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.
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"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.”