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The apostle who haunts us still

The Gospel of Judas was to make a hero of Christ’s betrayer; a closer look begs to differ

Brian Bethune November 26 2007
THE BACK PAGES

The apostle who haunts us still

The Gospel of Judas was to make a hero of Christ’s betrayer; a closer look begs to differ

Brian Bethune November 26 2007

The apostle who haunts us still

The Gospel of Judas was to make a hero of Christ’s betrayer; a closer look begs to differ

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BRIAN BETHUNE

April DeConick is a Biblical scholar, an expert in Gnostic Christianity and the ancient Egyptian language known as Coptic. Someone, in short, who doesn’t expect the latest developments in her field to become headline news. “But everybody I run into knows about the Gospel of Judas,” DeConick says from her office at Rice University in Houston, “and the one thing they know is that Judas is a hero in it.” Too bad, then, as DeConick persuasively argues in her elegant little book, The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says (Continuum), that it isn’t true.

The manuscript containing the lost gospel, a fourth-century Coptic copy of a Greek original, was probably in pretty good shape when looters found it in an Egyptian tomb in the 1970s. Since then, however, it’s had a hard time on the antiquities market: parts were torn out for quick sales, and it became dangerously brittle after a stay in a freezer. By the time people more interested in what it said than what it was worth got hold of it, scholars had to use tweezers to piece together wide swaths of text. At least 15 per cent of the manuscript crumbled into dust and is lost forever. Translation wasn’t going to be easy.

DeConick was as excited as anyone in April 2006 to hear the news that a National Geographic team of experts had prepared a translation. Media around the world trumpeted the essence: Judas was Jesus’s close friend and collaborator, the only apostle with the understanding and courage to do the unthinkable but necessary task of betraying Christ. Purely for her own enjoyment, DeConick downloaded the Coptic transcription from the NG website and went to work on it herself.

It wasn’t long before there was no joy at

all in the effort. NG’s provocative gospel turns on a handful of phrases, all of which DeConick translated differently. Judas, for example, was not a “spirit” destined for heaven, as NG would have it, but a “demon” with a far different ultimate destination; Judas would “exceed” the other apostles, DeConick agreed, although not in his reward, as NG states, but in the wickedness of his actions. Judas, in fact, was as evil as ever. The Gnostic Christians who wrote the gospel were bitterly opposed to what was already emerging as a core theological concept in Christianity’s dominant tradition: the doctrine of the Atonement, whereby God so loved the world he gave his only son for its redemption. To the Gnostics the idea was repellent, no better than child sacrifice. It certainly could not have been God’s plan. Judas could only have been acting for the forces of evil.

“I didn’t want to write this book,” DeConick says. “Some of the NG people are personal friends of mine. But when I mentioned my concerns to another expert, his reaction was ‘Oh my God, me too!’ The more I talked about what I was doing, I found all this underground support.” So how did the eminent scholars on the NG team go off the rails?

The primary reason was commercial. “I know for a fact,” DeConick says, “that the

NG team was rushed to publication, that they him.” Even if we have to make it up. M

weren’t finished the transcription [transferring the ancient script to modern alphabet] before they began the translation.” National Geographic wanted to sell books and videos, and April, as rueful Christians know full well, is the season not just of Christ’s resurrection but one of the two times of the year when mass media will make room for religious topics. So NG kept the manuscript restricted to its team, all of whom signed non-disclosure agreements. “NG still hasn’t posted large enough photos of the manuscript for others to evaluate the transcription, and that upsets me more than anything,” says DeConick. “We already know of two errors in it. If they had posted the materials where everyone could see them and make suggestions...” But that would have lessened the publicity bounce and the commercial possibilities.

That’s the practical explanation, but DeConick believes it isn’t the only one. When she discussed her findings at a conference, one colleague responded, “I don’t see why Judas can’t be good; we need a good Judas.” DeConick says, “I stopped in my tracks. I realized that people were reading Judas positively because they wanted, however unconsciously, a good Judas. Everything that could be tweaked in that direction was. I think our communal psyche, knowing how Judas the betrayer always functioned as a justification for atrocities against Jews, wants to explain him, wants to take the guilt of Christ’s death from