Monday, December 3, 2007

Responses to New York Times Op. Ed.

I have received many communications from readers of the NY Times this weekend in response to my op. ed. piece, Gospel Truth published on Saturday. Most people are grateful to know about the controversy. One person wrote me to tell me that studying religion was a waste of my life and that I should work in another field. I guess we have different perspectives on that! There are a couple of questions that keep being asked, so let me say a few words about this here.

1. The Gospel of Judas tells us nothing about the historical Judas, if indeed he even existed. This issue seems to be very confused in the public mind. These ancient gospels were fictions in terms of what we today call "historical facts". This text wasn't written to tell us what Jesus really said to Judas. It is a theological text. In this case, we have a Sethian Gnostic writer who is using stories about Judas the demon to make a new point. He is criticizing mainstream Christianity - its doctrines (Christ's death functioned as a sin atonement) and its practices (the eucharist which reenacts Christ's sacrifice and atonement).

2. When we translate words like daimon, we should be doing so by comparing our text to texts closest to the traditions and age of the text in question. Why? Because the thought-world assumed by the text determines how words are being used. In this case we need to be looking at Gnostic texts in the second and third centuries. I have found so far about 50 instances of the word daimon in Gnostic literature. It means "demon," beings in opposition to the supreme God, and creating an imperfect world out of their rebellion and ignorance.
(1) Trimorphic Protennoia (Sethian, early 2nd c.): mentions Archons, Angels, and Demons (35.17); calls Ialdabaoth the demiurge "the great Demon" who produces the cosmic realms (40.5); mentions the "chains of the Demons of the underworld" which the redeemer broke (41.6).
(2) Apocalypse of Adam (Sethian, mid 2nd c.): refers to the Archons Solomon, Phersalo and Sauel who sent out an "army of demons" to seek out Mary the virgin to try to kill Jesus when he incarnated (79.5).
(3) Gospel of the Egyptians (Sethian, late 2nd c.): Nebruel is called the "great Demon" twice (=one of three terrifying demiurge Archons in 13th realm) (57.10-20); the demiurge Archon is said to create "defiled (seed) of the demon-begetting god which will be destroyed" (57.25).
(4) Zostrianos (Sethian, early 3rd c.): fragmentary reference to demons (43.12).
(5) Testimony of Truth (Gnostic, late 2nd c.): interprets the leaven parable to refer to the "errant desire of the angels and the demons and the stars". These figures are associated with the Pharisees and the scribes of the law who belong to the Archons who have authority over them (29.17); speaks about fighting against the Archons and the Powers and the Demons (42.25).
(6) Apocalypse of Paul (Gnostic ?, 2nd c.): speaks of principalities, authorities, archangels, Powers, and the whole race of demons.
(7) Apocalypse of Peter (Gnostic, 3rd c.): in context of discussion of Archons, talk about dreams comes from a demon worthy of the person's error (75.5); the physical body is called an "abode of demons, the stone vessel in which they live" (82.53-54). The Testament of Solomon says that Solomon confined demons to these sorts of vessels.
(8) Authoritative Teaching (Gnostic ?, beginning of 3rd c.): speaks of the "force of ignorance and the Demon of Error" (34.28).
(9) Concept of Our Great Power (Gnostic, early 4th c.): refers to the dissolution of the Archons following Jesus' crucifixion. The are referred to as evil demons who will be destroyed (42.17).
(10) Paraphrase of Shem (Gnostic, 3rd c.): a series of 35 passages which speak of demons who are part of the darkness which work to create this world. For all the references, see The Thirteenth Apostle, p. 186 n. 20.
Gnostic texts use this word to mean nasty Powers, Archons, entities within the cosmic sphere, with creative and tempting powers. The Christian literature in this period, as well as the NT, uses daimon to mean demon too.

But can't daimon mean "divinity" whether for good or evil. Yes, as I write in my book The Thirteenth Apostle, in Greek philosophical literature where the cosmos is not envisioned as mostly or entirely under the rule of evil beings. If the Gospel of Judas were a Greek philosophical text, we could argue for a more generic translation. But it is not. It is a text of the Sethian Gnostic variety where the heavens surrounding this earth are populated by Archons and their nasty assistants, evil powers and demons. Here Judas is the 13th Demon, a designation for Ialdabaoth.


Rebecca said...

Congratulations on having your article published in the NYT - it's quite an honor, and very illuminating for people (like myself) who have not read the Gospel of Judas. On the basis of the article, I went ahead and ordered your book!

April DeConick said...


Thanks for your note. I haven't got back to trying to figure out those names yet. Hope to before next summer (smile!)

g. wesley said...

Its wonderful that you were able get this in the Times.

Jordan Stratford+ said...

Congratulations, Dr. DeConick, on getting this coverage. I do wish you'd had more room in the NYT to make clear the two points addressed in your blog post.

I had 15 people send me the NYT link for comment!

April DeConick said...


They only give you so many words. So I had to be compact and hope that people would fill in the gaps by reading what I have written in my books, and maybe come to my blog where I could say more.

Jordan Stratford+ said...

Can you please speak to the interpretation of the thirteenth as Ialdabaoth? Where's the connection between the Judas authors and that specific cosmology? If that's in your book I apologize.

And how, in your opinion, would a Crucifixion-as-demon-sacrifice invalidate the Eucharist in the eyes of the Judas authors? That was a bottle opener from your Times piece I hadn't run across before.

Robert said...

Excellent article. I was particularly interested in what you said about the Dead Sea Scrolls:

“The situation reminds me of the deadlock that held scholarship back on the Dead Sea Scrolls decades ago. When manuscripts are hoarded by a few, it results in errors and monopoly interpretations that are very hard to overturn even after they are proved wrong.”

From what I understand, the consequences of the Scrolls monopoly are indeed still continuing today, in a misleading exhibit taking place in a “natural history” museum in San Diego. See this article for details:

Thus, I would suggest that one important question confronting us today is whether serious biblical scholars will join together in frankly condemning what has been going on with the Dead Sea Scrolls in one museum exhibit after another for the past ten years.

sparkwidget said...

Dr DeConick -

Thank you so much for this list of similar sources to compare the use of the word "daimon." I've spoken (at the request of my professors) to my classes about your book and its conclusions. You'd be surprised how many people at school have said to me "daimon means 'spirit' - that's how Socrates used it." Shortly followed by "The Gnostics liked Judas because they were twisted and evil." This will come in very handy in January when my Coptic class begins "Judas" and we inevitably quarrel over that word.

I hope you had a great time at the AAR/SBL convention in San Diego. I was unable to make travel arrangements but will certainly be at Boston next year.

- Jesse

José Solano said...

To understand what the Gospel of Judas is saying one must not just understand Coptic but also the particular mindset and mythology of the school responsible for the writing, as you clearly do Dr. DeConick. You recognize it as a Sethian work and therefore the writing would fit into their cosmology and belief system. In your book you draw numerous parallels between what is being said in GJ and Sethian thinking. This provides your conclusions a very strong foundation.

What I wonder is why would a Sethian school refer to this work as "Peuaggelion Nioudas" (Gospel of Judas)? They certainly knew that Judas did not write it nor is it written as if he did. It would seem to me that anyone with the faintest knowledge of what was being said transpired in Jesus’ lifetime would have known that Judas could not have written this. It certainly wasn’t fooling the “Apostolic” Christians.

It appears that it must be an esoteric writing written for a select few to ponder the Sethian myth, perhaps along with other Sethian writings and certain initiation practices. Or, it’s an outright hoax of the time to gather a following. I’m more prone to believe that there was sincerity in Gnostic schools of the time even if some, like certain medieval alchemists, were immersed in somewhat pathological thinking brought about by varied eruptions from the collective unconscious that they were trying to assimilate. We find this even in our times among cultic schools led by rather inflated individuals who from their experiences seek to compose elaborate schemes of creation and gather followings of the ignorant and gullible. This certainly proliferates in "new age" thinking and wannabe contemporary "Gnostic" schools.

I wonder, did any of the early Gnostic schools actually refer to themselves as "Gnostic" schools or churches?