Sunday, June 24, 2007

Gospel of Judas: Two Book Reviews

In my previous post I mentioned my light encounter with the Gospel of Judas. For that purpose I made use of two books, Reading Judas by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King, and The Gospel of Judas, edited by Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, with additional commentary by Bart Ehrman.

Although the two have similar translations (I didn't do any detailed comparisons) each has some strengths not present in the other. The Gospel of Judas, the ancient manuscript, is a gnostic text from the Sethian branch of Gnosticism. Surprisingly, though Pagels and King are both well-known for their Gnostic scholarship, the treatment of Gnosticism and its Sethian branch seems to be more detailed and extensive in the Kasser book. On the other hand, Pagels and King had a wider and more substantial discussion on conflicting ideas in early Christianity that goes beyond the Gnostic-orthodox split.

One difference between the two translations that annoyed me is the different numbering systems for the text. The Kasser book numbered each line consecutively and inserted the folio page numbers where the manuscript page changed, while the Pagels book broke the text into chapters, and numbered the lines within each chapter, beginning with 1 for each opening verse. So, you can't cite both texts with the same standard reference.

The Gospel of Judas, the book, has an introduction, a translation, and four essays. Footnotes provide line by line commentary on the translation and manuscript. Bart Ehrman's commentary provides his typically well-done overview of the historical background to the manuscript and the issues affecting the New Testament and the developement of early Christian history. Rodolphe Kasser provides a full review of the manuscript's history. (Pagels and King chose not to include such a discussion in their own book.) Gregor Wurst discusses the relationship of this manuscript to the Gospel of Judas mentioned by Irenaus. Marvin Meyer discusses the relationship between Judas and Gnosticism.

Reading Judas has Four essays by Pagels and King, written jointly, a translation, and a commentary on the translation. The commentary appears after the translation, so, unlike the footnoted Gospel of Judas, you have to keep jumping back and forth if you want to look at notes simultaneously with the commentary. However, several of the comments are lengthy and wouldn't work in a footnoted format very well.

Either book is good enough for the casual reader who wants to be familiar with the text but doesn't need to chase down every Gnostic rabbit-hole. For a more detailed study you should probably check out both books as there is interesting material in each that you won't find in the other.

On a separate note, April deConick will be releasing The Thirteenth Apostle later this year, which will challenge some of the conventional translations and interpretations of the Gospel of Judas. She has a very different take on the idea that this Gospel presents Judas in a heroic light.

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