Unbiased Translation of Gnostic Gospels

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Robert G.
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Post by Robert G. » Sat Apr 19, 2008 4:59 am

What about reading ourselves into these texts? One way to interpret them is to look at the entire range in which they are interpreted, which means our interpretation is as much as part of the myth as the author's. Maybe the most useful way to read them is to ask "What does this say to me?" Sometimes it seems to me that we want to have the definitive transaltion (I accuse myself as well, "I want") so that we have certainty and, best of all, the last word on what it all means.
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Post by nandu » Sat Apr 19, 2008 5:28 am

Robert G. wrote: What about reading ourselves into these texts?
That is what we do with any myth, Robert.

When I imbibe a myth, it's a bit like alcohol: I let it permeate my whole being, looking at the images triggered in the mind and the emotions engendered, rather than the "meanings" modern society is obsessed with. Ultimately it permeates my whole being, and I find its meaning - which is meaningful only for me.

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Go To The Source

Post by Bliss 5150 » Tue Apr 22, 2008 7:04 pm

Whilst my Ph.D is in Far Eastern Art & Archeology, I thought it best to seek out Dr. DeConick and see what her take on this is. She was very kind to post an entry to her blog here http://forbiddengospels.blogspot.com/20 ... ne-of.html and stated I could paste the whole thing as a quote. I would like to thank her for taking her time to impart some of her wisdom to the JCF board in a very timely fashion.
Is Judas' gospel that ambiguous?
JMS Providence asked me in one of the comments:

Dr. D, this isn't necessarily related to your post but last night, I was up rather late, and at 1AM the National Geographic Channel was airing their work on the Gospel of Judas. I'll tell ya, I haven't really studied any of this much, but I was quite shocked when I first saw it year or two ago. So does this mean that they still hold to their position and have not edited their program to show such opposing work as yours? Just wondering. And if so, is Judas' gospel that ambiguous?

What you are asking is important. So important that I am making a post about it, and I hope that some of you pass this around on list serves and so forth.

No the Gospel of Judas is not that ambiguous in my opinion. It is actually very straightforward once you transcribe and translate it correctly. Certainly there is always room for interpretation of details. But Judas is clearly identified not just as a demon, but as the thirteenth, and this is the numerical identification of the demiurge archon who lives in the realm just above his twelve archon assistants. Moreover, the thirteenth realm is described as having Judas' star in it, which means that it is IN this cosmos, not some realm in the divine world beyond or between this cosmos and the supreme God. Stars are only fixtures in this cosmos. And they are negative beings according to the ancients because they were associated with fate.

There is so much misinformation about the Gospel of Judas it makes me want to cry, not because I am in love with the Gospel of Judas, but because I am in love with truth. I want nothing more than to provide sound information to people who want to know about early Christianity. I do not have an agenda beyond this. Nothing I have done has anything to do with liberal or conservation religious positions. I am a historian and I say what I see from that position whether it confirm or deny contemporary religious beliefs.

The work that I have done on the Gospel of Judas, in the academic sphere, and in the general publication The Thirteenth Apostle, is making tremendous impact on our understanding of this gospel. I want to add, that my voice is not alone. There are a number of us who from the first release of the Gospel of Judas by National Geographic in 2006 saw the troubles with the transcription, translation, and interpretation that was offered to all of us. We have all been working as hard and fast as we can to correct these problems.

National Geographic has not gone on blindly. The Society in the last two months has had the team retranslate and reinterpret the Gospel of Judas in a second edition of its book. It is slated to come out in June. The team has corrected the transcription errors. These are the errors that were made when the Coptic manuscript was examined and then scribed down in Coptic letters - in other words a hand written copy was made of the manuscript. When this is done, scholars will sometimes "emend" the text - that is change what the manuscript says in their transcription of it. This is done when scholars think there was a mistake in the manuscript. It can happen with misspellings, dropped letters, and so forth. As I wrote in my book, the team had originally emended the text on p. 46.24-25. When they did this, the emendation made the text read that Judas would ascend to the holy generation. Without the emendation, the text says he won't. The team corrected this in The Critical Edition of the Gospel of Judas which was released last June, and now they have done so too in the revised second edition of the popular translation that will be released this June.

There was another transcription error on p. 35.25 which had read that Judas would learn the mysteries of the kingdom. It would be possible for him to go there, but he would grieve. Now the NGS team has corrected this reading: Judas will learn the mysteries of the kingdom, not so that he will go there, but so that he would grieve.

The new version of their book gets rid of "spirit" and allows "daimon" to stand in the text. They have also gone with "set apart from that generation" (46.17) instead of the incorrect "set apart for."

So these are all major major changes in terms of our interpretation of the text, and they are changes that were brought about because the team continued to work on the text, reassessing it, and listening to us their critics.

So all of this is well and good, but as far as I know there are no plans to change their movie, which is one of their most widely viewed movies. And I doubt that any fanfare will attend the release of their second edition and I doubt much will be done in terms of publicity to let the public know about it. If anyone knows otherwise, I will be glad to hear it and correct my impression.

Posted by April DeConick at 10:27 AM
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Post by noman » Wed Apr 23, 2008 1:19 am

Welcome to the Forums Shiningpath,

In the intro to Elaine Pagel’s 1979 book The Gnostic Gospels she gives the translation of the Thomas Gospel as follows:

These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and which the twin, Judas Thomas, wrote down.

-The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagel, 1979
And then she asks the question: ‘Did Jesus have a twin?’

I’m a novice at this stuff. But I think, she was being intentionally provocative with this question as a way to lure people into the book. She is a highly credentialed scholar as is DeConick and, I assume, the other translators mentioned in this thread. But in writing for the general public even great scholars aren’t above baiting us. The reason I say this is because I found DeConick’s explanation for the same passage in her 2006 book on the Thomas Gospel.


DeConick explains that the apostle we know as Thomas was named Judas. But in order to distinguish him from Judas Iscariot (who turned in Jesus for money) the second Judas was called ‘Judas the twin’. In the passage it became ‘Judas Thomas’. (Thomas meaning twin in Hebrew) or Didymos Judas Thomas (Didymos meaning twin in a Greek translation of the Aramaic).

I don’t know how to assess this explanation. But I think it is provocative for Elaine Pagel’s to ask if Jesus had a twin – knowing how that might be taken by the general public. And I, not being a scholar, thought I’d be even a little more sleazy and provocative by asking, “Did Jesus have an identical twin named Thomas?”
But it’s all fun and games to me.

I know that scholars like to create controversy to drum up interest in their work. Publishers like it. I think that is what happened with the NG story and DeConick’s complaint (Over the Judas Gospel that was recently found. The Thomas Gospel is something found in the 1940s.) They know any material related to the Bible is highly flammable.

It seems to me there are three problems of interpretation in any text this old.

1.) Corruption
2.) Multiple versions
3.) Semantic drift


Scholars must have a great time trying to piece the broken pieces of a document together. But they can’t always agree on which fragments of letters, words, and phrases should be filled in. It makes for some creative reading. They must read between the lines, between the words, and between the letters.

Multiple versions:

I read that there were several dozen versions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales but they were all different, and no one version could be the definitive text. So they used computers to calculate the difference of each passage to arrive at a version they believe to be closest to the original – though it is unlike any of the versions they have.

Semantic drift:

This is what Bliss5150 was talking about in his fist post with Shakespeare.
When Hamlet asks his mother, “How like you this play?” she says, “Methinks the woman protests too much”. In Shakespeare’s time it meant that she thinks the woman makes too many oaths.

Hamlet advises Ophelia to ‘get thee to a nunnery. But Shakespeare’s audience knew that the word ‘nunnery’ could refer to a ‘brothel’.

I’ve heard a great way to see a Shakespeare play is to see it performed in a language with which one is familiar other than English.

Meanings of words not only drift in time but also in geography. Scholars not only have to consider the time but also the location the text was believed to have been written.

* * * * * * *

Besides these three problems that scholars have to overcome arriving at the best interpretation of and ancient text, Robert G. adds a final problem; that of taking into account the psychology of the interpreter. We’ve seen it throughout history in science; very intelligent and reasonable people becoming victims of their preconceived notions. No doubt it happens in deciphering ancient texts, for which there are letters, words,and phrases missing, for which there are multiple versions, and for which the meanings of the words used have change across time and location.

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Post by bodhibliss » Wed Apr 23, 2008 1:37 am

Wonderful explanation on DeConick's part about emending the text - much less inflammatory thant her press release.

However, the following,

But Judas is clearly identified not just as a demon, but as the thirteenth, and this is the numerical identification of the demiurge archon who lives in the realm just above his twelve archon assistants. Moreover, the thirteenth realm is described as having Judas' star in it, which means that it is IN this cosmos, not some realm in the divine world beyond or between this cosmos and the supreme God. Stars are only fixtures in this cosmos. And they are negative beings according to the ancients because they were associated with fate.

is her interpretation, though it's phrased as fact. Judas is identified in this gospel as a daimon, not "demon," which carries negative connotations. Professor DeConick offers the reasoning on which she bases her opinion, and that is indeed welcome. Of course, though Ms. DeConick is not alone in her certainty about what the 13th refers to, neither is she is in the majority among Gnostic scholars.

However, the latest translation by the National Geographic team, which DeConick applauds, does not accept her opinion that Judas is "clearly identified as a demon" or evil spirit (though from her post one might think they had); instead they retain the neutral term daimon (which is neutral in English as well as Greek).

"Set apart from" (vs. the original "Set apart for") does indeed fit the context better, but doesn't necessarily bolster DeConick's theory. When I first visited her blog in December, I noticed Dr. DeConick shied away from mentioning the many positive references to Judas throughout this gospel (uncontested renderings, such as Judas "shall come to rule over them [the holy generation]") which naturally don't fit easily into her theory - nor, I see, does she raise those in her post. I don't believe she's being nefarious here - it's human nature to ignore inconvenient loose ends and concentrate instead on what bolsters one's beliefs.

Kudos, though, to Ms. DeConick for giving credit to the original translators. Indeed, they have been open and receptive to different interpretations from the beginning, making clear that the initial popular translation would be followed by a critical, more detailed translation, and that we could expect succeeding translations to morph with further study. Indeed, they actively sought input from DeConick and other critics at several conferences and panels held over the last year

- which is why the press statements accompanying her book release left me disappointed. She certainly could have been more objective in her characterization - but instead, she took valid criticisms (many of which originated with the team, and not with DeConick), and turned them into charges implying nefarious activity and serious character flaws on the part of the Society and of reputable scholars who were (and remain) engaged in a long term process. She did not qualify her accusations, making it appear the team of scholars had been forced to accept her theory as fact (which is less than true), nor has she withdrawn those statements. No wonder members of the National Geographic team, many of whom are long time friends and colleagues of DeConick, expressed dismay at her lack of professionalism and were wounded by her attack.

To DeConick's credit, she appears to be trying to smooth over the ruffled feathers, though without admitting any culpability on her part.

Dr. DeConick's theory might well prove the best available - but then, so might Dr. Pagel's - or maybe an interpretation yet to be arrived at will best fit the facts. That remains to be seen.

The major difference in my mind between DeConick and other scholars (whether those who agree with her, or the dozen experts involved in the original translation, or Drs. Pagel and King, or Dr. Eisenman), however, remains her certitude. All other scholars involved acknowledged different interpretations were possible (with many of the points DeConick has raised alluded to in the earliest, popular version), yet she alone remains supremely confident that there is no ambiguity in the text. Ironic, considering that from what little information has been available about this work over the last two millennia (starting with Bishop Irenaus), the ambiguity of interpretation dates back to at least 180 A.D.

What most amazes me is that we can discuss this at all. Imagine what might have happened to all parties if this discussion had taken place as recently as three centuries ago!

The Wheel turns ...