Translation and the Word
If you thought that Judas’ betrayal of Jesus was firmly established long ago, last year’s National Geographic translation of the Coptic Gospel of Judas might have given you pause. The translation caused a sensation because it portrayed Judas not as a villain but as a friend of Jesus who acted on Jesus’ request to betray him.
Like most religious studies scholars, April DeConick, the Isla Carroll and Percy Turner Professor of Religious Studies at Rice, was instantly intrigued. Not content to simply read the translation, she obtained a copy of the original to read for herself, and that’s when she began to have doubts about the accuracy of the National Geographic team’s work. Her doubts were serious enough that she undertook her own translation, which confirmed for her that the National Geographic’s version was in error and led her to write her own book on the subject, “The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says” (Continuum, 2007).
DeConick said many scholars and writers have been inspired by the National Geographic version.
“Judas is a frightening character. For Christians, he is the one who had it all and yet betrayed God to his death for a few dollars. For Jews, he is terrifying, the man whom Christians associated with the Jewish people, whose story was used against them for centuries.” —April DeConick
“It appears to have something to do with our collective guilt about anti-Semitism and our need to reform the relationship between Jews and Christians following World War II,” she said. “Judas is a frightening character. For Christians, he is the one who had it all and yet betrayed God to his death for a few dollars. For Jews, he is terrifying, the man whom Christians associated with the Jewish people, whose story was used against them for centuries.”
But 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 group of Gnostic Christians who lived in the second century.
“Once I started translating the Gospel of Judas and began to see the types of translation choices that the National Geographic team had made, I was startled and concerned,” DeConick said. “The text very clearly called Judas a ‘demon.’”
DeConick’s book has ignited a fresh round of fierce debate on the subject, but that’s something she was prepared for.
“The finding of this gospel has been called one of the most important archaeological discoveries in the past 60 years,” she said. “It’s important that we get this right.”