May 27, 2008


The Betrayal of Judas: Did a 'dream team' of biblical scholars mislead millions? (THOMAS BARTLETT, May 30, 2008, Chronicle Review)

Marvin Meyer was eating breakfast when his cellphone buzzed. Meyer, a professor of religious studies at Chapman University, has a mostly gray beard and an athletic build left over from his basketball days. His friends call him "the Velvet Hammer" for his mild demeanor. He's a nice guy.

The voice on the other end belonged to a representative of the National Geographic Society. They were working on a project and wanted his help.

"That's very interesting," he remembers saying. "What do you have in mind?"

"We can't tell you," was the reply.

That was not the answer he expected.

"Let me see if I understand this," Meyer said. "You'd like me to agree to do a project with you, but you won't tell me what that project is. Is that right?"


He would have to sign a nondisclosure agreement first — which, in the end, he agreed to do. Not long afterward, Meyer found himself locked in an office in Washington, with a desk, a pile of dictionaries and lexicons, and one of the most sought-after religious texts in recent history, the Gospel of Judas. For a week he worked almost nonstop on the 26-page text, translating the Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language written with Greek letters, into English. As he translated, a startling portrait of Judas Iscariot emerged. This was not the reviled traitor who betrayed Jesus with a kiss. This was the trusted disciple, the close confidant, the friend. This was a revelation.

When the Gospel of Judas was unveiled at a news conference in April 2006, it made headlines around the world — with nearly all of those articles touting the new and improved Judas. "In Ancient Document, Judas, Minus the Betrayal," read the headline in The New York Times. The British paper The Guardian called it "a radical makeover for one of the worst reputations in history." A documentary that aired a few days later on National Geographic's cable channel also pushed the Judas-as-hero theme. The premiere attracted four million viewers, making it the second-highest-rated program in the channel's history, behind only a documentary on September 11.

But almost immediately, other scholars began to take issue with the interpretation of Meyer and the rest of the National Geographic team. They didn't see a good Judas at all. In fact, this Judas seemed more evil than ever. Those early voices of dissent have since grown into a chorus, some of whom argue that National Geographic's handling of the project amounts to scholarly malpractice. It's a perfect example, critics argue, of what can happen when commercial considerations are allowed to ride roughshod over careful research. What's more, the controversy has strained friendships in this small community of religion scholars — causing some on both sides of the argument to feel, in a word, betrayed. [...]

In all of its materials, the view of Judas as good guy was front and center. In an online video clip, Meyer calls the text's Judas the "most insightful and the most loyal of all the disciples." In Ehrman's essay, Judas is "Jesus' closest friend, the one who understood Jesus better than anyone else, who turned Jesus over to the authorities because Jesus wanted him to do so." The teaser on the documentary's DVD case asks, "What if this account turned Jesus' betrayal on its head, and in it the villain became a hero?" The discovery of an ancient document titled "The Gospel of Judas" is exciting enough. But the twist of a good Judas — well, that's a great story.

Reporters ate it up. Word of the discovery made the front pages of newspapers around the world. "Ancient Text Says Jesus Asked Judas to Hand Him to the Romans" was The Arizona Republic's headline. USA Today said the gospel "recasts" Judas. The Austin American-Statesman put it this way: "Ancient Judas as 'good guy,' not Jesus' betrayer." More than seven million viewers tuned in to see the documentary (counting the first couple of reruns), and 300,000 copies of the book containing the translation and the critical essays are now in print. The barrage of media coverage, aided by the good-Judas spin, seemed to have the desired effect.

Book publishers were anxious to get in on the action, too. While scholars involved in the project signed contracts agreeing not to publish their own books for six months, three of them — Meyer, Pagels, and Ehrman — came out with Judas tomes once the embargo was lifted. Publishers figured that the public's appetite for Judas information had not yet been sated, and they were right: Pagels's book, which she wrote with Karen L. King, a professor of ecclesiastical history at Harvard Divinity School, became a New York Times best seller. By commercial standards, the release of the Gospel of Judas had been a huge success.

One of the seven million people who watched the National Geographic documentary was April D. DeConick. Admittedly, DeConick, a professor of biblical studies at Rice University, was not your average viewer. As a Coptologist, she had long been aware of the existence of the Gospel of Judas and was friends with several of those who had worked on the so-called dream team. It's fair to say she watched the documentary with special interest.

As soon as the show ended, she went to her computer and downloaded the English translation from the National Geographic Web site. Almost immediately she began to have concerns. From her reading, even in translation, it seemed obvious that Judas was not turning in Jesus as a friendly gesture, but rather sacrificing him to a demon god named Saklas. This alone would suggest, strongly, that Judas was not acting with Jesus' best interests in mind — which would undercut the thesis of the National Geographic team. She turned to her husband, Wade, and said: "Oh no. Something is really wrong."

She started the next day on her own translation of the Coptic transcription, also posted on the National Geographic Web site. That's when she came across what she considered a major, almost unbelievable error. It had to do with the translation of the word "daimon," which Jesus uses to address Judas. The National Geographic team translates this as "spirit," an unusual choice and inconsistent with translations of other early Christian texts, where it is usually rendered as "demon." In this passage, however, Jesus' calling Judas a demon would completely alter the meaning. "O 13th spirit, why do you try so hard?" becomes "O 13th demon, why do you try so hard?" A gentle inquiry turns into a vicious rebuke.

Then there's the number 13. The Gospel of Judas is thought to have been written by a sect of Gnostics known as Sethians, for whom the number 13 would indicate a realm ruled by the demon Ialdabaoth. Calling someone a demon from the 13th realm would not be a compliment. In another passage, the National Geographic translation says that Judas "would ascend to the holy generation." But DeConick says it's clear from the transcription that a negative has been left out and that Judas will not ascend to the holy generation (this error has been corrected in the second edition). DeConick also objected to a phrase that says Judas has been "set apart for the holy generation." She argues it should be translated "set apart from the holy generation" — again, the opposite meaning. In the later critical edition, the National Geographic translators offer both as legitimate possibilities.

These discoveries filled her with dread.

When the marketing campaign comes first the translation is bound to be sketchy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 27, 2008 12:12 PM

It's what happens when you get the wrong headpiece to the staff of Ra.

Posted by: narciso at May 27, 2008 7:05 PM

He chose poorly.

Posted by: ratbert at May 27, 2008 10:26 PM

Yet another reason I discontinued my National Geographic subscription that I had since I was a kid.

Posted by: Dreadnought at May 28, 2008 6:01 AM

I cancelled my National Geographic this year too. For me it was that every single article in every single issue last year was about either global warming or Darwinism. No exaggeration. I've used the fee to subscribe to the New Criterion, much better use of funds.

Posted by: Shelton at May 28, 2008 10:28 AM

Where do "Bible-based Christians" think their bibles came from? It wasn't from under a rock in an Indian gold field, and they weren't dicttated by an angel in a cave. Rather the Fathers of the Church measured the words of the various graphia--writings--then in circulation against the paradoka--tradition,the things handed down by face-to-face word of mouth. Following the teaching of the Apostle Paul of the subject,they commended the canonical books to posterity. and they discarded the false writings--the pseudographia, such as the so-caleed "Gospel of Judas" to anathema and oblivion.

Posted by: Lou Gots at May 28, 2008 12:01 PM

And due to the power of the Holy Spirit...they got it right.

Posted by: Bartman at May 28, 2008 1:11 PM