In this slim volume, Meyer presents English translations of many of the presently available ancient, and some not so ancient, texts related to Judas Iscariot. Of special interest is the Gospel of Judas which is translated from the Coptic, itself probably a translation of a Greek original from the middle of the 2nd century C.E.. Some of the texts included in this collection do not mention Judas by name, but make reference to a “traitor” or to one who “handed over [Jesus].” This is a useful collection of texts which provides a window into early heterodox Christian thought as well as to New Testament texts that mention Judas, but a number of caveats need to be observed.
Much of the notoriety, and hence the popularity, of this book derives from the fact that it promises to provide “the fullest representation of Judas ever. Saint or sinner? Now the reader can decide” (from the back cover). Meyer makes little secret of his own desire to redeem Judas from the calumny heaped on him in Christian sources from the New Testament onward, and even suggests that the much maligned disciple may be restored to his status at Jesus’ side as “St. Judas” (p. 18).
Chapter One presents New Testament texts that deal with Judas. Chapter Two, the centerpiece of the book, presents the National Geographic Society’s English translation of the Gospel of Judas. Chapters Three, Four, and Five give translations of three other Gnostic texts, two from the Nag Hammadi library: The Dialogue of the Saviour, and the Concept of Our Great Power, and the “Round Dance of the Cross” a song included within the Acts of John. Chapter 6 contains a series of texts which “provide glimpses of the vilification of Judas and the emergence of anti-Semitic themes through the centuries.” And Chapter Seven deals with traitors before Judas. The book has fairly extensive notes and concludes with a useful bibliography of works on Judas.
It is an axiom among students of texts in foreign languages that “every translation is an interpretation.” Translations, no matter how literal the translator attempts to be, are inevitably interpretations influenced by the bias of the translator. Some translations are more faithful to the original text than others. In Meyer’s case, his bias is relatively clear, he seeks to rehabilitate Judas from the calumny heaped on him in the Christian tradition. April DeConick has pointed out in the December 1, 2007 New York Times and in a recent book, The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says, that several translation choices made by the scholars who translated the Gospel of Judas, which included Meyer, “fall well outside the commonly accepted practices in the field.” In one instance the word “daimon” has been translated as “spirit” when the word is commonly translated as “demon.” And Judas is not set apart “for” the holy generation, he is separated “from” it. In another place, the scholars seem to have deliberately eliminated a negative from the sentence that states that Judas will “[not] ascend to the holy generation.” In his introduction and buried in the notes at the end of the volume are Meyer’s responses to these criticisms. For example, he points out that “for” could be translated “from” but suggests, if this is the case, that generation must be “a human generation.” In the case of the negative “[not] ascend to the holy generation” Meyer concedes that this translation is possible but must assume that some letters or words have been omitted from the Coptic text.
It should be noted that the (mis)translations pointed out by DeConick result in a completely different interpretation of the Gospel of Judas than that of Meyer, one in which Judas is an evil figure who does an evil deed in betraying Jesus, “exceeding all the rest” in evil. In his introduction to the Gospel of Judas, Meyer addresses this “revisionist understanding” by DeConick and others, and offers a number of arguments why his interpretation of the Gospel is the “plain sense of the preserved text.” But it seems premature to reach this conclusion before other scholars familiar with Coptic have had more opportunity to examine the original text and reach a consensus on its meaning. Until such time, the traditional view of Judas as the arch villain who betrayed his master for a few coins is not greatly challenged by the Gospel of Judas.
Readers will find this an interesting collection of texts and come away with a greater knowledge of the strange world of Gnostic thought as well as an appreciation of the way in which Judas was increasing vilified over the centuries, but I suspect that few will be willing to follow Meyer in recognizing Judas Iscariot as “St. Judas.”