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Prof: Gnostics called Judas demon, not hero

HOUSTON (BP)–A new book by a biblical scholar at Rice University refutes the claims of the National Geographic Society in 2006 that a third- or fourth-century fragment of the Gospel of Judas depicted “the son of perdition” as a hero.

In fact, April DeConick, a professor of biblical studies at Rice and author of “The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says,” notes that the document actually calls Judas a “thirteenth demon.” That translation of the ancient Coptic text conforms fairly well to what biblical scholars have said of Judas for centuries as well as ancient commentaries from the church fathers who regarded Gnosticism as heresy.

Gnostics taught that salvation came by obtaining secret knowledge, or gnosis (from the Greek). Jesus, they taught, had come from the one true God to share this knowledge with human beings, who had been created by an evil and inferior God, Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament and one of multiple deities. Gnostics also believed that all flesh was evil, and the goal of human salvation was to have one’s spirit reunited with the one true God.

“Whoever wrote [the Gospel of Judas] was very smart and witty. He was also a Gnostic who did not get along with the apostolic or mainstream Christians,” DeConick told Baptist Press. “So the gospel mocks the apostolic Christians and criticizes the doctrine of atonement and the Eucharist or communion.”

When National Geographic magazine publicized the discovery of the Gospel of Judas early in 2006, the magazine claimed that the document presented a loyal, sensitive and, perhaps, misunderstood Judas. Christ’s betrayer, the magazine’s experts said, actually may have been a close friend of the Messiah and a man who had been asked to “accept perpetual disgrace” in order to free Jesus’ spirit from his body. Judas, too, was described in the text as a “spirit,” the magazine’s experts said.

But DeConick contends that translators were mistaken. The Coptic word “daimon” is not “spirit,” she said.

“Plato used this word to refer to higher powers, divine powers, that controlled human fate,” DeConick said. “This is the basis for the National Geographic translation ‘spirit.’ The problem with this interpretation is that Plato wrote almost 500 years before the Gospel of Judas and within a completely different conceptual environment. In Christian and Gnostic literature, ‘daimones’ are demons. They are malicious powers or angels who influence human destinies. They are associated with the stars. There are 52 instances of the use of ‘daimon’ in Gnostic literature, and all of them refer to demonic forces that control the cosmos and human destiny.”

The Gospel of Judas was written perhaps a half-century before A.D. 180, when Irenaeus of Lyons wrote that the Gnostics produced “a fictitious history” depicting “Judas the traitor” as having special knowledge of the divine truths.

Nearly two centuries later, Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis on Crete also wrote that the Gospel of Judas contained heretical descriptions of Judas as having “performed a good work for our salvation.” Epiphanius wrote that Judas had acted out of “ignorance, envy and greed of the denial of God.”

Until the discovery of the Judas fragments, the document was assumed long lost to antiquity or destroyed by orthodox Christians. But the publication of the Judas text, and other recent publications of Gnostic texts such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Letter of Philip to Peter and the Gospel of Truth, have reignited debate about Christian origins in academic communities. National Geographic claimed that “a long buried side of Christianity is emerging.”

But the magazine has done little to assist the broader academic community in evaluating the Judas text or this long-buried segment of Christianity. National Geographic has yet to release facsimile copies for scholars worldwide, which DeConick said cripples the academic community and calls into question the accuracy of the remainder of National Geographic’s work on the document.

“All we have is the National Geographic Society’s transcription of the Coptic, and its translation of that. We can’t check the transcription. The situation is comparable to the deadlock that held scholarship back on the Dead Sea Scrolls 15 or 20 years ago. When manuscripts are hoarded by a few, it results in errors and monopoly interpretations. This is not the best way to do scholarship,” DeConick said.

“Good scholarship results when many are working on the materials, sharing, critiquing and thinking together. That is why the Society of Biblical Literature in 1991 passed a resolution against hoarding, and resolved that facsimiles should be made first and distributed to the entire academic community. So the National Geographic Society has not complied with this resolution, and now we are experiencing just what the resolution was meant to avoid,” she said.

DeConick first got a glimpse of the Judas text in April 2006 and began working immediately to discover for herself what the fragments said. She said she recognizes that her book, The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says may be the first in a long series of protests against the translation and interpretation offered by National Geographic.

“We are now trying to catch up, and we are pleading with the National Geographic Society to release to us the facsimiles immediately,” she said.

What has been released by the society is a translation of the text and a few photographs of textual fragments, some of them key to DeConick’s argument. But for the most part, scholars have only been able to read what the magazine’s experts deciphered from the seriously eroded codex.

DeConick is critical of the process of dealing with the Judas text. When it was discovered in the late 1970s in a tomb in Egypt, it was bound in a single codex with several other previously known Gnostic writings and an unknown Gnostic text. A series of cloak-and-dagger transfers of the codex and a long period of storage in a bank vault left the work, which DeConick describes as “our most difficult Gnostic text yet,” badly damaged. Scholars took five years to piece it together under a tight deadline from National Geographic.

“This resulted in a situation that they published before they were finished,” DeConick said. “The work they published was provisional, still in progress, but it was treated as if it were finished.”

According to the text translated by scholars Marvin Meyer, Rodolphe Kasser, Gregor Wurst and Bart Erhman, the Gospel of Judas claims that Jesus often appeared to His disciples as a 12-year-old child, and that Jesus told the disciples each of them “has his own star.” Add to that descriptions of Jesus being from the immortal realm of Barbelo and the document seems more science fiction than religion.

Central to DeConick’s argument are portions of the text where Judas informs Jesus of a vision he has had. Jesus laughs at the vision and asks why Judas, a “thirteenth spirit,” tries so hard. The Messiah then tells Judas, “You will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”

But according to DeConick, phrases like that are what make the Gospel of Judas a satire or parody of orthodox Christianity. In her interpretation, the Judas text is very much against sacrifice. She calls the National Geographic Society’s interpretation internally illogical.

“This is the worst of possible sins,” DeConick said. “It is a sin committed to the demonic rulers of the world. If Judas is a hero, then why would Jesus want and ask Judas to sacrifice him? The text understands what Judas does to be a sacrifice, and one made to the ruling demons, not to God. It is not a good or honorable act.”

DeConick and other scholars are planning a much closer look at the Gospel of Judas at Rice University in March 2008. Then, the university will host an international panel of scholars, including those who translated the work for National Geographic, to discuss the Tchacos Codex, which contained the Judas text. The meeting, she said, will create an academic climate that has, heretofore, been unavailable.

“I wanted to create a situation of free and open academic exchange so that we can move past this deadlock,” DeConick said. “I hope that the facsimiles will be released by then so that we can all work from them.”

    About the Author

  • Gregory Tomlin