Monday, February 11, 2008

The problem with the Church Fathers testimonies about the Gospel of Judas

Eric Mader sent along his review of my book, The Thirteenth Apostle, which he posted on "Necessary Prose". Here is the link to his review. One paragraph of it struck me as particularly intuitive. Mader writes:
"I suspect, however, that if the National Geographic team's interpretation is flawed as DeConick claims, it is not a matter of the scholars unconsciously seeking to assuage a collective guilt. More likely it is simply a result of them working from their expectations of what the text was supposed to contain. All the scholars on the team, for instance, would have known of the Church Fathers' descriptions of the gospel, and these descriptions would have inclined them to preconceive a positive portrait of Judas, which in turn would have influenced their translation choices--one line at a time. Building up their own portrait step by step, and leaning meanwhile on their expectations of what the gospel was supposed to contain, once their translation was finished none of them would have gone back and questioned too carefully the individual snippets. But, as DeConick shows, those snippets added up."

In my own analysis of the Gospel of Judas, I purposely kept away from the Church Fathers. And I continue to find them not only unhelpful in terms of the Gospel of Judas, but downright harmful in terms of interpretation. Why? Because:
1. We don't know if any of them actually had a copy of the Gospel of Judas, or merely were writing from rumors that were circulating about the Gospel of Judas.

2. We don't know if any of them had the copy of Judas that we now possess.

3. Pseudo-Tertullian's and Epiphanius' descriptions of the Gospel of Judas are UNLIKE the Gospel of Judas we possess. This makes me conclude that neither of these theologians possessed or read the Gospel of Judas we have now.

4. Irenaeus' description has some affinities, but ONLY in that Judas THE TRAITOR is said to know more than the others, and that his BETRAYAL resulted in cosmic chaos.

5. If Irenaeus had a copy and read a copy of the Gospel of Judas we have, I am not certain that he understood it. If he did, was he being generous and characterizing it accurately? Or not?
My approach to the Gospel of Judas is simple. Forget about the Church Fathers and what they say. Read the Gospel of Judas and figure out what IT says. Then go back and critique what the Church Fathers say.

When this is done, we find out that the Church Fathers weren't reading the Gospel of Judas we possess, except maybe Irenaeus. But rather than associating the authorship of this text with Sethian traditions as he should have done, he wrongly connects the writing of this text with an unnamed group of Gnostics who he says think that the villains of the scripture are the good guys whom Sophia saves. But our text mentions none of these villains - neither Cain nor Esau nor Korah nor the Sodomites - nor does it mention Sophia saving anyone. This means that either Irenaeus was doing this to be polemical, or he wasn't reading our Gospel of Judas.


Serge Cazelais said...

We should also remember that Epiphanius quoted a «Gospel of Philip» that is definitly not the one we found in Nag Hammadi codex II.

I am quoting the section of Epiphanius Panarion (in French) that contains it :

13,2 Ils présentent sous le nom de Philippe, le saint disciple, un évangile inventé, dont voici un extrait : « Le Seigneur m’a révélé ce que l’âme doit dire dans sa montée au ciel et comment elle doit répondre à chacune des puissances d’en haut :
“Je me suis reconnue moi-même et me suis rassemblée de toute part. Je n’ai pas semé d’enfants à l’archonte, mais j’ai déraciné ses racines et rassemblé les membres dispersés. Je sais qui tu es, car moi j’appartiens à ceux d’en haut.”»

It seems clear to me that the alledged Gospel of Judas mentioned by Church Fathers is another one, or as you say, they heard about a Gospel of Judas and they speculated about what should be in it.

Serge Cazelais

N.B. Source for the translation : Tardieu, M. (1981). « Épiphane contre les gnostiques », Tel quel : 64-91.

David Creech said...

I've been thinking along these lines lately. I wonder how much of the interpretation was in fact based on what they expected to find because they had read Irenaeus.

It seems to me that if your interpretation is correct, then it is unlikely that the Gospel of Judas summarized by Irenaeus is the same Gospel of Judas that we now have. If Judas is a demon who does more evil than the Apostles, this really contradicts Irenaeus who described him as one with "acquaintance with the truth" as were Esau, Korah, and the Sodomites. Of course, Serge may be correct to posit that Irenaeus heard of a Gospel of Judas and simply speculated on what he thought should be in it.

April DeConick said...

Serge and David,

Yes, I too am leaning in this direction, thinking that Irenaeus only "heard" about the existence of the Gospel of Judas, and from its title assumed the contents.