NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–More than two years after National Geographic released a book and aired a documentary about the gospel of Judas asserting that the biblical traitor really was a hero, an increasing number of scholars are now casting doubts on the controversial claim.
The latest criticism comes in the most recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education’s magazine The Chronicle Review, where a lengthy 5,000-word story tells how the National Geographic project has divided longtime scholarly friends and co-workers, with dissenters saying the National Geographic team — led by Marvin Meyer, a professor of religious studies at Chapman University — mistranslated the gospel of Judas so badly that it ended up saying the opposite of what a proper translation would have rendered. The subhead on the story asks, “Did a ‘dream team’ of biblical scholars mislead millions?”
For instance, instead of Jesus saying to Judas, “O 13th spirit, why do you try so hard” — as National Geographic had it saying — it should instead have read, “O 13th demon, why do you try so hard?” Even the number 13 is significant — it “would indicate a realm ruled by the demon Ialdabaoth” and would not have been a compliment, The Chronicle Review says, noting that the new translation turns a “gentle inquiry” into a “vicious rebuke.”
The newer translation of the gospel of Judas comes from April D. DeConick, a professor of biblical studies at Rice University whose book about the gospel was reviewed in Baptist Press last November. But she is not the only critic. The magazine said the “early voices of dissent” — of which DeConick was one — “have since grown into a chorus, some of whom argue that National Geographic’s handling of the project amounts to scholarly malpractice.”
DeConick told The Chronicle Review there were other major flaws with the translation:
— One passage, according to National Geographic, says Judas “would ascend to the holy generation.” Instead, it should include a negative and say he would not ascend to the holy generation.
— Another passage, according to National Geographic, says Judas was “set apart for the holy generation.” It should, though, say “from.”
Both sides of the debate agree that the events in the gospel of Judas did not literally take place and are instead fiction, the magazine said. The question centers on the translation and whether it should impact how early Christians are viewed. Orthodox scholars say the document simply shows that heresy existed at the time.
The document was discovered in the past few decades, but Christians long have known it once existed, thanks to the writings of an early church father, Irenaeus, a hero of church history who was bishop of Lyons and lived in the second century. He wrote a work titled “Against Heresies,” in which he called the gospel of Judas “fictitious history.” But, until now, a copy of it was not known to have existed.
The newly discovered document was dated to around A.D. 300, although it likely is a copy of an earlier manuscript, scholars said. Whatever the case, the gospel was not written by eyewitnesses and was written long after the biblical Gospels.
National Geographic, the critics say, did not follow normal scholarly practice of allowing a careful — that is, not rushed — review of the document by multiple scholars. Instead, National Geographic drafted a team of scholars, required them to keep the project secret and then announced the supposed shocking translation of the document at a news conference, which, of course, coincided with the book and TV program. Translating ancient documents often takes years, The Chronicle Review said.
As recounted by The Chronicle Review, newspaper headlines during April 2006 made Judas seem like a hero. “Ancient Text Says Jesus Asked Judas to Hand Him to the Romans,” The Arizona Republic headline read. The Austin American-Statesman headline read, “Ancient Judas as ‘good guy,’ not Jesus’ betrayer.”
Craig A. Evans, a professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College, is friends with Meyer but blames him for making “glaring mistakes” in the translation.
“It isn’t really National Geographic’s fault if the lead editor and interpreter is a dominant personality, gets all excited, and interprets it in a certain way,” Evans told The Chronicle Review. “I have a feeling that once the interpretation began moving that way, National Geographic got excited. They knew they had a bombshell.”
But even Meyer says in dealing with National Geographic he and others “have found things to be highly irregular in terms of how we do things in scholarship.” One example, the magazine reported, took place when Meyer was helping with a scene in the documentary in which he stands in a cave in Egypt, telling how the gospel of Judas was found.
“The director, according to Meyer, wanted him to say that that very cave was the cave where the codex was found,” The Chronicle Review said. “But, of course, no one knows that, and there are a lot of burial caves in Egypt. In the end, Meyer says on camera that it was probably found in a cave like the one he’s standing in. The pressure to sacrifice truth for drama, he says, was constant.”
DeConick hosted a conference at Rice this year about the gospel of Judas, with Meyer and others in attendance.
“It was a cordial event, no thrown books or postlecture fistfights,” The Chronicle Review said. “Still, it was hard to miss the tension. When Meyer spoke, DeConick could be seen shaking her head and whispering to a colleague. One scholar referred to Meyer’s defense of the original translation as ‘desperate’ — causing him to laugh good-naturedly, if a bit defensively, too.”
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote on his weblog that The Chronicle Review’s story helps shed light on the matter.
“It is clear that the media were misled — and that the media then mislead their audiences,” Mohler wrote. “Now, when the integrity of the entire project is called into doubt, the media are far less interested. The Chronicle of Higher Education is to be commended, the National Geographic Society should be humiliated, and Christians should be reminded once again not to be shaken by media sensationalism. The discovery of the ‘Gospel of Judas’ changes nothing except to add yet another manuscript to the pile of false gospels and Gnostic documents.”
Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor Michael Foust.