2007-11-09

What the Gospel of Judas Really Says — April DeConick’s new book

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by Neil Godfrey

I have just finished reading April DeConick‘s new book, The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says. So many comments need to be made directed at so many interests:

  1. Firstly, the book is easily accessible to the lay reader even though it discusses technical translation issues of the Coptic, as well as some of the history of the scholarship relating to the Gospel of Judas and its broader context.
  2. Secondly, for most of us who have read the National Geographic translation of the Gospel of Judas, be prepared for a radical re-think of what we have read there. The National Geographic translation depicts Judas as the only true saint; DeConick’s, as the arch demon himself — or at least destined to join with him in the end.
  3. Which immediately raises the question: Why would a gospel make the central character a demon? DeConick shows how the apparent structure and thematic development of the gospel aligns it with an agenda opposing that Christianity that traced its genealogy back to the Twelve Apostles. Like the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Judas was a parody and attack on apostolic Christianity and its doctrine of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus.
  4. Fourthly, April DeConick proposes several reasons to explain such oppositional translations:
    1. She explains in easy to read terms the condition of the text and possible variations in how the original Coptic could be read;
    2. She suggests with Professor Louis Painchaud that since World War 2 and the Holocaust, and the widespread anti-Semitism preceding those years, there has been a powerful cultural need to absolve our collective guilt over the treatment of the Jews. And this compulsion has led us to reappraise our portrayals of the bad Jew/Judah/Judas embedded in our foundational Christian myth. So much for Maloney and Archer’s collaboration on their fictional cum theological treatise of their Judas gospel!
    3. DeConick even has an interesting section that surveys the different films of Jesus before and since World War 2 and compares particularly the portrayal of Judas in those pre- and those post-Holocaust movies — in the pre-war movies he was always an evil villain through and through; in the post-war movies he has been depicted with more understanding and compassion — a well-meaning idealist who just happened not to think the same way as Jesus;
    4. DeConick gives enough information about the transmission of the text and the role of National Geographic in its initial public translation to alert the reader to possible motives and controls at work other than those normally associated with scholarly professionalism.
  5. The book gives a clear overview of the nature of the Christian world in the second century, showing that Apostolic Christianity (claiming descent from the Twelve Apostles) was only one branch; others explained are Marcionites, Ebionites, the Church of the New Prophecy (Montanism) and those diverse others traditionally labeled Gnostics.
  6. Sixthly, the book gives one of the most readable introductions to the intricacies of (Sethian) gnosticism I have ever read. Anyone who has started out cold and attempted to grasp the cosmology of the Sethian gnostics from the Nag Hammadi texts alone as they are presented in the most accessible translations will appreciate this the most.
  7. For Gospel of Mark lovers such as myself I was especially interested in DeConick’s comparisons with the theology and attitudes towards the Twelve Disciples in the Gospel of Mark. My mind cartwheeled as I read. What needs to be worked through, I was thinking, was not just the similarities between the Judas and Mark Gospels’ dismissiveness of the Twelve, but the fact that both gospels are addressing in many ways the same theological (and church genealogical) issues. Could they really be separated by as much as 100 years as orthodox datings propose?
    1. Also closely related to the Gospel of Mark is the way both that gospel and the Judas gospel demonstrate that it is the demons who have the superior understanding of who Jesus really was. (Even Peter’s confession appears tainted with some form of demon-possession given that Jesus calls him Satan at the same moment as his confession.) Even the demons understand more than the apostles!
  8. DeConick provides a clear and easy to read account of the “orthodox” reaction to the theology expressed in the Gospel of Judas. This culminated with Origen’s formulation of the doctrine of Jesus’ sacrifice as a ransom and atonement to trick the Devil and rescue humanity from his power.
  9. The Thirteenth Gospel was one of the very few books where I was drawn to read all the appendices:
  1. DeConick’s annotated bibliography of the Gospel of Judas, second-century Christianity, the New Testament Apocrypha and Gnosis and the Gnostics;
  2. her annotated synopsis of Sethian Gospel literature;
  3. her annotated citations of the testimony from the Church Fathers on the Gospel of Judas;
  4. and finally a Q&A section with April DeConick. This summed up some of the common questions asked about the Gospel of Judas (why is it appearing only now, why such opposing translations, what is the position of other scholars given such opposing translations, early Christianity and the role of Judas. . . .)

I can see myself returning regularly to this book in future references on this blog. (Especially in relation to my special interest in studies relating to the Gospel of Mark and Christian origins.)

Almost forgot — Yes, the book contains a complete and new translation — with commentary — of the Gospel of Judas.

NOTE: Wikipedia’s article on The Gospel of Judas is in urgent need of updating since April DeConick’s book!

P.S.

The only point I did not like about the book was one that is really a matter of my own idiosyncratic taste. The offending “no no” paragraphs were an attempt to justify the relevance of the gospel to today in terms of its addressing issues of authority — does it come from without, or from our consciences within? That might appeal to those who like to immerse themselves in the minds and philosophies of the ancient and who attempt to bring them into our modern questions. But for one such as myself I find no need for justifying my interest other than the fact that the gospel helps inform us better of the origins and nature of early Christianity.


Related posts found at my Judas category

See also Opposing translation — further discussion of one section of DeConick’s book.

Critical edition of the Gospel of Judas / Tchacos Codex — which includes link to Roger Pearse’s site, The Coptic Ps.Gospel of Judas (Iscariot)


5 Comments

  • Pingback: Gospel of Judas — Opposing translations and their significance « Vridar

  • Geoff Hudson
    2007-11-10 22:08:19 UTC - 22:08 | Permalink

    Whether Judas was a saint or a sinner depended on one’s viewpoint. What is material is the historical reality of Judas. No scholar has yet bitten that bullet. Most of the apparently different Judas’s in the writings attributed to Josephus are garbled or obfuscated interpolations related to the same real character. In Acts 1, a replacement was appointed to fill Judas’ vacated place of leadership. There are more rumblings that Judas was in fact the leader of the earliest Christians or anointed ones who rejected animal sacrifices and sought cleansing by obeying the voice of God or the Spirit. This had long been a festering issue among Jews going back to the time of Jeremiah. In the Gospels the fictitious John the Baptist was substituted for the name of Judas, and then John was quickly written out of the story to introduce the fictitious prophet Jesus. The son of Zechariah was Judas. Both father and son were executed by the priests.

  • 2007-11-12 04:50:22 UTC - 04:50 | Permalink

    Jay, I don’t mean to give the impression that DeConick is arguing that Peter was “possessed by Satan”. I may have not done justice to DeConick’s incidental reference to Peter here and made it sound more than she really expresses.

    My point, and I think DeConick’s, is that in Mark’s gospel it is the demons who understand Jesus’ identity more than the disciples. And when they do proclaim Jesus’ identity Jesus tells them to be silent. So we have an interesting echo of that same process when Peter proclaims Jesus’ identity. Jesus, as he did with the demons, tells him to be silent about it. Is it merely coincidental that he also names him Satan at the same time?

    There is an interesting pattern there — and that pattern is established more through the literary context of Mark’s demon stories than the wilderness temptation episode. The “get behind me Satan” expression is not part of the wilderness temptation in Mark’s gospel.

    Nor in Mark’s wilderness temptation scene is there any suggestion that Satan was offering Jesus “a destiny beyond human consequences in order to tempt him to an arrogant betrayal.” All of that is a later development found in Matthew and Luke.

    The “Get behind me Satan” line appears only in Luke’s gospel (and not in all manuscripts either — was it inadvertently inserted as a result of someone’s recollection of its use in Mark?), and there is something similar in Matthew’s. If we accept that Mark was the first gospel written and was known and used by Matthew and Luke, then we need to be careful not to read the literary context of Matthew and Luke into Mark.

    Mark’s scene of Peter’s confession resonates against the same gospel’s accounts of Jesus commanding demons to be silent “because they knew him”.

    In Mark, when Jesus calls Peter Satan, there is no suggesting that Peter was “tempting” or “testing” Jesus. Rather the opposite — Peter was “rebuking” him. Not inveigling him. Jesus rebukes him back. The two were having an argument.

  • Jay Wilson
    2007-11-12 02:34:22 UTC - 02:34 | Permalink

    Surely the saying “Get thee behind me, Satan,” picks up an echo of the temptation story where Jesus is offered a destiny beyond human consequences in order to tempt him to an arrogant betrayal of his vocation which is to suffer – as the prophets suffered – for speaking the word of God. This has nothing to do with Peter’s “possession” by demons.
    Whether you are a ‘rationalist’ ( and who is that?) or not, you have to read with an awareness of literary context.

  • Pingback: “We need a good Judas” « Vridar

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