Further Contrarian Thoughts on The Gospel of Judas

 

By Eric Mader

 

A review of:

The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says

by April D. DeConick

Continuum, 202 pp., 2007

 

 

Caravaggio: The Taking of Christ, 1602, National Gallery of Ireland.

 

When the English translation of the Gospel of Judas was first made public by the National Geographic in 2006, I posted an essay on the gospel and issues of interpretation as I then understood them.  My essay was entitled "Contrarian Thoughts on the Gospel of Judas."  In fact this title could serve me in good stead for what I now have to say about Professor April DeConick's recent book The Thirteenth Apostle.  This new book offers contrarian reading of a different sort: in it DeConick almost completely overturns the interpretation that informed the National Geographic translation.  According to DeConick, the Judas depicted in the Coptic manuscript is in no respect the illuminated Gnostic the National Geographic version offers us.  Rather she finds this Judas to be a tragically doomed figure, a "demon" actually, depicted in the text as being locked into a grim fate: to serve Ialdabaoth and his Archons by committing a sin graver than any committed by the other, already misguided apostles.

 

Though DeConick's book is at times a bit breathless and handwringing in style, her arguments are persuasive.  If the Coptic words and phrases she analyzes in her third chapter in fact typically mean what she says they do, then her general reading, I must say, is going to be hard to deny.  DeConick shows, for example, that where the original team translated Judas saying that Jesus would "set [him] apart for that [holy] generation," what the Coptic phrase really means is that Judas would be "separated from that [holy] generation."  To be set apart for salvation and to be separated from salvation are truly quite different things.  In this and many other instances, DeConick argues that the Coptic has been misconstrued.  Most of these are somewhat minor misconstruals, it's true, but in a text already so fragmented they add up to a completely different sense of what is going on.  Especially telling is the difference between the following two translations.  Jesus is speaking to Judas:

 

National Geographic Version:

 

And when Jesus heard this, he laughed and said to him, "You thirteenth spirit, why do you try so hard?"

 

DeConick's Version:

 

When Jesus heard this, he laughed.  He said to him, "Why do you compete with them, O Thirteenth Demon?"

 

The crux here, the word behind the difference between whether Jesus is calling Judas a spirit or a demon, is the Greek word daimon.  In its Platonic sense, the word could certainly mean spirit, as anyone who has studied Plato would know.  But DeConick argues that the Gospel of Judas was written five centuries after Plato, and that the term daimon had already come too far toward its modern meaning to retain this earlier, positive interpretation.  I suspect, based on her arguments, that she is right.  I also find her discussions of the text's use of the number thirteen and her discussion of the stars and luminous cloud into which Judas moves toward the end of the gospel to be more convincing than not.  In these and other instances, DeConick's interpretation is well served by the fact that she keeps always in mind just how distinct the Gnostics considered the cosmic and aeonic realms: our corrupt earthly realm which included the stars and planets, and the realm of the true God beyond, to which the holy generation would return.  A brightly shining star for the Sethians was not something to wish upon: rather it was a sign of the iron hand of fate.  And so Jesus' comment to Judas that his star has ascended is not meant to be good news.

 

Professor DeConick's book contains a complete, new translation of the gospel, one which, in my judgment, offers a more logical progression than that found in the National Geographic version.  This in itself suggests DeConick is probably on the right track.  The earlier translation had certain odd logical contradictions that even seemed out of bounds for an ancient Coptic text.  Consider that at one point in the National Geographic translation we find "[S]eth, who is called Christ" included in a list of the angels who assist the Archons in ruling over chaos and the underworld.  I still remember being taken aback by this when I first read the line in 2006.  How is it that Seth would be listed among the helpers of the Archons?  DeConick has a convincing solution.  She argues that what the damaged Coptic text presents simply as "[. . .]eth" with the added title "chs" should not be read as "[S]eth Ch[risto]s":

 

The five angels who rule over the abysses (Chaos and Hades) are called [. . .]eth, Harmathoth, Galila, Yobel, and Adonaios.  The first of these names is probably a version of Athoth (Atheth) based on similar lists in other Sethian texts, not "[S]eth" as the National Geographic team has reconstructed it.  Moreover, in the National Geographic transcription, Atheth is given the abbreviated title chs.  The team has assumed that this is an abbreviation for christos . . . thus translating the line, "The first is [S]eth, the one who is called Christ."  But this is nonsensical.  Seth is never an Archon in these lists, nor is Christ ever made to be an Archon ruling over Chaos and Hades in the Sethian literature.  Rather, the abbreviated title, chs, is more likely from the Greek word chrestos, with the same first and last letters, but which means "the Good One."  This is the epithet associated with Athoth in other Sethian texts.  (112)

 

This rescue of Seth from the Archon's retinue is an example of the kind of clear sense of many of DeConick's translation choices.  Is she correct?  It is not for me to decide, but if she is in even half her choices, her book offers a significant new version of this ancient text.

 

Though offering a scholarly argument, The Thirteenth Apostle should be accessible to any keen reader with an interest in Gnosticism and some knowledge of the issues.  DeConick's book gives one of the clearest discussions I've encountered of how the Gnostic myths (possibly) arose.  How did these groups of ancient seekers move from more normative Jewish belief to the complex cosmogony of Gnosticism?  Scholars still aren't certain of the origins of the movement.  DeConick opts for one of the standard explanations: it is mainly a matter of the collision of Jewish monotheism with the new science of Plato.  Not standard, however, is DeConick's compelling step-by-step narration of this collision and its effects: how certain philosophical positions, once accepted, would likely result in a reconsideration of elements of the orthodox biblical faith, which would then lead to further effects, and so on.  Beginning students of Gnosticism can learn a lot from her concise presentation of what may have been happening during these centuries.

 

Among the issues crucial to DeConick's argument, and which she addresses, are the relations between the Gospel of Judas and Mark, as well as its relations with Sethian works found in the Nag Hammadi collection.  Marvin Meyer, one of the scholars on the National Geographic team, criticizes DeConick for her extensive use in this book of later Sethian works, but I suspect these later works, part of a general body of Sethian thought and doctrine, offer the best comparative material we have for assessing what the author of the Gospel of Judas might have meant.  That she carefully considers elements from later Sethian literature so as to better understand the earlier text of Judas doesn't at all suggest, to me at least, that DeConick accepts Sethian Gnosticism to be a monolith without historical development.

 

Particularly of interest in relation to the Gospel of Mark is the theme of the ignorant, bumbling apostles.  As is known, in Mark the first and almost only figures to recognize Jesus for who he is are the demons.  In contrast to this, the twelve apostles are repeatedly berated by Jesus for not understanding, and upon his arrest they scatter in fear.  DeConick points out that sectarians who rejected the doctrines of the apostolic church would be inclined to make use of this Markan portrait of the apostles to show that any church claiming descent from them must be a church of ignorance.

 

[The writers of the Gospel of Judas know that in Mark] Jesus' disciples are both faithless and ignorant.  Tertullian of Carthage tells us that the Gnostics regularly "brand" the twelve apostles, in particular Peter, with "the mark of ignorance" and "simplicity." (101)

 

Such moves were indeed, as DeConick agrees, part of second-century turf wars between competing sects.  The Markan portrait of the apostles' ignorance does not in my mind show an attempt to disparage them: rather it is in the main a matter of the gospel writer's dramatic power, and buttresses the theme of the "Messianic secret."  (I also believe, with some scholars, that whoever wrote Mark was likely dependant on either firsthand testimony from Peter or a source dependant on Peter.  Thus I don't understand the theme of "Messianic secret" in the sense William Wrede proposed: it is rather partly history remembered, partly an instance of Mark's narrative genius.)

 

DeConick also makes an argument for Judas' importance as a piece in the historical puzzle of the development of orthodoxy.  It is her opinion that the kind of attack on the doctrine of atonement found in the Gospel of Judas may have been instrumental in pushing the early Church toward refining atonement theology.  She discusses Origen's early atonement theology as a possible response to the Sethians.

 

Of course I am not a scholar of Coptic and so cannot myself make a judgment on the translation decisions of the (certainly distinguished) National Geographic team.  A debate has opened up regarding the most general issues of interpreting this newly discovered text.  What is interesting in any case is the question of why the National Geographic team might have gotten the gist of this gospel so wrong, if indeed they have.  In an interview appended to her book DeConick speculates on this:

 

Judas has been a terrifying figure in our history, since he became in the Middle Ages the archetypal Jew who was responsible for Jesus' death.  His story was abused for centuries as a justification to commit atrocities against Jews.  I wonder if one of the ways that our communal psyche has handled this in recent decades is to try to erase or explain the evil Judas, to remove from him the guilt of Jesus' death.  There are many examples of this in pop fiction and film produced after World War II.  It seems to be that the National Geographic interpretation has grown out of this collective need and has been well-received because of it. (180-1)

 

Later she states:

 

Judas Iscariot is a frightening figure.  For Christians, he is the one who had it all, and yet betrayed God to his death for a few dollars.  He is the archetype of human evil, the worst human being ever to live.  He is the antithesis of the true Christian.  Because of this, his image works as a religious control--he is someone the Christian never wants to become.  For Jews, he is terrifying, the man whom Christians associated with Jewish people, whose story was used against them for centuries as a religious justification for their abuse and slaughter.  Even his name "Judas" has been linked to "Jew," due to their root similarities (Judas/Judea/Jews).  I think that Judas is someone whose shadow haunts us. (182)

 

These latter comments in particular make for a very apt summary of the grim importance of Judas in our history. 

 

I suspect, however, that if the National Geographic team's interpretation is flawed as DeConick claims, it is not a matter of the scholars unconsciously seeking to assuage a collective guilt.  More likely it is simply a result of them working from their expectations of what the text was supposed to contain.  All the scholars on the team, for instance, would have known of the Church Fathers' descriptions of the gospel, and these descriptions would have inclined them to preconceive a positive portrait of Judas, which in turn would have influenced their translation choices--one line at a time.  Building up their own portrait step by step, and leaning meanwhile on their expectations of what the gospel was supposed to contain, once their translation was finished none of them would have gone back and questioned too carefully the individual snippets.  But, as DeConick shows, those snippets added up.

 

DeConick sums up her idea of the intentions of the ancient believers who wrote the Gospel of Judas:

 

The Gospel of Judas was written by Gnostic Christians called Sethians in the second century.  They wrote it to criticize Apostolic or mainstream Christianity, which they understood to be a form of Christianity that needed to reassess its faith.  Particularly troubling for these Gnostic Christians was the Apostolic belief in the atonement, because this meant that God would have had to commit infanticide by sacrificing the Son.  They wrote the Gospel of Judas to prove that this could not be the case.  Why?  Because Judas was a demon who worked for another demon who rules this world and whose name is Ialdabaoth. (181-2)

 

Over time we will get a better idea of whose arguments the scholars find more persuasive, DeConick's or the National Geographic team's.  The Thirteeth Apostle is in any case a fascinating challenge.

 

February, 2008

 

 

 

Check DeConick's The Thirteenth Apostle at Amazon.com

 

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