Posts Tagged ‘Gospel of Judas’

The Thirteenth Daimon

January 20, 2008

After complaining about the lack of real responses to April DeConick’s The Thirteenth Apostle, I’m very pleased to see that Marvin Meyer has at last written one, to which Professor DeConick responds in turn at her blog. Quick summary: he has a new and interesting argument or two, but I’m still with ADC.

Issue number one (after the first paragraph, in which he makes clear his annoyance at his “colleague and friend”) is the issue of whether it makes sense to consider the Gospel of Judas a “parody.” His claim is that there are no other examples of “parody” in other Gnostic literature; DeConick’s response is essentially “are too.” I myself have no idea; but I do get a strong sense that the issue is confused by the choice of the word “parody.” I’m pretty sure that Professor DeConick didn’t mean it in quite the sense that, say, Young Frankenstein or Cold Comfort Farm are parodies (one reason I’m pretty sure is that she says so); would “satire” would have been a better word? But even if there are no exact parallels, that’s not a conclusive argument. After all, if Meyer is correct, then the GoJ is unique in its treatment of Judas; is that any easier to believe than its being unique in its use of parody?

Meyer argues some of DeConick’s grammatical points; “separated from” versus “separated for” in particular. Not knowing Coptic I certainly can’t evaluated that argument on the merits; it sort of boils down to he-said/she-said (literally, come to think of it). Meyer does write as if he knows he’s fighting a losing battle on that one, though; he now admits that either translation is a possibility.

A big point through is the meaning of the term daimon; Meyer and the NG team, along with Karen King and Elaine Pagels, translate it positively as “spirit” or even “God,” on the basis of its meaning in Greek philosophical texts and in hermetic literature. DeConick et al. say that in Christian texts of the 2nd century it always means “demon.” Here again the like of me really can’t judge based on real evidence. But DeConick’s argument certainly seems reasonable–I would certainly not assume that Plato’s usage of the term has anything to do with the Sethians’. The relevant comparables would be other early Christian writings (“heretical” or not).

The one example Meyer does cite does not make a particularly strong case for his translation. It’s from the Pistis Sophia, in which Sophia repents her sin and laments her exile from the Pleroma (quoted from here, Book 1, chapter 39:

3. For my time has vanished like a breath, and I have become matter.

4. My light has been taken from me, and my power has dried up. I have forgotten my mystery which I performed at first.

5. Through the voice of fear and the power of the Authades, my power has diminished within me.

6. I have become like a peculiar demon, which dwells in matter, in whom is no light. And I have become like a spirit counterpart which is in a material body, in which there is no light-power.

7. And I have become like a decan, which is upon the air alone.

If I understand this correctly–and I may not–Sophia compares herself to a demon (and the related “decan”) to show just how low she has fallen. And clearly she’s not saying she is a demon; it’s just a simile, a particularly stark one. “Demons” aren’t good things in the Pistis Sophia.

But really Meyer’s point in quoting the Pistis Sophia is to make a more interesting argument: that Judas in the GoJ is in fact the type of Sophia and of the Gnostic, trapped in the world of matter. In this he echoes Iranaeus–not the most trustworthy of sources for Gnostic beliefs, but certainly an interesting one. That’s a thesis that needs more development, which I’d like to see. It’s not something that I remember being discussed at all in the original NG presentation.

I note Professor DeConick says that the mythology of the Pistis Sophia differs from that of the GoJ, as does whatever Iranaeus was attacking. Again, something I’m not capable of judging.

In general I’m thoroughly unswayed (albeit interested) in Meyer’s response. The “bad-Judas” interpretation, as presented in The Thirteenth Apostle, has a nice internal consistency. I can read it and it all makes sense to me (at least insofar as any of these things do). If I try to read it sticking to the NG “good-Judas” interpretation, it’s pretty much unintelligible. But I could certainly be convinced to change my mind! I look forward to more of the debate.

The Thirteenth Apostle, cont.

December 27, 2007

I’ve finished and mostly digested The Thirteenth Apostle. I was very pleased to find that the bits that weren’t mentioned in the publicity and blurbs–analysis of the GoJ in relation to proto-orthodox Christianity and, especially the Gospel of Mark–were at least as interesting as the bits that were.

A very quick recap.  In Professor DeConick’s translation and interpretation, Judas is as evil as ever.  More so, perhaps: Jesus calls him “you thirteenth demon,” an appellation of Ialdabaoth, the false god who created the earth; not “thirteenth spirit.”  Jesus reveals the mysteries of the cosmos to him not because he is one of the elect, but to tell him how badly he will suffer.  Note that in both this reading and in the original “good Judas” one of the National Geographic team the disciples (and by extension proto-orthodox/apostolic Christianity) come off very poorly; the real difference is the nature of Judas, who in either case is clearly intended to serves as a literary device, not as any reflection of an historical Judas.

Prof. DeC. writes–speculatively but convincingly, I think–that the GoJ is closely tied to the Gospel of Mark. In each the disciples are, well, stupid, even willfully so.  The author of Mark was likely a follower of Paul attacking the Jerusalem church by attacking its founders and leaders.  A few generations later the author of the GoJ used the same tactic–remaining faithful to the scripture itself–to attack the proto-orthodox apostolic Christians.

In Mark the disciples never do seem to understand who Jesus really is; the closest any of them comes is Peter, in Mark 8:27-29:

…and by the way he asked his disciples, saying unto them, Whom do men say that I am? And they answered, John the Baptist; but some say, Elias; and others, One of the prophets. And he saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Peter answereth and saith unto him, Thou art the Christ.

But even Peter misunderstands Jesus’s true nature, in the very next verses:

And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he spake that saying openly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him. But when he had turned about and looked on his disciples, he rebuked Peter, saying, Get thee behind me, Satan: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but the things that be of men.

The disciples never call Jesus “the Son of God.” The only “people” who do are the centurion at his crucifixion–and the demons Jesus exorcises(!)

Which brings us to Judas himself.  In the GoJ the only disciple who recognizes Jesus’ true nature is Judas, himself a demon, or at least possessed or somehow connected with one–and not just any demon, but the archdemon, the false god Ialdabaoth.  The disciples, meanwhile are so hopeless that they are worshiping the wrong God.

What exactly Judas is isn’t clear to me.  Certainly he is closely connected with Ialdabaoth–Prof. DeC. cites lots of evidence in the language and imagery of the gospel for that, much more than “thirteenth demon.”  The phrase “Lift up your eyes and see the cloud and the light in it, and the stars around it,” most clearly: stars are fixtures of our material world, ruled by the Archons (evil angels, basically), not the immortal world of the Aeons (aspects of the true God, more or less).

But Judas himself doesn’t seem to know who he is, and very much wants to avoid his demonic nature and destiny.  Jesus tells him he has no choice: “Already your horn has been raised, and your wrath kindled, and your star ascended…”  All the lessons Jesus has taught Judas will help him not a bit; Jesus just wanted Judas to know how much he will suffer.  Jesus is a bit of a jerk here, really.

Besides Judas’ demonic nature, the Bad Judas translation/interpretation is more consistent than the NG’s Good Judas interpretation in a few other ways.  The really glaring one is sacrifice: the author of the GoJ clearly finds sacrifice appalling, especially human sacrifice.  How then could sacrificing Jesus himself be a good thing?  The author of the GoJ finds the orthodox interpretation of Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice abhorrent.

Another problem with the NG interpretation is the concept of authority and “ruling.”  The GoJ’s position, as makes sense in anything Gnostic (*), is that Authority is Bad.  Why then would Jesus promise Judas that he “will come to rule over them,” unless Judas is cursed never to enter the immortal world of the Aeons?

(*) Whatever “Gnostic” means, but that’s another topic.

The Thirteenth Apostle

December 21, 2007

My copy of April DeConick’s The Thirteenth Apostle has arrived! I’m something like two-thirds of the way through it.

The book contains the clearest exposition I’ve seen (not that I’ve seen them all) of Gnostic cosmology, at least Sethian Gnostic cosmology. It’s a difficult subject for us outsiders, filled as it is with numerology and multiple heavens and oddly-named Archons and Aeons and other beings. But Professor DeConick explains it very well; a must for understanding the Gospel of Judas and related texts. From what I’d seen before, from the likes of of the National Geographic team, Bart Ehrman, and Elaine Pagels and Karen King (much as I respect all of them), the big lecture in the middle section of the GoJ was still a complete mysterious muddle to me; now it seems clear. Or at least not completely opaque. That without making any judgments as to who is correct about the translation and interpretation.

She also begins with a crisp little exposition of some of the other early non-orthodox/apostolic Christian groups. Fun factoid: the Montanists were like proto-Seventh-Day-Adventists/Jehovah’s Witnesses—they were formed with the expectation of an imminent millennium (like this!), and were known for itenerent door-to-door preachers.

On to the judgmental part!  ADC lays out her main thesis—that the original NG translation is deeply flawed, and that a correct translation is deeply deeply anti-Judas (not to mention anti-apostolic-Christian)—concisely and thoroughly.  Her best arguments are based on simple Coptic grammar—on the relationships of verbs and prepositions and things.  I of course can’t evaluate those arguments at all, but I could at least understand if someone argued back.

Professor DeConick’s other, non-grammatical, arguments against the NG translation are based on Sethian cosmology, hence the necessity of the afore-mentioned introduction.  Those seem very convincing to me too, but again I have difficulty evaluating them myself.  I can certainly see that she has built a consistent case in which all the the surviving text of the GoJ fits nicely, something I can’t say for the NG interpretation or Pagels and King’s variant.  But certainly one who knew more than I do might be able to argue that she’s wrong, starting with the assumption that the author was in fact Sethian.

I’ve seen no substantive argument against DeConick’s position.  Certainly the responses by Marvin Meyer and the NG team (let alone this screed) don’t count as substantive.  I would very much like to see a real debate on this, and I hope there will be one.  But until then I’m with Bad Judas.

I’ll write more on what Professor DeC has to say about the detailed interpretation of the GoJ, which is quite fascinating, after I finish her book.

Again with Judas

December 16, 2007

I just said that the National Geographic translators did not say that the Gospel of Judas meant anything for understanding the historical Jesus.  I’m not sure I could say that for the NG’s publicists.  The hype at the time, and during the TV show, stopped a little short of saying the GoJ had implications of the historical Judas, but it sure wanted you to think it might.

Judas and conservatives

December 16, 2007

More on the Gospel of Judas:

I’m slightly mystified by the way conservative scholars and bloggers–like these–seem so pleased with April DeConick’s new take on the Gospel of Judas.  Hers is really no more friendly (or unfriendly) to orthodox Christianity than the NG’s team, and she herself is no conservative.  Both interpretations assume (or conclude, whichever) that it was written by someone hostile to orthodox/apostolic/proto-standard/whatever Christianity, and neither makes any claim that it has any bearing whatever on the historical events of Jesus’s life.  The two explanations I can think of are that (i) conservatives were really freaked at the idea of a Good Judas, and (ii) The Enemy of my Enemy is my Friend.

The Gospel of Judas

December 16, 2007

I eagerly await my copy of April DeConick‘s The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says. I could wait until I’ve actually read it to write about it, but that would be cheating.

Professor DeConick’s main claims, publicized most prominently in the NY Times, are that the National Geographic’s Judas-fest was deeply flawed, that their procedures (limiting access to their own group of translators, basically) are antithetical to good scholarship, and that a better translation casts Judas not as a hero but as a demon (literally). I find her pretty convincing, even without seeing all the details.

Even in National Geographic’s original translation (the “critical edition” is apparently a little closer to DeConick’s) it’s really not clear to ignorant amateurs like me WTF the thing is about. Much of the text itself is missing, and even if it were complete (or filled in by not-necessarily-trustworthy guesswork) only an expert could possibly understand the loopy (to me!) cosmology that fills most of it, and which is deeply couched in the language of Sethian gnostics or whoever wrote it.

Going back and looking at the text itself, trying to ignore the commentary, I was surprised how little there was, even in the NG translation, that really unambiguously lauds Judas as a hero. Some of DeConick’s interpretive points make sense even without assuming her translation. Most obviously, the NG team interpreted “But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me” as Jesus’s assurance that Judas would be superior to the other disciples.  But in context (such context as remains, anyway), “exceeds” would better be interpreted as “exceeds in wickedness,” as Jesus has just been saying how dreadful the disciples are.  And it’s difficult for me to see how “sacrificing” in this text could possibly be interpreted in any positive way.