The Gospel of Judas hoax

Remember the recent furor over the discovery of the ancient manuscript entitled “The Gospel of Judas”? The media reported that the document presented Judas as a good guy, implying that the church had gotten it wrong over all these centuries and that we would now have to re-evaluate our knowledge of Jesus. Some accounts made it sound like the manuscript was written by Judas. The translation became a bestseller and National Geographic, which was behind the publication of the text, made a TV documentary on the subject. But now read the rest of the story from the authoritative Chronicle of Higher Education on how genuine scholarship got high-jacked by media sensationalism, pop culture superficiality, and commercial temptations. An excerpt:

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. “I was like, this is bad, and these are my friends,” she says. It’s worth noting that it didn’t take DeConick months of painstaking research to reach her conclusions. Within minutes, she thought something was wrong. Within a day, she was convinced that significant mistakes had been made. Why, if it was so obvious to her, had these other scholars missed it? Why had they seen a good Judas where, according to DeConick, none exists?

There is much more about this case of scholarly “malpractice.”

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Bruce

    You might dig out and read a book entitled DEGENERATE MODERNS for more of the same.

  • Bruce

    You might dig out and read a book entitled DEGENERATE MODERNS for more of the same.

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  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    You know, I’m seeing more and more “peer reviewed research” that doesn’t pass a basic smell test–you don’t even have to be a professor of Ph.D. to figure it out. One great example; I took a quick look at a Minnesota “abstinence doesn’t work study,” and they had an impossible criterion for success, no statistical test, no control.

    This is, by the way, at least the third time that National Geographic has been caught with their hand in the cookie jar in the past few years. There was the reptile-bird fraud, the dwarf hominids in Indonesia fraud, and now this. They’ve also abandoned any pretense of objectivity on the issues of evolution and global warming, pretending that no intelligent person could possibly object to the mainstream opinion.

    I would dare suggest that the Bells and Grosvenors would be appalled, were they alive today to see what has become of their work.

    And now we find out

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    You know, I’m seeing more and more “peer reviewed research” that doesn’t pass a basic smell test–you don’t even have to be a professor of Ph.D. to figure it out. One great example; I took a quick look at a Minnesota “abstinence doesn’t work study,” and they had an impossible criterion for success, no statistical test, no control.

    This is, by the way, at least the third time that National Geographic has been caught with their hand in the cookie jar in the past few years. There was the reptile-bird fraud, the dwarf hominids in Indonesia fraud, and now this. They’ve also abandoned any pretense of objectivity on the issues of evolution and global warming, pretending that no intelligent person could possibly object to the mainstream opinion.

    I would dare suggest that the Bells and Grosvenors would be appalled, were they alive today to see what has become of their work.

    And now we find out

  • Steve Rowe

    Hello Bike can you provide links for the reptile-bird and the dwarf hominids fraud? I suspect we are talking about are examples of how peoples presupposition inform there scholarship. In the case of the Gospel of Judas it seems to me that many of the scholars involved were very invested in a vision of early Christianity that privileged the many voices, many Christianity views and were personally more sympathetic to Gnostic as apposed to “proto-orthodox” documents. In the case of the reptile-bird we are talking about scientists who presuppose common descent. I am not sure that fraud is the right word it’s more of a world view question. In the case of the Gospel of Judas it seems likely that the right word is not fraud but severe self-delusion verging on incompetence. This is not to say that no scholars do commit fraud (Dr. Michael A. Bellesiles and the Arming of America is a blatant case) but is very rare. It’s far more common for a scholar simply to discount data that agrees with there theses and emphases finding they are personally sympathetic to. This is not a uniquely secular problem just look at the way of New Testament scholars deal with the last few verses in Mark’s Gospel.

    peace

    Steve in Toronto

  • Steve Rowe

    Hello Bike can you provide links for the reptile-bird and the dwarf hominids fraud? I suspect we are talking about are examples of how peoples presupposition inform there scholarship. In the case of the Gospel of Judas it seems to me that many of the scholars involved were very invested in a vision of early Christianity that privileged the many voices, many Christianity views and were personally more sympathetic to Gnostic as apposed to “proto-orthodox” documents. In the case of the reptile-bird we are talking about scientists who presuppose common descent. I am not sure that fraud is the right word it’s more of a world view question. In the case of the Gospel of Judas it seems likely that the right word is not fraud but severe self-delusion verging on incompetence. This is not to say that no scholars do commit fraud (Dr. Michael A. Bellesiles and the Arming of America is a blatant case) but is very rare. It’s far more common for a scholar simply to discount data that agrees with there theses and emphases finding they are personally sympathetic to. This is not a uniquely secular problem just look at the way of New Testament scholars deal with the last few verses in Mark’s Gospel.

    peace

    Steve in Toronto

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Steve, sorry, but it’s fraud, especially in the bird/reptile thing from National Geographic. More or less, in their excitement over this “missing link”, they failed to take a close look and realize that it was two different animals with the rocks literally krazy glued together. In their apology, they admitted their fault.

    Same basic thing with the language here; Coptic is not one of the harder languages to translate today, as it’s still a liturgical language with thousands of fluent speakers. This goes beyond worldview or competence into the realm of blatant fraud.

    Put gently, there are some basics in any sane academic (or any intellectual) enterprise, and they’re increasingly being violated. Same thing with my example; how can you call something a statistical study without a testable hypothesis or control? And yet my home state was billed for exactly that.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Steve, sorry, but it’s fraud, especially in the bird/reptile thing from National Geographic. More or less, in their excitement over this “missing link”, they failed to take a close look and realize that it was two different animals with the rocks literally krazy glued together. In their apology, they admitted their fault.

    Same basic thing with the language here; Coptic is not one of the harder languages to translate today, as it’s still a liturgical language with thousands of fluent speakers. This goes beyond worldview or competence into the realm of blatant fraud.

    Put gently, there are some basics in any sane academic (or any intellectual) enterprise, and they’re increasingly being violated. Same thing with my example; how can you call something a statistical study without a testable hypothesis or control? And yet my home state was billed for exactly that.

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  • Susan aka organshoes

    Doesn’t the same sort of ‘scholarship’ and ‘expertise’ cloud so much these days? We’re still buying snake oil, in spite of more research and more widespread higher education.
    Look at all the falsehood offered as proof in so many areas, all with the hope of changing our behaviors, beliefs, and ultimately who we are.
    I firmly believe these ‘experts’ think that their lies and obfuscations are for our benefit. They only want to help us.
    What talking-down and elitism. What hubris.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    Doesn’t the same sort of ‘scholarship’ and ‘expertise’ cloud so much these days? We’re still buying snake oil, in spite of more research and more widespread higher education.
    Look at all the falsehood offered as proof in so many areas, all with the hope of changing our behaviors, beliefs, and ultimately who we are.
    I firmly believe these ‘experts’ think that their lies and obfuscations are for our benefit. They only want to help us.
    What talking-down and elitism. What hubris.

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  • Ed

    Dear G. E. Veith:

    I think a number of things I’m seeing on this page are written a bit too hastily or too harshly:

    1.) The Gospel of Judas is not a hoax. It is an actually existing ancient document. I presume you really mean “the translation of the Gospel of Judas promulgated by National Geographic is a hoax.” But even that is not supported by the article (at least in my opinion)–it seems rather that the scholars involved were hurt by being pressed into exclusivity by National Geographic, insofar as this obstructed their ability to be fully double-checked by their fellow scholars. (More on the question of hoax or no hoax below.) I don’t disagree with you that “genuine scholarship got high-jacked by media sensationalism, pop culture superficiality, and commercial temptations,” but I don’t think that means that these scholars pulled off a hoax.

    2.) One commenter, Steve Rowe, wrote: “I suspect we are talking about are examples of how peoples presupposition inform there scholarship. In the case of the Gospel of Judas it seems to me that many of the scholars involved were very invested in a vision of early Christianity that privileged the many voices, many Christianity views and were personally more sympathetic to Gnostic as apposed to ‘proto-orthodox’ documents.”

    On the one hand, I think Steve Rowe speaks for moderation in evaluating these scholars: “I am not sure that fraud is the right word it’s more of a world view question.” I agree with him that fraud or hoax is a little strong, since it implies that these scholars were trying to hoodwink people, which I don’t think they were.

    As for an investment “in a vision of early Christianity that privileged the many voices” on the part of these scholars, I’m not sure that’s right plcae to find the problem–at least if we’re going to take April DeConick seriously. She claims that the real problem was not being influenced by the gnostics, but just the reverse: the scholars made mistakes because they were too strongly influenced by the _traditional Christian_ take on gnostics! Go to the very next paragraph after the passage quoted by Veith:

    “…Why had they seen a good Judas where, according to DeConick, none exists?

    “Maybe because they were looking for him. The first reference to the Gospel of Judas was made by St. Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, in Against Heresies, written around 180. Irenaeus was not a fan of the Gospel of Judas, which he deemed a heretical text (though it’s not known whether he actually read the gospel or had only heard rumors about it). Until the Coptic manuscript surfaced in the 1970s, Irenaeus’ mention of the gospel was the only known reference. Irenaeus wrote that the gospel portrayed Judas as ‘knowing the truth as no others did.’ It was an intriguing statement and suggestive of a more positive Judas.

    “DeConick thinks the translators were overly influenced by Irenaeus and read the gospel with his interpretation in mind. If you come to the gospel free of preconceptions, she argues, then it’s clear that Judas is evil and cursed, not holy and chosen.”

    So, according to DeConick, it’s NOT some weird postmodern academic tendency to love gnostics that caused the mis-reading, but rather the fact that those scholars listened too closely to the _traditional Christian attacks_ on gnostics!

  • Ed

    Dear G. E. Veith:

    I think a number of things I’m seeing on this page are written a bit too hastily or too harshly:

    1.) The Gospel of Judas is not a hoax. It is an actually existing ancient document. I presume you really mean “the translation of the Gospel of Judas promulgated by National Geographic is a hoax.” But even that is not supported by the article (at least in my opinion)–it seems rather that the scholars involved were hurt by being pressed into exclusivity by National Geographic, insofar as this obstructed their ability to be fully double-checked by their fellow scholars. (More on the question of hoax or no hoax below.) I don’t disagree with you that “genuine scholarship got high-jacked by media sensationalism, pop culture superficiality, and commercial temptations,” but I don’t think that means that these scholars pulled off a hoax.

    2.) One commenter, Steve Rowe, wrote: “I suspect we are talking about are examples of how peoples presupposition inform there scholarship. In the case of the Gospel of Judas it seems to me that many of the scholars involved were very invested in a vision of early Christianity that privileged the many voices, many Christianity views and were personally more sympathetic to Gnostic as apposed to ‘proto-orthodox’ documents.”

    On the one hand, I think Steve Rowe speaks for moderation in evaluating these scholars: “I am not sure that fraud is the right word it’s more of a world view question.” I agree with him that fraud or hoax is a little strong, since it implies that these scholars were trying to hoodwink people, which I don’t think they were.

    As for an investment “in a vision of early Christianity that privileged the many voices” on the part of these scholars, I’m not sure that’s right plcae to find the problem–at least if we’re going to take April DeConick seriously. She claims that the real problem was not being influenced by the gnostics, but just the reverse: the scholars made mistakes because they were too strongly influenced by the _traditional Christian_ take on gnostics! Go to the very next paragraph after the passage quoted by Veith:

    “…Why had they seen a good Judas where, according to DeConick, none exists?

    “Maybe because they were looking for him. The first reference to the Gospel of Judas was made by St. Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, in Against Heresies, written around 180. Irenaeus was not a fan of the Gospel of Judas, which he deemed a heretical text (though it’s not known whether he actually read the gospel or had only heard rumors about it). Until the Coptic manuscript surfaced in the 1970s, Irenaeus’ mention of the gospel was the only known reference. Irenaeus wrote that the gospel portrayed Judas as ‘knowing the truth as no others did.’ It was an intriguing statement and suggestive of a more positive Judas.

    “DeConick thinks the translators were overly influenced by Irenaeus and read the gospel with his interpretation in mind. If you come to the gospel free of preconceptions, she argues, then it’s clear that Judas is evil and cursed, not holy and chosen.”

    So, according to DeConick, it’s NOT some weird postmodern academic tendency to love gnostics that caused the mis-reading, but rather the fact that those scholars listened too closely to the _traditional Christian attacks_ on gnostics!


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