The Pokey Finger of God

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Gospel of Judas, revisited

May 7th, 2008 · No Comments · christianity, history, media

The latest issue of BAR revisits the much hyped Gospel of Judas, and has some unkind words for National Geographic and their media-heavy release of the original material. The biggest complaint was that they picked the wrong scholars who didn’t understand Gnostic cultures and misinterpreted key passages of the text. Most significantly, NatlGeo published an interpretation that read that Judas would be praised in heaven, where the new reading has the text in the negative, and that Judas was actually a demon.

A Gnostic culture would have had the True God/Evil Creator God dichotomy, understanding the material world to be a product of the Evil God and further that the vast majority of Christians actually worshiped this Evil God. It was the crucial fact of Judas’ demon nature that allowed him to understand, as did no other apostle, the true nature of Jesus as a decendant of the True God, and not the tacky archon praised by the others. Judas was still a demon and consigned to Hell as an agent for the destruction of the Christ, but he gets a nod for being astute.

This new translation was published in April Deconick’s 2007 work The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says. The fundamental shift here is in the paradigm of Gnosticism used by the translators. The magazine article in BAR, likely highly simplified, suggested that Gnosticism was a coherent, unified system, from which they could draw reasonable inferences regarding the meaning of Judas by presuming that the author was an average Gnostic. The NatGeo scholars did not make such an assumption.

In the art of translation, especially when one is making translations of time and space — and culture! — there are often many “conflict words”, or words and phrases that offer themselves up to several translations, and must be deduced from context. The Greek word daimon meant spirit, in the Platonic sense, or influence, until the coming of Christianity. After which, the word came to mean demon in the Judeo-Christian sense. Since we’re dealing with the period of time during which the elements of Christianity were coming together, it’s impossible to say which was meant here.

And, it’s probably irrelevant. The actual document we have is derived from a disintegrating codex and written in Coptic, a late form of the Egyptian tongue. This document itself was a translation of the originally Greek work. If the work was translated first to Greek, then to English, then we’re making the assumption that the modern translator agreed with the ancient one that a particular Coptic word meant the same as a particular Greek word. It’s usually not a bad assumption! But it does draw attention to the futility of arguing the sense of a Greek word when the material we actually have is in Coptic.

This is assuming that the context for translation is even correct. The codex is badly damaged, and translations on any of the pages are nothing short of miraculous. To the right is page 35 of the codex — something like page 3 of the Judas gospel. Notice the enormous holes? The codex is full of them. The translations we have are only partial because so much of the document is simply not there. For what’s left, we have these very darkened pages. On page 35, only the area highlighted has been translated into Greek or English.

I’m also having a difficult time with an interpretation which leans so heavily upon various assumptions about the writer’s theology and practice. I understand that one must make some assumptions, and I can’t argue that the assumptions chosen were inappropriate. But this is what keeps me from becoming particularly enthused about a new translation. Which isn’t to say that I won’t be picking this up at the library at some point. Expect a full report.

National Geographic has an updated news article on the new book and I think they’ve done a great job of putting the information about this book out in the public eye. Their website has all the materials available for download on a site that’s informative, insightful, and generally helpful.

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