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)
And when Jesus heard this, he laughed and said to him, “You thirteenth spirit, why do you try so hard?”
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)
But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man who bears me.
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.