National Geographic’s Error

In April 2006, National Geographic published an article claiming new evidence about Jesus from the gospel of Judas. Having gotten a hold of the ancient text, the magazine hired specialists to translate the letter. At the time they reported that the newly discovered document cast Judas in a way that is a odds with the canonical gospels. Here’s an excerpt…

Biblical accounts suggest that Jesus foresaw and allowed Judas’s betrayal.

As told in the New Testament Gospels, Judas betrayed Jesus for “30 pieces of silver,” identifying him with a kiss in front of Roman soldiers. Later the guilt-ridden Judas returns the bribe and commits suicide, according to the Bible.

The Gospel of Judas, however, gives a very different account.

The text begins by announcing that it is the “secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week, three days before he celebrated Passover.”

It goes on to describe Judas as Jesus’ closest friend, someone who understands Christ’s true message and is singled out for special status among Jesus’ disciples.

In the key passage Jesus tells Judas, “‘you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.'”

Kasser, the translation-project leader, offers an interpretation: “Jesus says it is necessary for someone to free him finally from his human body, and he prefers that this liberation be done by a friend rather than by an enemy.

“So he asks Judas, who is his friend, to sell him out, to betray him. It’s treason to the general public, but between Jesus and Judas it’s not treachery.”

In Saturday’s New York Times, April DeConick, professor of Biblical Studies at Rice University wrote a stinging editorial exposing shoddy work in the translation.

Unfortunately, after re-translating the society’s transcription of the Coptic text, I have found that the actual meaning is vastly different. While National Geographic’s translation supported the provocative interpretation of Judas as a hero, a more careful reading makes clear that Judas is not only no hero, he is a demon.

Several of the translation choices made by the society’s scholars fall well outside the commonly accepted practices in the field. For example, in one instance the National Geographic transcription refers to Judas as a “daimon,” which the society’s experts have translated as “spirit.” Actually, the universally accepted word for “spirit” is “pneuma ” — in Gnostic literature “daimon” is always taken to mean “demon.”

Likewise, Judas is not set apart “for” the holy generation, as the National Geographic translation says, he is separated “from” it. He does not receive the mysteries of the kingdom because “it is possible for him to go there.” He receives them because Jesus tells him that he can’t go there, and Jesus doesn’t want Judas to betray him out of ignorance. Jesus wants him informed, so that the demonic Judas can suffer all that he deserves.

Perhaps the most egregious mistake I found was a single alteration made to the original Coptic. According to the National Geographic translation, Judas’s ascent to the holy generation would be cursed. But it’s clear from the transcription that the scholars altered the Coptic original, which eliminated a negative from the original sentence. In fact, the original states that Judas will “not ascend to the holy generation.” To its credit, National Geographic has acknowledged this mistake, albeit far too late to change the public misconception.

What could account for this unprofessional work? The professor speculates…

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….

That said, I think the big problem is that National Geographic wanted an exclusive. So it required its scholars to sign nondisclosure statements, to not discuss the text with other experts before publication. The best scholarship is done when life-sized photos of each page of a new manuscript are published before a translation, allowing experts worldwide to share information as they independently work through the text.

So it seems that in an attempt to gain a scoop, the National Geographic may have done sloppy work and unnecessarily impugned the reliability of the gospels. Now that this has come to light, will the magazine publicize their mistake with the same enthusiasm they did the original story?

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