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Mons Simplicitatis


Heavens to Betsy, there’s nothing like a good academic tussle. Tempest in a teacup and all that. The Naomi Wolf/Harold Bloom thing was halfway engaging, albeit notably uncomfortable and one-sided; like one of those fights at the bar where some roidhead jumps a guy half his size for chatting up his girlfriend. The all-time best academic tussle I’m familiar with, though, was DeConick versus the National Geographic team studying the Gospel of Judas. That was 2007-8. Here’s the blow-by-blow.

Once upon a time in the 1970s, in the magical kingdom of Egypt, near Beni Masar, a farmer was investigating a cave. Depending on which version of the story you hear, this man was hunting for corpses to loot or guano (Fertilizer or explosives? Fertilizer or explosives?). What he came across instead was a leather-bound, papyrus codex. Eventually this codex found its way to a Cairo antiquities dealer, and was then of course promptly stolen by a thief posing as a buyer (a femme fatale sort, again depending on which version you hear). Nothing happened for years, because nobody was hunting for the thing besides the aggrieved antiquities dealer, because nobody knew its true importance.

So then the codex resurfaced in 1983 in the possession of the Egyptian – having presumably slain the thief in a dramatic, moonlit confrontation – who tried to sell it to an American university. The dealer, his thugs, and a team sent by the university to authenticate the documents met in a hotel room in Geneva. Stephen Emmel, University of Munster, Germany, interviewed in the subsequent National Geographic documentary, said he assumed the codex had been taken out of Egypt illegally and that this was probably an illegal meeting, but fuck it. So then the team realized they had something special, wanted it, but couldn’t meet the Egyptian’s price. Disappointed, the dealer did what any good caretaker of a 1,700-year-old codex of irreplaceable cultural and scholarly importance would do. He stuck it in a safety deposit box in New York, where it rotted for sixteen years.

Eventually it was purchased by a woman named Nussberger-Tchacos, who sounds like a really cool person, and who, in turn, sold it to Nat Geo. It turned out the codex contained some most usual documents, one in particular being of special note to nerds like me who get intellectual stiffies from this sort of thing, the Gospel of Judas. That is to say, the story of Jesus’s arrest and execution from the perspective of the most infamous disciple – one of the three villains Dante had fanged for eternity in the triple-maw of Satan in the Ninth (last) Circle of Hell – Judas Iscariot. Probably written in the 3rd or 4th century, depending on the source.

So now National Geographic owns the codex. I’m pretty sure this means they can do whatever they want with it. Legally, they could’ve burned it if they wanted to. But being the National Geographic Society with a century-old-plus tradition of doing some of the coolest stuff ever, they assembled a team of experts and began the painstaking process of reassembling the papyrus and translating the Coptic. Definitely watch the documentary if you want the details of just how big of a pain in the ass that must’ve been. It involved making Xeroxes of thousands of fragments and playing with them like a jigsaw puzzle, then moving the fitted pieces with tweezers.

Along the way, they made a most interesting discovery. The Gospel portrays Judas not as the great betrayer that the canonical gospels make him out to be, but instead as Jesus’s most loyal and loving companion. He was asked by Jesus to pretend to betray Him, a one-with-God-foreknowledge-of-the-divine-plan-manifest-destiny sort of thing. According to the pros, the Gospel portrays Judas not as the arch-villain we’ve all been led to believe, but as a guy who was asked by his best friend to commit the unthinkable as a service toward the salvation of the world, and for his sacrifice will be highly regarded in the afterlife.

If you step back and think about it, it’s not that radical of a notion. Think of Abraham and Isaac. Three of the major world religions acknowledge that tale, and everybody goes, “God asking a guy to kill his son? Well, what… but, uh, alright.”

So anyway, along came a professor of Biblical Studies at [redacted] named [first name redacted] DeConick. She wrote an essay/open letter to the National Geographic team. In what should be a moment of eternal shame for whatever buddy on staff hooked her up, The New York Times printed it in their newspaper on December 1st, 2007. In it, she basically accused the National Geographic folks of hording the ball and the basketball court and not letting her play with the other kids, which is like, so unfair. She accused them of – among other things – making a fundamental mistranslation of a word used once, specifically that Judas was not the hero of the tale at all, because he is referred to as a “daimon” which (she claims) in this usage means “demon”, not “spirit” or “essence”; because, she wrote, in Gnostic literature, “the universally accepted word for ‘spirit’ is ‘pneuma’…”.

In my opinion, anybody on the planet who has even the vaguest but sincere dealings with old texts knows this is utterly and undeniably incorrect. When we speak of Alexander the Great’s mad daimon, are we speaking of his essence, or describing some sort of supernatural personification of evil? Seriously, [first name redacted], cut it out. That’s just silly. In this sense, “pneuma” probably means “hidden breath” or somesuch, which is the same thing as “spirit” only if you squint real hard. And is there a single “universally accepted” word for anything? I’m not trying to pick a fight here, and anybody can have a bad day in front of the word processor, but c’mon, it’s wrong.

Now here’s the punchline of this whole saga. The response by Marvin Meyer of California’s Chapman University, one of the translators for the team, was notably reasonable and epically succinct. Kinda classy too. Not once did Meyer state that DeConick was not cool enough to play with the other kids. Not once did he make the obvious accusation that she’s a paid shill for the Papists (joke). Not once did he employ the adjective “self-important”. (Refraining from which must’ve been an act of self-restraint so profound Jesus Himself would’ve given that set-the-lower-lip, Bill Clinton sort of “Daaamn, dude” fraternal nod.) I read it twice just to be sure I didn’t miss it.

Instead, here was the most important part of Meyer’s response: It’s the Gospel – the good news – of Judas. That Judas was a demon is hardly good news.

Sadly, Meyer “went to the majority” (died) last year at age 64 of complications with melanoma. Kudos to you, good sir, for delivering the knockout right hook in one of the most intriguing academic tussles in recent history (the backstory of which I’d love to hear if anyone wants to hit me up on email, because there’s got to have been more to this than meets the eye.)
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