Monday, December 3, 2007

The Gospel of Judas and the lure of gnosticism

Okay I am going to be immodest, before Fr. Imbelli posted on this article over on dotCommonweal, I wrote this on Saturday, but left it on a computer with no internet connectivity. On Saturday's New York Times OpEd page April DeConick, a professor of Biblical Studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas, in an article entitled Gospel Truth, blows the lid on the National Geographic’s much bally-hooed translation of what is readily admitted to be the third century text of The Gospel of Judas. Gnostic silliness has long captured the front pages of national newspapers and magazines. Every year as Lent comes to a close and Holy Week beckons us to Easter, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, or another widely read publication recycles the opinions of, among others, John Dominic Crossan, Elaine Pagels, and/or Marcus Borg. All of these are scholars whose opinions have long ceased to matter among their fellow scholars, which is what causes them to pander to the popular reader. Their highly imaginative reconstructions, based on little or no evidence, are about as true as Dan Brown’s imaginative reconstructions of Christian history in his various books, The Da Vinci Code only being the best known. The re-discovery of the ancient transcript of The Gospel of Judas, which had been locked away in a vault in Switzerland, provided a great occasion for many, like Pagels, whose book, written with Karen King, Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, was another opportunity to squander what little credibility they may have had. As expected, the most reasonable and scholarly response to The Gospel of Judas, published shortly after the National Geographic Society’s translation was made public, right around Easter 2006, was by the appropriately named New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, who is Anglican bishop of Durham, England. His little book, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus: Have We Missed the Truth about Christianity?, is a must read for anybody concerned about these matters.

Before returning to Prof. DeConick’s opinion piece it bears pointing out that there is no dispute that The Gospel of Judas is a third century text, which means it was written in the 200s CE. That is at least one hundred years after the last written manuscripts that comprise our New Testament, The Gospel of St. John, along with The Apocalypse of St. John, known more popularly as Revelations, along with the rest of the Johannine corpus (i.e., 1,2.3 John) being the latest New Testament documents. There are ancient Christian manuscripts that are contemporaneous with the canonical books of scripture that are not included in our canon, namely The Didache and The Shepherd of Hermes. These books, while not scriptural, very well could be. But manuscripts that date as late as The Gospel of Judas, or The Gospel of Thomas, and are from places other than the Holy Land, do not even present the possibility of being accepted as apostolic.

Prof. DeConick’s article is based on her recent re-translation of The Gospel of Judas from the Coptic manuscript. In comparing her translation with the one so aggressively pedaled by the National Geographic Society, she notices some problems, to put it mildly, with the National Geographic translation. Unsurprisingly, these problems revolve around what appears to be an effort to lend credibility to the alternative history of Christianity as imagined by many, among whom Elaine Pagels is the best known. What is perhaps most ironic is that for all the abuse heaped upon the efforts to preserve and transcribe the badly damaged and fragmentary Dead Sea scrolls, the National Geographic Society, according to Prof. DeConick, in its treatment of the transcript of the manuscript of The Gospel of Judas, completely ignored The Society of Biblical Literature’s 1991 injunction “holding that, if the condition of the written manuscript requires that access be restricted, a facsimile reproduction should be the first order of business. It’s a shame that National Geographic, and its group of scholars, did not follow this sensible injunction”. I think in light of DeConick’s re-translation, we have a clue as to why a translatable manuscript was not made available sooner.


  1. Professor DeConick's New York Times piece is excellent. I was particularly interested in what she said about the Dead Sea Scrolls:

    "The situation reminds me of the deadlock that held scholarship back on the Dead Sea Scrolls decades ago. When manuscripts are hoarded by a few, it results in errors and monopoly interpretations that are very hard to overturn even after they are proved wrong."

    From what I understand, the tragic consequences of the Scrolls monopoly are indeed still making themselves felt today, in an exhibit taking place in a "natural history" museum in San Diego. See this article for an example of what this can lead to:

    So I would suggest that an important question is whether serious biblical scholars who, like April DeConick, seek to do their research in accordance with basic scientific principles rather than any specific religious agenda, will frankly condemn what is going on with the Dead Sea Scrolls in one museum exhibit after another. Or will we be left with silence, innuendo and embarrassed shrugging of shoulders?

  2. At present there isn't anything going on with the Dead Sea scrolls. The history of the Dead Sea scrolls differs significantly from that of the gospel of Judas. To wit, while there were some complaints, most of which were not justified, about how the scrolls were handled, which is what apparently led to the Society's statement in 1991, there was no conspiracy to withhold the scrolls. Most importantly, the Dead Sea scrolls were in a very fragile and fragmentary state when discovered and continued to deteriorate after their discovery. During the most of the years, the scrolls were being painstakingly reconstructed in order to produce accurate manuscripts. Fortunately, as time went on, technology improved dramatically. Now there are critical manuscripts of the Scrolls available to anyone who wants to translate them, just as the gospel of Judas is available.

    I think the biggest beef most people have with Dead Sea scrolls nowadays is that, like the gospel of Judas, they are in no way devastating to Christianity, especially when translated accurately, which must happens before interpretation. I agree that scholarship should be as objective as possible and that accepted scientific principles should always be adhered to regardless of the prior commitments of the researchers. However, translation, especially from ancient Semitic and Greek texts will always and inevitable involve some interpretation. The question then becomes, Is the translation viable? Most biblical researchers do their research according to accepted norms and publish their findings, but the public has both a short attention span and a distinct lack of interest in anything that isn't sensational, which is why there is such a market for National Geographic videos, not only on the gospel of Judas, but James Cameron's "discovery" of the remainders of an ancient tomb, which has been known about, catalogued and written about for quite a few years, that he foolishly claims is the tomb of Jesus, and for books by Elaine Pagels. I remember back in 2003/4 when her book Beyond Belief about the gospel of Thomas was such a best-seller.