Another much-hyped Gnostic “gospel” fails to upend Christianity
Oct 8, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 04 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
It was the lead translator, the recently deceased Marvin Meyer, a religious-studies professor at Chapman University, who, helped along by Ehrman, more or less invented the “good Judas.” In Meyer’s translation and subsequent statements by him and Ehrman, Judas is Jesus’ closest friend and confidant, who betrays his master only because Jesus wants him to, so that Jesus can shed his material body at the crucifixion and ascend into the spiritual realm (in Gnostic theology Jesus didn’t rise from the dead bodily as Christians believe). Newspapers around the world reported on the sudden transformation of Judas from villain to hero. There was speculation that Christianity would be similarly transformed—that the crucifixion story would have to be rewritten in order to accommodate the rehabilitated Judas. Meyer and others tried to make it clear, as Karen King has done with “Jesus’ Wife,” that the Gospel of Judas was more about second- and fourth-century Christian diversity than about the historical Jesus, but few people paid attention to that.
Problems with Meyer’s translation came to light when April DeConick, a Coptologist and professor of biblical studies at Rice University who knew about the Judas manu-script’s existence although she was not on the National Geographic team, downloaded the translation and realized that Judas wasn’t selling out Jesus as a favor to his master but sacrificing him to a malevolent deity in the complex Gnostic cosmology. In short, Judas was an even worse figure in the Gospel of Judas than in the four traditional Gospels. DeConick faulted Meyer for, among other things, translating the Greek loanword “daimon,” which in Christian literature always means “demon,” as the more neutral word “spirit,” so that Judas looked more appealing. In a subsequent essay for the New York Times, she wrote of the mistranslations: “Were they genuine errors or was something deliberate going on?” Meyer, for his part, in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, accused DeConick of sour grapes because she hadn’t been on the National Geographic team. But she was only one of several Coptic scholars to criticize Meyer’s translations, which he modified to some extent in a subsequent edition.
Five years later, and with Meyer now dead from cancer at age 64, DeConick faults the National Geographic’s secrecy rules more than Meyer himself for the mistranslations. “The National Geographic wouldn’t release photos of the manuscript itself,” she said in a telephone interview. “The translators were under a deadline for publishing, so they worked at it piecemeal. They would transcribe a page and then translate it into English, and what happens when you work like that is that you can’t easily go back and see how your translation fits with what you’ve already translated. It was that process that probably led to the mistranslations. That and the nondisclosure agreements they all signed, which prevented them from passing around their work to other scholars for their comments, which is the usual practice.” DeConick said that the translation team might have been unduly influenced by the second-century bishop Irenaeus, who wrote that the Gnostics had produced a gospel that put Judas in a good light. “They were looking for that, and they found what they were looking for,” she said.
Karen King got involved with the Gospel of Judas when she and Pagels coauthored a bestselling book, Reading Judas, that came out about a year after the National Geographic documentary. King, who is skilled in Coptic, made her own translation, while Pagels added an interpretive essay exploring themes of early Christian diversity that she has championed in many of her other books. King’s translation was less tendentious than Meyer’s, but she and Pagels did insist that the Judas they saw in the Gospel of Judas was not the evil figure DeConick had seen, but a complex character who seemed to be a sounding-board for the gospel author’s Gnostic speculations. King translated the word “daimon” as “god,” another word that DeConick and others criticized as off-base (and Pagels later said she regretted having chosen).
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