What does the Gospel of Judas REALLY say?

If we think that the Gospel of Judas gives us evidence for Judas the Hero, whether historical or fictional, we might want to take another look at the Coptic.

On October 27th and 28th, 2006, Professor Madeleine Scopello convened at the Sorbonne a conference called “L’Évangile de Judas: Le contexte historique et littéraire d’un nouvelapocryphe.” The colloquium was the Gospel’s premiere in the Academy, showcasing an international body of scholars who had gathered to discuss their initial readings of this newly recovered and reconstructed text from the Tchacos Codex. There was a sense of relief that those of us in the academic “gnostic” community could finally discuss openly a gospel we had only heard about in private whispers, since the team selected by National Geographic to work on the text had been required to sign non-disclosure statements, or so I've been told.

At the Sorbonne, an array of opinions were expressed about a text whose contents were not divulged until April 9th, 2006, when National Geographic released two books for the general audience, one about its sensational recovery and painstaking reconstruction (Herbert Krosney, The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot [Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2006]), and the other an initial English translation and startling interpretation, that Judas was a hero, a Gnostic and a comrade of Jesus (Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, with additional commentary by Bart D. Ehrman, The Gospel of Judas [Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2006]). At the same time, National Geographic aired a two-hour documentary (John B. Ford [Executive in Charge of Production], “The Gospel of Judas: The Lost Version of Christ’s Betrayal” [National Geographic Channel: April 9, 2006]), featured an article in their magazine (Andrew Cockburn, “The Judas Gospel, “ National Geographic [May 2006] 78-95), and posted on the world wide web a transcription of the Coptic text.

The release of these popular materials was the public debut of the Gospel of Judas, but the Sorbonne conference was its academic debut, the moment that can be marked as the beginning of its academic assessment. Although the twenty-five presentations were varied on topic and method, what was surprising to many present was the fact that three scholars in attendance (myself, Louis Painchaud, and John Turner) presented papers with very similar interpretations and criticisms of the team’s transcription, translation, and representation of the Gospel. Each of us had worked independently at different universities (April DeConick, Rice University; Louis Painchaud, University of Laval; and John Turner, University of Nebraska-Lincoln) and were unaware of the opinions of each other until the presentations were made.

A few weeks later, on November 10, 2006, the Department of Classic and Mediterranean Studies at the University of Chicago convened a one-day conference on the Gospel of Judas. Professor John Turner was in attendance and heard a paper read by Einar Thomassen, “Is Judas Really the Hero of the Gospel?” Professor Thomassen sent me a copy of his paper and his cogent remarks are compatible to the position that the three of us had developed independently. He acknowledges in his paper, however, that his own interpretation of the Gospel of Judas was influenced by the opinions of Professor Painchaud, who was a speaker at a Scandinavian seminar held by the Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism Nordic Network (NNGN) and devoted to the Gospel of Judas (Bergen, August 21-26, 2006).

Although we are all indebted to the painstakingly exhaustive work of the team who spent years piecing together shreds of abused papyri so that all of us could have something to read and analyze, in my opinion we are obliged as scholars to offer corrections when we think that errors have been made.

My examination of the Coptic transcription has led me to think that certain translational errors and one mistaken reconstruction of a Coptic line led the team to the erroneous conclusion that Judas is a saint destined to join the holy generation of the Gnostics. The result is that certain claims have been made by National Geographic that the Gospel of Judas says things it just does NOT say: Judas is the perfect enlightened Gnostic; Judas ascends to the holy generation; Jesus wants Judas to betray him; Jesus wants to escape the material world; Judas performs a righteous act, serving Jesus by “betraying” him; Judas will be able to enter the divine realm as symbolized by his vision of the great house; as the thirteenth, Judas surpasses the twelve disciple, and is lucky and blessed by this number.

I have been speaking to audiences about this situation in a public lecture series I started this semester, The Forbidden Gospels, and I am writing a book for general audiences (What Does the Gospel of Judas REALLY Say?) as quickly as I can. It will include a corrected translation and interpretation, one in which Judas is as evil as ever.