Readers 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.