The Thirteenth Apostle
What the Gospel of Judas Really Says
April D. DeConick, 2009 revised edition. London: Continuum
"I didn't find a sublime Judas. I found a Judas more demonic than any Judas I know in any other piece of early Christian literature." -April DeConick
In The Thirteenth Apostle, April DeConick offers a new translation of the Gospel of Judas which seriously challenges the National Geographic interpretation of a good Judas. DeConick argues that the Gospel of Judas is not about a "good" Judas, or even a "poor old" Judas. It is a gospel parody about a "demon" Judas written by a particular group of Gnostic Christians - the Sethians. While many other leading scholars have followed National Geographic's lead, Professor DeConick is the first leading scholar to challenge this "official" version. In doing so, she is sure to inspire the fresh debate around this most infamous of biblical figures.
Study Guide and Discussion Questions
1. Do you recall hearing about the Gospel of Judas when the National Geographic Society released its book The Gospel of Judas and broadcast its documentary on the same subject in April 2006? What do you remember about it? Did you read the book? See the documentary? What was the interpretation of the Gospel of Judas given by National Geographic? What was your reaction to this?
2. In Chapter 3, Dr. DeConick points to six mistakes that were made by the National Geographic team when they translated the Coptic Gospel of Judas into English. Discuss what they were. Do they make a difference to you in your understanding of what the Gospel of Judas says about Judas? If so, in what ways? If not, why not?
3. Dr. DeConick asks the question in an Op. Ed. piece written for the New York Times on December 1, 2008, “How could these serious mistakes have been made?” She goes on to say that she does not have a satisfactory answer to this question. What is your opinion? What factors may have led to these mistakes?
4. Before its release to the general public, this gospel and its contents had been kept secret from the rest of the scholarly world by National Geographic. Why might National Geographic have adopted this policy, making the team members sign non-disclosure statements? This resulted in a situation where the standard academic process of pre-publication peer review and open scholarly interchange did not happen. Do you think National Geographic’s policy was helpful or harmful to our understanding of this ancient gospel?
5. Dr. DeConick says in chapter 1 that it is essential to understand the Gospel of Judas within the context of second century Christianity. What do you understand about early Christianity from reading this chapter? Has her overview affected your understanding of early Christianity? If so, how? How was the make up of early Christian similar to Christianity today? Dissimilar?
6. Chapter 2 is a discussion of Gnosticism. What is Gnosticism? Why is this word difficult, even risky, to use anymore? How did Sethian Gnosis develop? How were the first Gnostics able to assume a Platonic worldview while remaining bible literalists? Why must the origins of Gnostic thought be traced to Judaism according to Dr. DeConick?
7. Dr. DeConick in chapter 6 thinks that the word “daimon” must be translated “demon” within the Gnostic context, especially when this is made into a title “Thirteenth Demon.” How did the National Geographic team translate “daimon”? Why did they choose this translation? How did they explain the combination of the word “thirteenth” with “daimon”? How does Dr. DeConick explain this? Which explanation makes most sense to you? Why?
8. In chapter 1, Dr. DeConick gives three examples of real Gnostic groups from antiquity. How did each of them relate differently to the Apostolic church? Why is this relationship with the Apostolic church important for understanding why the Gospel of Judas was written? How did the author of the Gospel of Judas feel about the Apostolic church? How does this influence the way that he portrays Judas and the twelve apostles according to Dr. DeConick in chapters 5 and 6?
9. Why did the Sethians feel it so important to point out the demon identity of Judas? If Judas was a demon, and he was responsible for Jesus’ sacrifice, then what implications might this raise for the doctrine of atonement taught by the Apostolic church and the eucharist ritual? How did the Apostolic church respond, particularly Origen, as Dr. DeConick discusses in chapter 7. On what points about Jesus’ death were the Gnostics and the Apostolic Christians in agreement? Disagreement?
10. Does the Gospel of Judas have anything to do with the “historical” Judas? Can it give us any information about the “real” Judas who was Jesus’ disciple? Or is it only a Gnostic parody created by the Sethians to undermine the efficacy of the eucharist and the doctrine of atonement as Dr. DeConick tries to argue?
In 2006, National Geographic released the first English translation of the Gospel of Judas, a second-century text discovered in Egypt in the 1970s. The translation caused a sensation because it seemed to overturn the popular image of Judas the betrayer and instead presented a benevolent Judas who was a friend of Jesus. In The Thirteenth Apostle April DeConick offers a new translation of the Gospel of Judas which seriously challenges the National Geographic interpretation of a good Judas. DeConick contends that the Gospel of Judas is not about a “good” Judas, or even a “poor old” Judas. It is a gospel parody about a “demon” Judas written by a particular group of Gnostic Christians – the Sethians. Whilst many other leading scholars have toed the National Geographic line, Professor DeConick is the first leading scholar to challenge this ‘official’ version. In doing so, she is sure to inspire the fresh debate around this most infamous of biblical figures.
11. Why have so many scholars, writers, and lay people been inspired by the National Geographic version of Judas? Do you think that this inspiration has grown out of a collective rehabilitation of Judas as a consequence of our guilt for the horrors that anti-Semitism has wreaked over the centuries? How has the evil Judas been used against the Jewish community in the past? Are we trying to alleviate our guilt and responsibility for centuries of senseless and needless violence against Jews by removing the responsibility of Jesus’ death from Judas?
12. Does the Gospel of Judas matter for Christians today? If so, why? If not, why not?