Sunday, December 02, 2007

Demonizing Judas-- the Gospel of Judas Revisited

Doubtless you will remember the great fanfare with which the Gospel of Judas (see the picture on the left) was unveiled. Hailed as a new window into the historical Judas and his relationship with Jesus, the translators and commentators informed us that in this document we have a kinder gentler Judas who really didn't deserve all those centuries of criticism as the ultimate betrayer of all time.

One of the problems with the media frenzy approach to unveiling things like this is that of course careful scholarly analysis of any ancient document takes time. Knee jerk reactions are usually just that. Enough time has passed now that the dubious claims of scholars like Marvin Meyer, Karen King, and Elaine Pagels about this document have begun not only to be challenged but to be refuted in detail. One such attempt at refutation has come from a scholar at Rice University in Houston, Dr. April Deconick, who has now written a book entitled "The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really says". Here is the link to the op-ed piece about this book in the NY Times.

Here is some of what Dr. Deconick claims:

"Several of the translation choices made by the society's scholars fall well outside the commonly accepted practices in the field. For example, 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."

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.

So what does the Gospel of Judas really say? It says that Judas is a specific demon called the "Thirteenth." In certain Gnostic traditions, this is the given name of the king of demons — an entity known as Ialdabaoth who lives in the 13th realm above the earth. Judas is his human alter ego, his undercover agent in the world. These Gnostics equated Ialdabaoth with the Hebrew Yahweh, whom they saw as a jealous and wrathful deity and an opponent of the supreme God whom Jesus came to earth to reveal." (extracted from the NY Times article).

Now I am not competent to assess Dr. Deconick's reassessment of how the original Coptic should be translated, but I can say this--National Geographic has already admitted an egregious error was made in the translation, making the text say JUST THE OPPOSITE of what it actually said about Judas being included in a holy or elect group. Furthermore, I can say that Dr. Deconick is right that the word 'daimon', whether in Coptic, or in Greek normally, if not almost always, has a pejorative sense in Christian texts. It does not have the neutral sense of 'spirit' but means demon. For example, we find this meaning in 1 Cor. 10.21 where the word refers to the pagan deities in a pejorative context.

Why were some of these errors made in the translation? Dr. Deconick goes on to suggest that part of the problem was the desire of National Geographic to have an exclusive, and so they made scholars sign a non-disclosure statement. In other words, the translation was not adequately peer reviewed by the scholarly community. In fact, the dice was pretty loaded to begin with, to be honest. By this I mean very few conservative scholars (Craig Evans would be an exception) were invited to participate in the process of the unveiling of this document. And even when they participated, National Geographic was determined to make as much hay as it could out of this 'revelation', even if later scholarly criticism was to show that the exaggerated initial claims were out of all proportion to the actual content, much less the merits of the document itself.

As many of us have been saying for some time, the author or authors of this document were not Christians at all. They were anti-Christians, and they had a very serious ax to grind against orthodox Christians and their faith, including having a major problem with the idea that Jesus' death atoned for the sins of the world. More to the point, and more importantly, this document is far too late to add any new historical information at all about the historical Jesus or the historical Judas, and the obvious bias of the document would have ruled it out from doing so even it was a century older than in fact it is.

It is time to stop talking about 'lost Christianities'. For one things, scholars have known about the Gnostics, the Ebionites, the Marcionites and others for centuries. Neither Gnosticism nor Marcion's movement has any serious historical claims to have begun during the time that the original eyewitnesses and apostles of Jesus lived. Indeed, there is no good historical evidence either existed before the second century A.D. And it is especially unhelpful to call something a form of early Christianity which is in fact antithetical to the claims made about Jesus and his movement by our earliest and best sources for the study of early Christianity-- the documents that ended up in the New Testament. If one is 'Christian' the other is not, or else the law of non-contradiction must be deemed to have ceased to function in the discussion of earliest Christianity.

As for the Gospel of Judas, my friend Amy Jill Levine at Vanderbilt is absolutely right-- the Gospel of Judas, like the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip are interesting but they tell us nothing whatsoever about the historical Jesus and his earliest followers, and they never did. They do tell us about some of the forms of reaction to orthodox Christianity in the second through fifth centuries of church history. As such they are important for the study of the post-apostolic period of church history. They are not important for the study of the New Testament era itself.


Robert said...

I read DeConick's excellent article on the Judas fiasco yesterday in the New York Times. I was particularly interested in what she said (in a paragraph Ben doesn't reproduce) about the Dead Sea Scrolls:

"The situation reminds me of the deadlock that held scholarship back on the Dead Sea Scrolls decades ago. When manuscripts are hoarded by a few, it results in errors and monopoly interpretations that are very hard to overturn even after they are proved wrong."

From what I understand, the tragic consequences of the Scrolls monopoly are indeed still continuing today, in an exhibit taking place in a "natural history" museum in San Diego. See this article for an example of the terribly painful situation that has arisen:

Thus, I would suggest that the real question confronting us today is whether liberal Christian scholars -- by which I mean scholars of Christian faith who, like April DeConick, proceed in accordance with fundamental scientific principles rather than any religious agenda -- will frankly condemn what is going on with the Dead Sea Scrolls in one museum exhibit after another.

Unknown said...

Greetings, Dr. Ben. This is my first time commenting on your blog. I have appreciated your thoughts for quite a while. I was wondering if you had seen the US News Special edition 'Secrets of Christianity.' As far as I can tell the entire magazine is dedicated to this kind of investigation. It seems even US News is trying to capitalize on this kind of popular interest.

Ben Johnson

Deane said...

Ben wrote:
And it is especially unhelpful to call something a form of early Christianity which is in fact antithetical to the claims made about Jesus and his movement by our earliest and best sources for the study of early Christianity-- the documents that ended up in the New Testament. If one is 'Christian' the other is not, or else the law of non-contradiction must be deemed to have ceased to function in the discussion of earliest Christianity.

Your application of the law of non-contradiction is not an objection, but instrinsic to earliest Christianity itself, at the emic level. It is also highly questionable whether it has any etic value for understanding the situation in the first two centuries of the Christian movement.

It is a fact that different groups of early Christians claimed that they were Christians (or "believers", or whatever word they used to denote "Christian"), and did not recognise others who also claimed the same term "Christian". Likewise some early Jewish groups called themselves "Jews", and denied the term to other groups who called themselves Jews. While the claims cannot be reconciled (they are logically contradictory), they are typical of sectarian disputes within most wider religious groups. In fact, one may say that this internal debate about identity is a characteristic of most broad religions. At heart, most broad religious groups contain contradictory, competing claims to 'true' Christianity, 'true' Judaism, etc, etc.

But if you simply agree with the self-identification of one group, you will inevitably deny the self-identification of another group. Now, you may well wish to make such a denial from the perspective of your modern, orthodox Christianity. But such a decision is always from an external viewpoint, and has little to do with any of the parties in the first two centuries of Christianity (none of whom are fully 'orthodox' by today's standards, you will acknowledge). So, while you can certainly impose your own standard of "Christian" and "non-Christian" on first and second century groups, you will be at odds with the self-understanding of Christian identity held by Marcionites, Valentinians, Apostolic Christians, Ebionites, etc, etc. The best you will be able to do is point to some features of one of these sub-groups of Christianity that most resemble your own.

And if all you achieve is to show how one of the groups that self-identified as "Christian" is most like your own, I have a question for you. Does this shed light on the situation in the first two centuries, or does it tell us more about later orthodoxy and your own views?

I suggest that intrinsic to the very nature of Christianity in the first and second centuries is the denial of the term "Christian" (or "believer", etc) to others within Christianity. While beliefs and practices were being worked out, the self-definition of "Christian" involved denial of that term to others who also self-identified as "Christian". If I considered a "Christian" meant somebody with the freedom to eat meat, you were a "Legalizer" not a "Christian". And if you considered that a "Christian" meant somebody who could not eat meat, you were an idol-whoring "Jezebel", and not a "Christian". Logical contradiction was at the heart of the claim to be a "Christian".

Conversely, if you now seek to stamp out this logical contradiction, you might arrive at a modern, orthodox definition of "Christian", but you won't be discussing "Christianity" as it in fact existed in the first and second centuries AD.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Deane:

So far as I can see, even at the height of the Judaizing controversy, neither James nor Peter nor Paul nor others were suggesting that those that they disagreed with were not Christians. Indeed, even as polemical as Galatians is, Paul points out that these folks agreed on their essential beliefs and shook hands on it. This is also what Acts 15 suggests.

The problem from a historical point behind your otherwise fine and probing discussion is that none of the groups I was mentioning in my post even existed in the first century A.D.-- so far as our first century sources suggest. You need to bear in mind that sectarian Essenes were a horse of a different color from evangelistic Christians. Did early Christians have a sense of boundaries-- ethically and theologically? Yes they did. But at the same time we have statements like Gal. 3.28 which made clear that the boundaries were not to be socially, sexually, or ethnically determined. This was very different from the Qumran community, and other forms of early Judaism.

The myth that seems to be behind your comment is the idea that there was a wide diversity in earliest Christianity of the first century in the same way we see that diversity in later centuries. So far as we can tell, this is false. We have no evidence, for example of any early Christian community for whom the death and resurrection of Jesus was not at the heart of the matter. We have no Christian community for whom ethical integrity, including sexual ethical
integrity was not crucial, and made that community stand out from its pagan environment. And more can be said.

One of the great problems with the whole 'lost Christianities' argument of Bart Ehrman and others is that in fact it is not based on facts about what we can and do know about that tiny minority movement of Jesus followers that began in the first century. So far as we can tell their social networks were good, and their belief system was reasonably clearly defined such that they could be distinguished from both pagans and from non-Christian Jews.


Ben Witherington said...

Yes Ben, U.S. News and Report also likes to sell magazines, however suspect the titilating story may be.


Deane said...

Thank you for your reply, Ben.

I appreciate the point you make about the lack of documentation of the beliefs of other Christian sects in the first century. No-one doubt that the purging fires of later orthodoxy weren't effective(!) However, my point about the variety of claims to the self-identification as "Christian" does not depend on the priority of any particular group's claim. Even if the letters of Paul provide the earliest firsthand documentation of a "Christian" in the early centuries of Christianity, it is the fact that there arose a wide diversity of claimants to the self-identification "Christian", and a variety of self-proclaimed "Christian" movements that existed within even a century of Jesus' death. The propensity of the Christian movement to generate new and different forms, from earliest stages (Jamesian, docetic, Pauline)--each claiming to be the most authentic "believers" / "Christians", etc--makes it artificial and impositional to now draw the line around some and exclude the others. Even if you do so on the grounds of originality or priority--a claim that is certainly disputable depending on one's reconstruction of the situation of Acts 15--one may question why one would favour one sectarian movement emerging from/within Judaism calling itself "Christian" over another such sectarian movement. I don't think that priority is enough, and especially so given the diversity which did exist from the beginning.

I note that my comments about 'legalists' and 'Jezebels' referred to the Corinthians Paul addressed in 1 Cor 8 and the group/person behind the Revelation of John. I doubt that John considered 'Jezebel' a Christian, although she was a prophet in a Christian church; and I doubt that the Conrinthians considered those who Paul considered "weak Christians" to be Christians at all.


William said...

About time someone begins to quiet all the Judas sillyness.

I was wondering if you have ever checked out this website on the star of Bethlehem? A friend introduced me to it yesterday and I found it very interesting. I would love to read your thoughts on it sometime--that is if you have time with all the other million things you do. Peace

Ben Witherington said...

With respect if you actually read the second century literature through, there is a very clear sense of apostolicity and eyewitness concern which these documents are either supporting or reacting against. In other words, there was always a sense of paleo-orthodoxy which constituted most of early Christianity, and those who were reacting to it, knew perfectly well they were a minority report, as there had always been something which we will call apostolic orthodoxy. It is in fact not true that groups like some of the sectarian Gnostics claimed the label Christian. Often they had their own labels. Marcion, is however a different story, but his was a truly singular minority report.


Ben W

Deane said...

Thank you for your further reply, Ben.

I have probably read most if not all the extant Christian (including Gnostic) writings that are dated to the second century. While I agree that many are concerned with apostolicity and eyewitness to Jesus, it would be an over-generalisation to simply summarise the Christian works of the second century as “either supporting or reacting against" apostolicity and eyewitness concern.

Concern with apostolicity and eyewitness concern can certainly be found in Ignatius, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, for example. But in many other second century works the authority is not so much believed to be provided by apostolic tradition, as it is provided by firsthand visionary or revelatory experience. I have in mind Christian works such as the Ascension of Isaiah (although Bauckham dates it to ca. AD 70), the Odes of Solomon, the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Epistle of the Apostles, and the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs (which is, in the form we have it, a Christian work). I don't see any real concern with historical apostolicity or eyewitness in these latter documents--whether for or against it. It just doesn't appear to be a dominant concern at all.

So, based on my actual knowledge of the works of the second century, I doubt that we should generalise that non-Apostolic Christians would know "perfectly well" they were in a minority. To the contrary, I suspect that in many Christian churches--such as in Egypt, Edessa, Syria--the reverse may have been the case. The apostolic Christian sect would have been in the minority, and the assertion of a line of authority going back to the apostles was a later invention to counter the existing sects of Christianity in those areas. In fact, I recall that this has been suggested in respect of the late-coming 'proto-orthodox' bishops who went to Egypt, and I think Edessa also.

You also claim that it is not true that some Gnostic groups claimed the name "Christian". This is an unusual claim, given that Valentinus (the only 'Gnostic' I referred to) was involved in the apostolic Christian church in Rome, and at least one of his followers was a presbyter at the end of the second century. But maybe you meant that ‘Gnostics’ rejected the name "Christian" only? That is not true, either. For example, the Gospel of Philip claims the term “Christian” specifically for Valentinian Christians, but designates non-Valentinian Christians as “Hebrews”.

In any case, the use of the term “Christian” to refer to non-apostolic Christian groups should not rest on something as crass as “majority rules”. The fact remains that second century Christians from many groups—Valentinian, Marcionite, Ebionite, Apostolic—claimed the self-identity of “Christian”. So to impose post-fourth century orthodox definitions of “Christian” on this period is highly suspect, and more likely to obscure the situation in earliest Christianity than to illuminate it.


Nathan Brasfield said...

oh I love it
...but then again it is frustrating once again to see how the skeptics just jump on this stuff and prove themselves to be the most biased afterall

I just purchased The Nag Hammadi Scriptures that came out this year...does this mean that I have this messed up translation of Judas? If that is the case I shall be doing some editing of my own involving a red pen.

thank you, Prof. W.

Ben Witherington said...


It is certainly not a matter of imposing later 4th century orthodoxy on the reading of the NT era and shortly thereafter. We don't need Nicea to recognize that all the NT documents in one way or another view Jesus as both human and divine, they view him as both Savior and Lord, they think his death and resurrection are salvific, and so on.

Christological Orthodoxy was alive and well in the first century itself, and frankly we already have the beginnings of the canonizing process at the end of the first and the beginnings of the second century. (Check out my "What Have They Done with Jesus?")

There was indeed a 'regula fidei' already well before the time of Irenaeus, which is precisely why Marcion and Velentinus were considered out of bounds in their own day-- not merely later in the 4th century.

The main thing is you need to come to grips with the actual character of the first century Christian witnesses which we now call the NT. When you do so, it is quite impossible to think or say that orthodoxy began in the 4th century. "Whoever denies Jesus come in the flesh" is not a phrase first concocted at Nicea.


Ben W.

Anonymous said...

The Epistle of the Apostles seems to be very orthodox, and seems to promote the apostolic/paleo-orthodox religion against gnosticism.

Deane said...

Thank you, Ben -

However, the issue you raise about the continuity of doctrines between first/second century Apostolic Christianity and fourth century orthodoxy is a quite separate issue. Whether there is doctrinal continuity from one sect of first/second century Christianity to the fourth century or not, my point was that it is incorrect to impose the hegemonic definition of "Christian" (which was reached by about the fourth century) on the situation within the first and second centuries. This is a quite different issue, and I have outlined my reasons for this issue above.

In summary, many second century groups—-Valentinian, Marcionite, Ebionite, Apostolic—-claimed the self-identity of “Christian”. So to impose post-fourth century orthodox definitions of “Christian” on this period will more likely obscure the situation in earliest Christianity than illuminate it.


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Deane:

There was already a clear understanding in the first century of what it meant to be a 'Christianos' in the first century, or as Paul would put it, to be 'in Christ'. I understand what you are saying about 2nd century use of the term Christian not being normed by the 4th century use, but that is quite beside the point here.

The point is that there were rather clear boundaries defining what it meant to be a follower of Jesus from the earliest Pauline NT writings to the latest NT writings. Second or third or 4th century use of the term 'Christianos' should be compared to and normed by that.

It is not the case that the idea of being a Christian with certain clear beliefs about Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit, the death and resurrection of Jesus, etc. first arose in the 4th century.

What is interesting about the 4th century is that when the canon of the NT was recognized, they only accepted books they believed to be first century, apostolic or eyewitness books.

In other words, even when it comes to the definition of who was a Christian, 4th century church councils agreed that one needed to go with the definition that the earliest apostolic documents suggested, not later Gnostic or even later orthodox documents.


Ben W.

Unknown said...

Dr. Ben,

This is my first time commenting on your site, though i have read it for months now.

It was nice to see the "liberties" that the translators took with those words and the impact they had.

sadly when things like this are brought to light one wonders if people hear the response as loudly as they heard the first outcry.