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I chose to publish the Op. Ed. "Gospel Truth" in the New York Times because the National Geographic Society has made the Gospel of Judas and Judas as a hero into a household conversation.[1] An estimated two million people watched The Gospel of Judas documentary.[2] Their book had an initial print run of 250,000 copies. As of June 14, 2006, 1.1 million copies were in circulation and it had been translated into 19 languages.[3] Because of the hype and high visibility of the initial translation and interpretation of Judas, I think that it is necessary for the public to be informed now that the initial publications by the National Geographic Society[4] are under rapid fire in scholarly circles, that there are significant problems with the original transcription and English translation, and that these problems affect the meaning of the text and I think overturn Judas' portrayal as a Gnostic hero.[5]

I am not alone in these criticisms, but among a growing number of scholars who are now publishing independently from this vantage point are Johanna Brankaer, Hans-Gebhard Bethge, Louis Painchaud, Gesine Schenke Robinson, Einar Thomassen, and John Turner.[6] Craig Evans who was a member of the National Geographic team should also be noted. He began publicly to voice doubts about the National Geographic claims at the SBL annual meeting in Washington, D.C. 2006. Likewise, Birger Pearson read a paper at the most recent meeting in San Diego 2007 entitled "The Figure of Judas in the Coptic Gospel of Judas," in which he was highly critical of the National Geographic translation and stance.
 
The National Geographic Society in its online response to my Op. Ed. is calling this another scholarly dispute over differing interpretations, failing to realize the gravity of the situation.[7] The real problem has to do with their quick publication of an English translation based on a provisional transcription that turned out to be faulty, a transcription that was then used as a basis for the interpretation of Judas as a Gnostic hero.

The way in which the National Geographic Society handled the publication of the Gospel of Judas is a serious matter for us to consider as a guild. How can it happen that an unknown ancient gospel is first published in a popular English translation based on a working provisional Coptic transcription that had not been finished or vetted by the academic community? How is it that the media campaign sponsored by the National Geographic Society to sell us a Judas who is Jesus' best friend became the standard interpretation before the rest of the scholarly community even had a chance to read the gospel for the first time, let alone comment on it? How is it that the National Geographic Society released its Critical Edition a year later with substantial changes to the previously published provisional transcription, changes that significantly alter the meaning of the gospel, yet few of us knew about this?

The National Geographic Society behaved as if it wanted an exclusive. This resulted in the breakdown of normal academic channels where open scholarly discussion brings focus to the main issues and external editorial boards review our work and give us the opportunity to correct mistakes before its publication. In order for the academic process to work successfully, full-size facsimile photographs need to be published immediately and made available to all scholars. This didn't happen with the Gospel of Judas. Instead the scholars on the team signed non-disclosure agreements and were not permitted to discuss the gospel openly with other scholars. This meant that the work they did could not be questioned nor could opportunity for correction be had until after publication.

The facsimile photographs that were finally published over a year later in the Critical Edition were reduced by 56 percent, rendering them little more than pretty pictures from the point of view of any scholar trying to use them for serious restorative work. As far as I know the scholars who worked on the team expected that the Society would publish full-size photos in the Critical Edition, since Rodolphe Kasser announced the publication of the Critical Edition "with its full-size color photographs of the highest quality, taken of every page."[8] If this was the expectation of the team, what happened that the Society choose instead to publish reduced pictures? To my knowledge the high resolution facsimiles still have not been released, although last week the Society reported in its online rebuttal to me that it will "soon" upload them to its website.[9] Let us hope that the Society follows through with this promise.

Another factor appears to have to do with publication deadlines. Were the scholars on the team rushed to complete their work so that the National Geographic Society could release its original book on the target week around Easter 2006? The Coptic transcription that was posted on the National Geographic website was labeled "provisional," understood by its editors to be a working draft not yet finished. Yet National Geographic published the English translation and interpretation based on this provisional draft, and this was understood by the public and many scholars to be a done deal.

Perhaps even more telling, in the introduction to that volume, the editors relate that while the English translation was forthcoming, pages 37 and 38 of the manuscript were finally located and placed within this document.[10] The editors were able to make a quick transcription and translation and insert this into their book, but they were unable to reflect upon the meaning of the passages for their interpretation. This material is essential for our understanding of Judas and the Twelve, since it is the material that comes down very hard on sacrifice, pointing out that the Twelve are not making sacrifices to the supreme God, but to the chief Archons. Despite its fragmentary nature, it is my opinion that these pages are significant for the interpretation of page 56 of the manuscript, where Jesus prophesies about Judas' involvement in his own sacrifice, a sacrifice that is another evil sacrifice to Saklas. Judas "exceeds" no one except in the evil he is about to perform.

There are two mistakes that have been corrected in the Critical Edition that are significant enough to be highlighted in this brief article. The first is an emendation that the editors made to the manuscript. At the bottom of page 46 the Coptic is difficult because the end of line 24 does not flow grammatically into the beginning of line 25. Rather than mark this as a spot where a scribe dropped the line, the editors chose to emend the text and parse the line in a very awkward manner, so that their original English translation read: Jesus says to Judas, "In the last days, they will curse your ascent to the holy generation."[11] I think this is a very serious error, since the standard practice for emendations is not to make them unless absolutely necessary because emendations can control and alter the meaning of texts (as can reconstructions of lacunae). To their credit the editors have corrected this in the Critical Edition, although far too late to change the public's perception. They shifted to the most likely solution, scribal error. But because of this shift, the manuscript reads entirely the opposite: "In the last days they {will---} to you, and you will not ascend on high to the holy generation."[12]

These lines continue to be adjusted in one of Marvin Meyer's newest translations of the Gospel of Judas in the international version of the Nag Hammadi collection, a book that is intended to replace James Robinson's Nag Hammadi Library. Meyer renders the line by choosing not to translate the negative emphatic future, nekbôk, "you shall not ascend." Meyer renders the line as follows: "In the last days they will . . . up to the holy [generation]."[13] Meyer has moved the word nekbôk into footnote 65, which reads, "This remains a difficult passage, and it may be possible to understand that Jesus is telling Judas that others will try to do something to him so that – as the text seems to say – "you may not ascend up to the holy [generation]."[14] The text doesn't seem to say anything. The text says that Judas shall not ascend to the holy generation. But how many readers of this popular translation will know this?

The second mistake is the result of dealing with the ink traces in an eroded and broken area on page 35. The provisional transcription reconstructed the ink traces in line 26 oun com so that the English translation said: "Jesus says to Judas, 'I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal.'"[15] But after the editors re-examined the area, they adjusted the reading in the Critical Edition to oukh hina, so now we find the opposite meaning: "I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom, not so that you will go there, but you will grieve a great deal."[16] I am glad for this correction, but how many scholars or people from the general public know that Jesus tells Judas that he will reveal the mysteries to him not so that he will ascend as a Gnostic, but so that he will experience great lamentation for what he is about to do?

These (and other translation problems that I note in The Thirteenth Apostle) are merely my observations. As I have said in my Op. Ed. piece, and repeatedly in interviews, I do not know how or why these mistakes were made. Like everyone else, I remain in the dark about what happened. Working up a brand new text is an arduous job. I was not part of team and was not involved in its conversations. I can only assume that the task was difficult given the state of the manuscript, that it was rushed, and that the imposed exclusivity severely limited the academic process, especially its ability to check itself. But mistakes like the one found on page 46 continue to haunt even the Critical Edition, which was put out over a year later. In both the original National Geographic publication and the Critical Edition, line 14-18 reads: "When Judas heard this, he said to him, 'What is the advantage that I have received? For you have set me apart for that generation.'"[17] The Coptic expression, pôrj e-, which is a bound lexical expression, means "to separate from," not "to set apart for."[18] There is a huge difference in meaning when the passage is translated properly, "For you have separated me from that generation." Judas has been separated from the Gnostic generation.

Marvin Meyer and the National Geographic Society have defended themselves against my criticisms by pointing out that their "consensus" translation was heavily footnoted to anticipate scholarly discussion.[19] Yet, in the original publication, which the public relies on, there is no footnote for "set me apart for that generation." There is, however, a footnote in the Critical Edition that reads, "Or, '. . .from that generation',"[20] a note that appears to me to be a response to scholarly criticism raised at the Sorbonne conference held in October 2006 when we first discussed this passage as an academic community. In the pre-publication manuscript draft of the Critical Edition that we received at the Sorbonne prior to our discussion, the footnote read: "Or, but less likely, '. . . from that generation.'"

What is so disconcerting is that the Critical Edition footnote treats "separate from" as an alternative, and because it is relegated to the footnotes, as the less favorable alternative, when in fact, it is not an alternative, but the proper reading of the phrase. I have been criticized privately by one of the team's members for not keeping in mind Romans 1:1, which in Coptic uses pôrj ebol e- to translate the verse about Paul who has been "set apart for the gospel." The problem with this is that pôrj ebol e- is not the same expression as pôrj e-. In pôrj ebol e- the pôrj is primarily linked with ebol, so that the bound expression pôrj ebol means "to divide or set apart."[21] This allows for the subsequent e- to function with its normal range of meanings, including "for" but also "into" and "from."[22] Thus the Sahidic version of Romans 1:1 uses pôrj ebol e- to mean "set apart for the gospel," while using pôrj e- in 8:35 to render, "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?"

The long and short of this for me is the wisdom of the academic process that has evolved over many generations, particularly the maintenance of editorial boards and peer review for our publications. Also I think our guild's resolution from 1991, to approach the publication of newly found manuscripts by first publishing and disseminating life-size facsimiles, is very wise. I reproduce this resolution below. I plan to have every graduate student I train read this resolution, and discuss why it is essential for us to follow these guidelines even when we become involved with a bigger organization like National Geographic. It is up to us to maintain our standards and to never let this sort of affair happen again. The public, as well as we, deserve better.

Society of Biblical Literature Resolution[23] 1. Recommendation to those who own or control ancient written materials: Those who own or control ancient written materials should allow scholars to have access to them. If the condition of the written materials requires that access to them be restricted, arrangements should be made for a facsimile reproduction that will be accessible to all scholars. Although the owners of those in control may choose to authorize one scholar or preferably a team of scholars to prepare an official edition of any given ancient written materials, such authorization should neither preclude access to the written materials by other scholars nor hinder other scholars from publishing their own studies, translations, or editions of the written materials. 2. Obligations entailed by specially authorized editions: Scholars who are given special authorization to work on official editions of ancient written materials should cooperate with the owners of those in control of the written materials to ensure publication of the edition in a expeditious manner, and they should facilitate access to the written materials by all scholars. If the owners or those in control grant to specifically authorized editors any privileges that are unavailable to other scholars, these privileges should by no means include exclusive access to the written materials or facsimile reproductions of them. Furthermore, the owners or those in control should set a reasonable deadline for completion of the envisioned edition (not more than five years after the special authorization is granted.) 
April D. DeConick, Rice University


Notes

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/01/opinion/01deconink.html?ex=1354251600&en=91c478a2d5fb0116&ei=5124&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink.

[2] "The Gospel of Judas: The Lost Version of Christ's Betrayal," National Geographic (2006).

[3] Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, The Gospel of Judas (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2006). Numbers reported by Daisy Maryles, "Bestseller Bytes" (Religion BookLine: Publishers Weekly, 6-14-2006). Online: http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6343487.html.

[4] Kasser, Meyer, and Wurst, Gospel of Judas; Rodolphe Kasser and Gregor Wurst, "The Gospel of Judas Coptic Text" (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2006). Online: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/lostgospel/about_coptic_text.html.

[5] April D. DeConick, The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says (New York: Continuum, 2007).

[6] Louis Painchaud, "À Propos de la (Re)découverte de L'Évangile de Judas," Laval théologique et philosophique 62/3 (October 2006) 553-68; April D. DeConick, The Thirteenth Apostle; Johanna Brankaer and Hans-Gebhard Bethge, Codex Tchacos: Texte und Analysen (Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 161; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2007); Gesine Schenke Robinson, "The Relationship of the Gospel of Judas to the New Testament and to Sethianism, Appended by a new English translation of the Gospel of Judas," Journal for Coptic Studies (forthcoming); April D. DeConick, "The Mystery of Judas' Betrayal: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says," in L'Évangile de Judas: le contexte historique et littéraire d'un nouvel apocryphe (NHMS; ed. Madeleine Scopello; Leiden: Brill, forthcoming); Einar Thomassen, "Is Judas Really the Hero of the Gospel?" in Scopello, L'Évangile de Judas; John Turner, "The Place of the Gospel of Judas in Sethian Literature," in Scopello, L'Évangile de Judas.

[7] http://press.nationalgeographic.com/pressroom/index.jsp?pageID=pressReleases_detail&siteID=1&cid=1196944434958.

[8] Kasser, Wurst, Meyer, and Gaudard, Critical Edition, 21.

[9] http://press.nationalgeographic.com/pressroom/index.jsp?pageID=pressReleases_detail&siteID=1&cid=1196944434958.

[10] Kasser, Meyer, and Wurst, Judas, 14-15.

[11] Gos. Jud. 46.24-47.1; Kasser, Meyer, and Wurst, Gospel of Judas, 33.

[12] Kasser, Wurst, Meyer, and Gaudard, Critical Edition, 211.

[13] Marvin Meyer, The International Edition of the Nag Hammadi Scriptures (San Francisco: Harper, 2007), 765.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Gos. Jud. 35.25-27; Kasser, Meyer, and Wurst, Gospel of Judas, 23.

[16] Kasser, Wurst, Meyer, and Gaudard, Critical Edition, 189.

[17] Kasser, Meyer, and Wurst, Gospel of Judas, 32; Kasser, Wurst, Meyer, and Gaudard, Critical Edition, 211.

[18] W. E. Crum, A Coptic Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon, 1939), 271b-272a.

[19] Marvin Meyer, "On the Waterfront with Judas" (Dec. 1, 2007); online: http://press.nationalgeographic.com/pressroom/index.jsp?pageID=pressReleases_detail&siteID=1&cid=1196942552919; National Geographic Society, "Statement in Response to April DeConick's New York Times Op-Ed 'Gospel Truth'" (Dec. 1, 2007); online: http://press.nationalgeographic.com/pressroom/index.jsp?pageID=pressReleases_detail&siteID=1&cid=1196944434958.

[20] Kasser, Wurst, Meyer, and Gaudard, Critical Edition, 211.

[21] Crum, Coptic Dictionary, 272a.

[22] Crum, Coptic Dictionary, 272a.

[23] These recommendations were originally published in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 92 (1992): 296.

Citation: April D. DeConick, " More on the Gospel Truth," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Jan 2008]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=743

 
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