Comments on ‘Judas Was Really a Bad Guy’

Respectfully, I would like to comment on and correct a few errors in your article, published June 12, 2008, about The Gospel of Judas. As someone who has written about this ancient Gnostic document for our university journal (and did very careful research before writing my stories), perhaps I can offer a few insights you may not have been aware of. Your article seemed to be based solely on the recent Chronicle of Higher Education article on the Gospel of Judas, rather than actual reading of the original book or study of the text and the scholarly activity and research surrounding it.

Your article stated: “Two years later, though, most experts agree that the so-called Gospel of Judas depicts the unfaithful apostle as exactly that: a traitorous, selfish, and fallen human being.”

This is not true – “most experts” do not agree with this. At most a handful of experts — led by April DeConick, who has been the most vocal — theorize that the National Geographic’s translation of the Gospel of Judas may have a different interpretation. Theirs is a theory, not a fact. Most scholars (as you say later in your own article!) actually agree with the National Geographic team’s translation and interpretation.

The distinguished scholars on the National Geographic team of translators and advisors alone outweigh the opinions of the few who disagree. The NG translation team includes, for one, Rodolphe Kasser, who is far and away one of the most respected Coptic experts in the world, as are his fellow team members Gregor Wurst and Francois Gaudard. My own university’s Marvin Meyer, part of the NG translation team, who is regarded as one of the top scholars in the world on ancient Coptic and Gnostic manuscripts, definitely disagrees with DeConick and her theory.

Also, the document is not “the so-called Gospel of Judas” – the title “Gospel of Judas” is written right on the ancient manuscript itself. We know that to be the actual title of the piece.

Your article stated: “Judas was 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,” read the gospel, made public by National Geographic in 2006. Another passage called the apostle “the most insightful and the most loyal of all disciples.”

This is completely erroneous. The manuscript of the Gospel of Judas does not say that at all. Those were quotes from some of the scholars involved in the translation of the document, not from the ancient document itself.

Your article states: “Some of their colleagues, who gained access to the manuscript later, say that so many mistakes were made during the translation that the version of the gospel of Judas presented by National Geographic lacks scientific grounds and must be turned down.”

Again, wrong on almost all counts. Even the experts who disagree with some points of the NG’s translation are not alleging that “so many mistakes” were made that the NG translation “must be turned down.”

In fact, all the scholars agree on the vast majority of the translation. And no one is saying that the translation “lacks scientific grounds.” They are arguing about three or four points of translation and interpretation. The National Geographic has already answered and rebutted each of these arguments in detail.

You said: “After a close examination of the gospel, the professor proved that the Coptic text unequivocally excluded the apostle from ascending it.”

She claims she proved it, but National Geographic argues otherwise. It’s a scholarly argument that will probably go on for a long time. But “proving” a point of interpretation is a very hard thing to do.

You said: “Not surprisingly, DeConick’s article stirred a controversy among scholars. The majority of her colleagues agreed with the National Geographic team of scientists and their vision of Judas – the vision that was first conceived by St. Irenaeus who commented on the Gospel of Judas as early as the second century.”

Yes, this is true – the majority of her colleagues do agree with National Geographic. But this completely goes against what you said earlier in your own article when you stated “most experts agree that the so-called Gospel of Judas depicts the unfaithful apostle as exactly that: a traitorous, selfish, and fallen human being.”

Later on, you refer to the discovery of the codex and its shadowy march through the hands of treasure hunters and dealers. Scholars will probably never know who found it or exactly where it was found. But this is true of many artifacts from the ancient world. Science now allows us to authenticate or debunk such finds, and the provenance of the codex through the last 30 years of its 1,700-year existence certainly has nothing to do with the scholars who later pieced it together and translated it.

If anything, the National Geographic Society, which bought and rescued the codex, should be thanked for getting it out of the hands of more-or-less shady dealers who almost destroyed it, and into the hands of experts who authenticated it, restored it, translated it and brought it to the world.

You wrote: “In 2002, National Geographic announced a discovery that was to shed new light on Christianity. Researches found a 2000-year-old burial box – an ossuary – reportedly containing the ashes of James, the brother of Jesus. One professor went as far as to say: “This is probably going to be the biggest New Testament find in my lifetime, as big as the Dead Sea scrolls.””

Most egregiously here, you get the main point completely wrong. Even a tiny bit of research would have shown you that the purported “ossuary of James” was in fact not “announced” by National Geographic. In fact, it was announced with great fanfare by the journal Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR), and later became part of a documentary broadcast on the Discovery Channel, The Lost Tomb of Jesus. The professor you quote above, who talks about the “biggest New Testament find of my lifetime,” was not associated with National Geographic.

Biblical Archaeology Review is not National Geographic. And the Discovery Channel is not connected at all with National Geographic – they are very different entities.

National Geographic did report on the “James ossuary,” in the news section of its website, when it was first announced by BAR ( – as it does, evenhandedly, with every newsworthy scientific announcement or discovery. Hundreds of other news media around the world also reported on the BAR’s ossuary announcement.

But you should not confuse a news report with a National Geographic “announcement” or “discovery.” The NG news report on the ossuary clearly states that the ossuary find was made by Andre Lemaire, a paleographer at the Sorbonne, who announced it in BAR. When the ossuary was declared a fake, National Geographic dutifully reported that, too ( Again, it was not an admission of any erroneous scholarship carried out by National Geographic itself.

The “James ossuary” should not be connected with the Gospel of Judas in any way. They are two very different objects with very different stories.

You wrote: “But one year later, the ossuary turned out to be inauthentic. Finally, National Geographic had to admit that “the dealer who sold it was a man of questionable reputation who had a history of inappropriate dealings with various museums and government agencies.” It did not stop the channel authorities from buying another dubious manuscript three years later.”

The quote about the dealer of “questionable reputation” comes from the second news item on the ossuary that was printed in National Geographic’s news section. Again, it clearly states that the ossuary was not a National Geographic discovery, but was first announced in BAR. Your angling this as “National Geographic had to admit…” is a ridiculous and misleading conflation.

Are you trying to say that National Geographic bought the James ossuary? Completely false. I’m also confused by your claim that the “channel” bought “another dubious manuscript three years later.” What was the first “dubious manuscript” they bought?

By the way, the texts in Codex Tchacos, the codex (bound book) that includes the Gospel of Judas, are in no way “dubious.” The codex has been proved beyond any shadow of a doubt to be an authentic Coptic text from the third or fourth century A.D., through extensive testing, including radiocarbon dating carried out at the University of Arizona, multi-spectral imaging carried out by the Papyrological Imaging Laboratory of Brigham Young University, and careful scrutiny of the text itself by scholars.

No scholar disputes this – not even the ones who haggle about the meaning. It is a Coptic translation of an original text that was probably written in Greek around the middle of the second century A.D. (because Irenaeus mentions it around 180). There is no question whatsoever that it is real.

You said: “DeConick has an explanation for other scholars’ stubbornness. She says that instead of listening to their scientific knowledge, those who sanctify Judas prefer to be politically correct.”

Now we’re drilling down to it. This is really all about someone’s perception of “political correctness”?

You wrote: “The Gospel of Judas sold millions of copies around the world. People bought it because some of the highest authorities in the scholarly world insisted it was an authentic and honest description of what had really happened in the time of Jesus.”

This is, again, simply erroneous. No expert, and certainly none of the “highest authorities in the world,” has ever “insisted it was an authentic and honest description of what had really happened in the time of Jesus.”

In fact, it was quite the opposite: all the experts have gone out of their way to make it absolutely clear that the Gospel of Judas is not to be read as any kind of historical description of what actually happened in the time of Jesus. They have always been very concerned that the public understand that the Gospel of Judas is a very particular kind of Gnostic text, written by a sect of early Christians we now call the Sethian Gnostics, who had some very different ideas from what finally ended up codified in the New Testament about the events and persons surrounding Jesus.

It is fascinating and instructive to study these ideas, which may seem quite odd or alien to our personal beliefs. Doing so illuminates a small section of the ancient world and brings these ancient people closer to us.

But just because scholars are studying and writing about this ancient text, the Gospel of Judas – as we should study ALL ancient texts – does not mean they want people to believe in its theology or replace their Bibles with it. Because we study Homer and Hesiod, does that mean any scholar wants people to throw out their personal faiths and believe in Zeus or Apollo?

You wrote: “Now, when they were proved wrong, hardly any media outlet has reported on it. It is not inconceivable that soon we will hear of another discovery made by the National Geographic researchers.”

Yes, I’m sure there will be another discovery made by the National Geographic researchers. Many discoveries, if we are lucky.

Hardly any media outlets are reporting on this because there’s hardly anything to report. A handful of scholars have a few different opinions and theories than the original scholars. Having been a reporter, I can tell you that most media outlets look at this and say “no story there!” because this sort of scholarly argument goes on all the time, in every area of research. It’s what SHOULD be happening. The minute someone has a theory, someone comes up with an alternate theory.

This sort of debate among experts can go on for years and years, and most of the time no one can “prove” anything – just as nothing has been “proved” by the scholars who argue against the National Geographic team. At most, they are making a case – and National Geographic makes an equally good case on its side.

But that’s the beauty of academic debate – and that’s why scholars really welcome this sort of argument (as long as it’s handled fairly, and backed up with actual facts and research). If everyone agreed, what fun would that be, and what would we ever learn?

And that is why it is absolutely essential, when you write an opinion piece of this sort (because your article really was an opinion piece with a very one-sided spin), that you do your research carefully and get at least the basic facts right.

What all scholars pursue is the truth, pure and simple. By allowing errors, misleading statements and complete falsehoods into your story, you simply cloud the issue — and make it more difficult for the public to understand what is true and what is not.

Director of Communications

Chapman University

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