the text."
Many of the Sethian beliefs were at odds with those of what would become mainstream Christianity. The Sethians did not, for example, believe that God would have sacrificed his child, Jesus, to atone for humanity's sins.
The Gnostic texts contradicted the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John found in the New Testament. As a result, the Gnostic gospels were later denounced by Christian leaders and refused inclusion in the Bible.
No scholar of early Christianity seems to believe that the Gospel of Judas provides a historically reliable account of the relationship between Jesus and Judas. Instead, it is seen as the Gnostic interpretation of that relationship.
"Jesus' voice [in the Gospel of Judas] is the Gnostic voice challenging the apostolic Christians to reassess their faith, to listen to their own reason and consciences rather than blindly accept their faith because they thought it was handed down to them from the twelve disciples," DeConick said.
(Follow a time line of early Christianity.)
In another passage in the National Geographic version, Judas tells Jesus, "You have set me apart for that generation"—apparently meaning the enlightened Gnostics who, in DeConick's words, "populate the upper world."
But DeConick says a Coptic phrase used in the passage—"porj e"—actually means "to separate from" and not "to set apart for."
"Judas has not been set apart to belong to the holy generation, as the National Geographic translation suggests," she writes in her book.
"My corrected translation reads completely the opposite," she told National Geographic News.
"Judas is upset because he has received esoteric teaching from Jesus—teaching which he sees as useless, because he has been separated from the Gnostic generation who populate the upper world."
In National Geographic's The Gospel of Judas, Critical Edition, both "set apart for" and "separated from" are offered as possible translations.
Even if the correct interpretation is that Judas has been separated from that generation, the meaning is still not clear, some scholars suggest.
"I actually agree with the interpretation of the Coptic verbal expression 'to set apart from' and not 'for.' But I am not sure that the generation the text talks about is the holy generation," said Marjanen, the Finnish scholar.
"Rather, I read [that] Judas is set apart from the generation of the earthly kingdom the other disciples belong to."
Meyer, one of the National Geographic-supported translators, said the issues of translation DeConick highlights are almost all discussed in the footnotes of National Geographic's popular edition and critical edition of the Gospel of Judas.
"We're really only quibbling about the interpretation of a few passages," he said.
"April looks at two to three passages and with a revisionist understanding of those few passages, she sees the text in an entirely different light."
DeConick said she believes the gospel should be seen as a parody.
"It's certainly satire. [In the Gospel of Judas] Jesus is always mocking the disciples, who are characterized as faithless and ignorant," she said.
"The author uses humor in a very subversive way in order to criticize and correct apostolic Christianity."
But Gathercole, the Cambridge scholar, does not believe the gospel was written as a parody.
"It's a standard Gnostic-style gospel," Gathercole said.
"And since it was common for Gnostics to turn biblical images and figures upside down, there's a logic to their use of Judas," he said.
Meyer said there is a fundamental problem with the Judas-as-demon argument: If Judas was a demon, why did Jesus confide in him?
"To make this negative assessment work, you have to wink at, or put an asterisk next to, all the positive things said about Judas in the text," he said.
"But this is the gospel—the 'good news'—of Judas," Meyer said. "The main reason why the text was composed was so that people would be able to learn something about Sethian thought as it is being communicated to Judas.
"To say that it was all a joke, it was all a parody well, we don't have any other text from antiquity or late antiquity that functions like that," he said.
Piecing it Together
DeConick also criticizes National Geographic for mishandling the translation project by not making full-size, high-resolution copies of the manuscript available to outside scholars for analysis. (Such copies will, however, be available for download by mid-January 2008 on National Geographic's Gospel of Judas Web site.)
"National Geographic didn't follow the best procedure for dealing with new academic finds," she said.
"Having a text only being worked though by a certain set of scholars ends up resulting in a situation where the material can't be double-checked and can't be questioned before its release.
New Testament scholar Craig Evans worked on the National Geographic team.
He disagrees with some of the translation choices and interpretations made by his colleagues on the National Geographic Society [NGS] project. Even so, Evans defends National Geographic's handling of the project.
"When the National Geographic Society gained access to the Tchacos Codex [the larger book that contains the gospel] it would have been pointless to publish photographic plates, because the codex was in pieces," said Evans, of Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, Canada.
"It took years to put the thing together so that the text could actually be viewed and read," he said. "Once that part of the work was finished, NGS had the text available for the public in a very expeditious manner."
(Related news: "Gospel of Judas Pages Endured Long, Strange Journey" [April 6, 2006].)
Meyer, meanwhile, dismissed any suggestion that his team set out with any kind of agenda to rehabilitate the image of Judas in its translation of the gospel.
"Our only agenda was to interpret the text, make sense of it, and get it out as quickly as possible," he said.
"To produce a first translation and the first critical edition is a thankless task, because you know you're putting yourself out on a limb. And chances are pretty good that at least a part of that limb is going to come down as time passes," Meyer added.
"That's just the way scholarship works."
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