Betrayed with a translation

judas3 01Readers of GetReligion are familiar with that mainstream media holiday tradition of releasing news stories that are supposed to shake the foundations of Christianity. Easters over the last few years have featured stories that Jesus walked on an ice floe (not water), that he wasn’t crucified in the manner in which people think, that Jesus’ father was a Roman soldier named Pantera, not Joseph, and that Jesus didn’t die on the cross so much as pass out after being doped up.

Easter 2006 featured an unrelenting public relations offensive (emphasis on offensive) by the National Geographic Society and its National Geographic magazine that argued that Judas was unfairly maligned by Christians. The story was covered far and wide by all the major media outlets. A later update on the story hasn’t received as much coverage — not by a long shot — but I thought it worth highlighting. In a New York Times op-ed, April DeConick, a professor of Biblical studies at Rice University, argues that National Geographic got the story wrong:

Amid much publicity last year, the National Geographic Society announced that a lost 3rd-century religious text had been found, the Gospel of Judas Iscariot. The shocker: Judas didn’t betray Jesus. Instead, Jesus asked Judas, his most trusted and beloved disciple, to hand him over to be killed. Judas’s reward? Ascent to heaven and exaltation above the other disciples.

It was a great story. Unfortunately, after re-translating the society’s transcription of the Coptic text, I have found that the actual meaning is vastly different. While National Geographic’s translation supported the provocative interpretation of Judas as a hero, a more careful reading makes clear that Judas is not only no hero, he is a demon.

DeConick says National Geographic’s scholars didn’t translate according to accepted practices, which led to problems. A reference to Judas as daimon was translated as spirit. The word for spirit is pneuma, DeConick says, and in Gnostic literature, daimon is always demon. There are other errors:

Likewise, Judas is not set apart “for” the holy generation, as the National Geographic translation says, he is separated “from” it. He does not receive the mysteries of the kingdom because “it is possible for him to go there.” He receives them because Jesus tells him that he can’t go there, and Jesus doesn’t want Judas to betray him out of ignorance. Jesus wants him informed, so that the demonic Judas can suffer all that he deserves.

Perhaps the most egregious mistake I found was a single alteration made to the original Coptic. According to the National Geographic translation, Judas’s ascent to the holy generation would be cursed. But it’s clear from the transcription that the scholars altered the Coptic original, which eliminated a negative from the original sentence. In fact, the original states that Judas will “not ascend to the holy generation.” To its credit, National Geographic has acknowledged this mistake, albeit far too late to change the public misconception.

DeConick has some interesting things to say about the Gospel of Judas and how it mocked Christians’ belief in the atoning value of Jesus’ death and in the effectiveness of the Eucharist. But the point of her op-ed is that the mistakes or errors made by National Geographic could have been avoided. She praises their work in reconstructing the crumbling text, then:

That said, I think the big problem is that National Geographic wanted an exclusive. So it required its scholars to sign nondisclosure statements, to not discuss the text with other experts before publication. The best scholarship is done when life-sized photos of each page of a new manuscript are published before a translation, allowing experts worldwide to share information as they independently work through the text.

It’s a lesson I’ve learned again and again. When going for a scoop, reporters risk sacrificing the quality of their work. This revelation about the allegedly shoddy work of National Geographic couldn’t get a fraction of the publicity of the original story, which is why we should be careful the first time around.

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  • http://www.nhreligion.com Stephen A.

    Hear that? That’s the sound of Gnostics quietly dismantling their shrines to Judas, and about a dozen books on the Judas Gospel being pulled off the shelves at B&N and Borders. Incredible, but not a surprise, that the media got this one wrong – big time.

    And the clickity, clack, clack you’re hearing now is the sound of keyboards at Newsweek, TIME and US News & World Report banging out this year’s “shocker” story about Christianity. Any guesses what it will be THIS year?

  • http://wildfaith.blogspot.com/ Darrell Grizzle

    Actually, Dr. DeConick’s interpretation of the Gospel of Judas is old news; it has been on the internet for at least 8 or 9 months now (at her own blog as well as other sites), and her book on this subject, “The Thirteenth Apostle,” was published in October. Have any other scholars of Coptic literature joined her in her interpretation, or is she is a lone voice in the wilderness?

  • Wade Greiner

    In light of full disclosure, I am April’s husband, and so not unbiased, but to answer Darrell’s question, several scholars independently came to the same conclusion as April on this. As soon as the Coptic text became available to other scholars April thought something was wrong and so did several others. Louis Painchaud presented a talk in October 2006 in Canada saying Judas was still bad for reasons very similar to what April says. Several scholars have now said similar things including (but not limited to) John Turner and Birger Pearson. April recently found out there is a book just published by German scholars saying pretty much the same thing as she did. The interesting thing to me is that all these scholars came to very similar conclusions, for similar reasons, independently of one another.

  • Chris Bolinger

    I think the big problem is that National Geographic wanted an exclusive. So it required its scholars to sign nondisclosure statements, to not discuss the text with other experts before publication.

    That doesn’t explain the errors. The errors are due to one of two things: poor analysis or deliberate obfuscation. In other words, either the scholars (or the authors) were incompetent or they lied.

    it’s clear from the transcription that the scholars altered the Coptic original

    Well, there you go.

  • Martha

    Oh, I’m not one bit surprised, either that a supposedly-reputable and scholarly (hah!) organisation fell over its own feet trying to get the sexy hot scoop out for maximum exposure (and money) as quickly as possible, and the boring old-fashioned work of research was too slow for the PR geniuses, nor that the mainstream media lapped up a scoop and can’t be bothered to treat the corrections and retractions in the same splashy, flashy manner.

    How many front page screaming headlines about “Joe Soap in Love Rat Drunken Road Rage Drug-Fuelled Frenzy” do we see, and then the “Correction: When we said Mr Joseph Soap was arrested for a traffic offence, we intimated he was under the influence of intoxicants. Mr Soap’s lawyers have informed us this was not so and requested that we publish this amendment” in a tiny paragraph tucked away on page 28?

    The only surprise is what story they’ll splash all over the magazine covers this year: done the Magi thing, done the star thing; done the Pantera thing; hmm – how about the ‘wasn’t actually born on December 25th thing’? Been a while since we pulled that one out…

  • Torin

    Agathos Daemon = The Good Spirit. Maybe instead of relying on accepted bible translating practices, they were stirring the pot some. Maybe they were relying on non biblical translation “policies” and using secular Greek translations. It seems to be the practice in the Press to use minority opinions in the sciences to create controversy. Just look at Intelligent Deign or resent archeology discoveries in the Holy Land.

    Controversy = increased Nelson ratings.

  • Pingback: The Gospel of Judas and the need for languages « Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    I don’t think I understand. The translation errors cited refer to Greek words, but the original was in Coptic. Were the translators working off a Greek manuscript, and then the Coptic original came to light, or what?

  • Ian

    Joel –

    Coptic is an Egyptian language with heavy Greek influences (it even uses a slightly modified Greek alphabet), and tends to borrow technical and theological vocabular directly from the Greek original. Thus, the Coptic translation for the Greek work “daimon” would simply be “daimon” and so on.

  • http://www.chasclifton.com/blogger.html Chas S. Clifton

    I cannot speak to issues of Coptic translation, but I was under the impression that “daimon” in Greek had more shades of meaning than does the English “demon.”

    It could be a guardian spirit, for instance — Socrates’ daimon — and I think the late Platonists kept up that meaning through the 4th century CE at least.

  • http://www.chasclifton.com/blogger.html Chas S. Clifton

    I cannot speak to issues of Coptic translation, but I was under the impression that “daimon” in Greek had more shades of meaning than does the English “demon.”

    It could be a guardian spirit, for instance — Socrates’ daimon — and I think the late Platonists kept up that meaning through the 4th century CE at least, insisting that every person had a “daimon.” And there may be other meanings as well.

    So which meaning and context are intended in the Gospel of Judas? When did Christians attach a purely pejorative meaning to “daimon”?

  • http://wildfaith.blogspot.com/ Darrell Grizzle

    To Wade Greiner: Thank you for answering a question I’ve been wondering about for some time.

  • Ian

    It is true what you say, Chas, about daimon having several shades of meaning in Greek generally. I believe that DeConick’s argument, though, is that in Christian, and for her purposes specifically Gnostic, literature, the term is used consistently and unambiguously in a negative sense. I suspect that she’s right, but am certainly not in command of all the literature myself.

  • Dale

    So which meaning and context are intended in the Gospel of Judas? When did Christians attach a purely pejorative meaning to “daimon”?

    The first question was answered by Prof. DeConick in her NY Times editorial:

    in one instance the National Geographic transcription refers to Judas as a “daimon,” which the society’s experts have translated as “spirit.” Actually, the universally accepted word for “spirit” is “pneuma ” — in Gnostic literature “daimon” is always taken to mean “demon.”

    As to the second question, I don’t think there was a time when Christians attached a purely pejorative sense to the word. Many early Christians struggled with the belief that the “daemons” or lesser gods would punish them for abandoning the pagan religious rites for the Christian God. That wasn’t an idea they came up with; that was the claim made by the pagan priests and aristocracy.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    National Geographpic was just trying to play in the ball field of the big MSM news organizations. In doing so they cut corners in many ways, sensationalized intellectual garbage, and destroyed their reputation as a serious journal in the process. As a result many Christians have cancelled their subscriptions–including those in my family. These are well-deserved cancellations because the whole episode shows how much NG debased itself in order to gain some headlines and thereby sell some books.

  • Ken

    Do reporters have any notion that “gospel” is a literary form, and doesn’t denote an authoritative religious document? The 4 “gospels” of the New Testament are authoritative because the Christian community recognized their authority. These other “gospels” were, I suppose recognized in their communities, but those communities are gone. Is this such a hard concept to grasp?

  • http://www.chasclifton.com/blogger.html Chas S. Clifton

    Dale might be confusing “spirit” and “spirit” in English.

    Pneuma (as in pneumatic tire) is the life spirit, the breath of life.

    Daimon, if I understand the difference correctly, is the guardian spirit, more of a non-physical intelligence of some sort.


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