National Geographic Waffles on Gospel of Judas
Last year, National Geographic published, in its magazine and on a TV special, a translation of the Gnostic “Gospel of Judas” that suggested Judas was a noble character who was only obeying orders from Jesus (see 04/09/2006). The interpretation hinged on certain words and phrases in the text: for example, whether the Greek word daimon should be translated “demon” or “spirit.” Recently, April DeConick (professor of Biblical studies at Rice University) re-translated the Coptic text and criticized National Geographic for botching the interpretation. Her translation suggests a completely different interpretation – that Judas was, as most accounts of him allege, a villain. “He emerged as a much more negative Judas,” she found, “a demon Judas as evil as ever.”
National Geographic News has acknowledged the criticisms and offered some points in defense of its translation. The verdict is not clear. Some scholars view words and phrases one way, some another.
Two points in the article seem salient to the question of whether it was expedient for NG to rush the Judas-as-hero interpretation to the public: (1) The producers took a risk to get the story before the public without a sufficient analysis by multiple scholars: “Our only agenda was to interpret the text, make sense of it, and get it out as quickly as possible.” (2) The article undermines the usefulness of the Gospel of Judas as historical evidence by admitting, “No scholar of early Christianity seems to believe that the Gospel of Judas provides a historically reliable account of the relationship between Jesus and Judas,” it states. “Instead, it is seen as the Gnostic interpretation of that relationship.”
An article in Christian Century gives an inside look at a meeting last month of the Society of Biblical Literature. “Emotions were taut” as scholars debated the meaning of parts of the Gospel of Judas. It appears that Elaine Pagels, who had supported the National Geographic interpretation, was on the defensive against colleagues who argued Judas was presented as a negative figure in the apocryphal gospel. Penned by Sethian Gnostics, The Gospel of Judas probably dates from the 2nd century, long after the canonical gospels were in circulation.
Update The May-June 2008 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review has an article about the Gospel of Judas. It alleges that the translators for the show, some of them reputable, did a shoddy job – and they admit it. National Geographic has announced the publication of a revised translation in response to the scholarly criticism of their 2006 translation.
NG claims they acknowledged many of the alternate readings in the footnotes of their published edition. How many in the public saw those, compared to the millions who watched the TV special? The fine-print excuse is no excuse. They dramatized their Judas-hero fictional drama with seductive ads to make people think they were watching a historical documentary instead of a Gnostic sermon. Remember? It was presented as big news that could undermine historic Christianity. As is so often the case, the truth comes out in the back pages later, long after the headlines have done their damage.
In short, the article reveals that NG abandoned academic integrity in their rush to get a lurid anti-Christian message to the public, as if the late document had some historical credibility. Hope you weren’t fooled. Watch instead the 2007 documentary featuring former atheist skeptic Lee Strobel: The Case for Christ. In this film, Bible scholars explain why the Gnostic gospels are much later than the canonical gospels. Because of their late dates and roots in Gnostic cults, they cannot be trusted as reliable historical sources.
The canonical gospels, by contrast, were written within the generation of the events described, by eyewitnesses or companions of eyewitnesses. John was written by one of the three “inner circle” disciples of Jesus Christ; it contains lengthy discourses by Jesus, and an eyewitness account of Judas’s betrayal. Mark, a companion of Peter, wrote the shortest, most action-packed account; it is also the earliest gospel, and apparently was used as a source by Matthew and Luke. Matthew was written by another of the 12 disciples who traveled with Jesus for three years and knew Judas personally. Luke, written by a companion of Paul, is highly regarded as a reliable account by a careful researcher, who continued his work in the Acts of the Apostles. Have you read them? What better time than right now, between the holidays? They’re right there online, a click away. Find out why the word gospel means good news.