As a pagan in the West, biblical scholarship fascinates me. Maybe it's the way perfectly buttoned-down ministers have told me they would burn me at the stake if decular law allowed it. Maybe it's the way the whole Christian legend is treated as sacrosanct, different from all other religious stories, because to suggest it isn't word-for-word true is still heretical even among scholars. Even if all the indications are that most of the legend is simply a retelling of older pagan stories with a new cast of characters. (There's a very accessible account of the congruences here.)
So I was very interested to see, via Memeorandum, an article by biblical scholar April D. DeConick in the NY Times today regarding that most controversial of Gnostic Gospels, the Gospel of Judas.
AMID much publicity last year, the National Geographic Society announced that a lost 3rd-century religious text had been found, the Gospel of Judas Iscariot. The shocker: Judas didn’t betray Jesus. Instead, Jesus asked Judas, his most trusted and beloved disciple, to hand him over to be killed. Judas’s reward? Ascent to heaven and exaltation above the other disciples.DeConick is professor of Biblical studies at Rice University and certainly seems to know her stuff.
It was a great story. Unfortunately, after re-translating the society’s transcription of the Coptic text, I have found that the actual meaning is vastly different. While National Geographic’s translation supported the provocative interpretation of Judas as a hero, a more careful reading makes clear that Judas is not only no hero, he is a demon.
...Several of the translation choices made by the society’s scholars fall well outside the commonly accepted practices in the field. For example, in one instance the National Geographic transcription refers to Judas as a “daimon,” which the society’s experts have translated as “spirit.” Actually, the universally accepted word for “spirit” is “pneuma ” — in Gnostic literature “daimon” is always taken to mean “demon.”
Likewise, Judas is not set apart “for” the holy generation, as the National Geographic translation says, he is separated “from” it. He does not receive the mysteries of the kingdom because “it is possible for him to go there.” He receives them because Jesus tells him that he can’t go there, and Jesus doesn’t want Judas to betray him out of ignorance. Jesus wants him informed, so that the demonic Judas can suffer all that he deserves.
But, of course, American conservatives regard anything to do with religion as politically motivated - usually part of the great liberal conspiracy to undo Christianity. Rod Dreher, who blogs at Crunchy Con, read the same article and came away with a vindication of that theory.
The author of the critical essay, which appears in today's NYTimes, supposes that the Geographic was so dedicated to getting a scoop that it went to print with fatally flawed material. That's one explanation; there are more sinister ones, I'm sure.Maybe DeConick believes that explanation is because she too is part of the conspiracy. After all, she self describes as a "liberal Christian" and we (at least, where "we" means conservative conspiratists) all know there's no such thing, right?
AND she's sceptical about historians who take on faith, as historians, the very truths they are meant to be critically examining.
When miracles are attributed to famous people in historical writings - and there are many examples beyond Jesus - historians start with the position that these are stories meant to attribute certain superpowers or status to the famous person, or are being used to show the ancient reader that the person being described was thought to be extra-ordinary, divine or godlike. Why should the historical study of Jesus be any different in terms of method?Wow, clearly heretical. Nor are conservative Christians going to find much succor in the revalation that Judas was a demon according to this gospel - because it's clear from the NYT article he was working for the really bad guy in the story, Jehovah.
...The issue at stake is really not about miracles, is it? It is about apology and having it dominate and control our discourse as biblical scholars. It is no wonder that classicists and archaeologists and ancient historians look at our work with suspicion.
I am not going to get into the discussion about whether or not miracles can or cannot happen. I am tired of that discourse and all the false labeling that goes on with it. What I want us to face is the fact that we, as biblical scholars, are willing to suspend what we know about our world when it comes to Jesus and so-called historical research about him, but we are not willing to do so for other figures.
So what does the Gospel of Judas really say? It says that Judas is a specific demon called the “Thirteenth.” In certain Gnostic traditions, this is the given name of the king of demons — an entity known as Ialdabaoth who lives in the 13th realm above the earth. Judas is his human alter ego, his undercover agent in the world. These Gnostics equated Ialdabaoth with the Hebrew Yahweh, whom they saw as a jealous and wrathful deity and an opponent of the supreme God whom Jesus came to earth to reveal.So, no vindication of the orthodox version there. But we liberals must be truly demonic if we could reach back in time to influence the author of the Judas Gospel just so that American conservatives could worry about the "war on Christmas" in the present day.
Whoever wrote the Gospel of Judas was a harsh critic of mainstream Christianity and its rituals. Because Judas is a demon working for Ialdabaoth, the author believed, when Judas sacrifices Jesus he does so to the demons, not to the supreme God. This mocks mainstream Christians’ belief in the atoning value of Jesus’ death and in the effectiveness of the Eucharist.