AMID much publicity last year, the National Geographic Society announced that a lost 3rd-century religious text had been found, the Gospel of Judas Iscariot. The shocker: Judas didn’t betray Jesus. Instead, Jesus asked Judas, his most trusted and beloved disciple, to hand him over to be killed. Judas’s reward? Ascent to heaven and exaltation above the other disciples.
It was a great story. Unfortunately, after re-translating the society’s transcription of the Coptic text, I have found that the actual meaning is vastly different. While National Geographic’s translation supported the provocative interpretation of Judas as a hero, a more careful reading makes clear that Judas is not only no hero, he is a demon.
Several of the translation choices made by the society’s scholars fall well outside the commonly accepted practices in the field. For example, in one instance the National Geographic transcription refers to Judas as a “daimon,” which the society’s experts have translated as “spirit.” Actually, the universally accepted word for “spirit” is “pneuma ” — in Gnostic literature “daimon” is always taken to mean “demon.”
So what does the Gospel of Judas really say? It says that Judas is a specific demon called the “Thirteenth.” In certain Gnostic traditions, this is the given name of the king of demons — an entity known as Ialdabaoth who lives in the 13th realm above the earth. Judas is his human alter ego, his undercover agent in the world. These Gnostics equated Ialdabaoth with the Hebrew Yahweh, whom they saw as a jealous and wrathful deity and an opponent of the supreme God whom Jesus came to earth to reveal.
Whoever wrote the Gospel of Judas was a harsh critic of mainstream Christianity and its rituals.
How could these serious mistakes have been made? Were they genuine errors or was something more deliberate going on? This is the question of the hour, and I do not have a satisfactory answer.
That said, I think the big problem is that National Geographic wanted an exclusive. So it required its scholars to sign nondisclosure statements, to not discuss the text with other experts before publication. The best scholarship is done when life-sized photos of each page of a new manuscript are published before a translation, allowing experts worldwide to share information as they independently work through the text.
I have wondered why so many scholars and writers have been inspired by the National Geographic version of the Gospel of Judas. I think it may stem from an understandable desire to reform the relationship between Jews and Christians. Judas is a frightening character. For Christians, he is the one who had it all and yet betrayed God to his death for a few coins. For Jews, he is the man whose story was used by Christians to persecute them for centuries. Although we should continue to work toward a reconciliation of this ancient schism, manufacturing a hero Judas is not the answer.
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