Thursday, July 24, 2008

Stephan Witetschek's review of The Thirteenth Apostle

HERE is a link to the RBL review by Stephen Witetschek of my book, The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says.

I want to say a few words in response because he raises a couple of questions. First he raises the question of this book's audience. This book was written for a broad general audience. Its title was created for that audience by my publisher. I wanted to call it something entirely different, but was vetoed, and with good reason. A book's title has to capture the thesis while also being of interest to the audience you hope will read want to read it.

Second, my academic work, upon which this book is based, contains many more details (as it should), details that will only be of interest to other scholars. These academic articles are just now beginning to see the light of day in terms of publishing. Why the lag time? Because academic presses take FOREVER to move articles through the process of publication. What is now being published on the Gospel of Judas in academic venues is already outdated, having been written in mid-2006! This is one of the reasons why I published The Thirteenth Apostle. I felt that I needed to get the information out in a timely manner to the public because I felt we were wrongly informed about what this gospel really says.

Third, the translation that I was criticizing was the original English translation, not the French.

Fourth, the book was in press long before The Critical Edition by the National Geographic team was released, an edition that cleaned up some of the problems in the original release. The NGS has since also released a new popular edition - the second edition of The Gospel of Judas - in which the clean-up work continues. The areas that were modified overlap with the areas of my criticisms, as well as the criticisms of other scholars. There wouldn't be any reason for concern IF these problems were not crucial spots in the texts for interpretation. But they are. So we need to address them, which is what I did and continue to do.

Fifth, I was surprised to read in the review Witetschek's statement that "a question remains that DeConick's book does not answer: If Judas is such a demonic villain in this text, why is he at the same time the hero of the text?" I wonder why my academic reviewer missed the main point of the book which my public reviewers articulate clearly? The point of my book: Judas isn't a hero in this text. He is a villian who learns about his fate from Jesus in a gnostic parody of the apostolic church. Here are some of the public reviewers' remarks taken right off the Amazon website:
Neil Godfrey
"For most of us who have read the National Geographic translation of the Gospel of Judas, be prepared for a radical re-think of what we have read there. The National Geographic translation depicts Judas as the only true saint; DeConick's, as the arch demon himself -- or at least destined to join with him in the end. Which immediately raises the question: Why would a gospel make the central character a demon? DeConick shows how the apparent structure and thematic development of the gospel aligns it with an agenda opposing that Christianity that traced its genealogy back to the Twelve Apostles...the Gospel of Judas was a parody and attack on apostolic Christianity and its doctrine of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus."

"Judas, the good guy? No, indeed! He is even worse than previously thought. A closer translation and a thorough knowledge of gnostic mythology, derived partially from Plato, shows him to be a secret agent of the devil. The Gospel of Judas is a parody, written by someone from the Sethian subgroup of Gnostic Christians - to make mainstream Christians of the second century look asinine for relying on a demon ruler (Judas) and his minions (the twelve) for their teachings and practices. A more specific goal of the Gospel of Judas, according to DeConick, is to blast the doctrine of atonement and the effectiveness of the eucharist, on account of Judas's involvement."

Steve Esser
"According to DeConick, while Judas does have greater understanding than the other apostles (who are completely misguided), he is nonetheless a doomed and (literally) demonic figure. So while the text is still very much in opposition to apostolic Christianity (indeed she views it as a parody of sorts), the figure of Judas is still to be seen as a bad guy, not the good guy put forth by the National Geographic team."

6 comments: said...

A bad guy may be, but remembered as being in the sanctuary? There's no escape from that. And what about the memory of all those bad priests sacrificing at the altar? It seems to me that the scholarship has a long way to go.

paulf said...

First, I think you mean to say "Judas" isn't a hero, not Jesus.

I also think you are misrepresenting Witetscheck's question by focusing on the word "hero." (His question is pretty similar to the points I made months ago when this was being discussed here. I can't recall every getting a satisfying answer.) Maybe a better way to state the question is why Judas is the protagonist, or the focus of the book, if he is also the bad guy.

Why is he the recipient of so much more and better knowledge than the other disciples, if the point of the book is to damn him?

That is where we get to the assertion that the book is a gospel parody, but that answer is unsatisfying on a number of levels.

Admittedly I know very little about this subject, but my bet would be that whatever the book is trying to say, nobody has figured most of it out yet.

April DeConick said...


It is very simple, and it is very clearly written by me in my book. It is just that you and Witetscheck do not like the answer. There is a difference between not liking the answer, and me not providing one.

In the case of the Gospel of Judas we have a central figure who is a villain. He doesn't know this about himself. But Jesus tells him. And then Judas fulfills it.

This is a rewrite of the NT gospel narratives about Judas, imagining that Jesus knew all along and told Judas what he was going to do.

Judas is never a good character. Yes, he knows more than the other disciples because (1) he is a demon who knows some things (just like he is in Luke and John) (2) Jesus is teaching him about his fate and how it is tied up with Ialdabaoth. But the other disciples are bad stupid characters here, so this is not saying much about Judas. All thirteen of them are working for Ialdabaoth-Saklas-Nebro (the Deacon of Error; the bloodly Apostate!).

Why write this text at all? To criticize apostolic Christianity whose traditions rested on the faith of the apostles (and the act of Judas, the Gnostics would say!). They thought all this tragic and funny - a parody for sure.

Go and look at Jesus' laughter in this gospel. This is the Gnostics laughing at what they see to be the silliness and ignorance of apostolic faith. said...

In the extant NT, the apostles do not appear as priests who sacrifice on an altar and commit crimes. Nor in the extant story does Judas appear in a sanctuary setting. So these Sethians got hold of some information that perhaps was in some original NT documents, or was communicated orally, but was not in the NT as we have it.

José Solano said...

The Sethians simply created an allegory to transmit their beliefs. The author(s) knew perfectly well that this tale was not to be taken literally. It’s a conflict between faith and knowledge, the presumed mere faith of the apostles and the orthodox vs. the esoteric knowledge and insights of the Sethians.

Chronology is betrayed in the GJ as Judas explains his dream saying “I saw myself in a vision as the twelve disciples threw stones at me.” (GJ 44.24-26) The intimation is also in GJ 36.1-4 as Dr. DeConick has indicated, the reference being to Judas’ replacement by Matthias. Judas has been replaced because he is no more but in GJ we find him in dialogue with Jesus meaning the author was scarcely trying to present this tale as anything other than allegory. The correspondence between “thirteenth” apostle and thirteenth “demon” as Jesus in this story calls him is thoroughly fitting.

This entirely creative drama could just about be a masterpiece of contemporary theater of the absurd except that its author presents us with a fascinatingly meaningful plot. The question is “What does it mean?” Dr. DeConick I find has done wonderful job of exposing the contents and interpreting them though I think there is a good deal more to divine in the altar climbing allegory and other sections that could almost prophetically be applied to contemporary situations and priestly practices.

Hopefully the missing pages will eventually show up so that the story could be better pieced together.

I am enjoying reading and rereading it and when it first came out it moved me to produce a multimedia comedy entitled The Da Vinci Code meets the Gospel of Judas in the Tomb of Jesus, A Theatrical Lecture on a Simply Divine Comedy. It was very much enjoyed in the far from B’way theaters in which it was performed.

paulf said...

I accept that the book was intended as a negative take on apostolic Christianity, and that Judas is not a hero in the book. But...

If Judas is a supernatural figure, why does he need Jesus to tell him who he is and what he is supposed to do?

What does it mean to be "working for" the Deacon of Error? The apostles apparently were but didn't know it? Did Judas know? Was anyone not proclaiming gnosticism working for the Deacon?