Prominent scholars have accused the National Geographic Society’s 2006 series of articles on the Gospel of Judas of mistranslation, commercial exploitation, and “scholarly malpractice.” A recent essay in the Chronicle Review asserts that the widely publicized reports of the gospel’s portrayal of a “noble Judas,” including reports from the National Geographic project team itself, have been thoroughly challenged by experts who believe the public has been misled.
On April 6, 2006 the National Geographic Society announced the completed restoration and translation project surrounding the rediscovered apocryphal Gospel of Judas, a second-century text written by a heretical Gnostic sect. A documentary on the gospel aired on April 9, Palm Sunday.
National Geographic’s introductory webpage for the Gospel of Judas summarizes its interpretation of the text:
“The Gospel of Judas gives a different view of the relationship between Jesus and Judas, offering new insights into the disciple who betrayed Jesus. Unlike the accounts in the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, in which Judas is portrayed as a reviled traitor, this newly discovered Gospel portrays Judas as acting at Jesus' request when he hands Jesus over to the authorities.”
Since the publication of National Geographic’s interpretation, a heated debate over the magazine’s controversial view has arisen in scholarly circles. Thomas Bartlett described the scholarly criticisms of National Geographic’s interpretation in his essay “The Betrayal of Jesus,” published in the May 30 issue of the Chronicle Review, a publication of the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Bartlett summarized the contents of the Gospel of Judas, in which Bartlett says the character of Judas is more prominent than he is in the canonical New Testament. “He and Jesus discuss theological matters, like the meaning of baptism and whether the human spirit dies. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the text is Jesus himself, who is often laughing, playful, and aggressive and who seems to enjoy mocking his disciples. For those familiar with the Jesus taught in Sunday school, that may come as a jolt,” Bartlett wrote.
According to Bartlett, the text of the Gospel of Judas has survived in an originally leather-bound codex which is about 1,700 years old and written in Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language. It is supposed to have been discovered in a cave by an Egyptian farmer sometime in the 1970s. The codex, which includes other ancient apocryphal writings such as the Letter of Peter to Philip, was purchased by a Cairo antiquities dealer and later spent 16 years in a safe deposit box in Hicksville, New York.
Swiss antiquities dealer Frieda Tchacos Nussberger purchased the manuscript in 2000. In 2004 she reportedly sold the rights to translate and publish the gospel to the National Geographic Society for $1 million.
The codex itself was in poor condition, its fragile and torn pages requiring careful restoration.
To study and restore the codex, National Geographic brought together a panel of experts including Gregor Wurst, a professor of ecclesiastical history and patristics at the University of Augsburg, in Germany; Bart Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University; and Marvin Meyer, an expert in Coptic studies.
According to Bartlett, National Geographic’s materials presented Judas in a positive light:
“In an online video clip, Meyer calls the text's Judas the ‘most insightful and the most loyal of all the disciples.’ In Ehrman's essay, Judas is ‘Jesus' closest friend, the one who understood Jesus better than anyone else, who turned Jesus over to the authorities because Jesus wanted him to do so.’ The teaser on the documentary's DVD case asks, ‘What if this account turned Jesus' betrayal on its head, and in it the villain became a hero?’”
Bartlett reports that though these interpretations attracted an initial flood of media attention, many scholars now argue that National Geographic’s coverage seriously distorts the text.
April D. DeConick, a professor of biblical studies at Rice University, examined the English translation of the Gospel of Judas on the Internet soon after the National Geographic documentary aired. In her reading, she saw that Judas was not turning to Jesus as a friend but rather was sacrificing him to a demon god named Saklas.
Translating from the original Coptic the next day, she found what she considered a major error. The National Geographic translated one line from the gospel’s Jesus to say “O 13th spirit, why do you try so hard?" The word ‘spirit’ was used for the word ‘daimon,’ which is usually translated in other early Christian texts as “demon.” The number 13, in the Sethian Gnostic sect believed to have written the Gospel of Judas, also signifies the realm of a demon, Ialdabaoth.
Professor DeConick believes other errors in the translation include a phrase saying that Judas “would ascend to the holy generation” which should have been translated to say he would not “ascend.” Another translated passage said that Judas would be “set apart for the holy generation” where the original said “set apart from the holy generation.”
According to Bartlett, DeConick suggests the translators were overly influenced by St. Irenaeus’ comments on the Gospel of Judas. In his work “Against Heresies” the Church Father wrote that the gospel, which he considered heretical, portrayed Judas as "knowing the truth as no others did."
In a December 2007 essay in the New York Times, DeConick explained her criticisms, asking, “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.”
She suggested that National Geographic’s desire for an exclusive led it to insist on nondisclosure agreements from cooperating scholars, whose work then could not be corrected by their peers.
DeConick also organized a conference on the Gospel of Judas at Rice University, where many attendees were critical of the National Geographic research team. She has expanded her criticisms of the project in her book The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says.
Professor Bart Ehrman has defended the National Geographic Society’s actions, saying its nondisclosure agreements were necessary to secure its exclusive rights to the Gospel of Judas story.
Terry D. Garcia, executive vice president for mission programs at National Geographic, also said such agreements were necessary. "The last thing we wanted were multiple voices talking about bits and pieces of this project," he says. "All that would do was fan speculation and create unsubstantiated claims that might impede the research."
Garcia attacked the assertions in Professor DeConick’s New York Times essay, calling them “the height of irresponsibility.”
Marvin Meyer, the National Geographic project’s coptologist, said he was bothered by DeConick’s suggestion that some of the translation had been deliberately falsified. However, he did voice some criticisms of the National Geographic Society’s approach to the Gospel of Judas research.
"We have at times gnashed our teeth to work with them," Meyer said, according to Bartlett. "We have found things to be highly irregular in terms of how we do things in scholarship."
In a May 30 press statement, the National Geographic Society responded to Bartlett’s Chronicle Review essay. The statement accused Bartlett of mischaracterizing the “long and painstakingly careful” process of preserving and presenting the codex as a “rushed job.” National Geographic said that its disputed translation choices are “addressed in extensive footnotes in both the popular and critical editions of the gospel” and chastised Bartlett for not mentioning that DeConick’s New York Times essay coincided with the release of her book on the Gospel of Judas.
Speaking with CNA, Bartlett said that he was reluctant to characterize the overall reaction of the academic community to the debate. However, he said he has noted a large response from various Christian blogs and websites. He said some Christians had expressed a “great deal of consternation and concern” about whether the Gospel of Judas would change traditional Christian interpretations of the biblical figure, though many were generally skeptical towards the material presented in the National Geographic project.
He said that Craig A. Evans, an evangelical Christian and professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College who was on the Gospel of Judas project, is now “pretty vehement” against the “good Judas” interpretation. According to Bartlett, Evans feels the first translation was “problematic and inaccurate.”
Bartlett also addressed the National Geographic Society’s characterization of his Chronicle Review essay saying it was “inaccurate in a number of ways.”
He also provided more detailed responses to the society’s accusations on several academic web logs. One fact that Bartlett pointed out was that, contrary to the claims of National Geographic, he did report that later editions of the Gospel of Judas acknowledge alternate readings of the text and make some corrections to the translation. However, he said, “the best-selling first edition of the book and the television documentary watched by millions do not include these caveats.”
“I understand that National Geographic must be reeling from criticism of its Judas project by biblical scholars. But your sloppy, bewildering response to my article doesn't help your case,” he wrote.