Sunday, December 02, 2007

April DeConick on the Gospel of Judas, "Gospel Truth" in the NY Times, Dec 1, 2007

Prof April DeConick's intriguing OpEd piece on the Gospel of Judas in yesterday's NY Times makes several points about the translation and alteration of that text by the National Geographic Society in 2006. These points and others are discussed at greater length in her 2007 book, The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says.

* Judas isn't a hero, he's a demon
* Judas isn't set apart "for" the holy generation; he's separated from it
* Judas will _not_ ascend to the holy generation

She references a SBL resolution passed in 1991 to which she wishes scholars working for the National Geographic Society on the translation and interpretation of Gospel of Judas had adhered that if the condition of the written manuscript requires that access be restricted, a facsimile reproduction should be the first order of business.

These are good points. We've had the critical edition of the Gospel of Judas edited by Rodolphe Kasser and Gregor Wurst since June 19, 2007. And when National Geographic released the initial provisional translation in 2006, criticisms were made in print by scholars such as Bruce Chilton (NY Sun, April 7, 2006) and others about the secrecy of the project, NG's "ownership" of the presentation of the text including injunctions to secrecy, and the interpretation of the text itself.

I'm going to explore just one issue here to indicate that we don't yet have a definitive translation. On the matter of Judas' identity, he's called "thirteenth daimon" by Jesus in the Gospel of Judas. While this was initially translated in NG's April 2006 web publication as "You thirteenth spirit," the subsequent critical edition leaves it as "thirteenth daimon."

The question left open is how to render "daimon." In general, I agree with Prof De Conick that "daimon" is best rendered by "demon" as it is throughout Codex 7 (The Paraphrase of Shem, the Apocalypse of Peter) in the Nag Hammadi Library, for example. In many Nag Hammadi treatises, "demon" denotes beings who control lower worlds in which humans find themselves imprisoned. Thus it is is possible to refer to the inferior creator of the lower worlds and other "demons" as (lower case) "god," referencing a critique of the creator God of the Hebrew Bible found in many of the Nag Hammadi treatises. But the Gospel of Judas is not describing a being who controls the lower world here. It's describing Judas.

So there's another rendering of "thirteenth daimon" as "thirteenth god" by Karen King and Elaine Pagels in their book, Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (Penguin Viking 2007). Karen King has a note on her translation "daimon" (p.140-141). She says that in Greek thought, the term "daimon" was used to indicate gods of a lower rank. Plato wrote that everyone possesses a "daimon" or part of the soul through the cultivation of which one can achieve likeness to God and immortality, which is happiness or "eudaimonia," the state of a good "daimon." Subsequent Christian thought will, she notes, understand "daimon" as a negative entity or demon.

The challenge is to render the term "daimon" satisfactorily in light of the entire text.


Rev Dr Mom said...

I read this piece in the NYTimes. I'm glad to see your take on it.

Robert said...

I also read DeConick's article yesterday in the New York Times. I was particularly interested in what she said 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 consequences of the Scrolls monopoly are indeed still continuing today, in a misleading exhibit taking place in a "natural history" museum in San Diego. See this article for details:

Thus, I would suggest that an important question confronting us today is whether so-called 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 part company with their Evangelical-minded colleagues and frankly condemn what is going on with the Dead Sea Scrolls in one museum exhibit after another.

Deirdre said...

Thanks for the link to the piece "Did Christian Agenda lead to biased DSS exhibit in San Diego?" and the point about monopolies in general.

I was recently in San Diego for the SBL/AAR meeting although I did not go to the scrolls exhibit at the Natural History Museum. However, I understand that events including lectures and discussions were held in conjunction with that exhibit representing a cross-section of scholarly views about the DSS and questions of origin. I'll check on this with those who were there but I would be surprised to learn that there were egregious examples of bias in the presentations associated with the exhibit.

Robert said...


Thanks for your response to my comment.

My understanding is that all of the scholars who have rejected the Qumran-sectarian theory of scroll origins (including the major team of Israeli archaeologists led by Magen and Peleg who published their official finding on Qumran last year) were systematically excluded from participating in the museum's lecture series.

In fact, as the article I linked points out, one of the lectures was entitled "Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?" which is the title of Norman Golb's book. But the lecture was given by a traditional scrolls scholar who who dismissed Golb's theory in the lecture.

Since Golb was excluded along with the other opponents of the sectarian theory, the public obviously won't have the opportunity to hear his response to that lecture. This strikes me as manifestly inappropriate, particularly in light of the fact that the museum had six million dollars and several years to prepare for this exhibit.