Tag Archives: DeConick: The Thirteenth Apostle

Gospel of Judas — Opposing translations and their significance

The National Geographic had a best seller on its hands when it published the Gospel of Judas that presented Judas as the hero of the Twelve rather than the villain as he is in the canonical gospels.

But the significance is not just that in one version Judas is a hero and in the other he is as bad as ever. DeConick’s translation (see previous post regarding her book) gives us a second century gospel that was ridiculing that branch of Christianity that claimed descent from the Twelve Apostles and that has bequeathed us the “orthodox” teaching about the sacrifice of Jesus.

National Geographic has bound to secrecy those scholars it hired to do the work of translation. Those scholars are unable to answer questions from other scholars about translation issues and what eventually appeared in the National Geographic publication of the gospel.

In at least one instance, however, DeConick reports that the National Geographic translators have reconsidered their translation and independently come to her view of a corrected translation (p.54 of The Thirteenth Apostle)

April DeConick has published her translation of the Coptic gospel and compared it with some of the more sensational passages in the National Geographic version. Unlike the translators for the National Geographic, she is able to discuss the issues behind her translations, and her discussions with scholarly peers in regard to the translations, both hers and those appearing in National Geographic.

Here are some of the more notable contrasts between National Geographic’s and April DeConick’s translations:

Spirit or Demon (p. 44.21 of the gospel)

National Geographic

And when Jesus heard this, he laughed and said to him, “You thirteenth spirit, why do you try so hard?”

DeConick’s correction

When Jesus heard (this), he laughed. He said to him, “Why do you compete (with them), O Thirteenth Demon?”

DeConick further outlines the history of the word for demon (daimon), explaining that it had lost the benign meaning it held in the early classical era and had taken on the negative attributes we associate with the word in later Greek philosophical writings. More specifically, “When the word daimon is used in Gnostic sources, it is applied frequently and consistently to the rebellious Archons and their malicious assistants.”

“You will exceed all of them” or “You will do worse than all of them” (p. 56.18 of the gospel)

National Geographic

But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man who bears me.

DeConick’s correction

Yet you will do worse than all of them. For the man that clothes me, you will sacrifice him.

The National Geographic translation implies that Judas is destined to perform the greatest and most heroic act by sacrificing Jesus for the salvation of all. But DeConick believes the context in the gospel requires another understanding: Jesus is saying that Judas will “exceed” in the sense of “do worse” than all of these by offering the body of Jesus himself for a sacrifice.

DeConick’s explanation for her disagreement with the National Geographic translation is that the critical words take their meaning from its context. The discussion preceding these lines is negative, but lines are missing from the text, so the National Geographic is able to begin the passage with a new meaning. DeConick argues that despite the missing lines the negative discussion earlier justifies her correction to the negative meaning.

How negative was the earlier passage? It speaks of offering sacrifices to Saklas (a chief Archon assisting the Demiurge or lower god of this world). The specific nature of the sacrifices described earlier were sacrifices of children and wives. These sacrifices were accompanied by homosexual acts. Jesus is saying that Judas will “exceed” in the sense of “do worse” than all of these by offering the body of Jesus himself for a sacrifice.

Other translation differences

National Geographic’s “Set me apart for” becomes “Separated me from” (p. 4617)

“Could it be that my seed is under the control of the rulers?” becomes “At no time may my seed control the archons!” (p. 46.6-7)

“They will curse your ascent to the holy [generation]” becomes “And you will not ascend to the holy [generation]” (p. 46.25)

“Your star has shone brightly” becomes “Your star has ascended” (p. 56.23) (The significance of this change is that the latter corrected translation means the fate of Judas is sealed. The meaning is negative in this context.)

Correcting the National Geographic Myths about Judas (pp. 60-61 of The Thirteenth Apostle)

April DeConick sums up the sensational but false attributes of Judas sold by the National Geographic and compares their claims with her discussions with peers about this translation, and with her own revised translation. In my paraphrase:

  • Judas is the most enlightened of the gnostics — actually a demon
  • Judas ascends to the holy generation — actually Judas is separated from the holy generation and will not ascend there
  • Judas performs a righteous act by betraying Jesus (Jesus wants to be betrayed) — Judas does the worst thing of all by sacrificing Jesus
  • Judas will be able to enter the divine realm — actually Judas cannot enter the heavenly house
  • As the thirteenth, Judas surpasses the twelve disciples and is blessed — Judas does far worse than the twelve and will lament and mourn his fate

I have only sketched a barest outline of what DeConick writes here. But enough, I hope, to give the general idea that we need to move beyond the National Geographic publication of this gospel.


Related post: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says

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

Also Mark’s attack on the eucharist draws in part on DeConick’s Gospel of Judas.


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

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 tag

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)