Trends in Gospel of Judas Studies

I know that it seems weird to identify “trends” on a document that has been out less than a year, so this post may seem a bit premature. At the same time, the fact is that two major schools have already developed regarding the Gospel of Judas. The first, following the initial release of the text, argued that Judas was the chosen disciple over all the others. The obvious shock-value of this revelation has propelled the popularity and interest in the text. The second, newer interpretation offered by Painchaud, DeConick, Emmel and Turner aims to out-shock the first in a set of new claims about what the “Gospel of Judas REALLY says.”

This new interpretation argues that Judas does not “surpass” the other apostles in greatness, but in wickedness! Basing itself on a different translation of this key Coptic phrase, these scholars argue that the initial readings of Gospel of Judas played too much into the hype. Judas is not a saint in this text, but the worst sinner of all of the disciples.

The problem is that this second reading makes no sense at all. For the record, the Coptic phrase in question can technically be translated both ways. However, if we follow the second interpretation, then the text becomes an extended vision of special cosmological knowledge given to Judas, only to find out that he understands even less than the other wicked apostles. In this reading, there are no heroes. No one is saved. One reads the text only to find out that no one can be trusted. No one. This reading strikes me as absurd for two reasons. First, this is afterall the Gospel of Judas, the title given to the text by the text. There is not a single parallel example of a “gospel” being attributed to the person who turns out to be the worst sinner in its story. For post-canonical Gospels, the disciple to whom the text is attributed is often the hero of the text. Second, it makes no sense that there are no heroes at all in the text. Why would anyone read this text? It has no solution for anyone to be saved since the rest of the disciples besides Judas are unambiguously ignorant.

This debate will continue to be played out, and will hopefully be dealt with in the upcoming Elaine Pagels and Karen King commentary (though how much time that had to respond to this new trend before their publication deadlines remains to be seen since it was really in October in Paris and November at the SBL that people started advocating this position). The easy path will be taken by those who choose to see Judas subversively for their own theological goals, and those who prefer to see Judas as the most wicked disciple for their own theological goals. No doubt the debate will continue to give scholars something to argue about, but to this reader, the second argument doesn’t have much interpretive weight.

10 Replies to “Trends in Gospel of Judas Studies”

  1. where can i read emmel, turner et al. on gospel of judas? are these unpublished SBL papers? and on a side note, do you or anyone else know when the critical edition of codex tchacos will be out (or is it already, and i’ve missed it)?

  2. g.wesley,Didn’t you get the point of my post! You aren’t supposed to read these guys! Currently, these arguments are only in unpublished SBL and other conference papers, but DeConick has a a brief discussion on her website of the issues (I left a comment there which prompted this post). for the critical edition, I know that the proofs are done, but I don’t think that the edition is actually published. I do have access to the critical edition, but I haven’t availed myself of the opportunity yet. I’m sure that the published version will be out soon.

  3. based on your summary of the ‘second reading’ i agree with your assessment. at the same time, i’d like to read what emmel and tuner have to say. as crazy as their position sounds, if (one of) the world’s foremost coptologist/s and the (american) authority on sethianism are making the arguement, there must be at least something to it i would hope.thanks for the info on the critical edition. the passage i’m most interested in is 50-2, especially:”The first is [S]eth, who is called Christ. The [second] is Harmathoth, who is […]. The [third] is Galila. The fourth is Yobel. The fifth [is] Adonaios. These are the five who ruled over the underworld, and first of all over chaos.” why would the savior seth be listed as one of ialdabaoth’s hostile if not evil zodiacal rulers? parallel passages/lists in ap. john, gos. eg. and tri. prot. are clearly pejorative, as is this one, with the exception of seth. so far, i haven’t found a satisfactory answer. hopefully the ciritical edition or pagel’ and king’s commentary will provide one.

  4. i haven’t read king’s ‘what is gnosticism’ yet (just her ap. john commentary). williams definitely has done a lot to make studies of ‘biblical demiurgical cosmologies’ more exact–any arguement against overgeneralization is always welcome–and i like his incorporation of stark’s theories. turner speculates with the best of them, but even williams holds up turner’s reconstruction of the development of sethianism as a good model (in terms of innovation and social tension, not necessarily dating or origin). in many ways i like alastair logan’s stuff. i guess the passage from gos. judas isn’t that exciting. i’m interested in ophite and sethian depictions of the underworld. in some cases the five lowest zodiacal powers rule it, in others it’s one of the seven planetary rulers, even ialdabaoth (saturn) himself. i just can’t figure out why gos. judas would list “Seth, called Christ” among ialdabaoth’s ‘lackeys.’ parallel passages place cain among the twelve authorities of ialdabaoth, so one stab is that it could be a cainite polemic against sethianism. but this doesn’t fit the positive placement of seth with adamas in gos. judas 49.

  5. g,Emmel is definitely a great Coptic scholar, but I think that so much of what has been done on “Gnosticism” is just seriously problematic, and he follows that too closely. For this reason I am not a big fan of Turner either since he has created so many of the standard typologies that I just disagree with. I am more of a King, What is Gnosticism? and Michael Williams, Rethinking Gnosticism kind of guy.As for the passage that you point out, I don’t have any specific thoughts. Why do you think that this is important? What is the difference here that you think matters?

  6. g.,I just noticed this comment. For some reason it didn’t show up in our recent comments sidebar. I think that this is an interesting problem. If you have any more insights on it, please stop by and post them!

  7. g.,I just got an update today about the tchacos codex. It looks like publication will be delayed as the are going to print photographs of the original papyrus ms. They reassembled them digitally and now they have to do it manually. It is also going to be super expensive…

  8. that’s too bad. any specific projections on the publication date? (the whole thing seems so suspicious and political.)

  9. I haven’t heard any specific projections, just that it is later than what I had originally heard. I don’t think that there is any reason to be suspicious. There have certainly been some political struggles over this text, but I think that those are largely done now. If you are working on the text for a publication, I am sure that you can get a draft of the critical edition from Emmel.

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