Monday, May 26, 2008

National Geographic's Serious Error About a "Good" Judas

The 2006 National Geographic special on The Gospel of Judas was wrong about Judas being a "hero." Actually, the correct interpretation of GJ is that Judas is even more villainous than how he is portrayed in the biblical Gospels.

To see how people ate this up "Good Judas" stuff up check out these reviews at For the debunking of the "Good Judas" interpretation see this essay in the current Chronicle Review. To whet your appetite, here are some direct quotes from this essay.

“In all of its materials, the view of Judas as good guy was front and center. In an online video clip, Meyer calls the text's Judas the "most insightful and the most loyal of all the disciples." In Ehrman's essay, Judas is "Jesus' closest friend, the one who understood Jesus better than anyone else, who turned Jesus over to the authorities because Jesus wanted him to do so." The teaser on the documentary's DVD case asks, "What if this account turned Jesus' betrayal on its head, and in it the villain became a hero?" The discovery of an ancient document titled "The Gospel of Judas" is exciting enough. But the twist of a good Judas — well, that's a great story."

"Reporters ate it up. Word of the discovery made the front pages of newspapers around the world. "Ancient Text Says Jesus Asked Judas to Hand Him to the Romans" was The Arizona Republic's headline. USA Today said the gospel "recasts" Judas. The Austin American-Statesman put it this way: "Ancient Judas as 'good guy,' not Jesus' betrayer." More than seven million viewers tuned in to see the documentary (counting the first couple of reruns), and 300,000 copies of the book containing the translation and the critical essays are now in print. The barrage of media coverage, aided by the good-Judas spin, seemed to have the desired effect.”

“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?

"Maybe because they were looking for him. “ [Emphasis mine]

The fiercest criticism of the National Geographic team came in the form of a New York Times opinion essay by DeConick, published in December. It is, like the professor herself, plain-spoken and blunt. She writes that "a more careful reading" makes it clear that Judas is no hero, implying, none too subtly, that the National Geographic team was not careful. She accuses its members of making "serious mistakes" and wonders aloud whether they are guilty of intentional mistranslation. "Were they genuine errors, or was something more deliberate going on?" she writes. "This is the question of the hour, and I do not have a satisfactory answer."

“Some of the sharpest digs have been reserved for Ehrman, who was the first member of the National Geographic team to publish a book on Judas. Publicly Ehrman has been the most vocal in embracing Judas as hero, and he has been pilloried for it. Scholar after scholar at the Rice conference took shots at him. Turner said he didn't read Ehrman's book because he "wouldn't expect to learn anything from it."

Ehrman thinks he has been unfairly caricatured as a cheerleader for the positive Judas theory.”

“Then, concerned that she has been too harsh, DeConick tries to soften the blow. "I don't want you to print that they messed up," she says. "Say there were errors. There were serious errors."”