Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Gospel of Judas

One result of my dawning realization of the complexity of Coptic is that I can attribute little or no credibility to comments about Coptic documents, such as the recently published Gospel of Judas, by people who do not have a sound knowledge of Coptic and of Greek as it was used in the early centuries of the Christian era, as well as the relevant scholarly literature. Even some people who do have such knowledge can sometimes go astray, as clearly happened with the books on the Gospel of Judas published by the National Geographic Society.

Few if any serious Coptic scholars outside the National Geographic team (which did include some well-prepared scholars, in spite of the results) find credible the idea that this "gospel" presents Judas in a positive light. Some scholars of religion who do not specialize in Coptic have gotten on the "good Judas" bandwagon, but the mounting evidence strongly suggests that they are out of their depth.

This semester (Spring 2008) I have been part of a graduate class in which we have read the gospel of Judas in Coptic and prepared translations of it. We have also read and discussed some of the serious scholarly literature that started coming out very soon after NG made its transcription of the text available online in April 2006. It is plain that the NG team leapt to rather far-fetched conclusions on the basis of very shaky evidence. It is too soon to say that the scholarly world has yet come to a consensus about how to interpret this intriguing document; such a consensus will take years to emerge. But scholars with a sound knowledge of the relevant subjects seem to have little doubt that the NG interpretation is deeply flawed. It is fairly clear that Judas is portrayed in a negative light--some say the most negative light possible. The main purpose of this gospel may have been for Sethian Gnostics to mock the "orthodox" Church (the one that has evolved into the modern Catholic Church with its Protestant offshoots). These are just hypotheses at this point, not firmly established theories. The main point of this little blurb, though, is not to offer a definitive analysis of this "gospel," but to advise you not to put much stock in the Judas-praising popular literature by non-experts that is pouring off presses for the general public. The main purpose of these books seems to be to make money for the publishers and authors, not to offer serious analyses of the text or the issues it raises.

By the way, one of the facts about the Gospel of Judas that became clear as we studied it is that it was rather poorly translated from the Greek original (which, alas, seems not to have survived). There is some rather bad grammar and some words are used in strange ways. Yes, hack translation jobs have been around for a long time!

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