Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Chronicle of Higher Education: The Betrayal of Judas

The Betrayal of Judas: Did a 'dream team' of biblical scholars mislead millions?
The Chronicle of Higher Education

Marvin Meyer was eating breakfast when his cellphone buzzed. Meyer, a professor of religious studies at Chapman University, has a mostly gray beard and an athletic build left over from his basketball days. His friends call him "the Velvet Hammer" for his mild demeanor. He's a nice guy.

The voice on the other end belonged to a representative of the National Geographic Society. They were working on a project and wanted his help.

"That's very interesting," he remembers saying. "What do you have in mind?"

"We can't tell you," was the reply.

That was not the answer he expected.

"Let me see if I understand this," Meyer said. "You'd like me to agree to do a project with you, but you won't tell me what that project is. Is that right?"


He would have to sign a nondisclosure agreement first — which, in the end, he agreed to do. Not long afterward, Meyer found himself locked in an office in Washington, with a desk, a pile of dictionaries and lexicons, and one of the most sought-after religious texts in recent history, the Gospel of Judas. For a week he worked almost nonstop on the 26-page text, translating the Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language written with Greek letters, into English. As he translated, a startling portrait of Judas Iscariot emerged. This was not the reviled traitor who betrayed Jesus with a kiss. This was the trusted disciple, the close confidant, the friend. This was a revelation.

When the Gospel of Judas was unveiled at a news conference in April 2006, it made headlines around the world — with nearly all of those articles touting the new and improved Judas. "In Ancient Document, Judas, Minus the Betrayal," read the headline in The New York Times. The British paper The Guardian called it "a radical makeover for one of the worst reputations in history." A documentary that aired a few days later on National Geographic's cable channel also pushed the Judas-as-hero theme. The premiere attracted four million viewers, making it the second-highest-rated program in the channel's history, behind only a documentary on September 11.

But almost immediately, other scholars began to take issue with the interpretation of Meyer and the rest of the National Geographic team. They didn't see a good Judas at all. In fact, this Judas seemed more evil than ever. Those early voices of dissent have since grown into a chorus, some of whom argue that National Geographic's handling of the project amounts to scholarly malpractice. It's a perfect example, critics argue, of what can happen when commercial considerations are allowed to ride roughshod over careful research. What's more, the controversy has strained friendships in this small community of religion scholars — causing some on both sides of the argument to feel, in a word, betrayed.

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