Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Judas Kiss-off

~Remember the big media splash on the finding of the Judas Gospel and how it was to remake Judas into a more sympathetic character? National Geographic funded the effort and put together a 'dream team' of Biblical scholars. Subsequently, some have published books on the topic, the foremost of the lot being Bart Ehrman, of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill....who serves as the chair for the religious studies program. Ah, now we have this lovely news tidbit: Did a dream team mislead millions? from The Chronicle of Higher Education
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.

Book publishers were anxious to get in on the action, too. While scholars involved in the project signed contracts agreeing not to publish their own books for six months, three of them — Meyer, Pagels, and Ehrman — came out with Judas tomes once the embargo was lifted. Publishers figured that the public's appetite for Judas information had not yet been sated, and they were right: Pagels's book, which she wrote with Karen L. King, a professor of ecclesiastical history at Harvard Divinity School, became a New York Times best seller. By commercial standards, the release of the Gospel of Judas had been a huge success.

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.
Read the rest.

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