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Marvin W. Meyer dies at 64; expert on Gnosticism

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Marvin W. Meyer, an expert on Gnosticism and ancient texts about Jesus outside the New Testament who challenged the traditional portrayal of Judas Iscariot as the ultimate biblical villain, has died. He was 64.

Meyer, whose book "The Gospel of Judas" sold more than 1.2 million copies and prompted frequent guest appearances on television documentaries and other programs, died Aug. 16 of complications from melanoma, according to his wife, Bonnie.

The tanned, athletic man who wore rumpled khakis, oversized shirts and a silver hoop in his left ear "was our Indiana Jones," said James L. Doti, president of Chapman University in Orange, where Meyer held the Griset Chair in Bible and Christian Studies and was director of the Albert Schweitzer Institute.

"Marv was a scholar and a showman who helped put this university on the map," Doti said. "He was fluent in 10 languages — five of them nearly extinct — and authored enough works to fill an entire bookcase. He was also a perpetually upbeat guy who inspired everyone he crossed paths with."

Princeton historian Elaine Pagels, author of "The Gnostic Gospels," which in the 1970s ignited international interest in the sect of early Christians condemned as heretical, reflected the thoughts of many when she noted: "Marv was a pioneer in making available to a wide audience obscure texts from the first and second centuries that had been buried as heretical and rarely seen outside of academia."

Born on April 16, 1948, Meyer was raised in Grand Rapids, Mich., where his father worked as a purchasing agent for a utility company. His enduring love affair with antiquity and the history of Christianity began early.

He met Bonnie in high school, where he was valedictorian. "Even back then," she recalled, "Marv collected books and was fascinated by the mythologies, cultures and power struggles that developed around Christianity at the time of its birth."

As a doctoral student at what is now Claremont Graduate University, Meyer and his mentor, James Robinson, who founded the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity there, were part of a team that prepared some 4th century papyrus manuscripts known as the Nag Hamadi Library for publication in 1978.

The ancient Gnostic texts, which had been hidden in a jar buried by monks hoping to preserve them from destruction, provided alternative perspectives on Jesus that were hailed as significant additions to the understanding of the formative years of Christianity.

Robinson went on to become one of the world's great New Testament experts, and railed against scholars who tried to restrict access to biblical texts. Meyer received his doctorate and soon established himself as one of the foremost experts on Gnosticism and early Christianity.

In June 2005, he was tapped by representatives of the National Geographic Society to help translate what it said was an important Gnostic text. But Meyer had to sign a confidentiality oath before they would even say what it was.

"I told them the offer was quite irregular," Meyer recalled in an interview. "They said, 'You won't be disappointed.' So I signed."

Meyer learned that the society had the only known copy of the Gospel of Judas, a Coptic translation from the original Greek that had been the subject of tantalizing rumors but had never surfaced publicly.

He helped the society's team translate the Coptic into English, then traveled to Egypt to film a made-for-TV documentary about the discovery. He was prepped for a publicity tour that would have him for the first time traveling by limousine and staying in ritzy hotels.

"We used to laugh about all that because he was just as happy flopping out in flea-bag hotels in remote corners of the world," his wife recalled. "But he was excited about the opportunities that being on a world stage provided in terms of sharing his work on a scale that he never thought possible."

In Meyer's view, the gospel portrayed Judas as a hero, not a villain, for betraying Jesus. Instead, Judas acted on Jesus' orders and betrayed him to set in motion the Crucifixion. In the gospel, Jesus confides to Judas: "Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal."

In September 2005, Meyer let it slip to Robinson that he knew a lot about the long-rumored Gospel of Judas but couldn't talk about it. After Robinson demanded to know more, Meyer responded in a terse e-mail: "I'm sorry, but I must say, no comment. Marv."

As the publication of Meyer's "The Gospel of Judas" neared in 2006, Robinson was asked by a publisher to write his own Judas book, which he finished in a month. Rushed to print, Robinson's "The Secrets of Judas" criticized the National Geographic Society for withholding the gospel from other scholars.

Meyer, however, argued that publishing the gospel through National Geographic brought an important obscure text to the greatest number of people in the shortest amount of time.

Through it all, the mentor and protege remained friends.

Meyer had just finished another book, "The Gospels of the Marginalized: The Redemption of Doubting Thomas, Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot in Early Christian Literature."

"Marv's hard work and enthusiasm were infectious," said Marilyn Harran, director of the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education at Chapman. "And he delighted in opening doors into the past for students and audiences who had never known that there were gospels beyond the canonical four."

Meyer is survived by his wife and their three children, Stephen Frederick Meyer, Jonathan James Meyer and Elisabeth Anne Meyer.

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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