National Geographic’s gaff exposed

Gospel Truth (sic)


Published here: December 1, 2007

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.

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.

Perhaps the most egregious mistake I found was a single alteration made to the original Coptic. According to the National Geographic translation, Judas’s ascent to the holy generation would be cursed. But it’s clear from the transcription that the scholars altered the Coptic original, which eliminated a negative from the original sentence. In fact, the original states that Judas will “not ascend to the holy generation.” To its credit, National Geographic has acknowledged this mistake, albeit far too late to change the public misconception.

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.

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.

How could these serious mistakes have been made? Were they genuine errors or was something more deliberate going on? This is the question of the hour, and I do not have a satisfactory answer.

Well, there are several of us who know and understand exactly how “these serious mistakes” have been made. The answer is that the current cadre of kooks and cults don’t believe and don’t want others to believe. My opinion, supported in the text above, is indicated by the bold, italicized print. Click on the publish data above to read the whole article.


4 Responses to “National Geographic’s gaff exposed”

  1. View from Here Says:

    I read DeConick’s excellent article on the Judas fiasco yesterday in the New York Times. I was particularly interested in what (in a paragraph of her article omitted from the version you offer above) 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 the real question confronting us today is whether 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.

  2. dpc+ Says:

    Thanks for the comment and the link–which I went to and read. There are many, many areas in our academic/religious, secularist/Christian, scholarly/fundamentalist, liberal/conservative worlds that demand a “coming out” of their proponents. What people think about certain things surely influences their conclusions other things. My refusal to vote for Mitt R. is because if he can believe LDS “theology” then he can’t be smart enough to lead the country. If people like B. Ehrman would come clean about their religious agenda it would save a lot of people a lot of trouble. But they don’t. I was educated during the hey-day of the feminist hermeneutic of suspicion. We need to check our sources and (to the extent possible) understand their agendas before endorsing or accepting uncritically someone’s conclusions about what’s important to us.

  3. View from Here Says:

    I tend to agree with what you say. There is always an agenda and a point of view — including, no doubt, in that article. But it seems to me that the neutrality (or anti-monopoly) principle is designed to preserve against the effects of precisely this sort of problem, which appears inevitable. To be sure, one could deconstruct the principle (arguing, for example, that it really protects the status quo), and the decision whether to accept it or not is itself also ultimately political.

  4. dpc+ Says:

    Yes, I think you have it: how do we have “neutrality” when subjectivity is the order of the day (witness, e.g., the de-evolution of philosophical thought and rational discourse because we can’t agree that there are any absolutes)? Therefore: whatever anyone ever writes is suspect. And the consequence of that line of thinking is: I only value those opinions that line up with what I already think (or am inclined to believe). And, yes again, that is ultimately political…

    So. What now? I vote on a new infusion of integrity into our world!

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